Los Angeles literary stalwart selected as city's first poet laureate

Before sitting down for tea in Echo Park, the poet reaches for her iPhone.

"I have to turn this thing off," she explains, silencing the ringer. "It's getting too noisy these days."

As a publisher, educator and author of seven books of poems, Eloise Klein Healy is a stalwart of the Los Angeles literary scene. Her phone has been buzzing more than usual in recent weeks as she prepares to take on a new title. On Friday, Healy will be named L.A.'s first poet laureate.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decided earlier this year that his city, like others, should have a namesake poet. The mayor, who chose Healy from a pool of three finalists recommended by a selection panel, said he was moved by the grace of her writing and by her "belief in the power of poetry, and her commitment to sharing this power far and wide."

Healy spent her formative years in Iowa and still maintains an air of Midwestern modesty. She says she doubts the quality of her poems won her the laureate honor.

She guesses it had more to do with her long involvement in the arts community, especially the feminist art movement of the 1970s, and her subject matter: Los Angeles looms large in her work.

She writes lovingly of helicopters and bougainvillea, of strip malls and Santa Anas. Car thefts and stabbings are part of the backdrop. Freeways wind freely through her verse.

In a poem called "Los Angeles," Healy describes the city as an older sister who was less pretty and less charming than her younger sibling. "There was something about your proportions / that was indelicate — your more abundant waist," she tells the city.

But in the final verse, a person enters and loves Los Angeles anyway:

Nobody expected it
and you never told about
the lover who met you

loose and large
in the late afternoon
and loved you all night,
completely out of proportion.

Healy says she writes about Los Angeles to understand "the influence of place on people."

It's a technique she employs often. Once, while working on a book of poems about Sappho, the classical lyric poet, Healy traveled to the poet's birthplace on the island of Lesbos in Greece. "I wanted to walk on a beach where she could have walked," Healy said. "I wanted to look at that horizon."

Healy is 69, but she seems much younger. She is trim, with olive skin and snow-white hair. For years, she lived down the street from the small Sunset Boulevard cafe where she sipped tea one morning this week. She chronicled her time in the neighborhood in a book called "Artemis in Echo Park."

Since 1988, she has lived in Sherman Oaks with her partner, Colleen Rooney.

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