The College of Humanities was delighted to learn last year that Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had determined it was time to institute an official poet laureate for the city. Even more delightful, the first artist appointed as L.A.'s poet diplomat—chosen from a list of 40 nominees culled down to three finalists—is Eloise Klein Healy, who taught writing and women's studies courses at CSUN early in her career.
Now ready to publish her eighth poetry collection, Healy has also distinguished herself by establishing a book imprint dedicated to the work of lesbian writers and by founding the MFA creative writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles.
In addition to a record of literary excellence, the poet laureate post requires a strong connection to the city and a willingness to serve its citizens. Mayor Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times that he was moved by Healy's "belief in the power of poetry, and her commitment to sharing this power far and wide." In her two-year post, Healy will visit schools, libraries, and cultural centers across the metro area, offering readings, inspiration, and mentorship to people of all ages.
Former CSUN student Jeanine D'Elia wrote in response to a Times article about Healy's selection, "In the early 1980s, I was a restless transfer student at Cal State Northridge, an undeclared major and uncertain in most things. On a whim, I attended a poetry reading in a packed CSUN office. Eloise Klein Healy read from her book A Packet Beating Like a Heart, and I was set free." D'Elia continued, "The ache of my young life did not disappear, but I credit Healy with my decision to pursue a bachelor's degree in English. The craft of poetry is to this day my balm in a still uncertain world."
Healy generously took time out of her busy schedule to reflect on her decade at CSUN.
Can you speak briefly about your time at CSUN? How did CSUN students inform your instruction?
I taught at CSUN from 1980 though 1991. It was an interesting time in that it stretched across the years of the Reagan presidency, a time of considerable political conflict and much controversy over feminism and women's rights, the AIDS crisis, and U.S. involvement in Latin America. There was an influx of students from Iran whose families had escaped the country at the time of the revolution. Other students were among the "boat people" who faced great peril in fleeing from Vietnam. So, there was also geographical and cultural dislocation and generational tension about what it meant to live in the U.S.
A large percentage of the student body worked 30-plus hours a week and it was often difficult to engage them in what wasn't going to speed them toward graduation. The Reagan years brought with them a heightened interest in business and in making money. Working with such different groups of people was challenging, but also rewarding because the students were in themselves courses of education for their peers. I think I, too, was somewhat challenging for my students because I "came out" in my classesthe beginning of each semester, feeling that it was important that the students recognize that LBGT people were living and working among them. Some of my own colleagues were not quite sure what to make of me, especially when I started teaching in Women's Studies as well as in the English Department. Not everyone believed there was a need for a women's studies program at that time, even among faculty.
What are some of your thoughts about the meaning and value of studying or engaging in writing poetry, especially given that often vocationally driven degree "market" you alluded to?
In my English classes, I tried to introduce a diverse group of writers to my students. I felt it was particularly important for those who were studying creative writing to see the stories and poems from different cultures and races and sexual orientations. Although writers must develop habits of discipline and perception to tell the most complete truth, they must also become comfortable with the fact that there is more than one truth. The arts force us to sift through our values, our understanding of what matters and what doesn't, what we hold sacred and what we despise. We spend our real human lives in the same "stories" as characters in novels. We all react viscerally to language and writers spend their lives teasing out these strands of basic emotional reactions. The arts are important because they reveal ourselves to ourselves. Every one has expression as a birthright and it brings great richness to one's life to be able to read a novel or a poem or a play and feel comfortable there. It may not have much to do with "earning" a living to read a poem, but it may make "living" a living richer.
What are your thoughts on being asked to serve as L.A.'s first poet laureate?
To be honest with you, I wasn't really sure that I would have a chance at being selected as the first poet laureate of the city of Los Angeles. Of course, there were some obvious pluses in my history. I had taught in many kinds of institutions and settings. I had founded a graduate creative writing program so I understand how to make something new. I had also written a book of poems about Los Angeles, so my affection for the city was evident. But, I thought it might be a challenge for a lesbian poet to be chosen. I was happy to be a little wrong. As I settle into the work before me, I have had nothing but admiration for the people who work in city offices. They are very talented and committed people and it has been a great joy to begin to get to know them as I learn about the library system, the arts education system in LAUSD, and what is possible in trying to do something for students and teachers. People are often very delighted to know we have a poet laureate now, as if it is something the city needs. I like that thinking because I think L.A. does deserve some standing in literary culture. I feel comfortable so far, and I think some interesting things can happen during the next two years.
What sorts of courses did you teach at CSUN?
I was originally hired to teach as an adjunct professor in the English Department in 1980, and within three or four years, I was invited to teach some courses in the Women's Studies Program. My work in the English Department at first consisted of basic writing classes, up to and including Freshman English. Over time, I began to get an Intro to Creative Writing course every now and then, and eventually I taught the writing of poetry at the 300 level. One of my favorite courses, though, was a team-taught course that I did with Kate Haake. It took us two years to get the course approved!!
How did you become involved in the institution of the Gender and Women's Studies Department at CSUN?
When I was appointed the Director of the Women's Studies Program, I felt that the time had come to once again address the need for a department instead of a program. A department has its own faculty, has a more fully developed curricular offering, and can hire faculty with special training in the field and can contribute to the field, as well. Luckily, there was much support among faculty who taught in Women's Studies to work toward putting together a proposal for a department. Many faculty contributed to the discussions of how to shape the kind of department that would suit our campus. And, very lucky for us, we had a dean of Humanities who also felt the time had come for the program to grow into maturity and become a department. It was ironic that a non-tenured adjunct professor gathered the troops together and helped make the final step happen. As for my own work, I always felt that departmental lines were often artificial, that our subject matters spilled across these boundaries, and that knowledge has a way of finding its own level, flowing over the dams academicians make for it.
What is your lasting impression of your time at CSUN?
Every day when I crossed the street from the parking lot to the campus, I took a deep breath and readied myself for the utmost challenge an educator faces—how to be present to the students, how to protect them from the winds that blow through departments and the conflicts that enter into everything in a university. Crossing that street put me on the front lines at CSUN and my time at the university taught me a lot about how to function under pressure.