"Spanning Noir: Suzanne Lummis" by Ahdenae Khodaverdian
The shrill of a saxophone reverberates within a black box. Light glows through blinds, casting neon lines that warp around a figure, who sits cross-legged with a black phone in hand. Exasperated, she speaks into it, “Joe, you know those black and white, cheap crime movies from the 40s and 50s? There’s a man, a woman, a gun. There’s a crime that gets committed. There’s always a gun . . . Well, no, it doesn’t have to be a gun. It could be a heavy object. It could be a kitchen utensil . . . No, not a spoon, Joe.” At this, I snort at my screen. My first exposure to Suzanne Lummis, aside from her luminous poetry submission to MORIA, “The Locomotive, the Coin, and the Moon,” was through her “They Write by Night” segment on Poetry LA’s YouTube channel. The segment, in Lummis’s words, “is my way of mixing the two artforms I love best, poetry and the movies,” joining the fields of film noir and narrative poetry. As someone who has a major and two minors, all in completely different fields, I was excited at the prospect of an interdisciplinary investigation, led by this private-eye poet.
Lummis started her journey with poetry just before she turned nine. However, the transition from simple rhyme schemes to complex poetry proved to be a challenge in her teenage years, thanks to the lack of mentors around her. Eventually, she found a muse at age 17 when she saved up for the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems. Although a full understanding of the pieces escaped her at that age, “I fell in love with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and ‘The Waste Land’.” She began writing poetry again, trying to match that of Eliot, which ended disastrously, with “crap poetry—absolute dreck.” Eventually, she found her way to CSU Fresno’s writing program, where she met her mentors Philip Levine and Ingrid Wendt. She acknowledges, “[t]hat's where I began to develop my talent—and talent, by the way, is a thing that needs to be developed, otherwise it's barely different from having no talent.”
Since cultivating her talent and receiving her MA degree from this prestigious writing program, Lummis’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, New Ohio Review, the Hudson Review, the Antioch Review, Plume, and The New Yorker. She has also published several collections, Idiosyncrasies (1984), In Danger (1999), and Open 24 Hours (2014), and has published essays and literary criticism, including “(Never) Out of the Past: Noir and the Poetry of Lynda Hull,” which appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Currently, she guides writing workshops at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and is a founding member of Nearly Fatal Women, a serio-comic performance troupe.
“Serial” is a word that describes Lummis well. Her answers to my questions often displayed an affinity for lists. When asked where she gets her inspiration from, she answers that it comes from everything, “from events and recollections, observations and overheard dialogue, politics and the sociopolitical world (especially now), other arts, particularly—for me—the movies, other poems, interesting objects and food, language itself—expressions and phrases—calamity, the weather.” When asked what her process for writing poetry is, her answer explains that it’s too difficult to answer because there are sundry ways that poems come to and leave her. Elaborating, Lummis states, “Some have remained in my notebook half-finished for years, and other times—in experiences that have about them a sense of the mystical—I've almost seen the entire poem beginning to end . . . I don't believe I really see it line by line, but I understand how this poem can work. I see the overall shape, and I know I've got it in me to write it.” Her poem, “The Locomotive, the Coin, and the Moon,” published in MORIA’s second issue, also is, in part, a list:
Unbounded by ice, iced railings, hard
packed snow, sounding, swallowing
the distance between them — between
the kids and the first car — nothing
could scold it, shame it, stop it,
nothing could un-monster this train.
And when it burst, all metal and moving
parts, into the mouth of the sheds
where the boy and girl flattened
against the pine wood walls, its size,
force, blackened the night to a blueness.
What needed to be carried that fast?
When I read the poem originally, there was an almost ephemeral quality to it that I typically associate with magic, because—as an animator—my fixation is on fairies, not Noir, but after watching Lummis’s character in “They Write by Night,” I can’t help but now tie it with the grain of a boxy television, a show displayed in monochrome. In contrast, within the YouTube video on my screen, Lummis sets the phone back on the receiver and looks, smirking, into the camera, “So what were you expecting? Ava Gardner? In The Killers? . . . 1946? . . . Noooo. You’re not getting Ava Gardner, you’re getting me. Why? Because life is filled with disappointments.” Another snort bubbles out of me. When I asked what Lummis wants to evoke in her readers, she answered by quoting her own version of the Hippocratic Oath: “Ars Poetica . . . Primum noli insulsus esse! First, do not bore.” Check.
Ahdenae Khodaverdian is a business management major with two minors in animation and professional writing. She is a Leo and Cancer cusp and a firm believer in magic, so much so that she tried multiple times to become a fairy and mermaid when she was younger. She adores plants but does not have the pleasure of possessing a green thumb. She wants to become a visual development artist for cartoons.