On December 2nd, the Writers’ Program celebrated three instructors at the annual Department of the Arts Outstanding Instructor and Employee Awards. The winner for Creative Writing was Laurel Ann Bogen, poet and instructor of 18 years.
Program Director Linda Venis introduced Laurel Ann at the awards ceremony this way: “… author of 10 books of poetry and short fiction; former literary curator at LACMA; a founding member and performer of the poetry ensemble Nearly Fatal Women; winner of the LA Weekly Best Female Poet-Performer Award and of an Academy of American Poetry Award. Most fortunately for Writers’ Program students, Laurel Ann has shared her expertise with them through the many dozens of poetry classes she has taught since 1990. Among her many teaching gifts, Laurel Ann brings humility and a sense of equality and belief in her students’ potential.”
Having never experimented with poetry myself (except for a couple of haiku exercises in the seventh grade) I was curious about the life, world, and perspective of a poet who also teaches. Laurel Ann was kind enough to share some of her experiences with me.
Question: What drew you to poetry rather than short story or novel writing, and have you experimented with these forms as well?
Answer: I think the reason I’ve stayed with poetry all these years — although I’ve written in other genres as well (I had a play produced, I’ve written journalism/reviews, a book of short stories was published by Illuminati Press) — is that I am more of a sprinter than a long distance writer. In poetry you have a maximum effect through the compression of highly charged language. And, since I have had a background in theater as well as in writing, this appeals to me.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for your work? As a resident of Los Angeles, does the city inspire you to write?
A: Whenever I am particularly stuck I reach for a book and see what my brain reacts to. I try by reading some of the poets that seem to speak to me first (for example Philip Levine, Margaret Atwood, Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles Simic, Elizabeth Bishop, Weldon Kees, Anne Sexton). It’s a bit odd to explain the process — it’s a bit zen-like, I think– I open up my mind and let it see what appeals to it. Quite often my work is inspired by other writers and I use lines from their works (credited of course) as the titles of my own poems.
As for Los Angeles, I was born here (blankety blank years ago) and spent the first 40 or so years trying to leave. All I ever wanted to do as a young woman was to move to NY, but alas, that did not happen. Somewhere around 1998, I realized that I’m here for the duration and that is OK. This city is in my blood, to some extent my personal history is written on its streets. I could never leave the friends I have here, the people that mean so much to me.
Q: Who are your favorite poets or authors? Who are you inspired by?
A: In addition to the poets I’ve mentioned already, I also like the work of Lydia Davis, Diane Williams, James Tate, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Michael C Ford, Seamus Heaney, I guess I’d give a nod to Plath as well.
Q: How did you find the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (or how did it find you)?
A: Hmmmm, let’s see if I can remember, it seems so long ago. I believe it was 1989 and UCLA Extension was having an all-day poetry seminar to which I was invited. Shortly thereafter I met with the Director, Linda Venis, and the rest is history, as they say. I taught my first class for the Writers’ Program in 1990.
Q: What does the life of a poet look like? What advice would you give to a young person who says “I want to be a poet.”
A: The first thing I’d say is “keep your day job.” I do not know of anyone who makes a living just doing poetry. Wanda Coleman used to work as a medical transcriber and Bill Mohr was a typesetter. I’ve been a secretary, a bookseller, and a taco-maker at the Farmer’s Market. I’ve sold greeting cards, worked at the William Morris Agency (I used to call it Bill Morris, but that’s another story), been a proofreader at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and a gazillion other things while trying to make a living as a poet. And one of the weirdest things in my writing life has been the busier I am, the more I seem to write. I used to be able to write a poem while answering six phone lines as a receptionist with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back (that last part is a gross exaggeration, but the writing and answering phones part is not).
Laurel Ann Bogen will be teaching Creative Writing: Poetry and an Intermediate Poetry Workshop in winter quarter.
Katy Flaherty is an Administrative Assistant at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.