Southern California Gothic: A Conversation with Teka-Lark Lo




FOR ALL THE HAND-WRINGING over the lack of culture in Los Angeles (The New York Times recently wrote, “Despite its richly deserved reputation for superficiality, Los Angeles is indeed a reading town”), we sure produce a lot of talented, ground-breaking poets. Teka-Lark Lo is one of them, and her new book The Queen of Inglewood, published by Word Palace Press, could not be more rooted in Los Angeles. It’s a smart, wry, lyrical collection that dishes on the glittery and the grimy, exposing the fleshy layers of this city, its culture, and its people.

In one poem, a “slightly older than middle aged man” falls asleep on the bus and misses his stop, only to have youngsters deride him and the bus driver roll her eyes at him. “‘People just don’t give a damn anymore,’ he says just loud enough for her to hear.” In another, the narrator offers advice on how to behave at Hollywood parties, where anyone might be a producer or a director: “Don’t pick up a broken lamp at a LA Party, because only out-of-towners care about the broken pieces of glass on the bedroom floor.”

I interviewed to Teka-Lark over email about her life, her poetry, and her relationship with Los Angeles.

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STEPH CHA: Okay, so you are a poet, a journalist, an essayist, and a publisher; you run the Blk Grrrl Show and the Blk Grrrl Book Fair, as well VELOmynameis, an advocacy group and magazine devoted to cyclists’ rights and equity in urban planning. How do you juggle all these roles? And where does your poetry fit into your overall project as an artist/activist/human?

TEKA-LARK LO: For me, I can’t write if I don’t live. I don’t want my writing to be divorced from reality. I want to live a full life. I like to fill voids. I’m filling the darkness of L.A. with glitter and laughter. I am a writer, but I am also a documentarian. I want to document what has happened, but I want it to be entertaining. I do work in regards to environmental issues, but I’m a poet first. I feel that being a writer in this day and age is the ultimate in activism. We help people to remember. We provide people with a guide to what happened in the past and what to do in the future.

The Queen of Inglewood is your first book of poetry, and it has a very distinct focus and point of view. Can you talk about how you started putting this book together? Did the poems come first, or did you build them around the themes of the book?

The first few poems came and then I decided to develop a theme around materialism, capitalism, and fame. I view L.A. as a microcosm of the American dream on cocaine. I find most political poetry painfully literal. I feel that you can talk about issues of exploitation, sexism, racism, and classism and at the same time be artful. I feel that most people are rather intelligent, they are just exhausted. I write for a person who is an adult and is thinking at a higher level. I don’t think most adults enjoy literal interpretations on political topics in poetry form, because it exhausts them. We all know greed is bad. If you’re an artist, your job is to say that in an artful manner to get people talking about inequities. I want people to be entertained, listen to what I am saying, and then think of solutions. Most people probably won’t get to the solutions part, but I think currently when we’re so inundated with news and information, the information that will stand out is the information that is presented creatively.

You were born in Koreatown and have spent many of your formative years in Los Angeles, but you live on the East Coast now, right? The Queen of Inglewood is all about L.A., and the poems strike me as both affectionate and frequently scathing (“As a Hostess I Only Got Paid Extra for the Drinks” and “#DTLA is not Racist!” come to mind). How would you describe your relationship to your hometown? How does L.A. play into your poetry and your general approach to art?

L.A. is me and I am L.A. I am critiquing L.A., but I am also critiquing myself. I love my hometown. L.A. has some of the most beautiful people in the world. Who doesn’t like looking at beautiful things? L.A. informs all of my art. I feel it is the self center of the world. Even when I write about other topics, L.A. flavors my purview. I am currently writing a novel about a bicycle mechanic who lives in the future. I notice many future-oriented media is from the perspective of New York. I realized that while living on the East Coast. I think about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. The setting reminds you of the Path Station at World Trade Center, even the voice of HAL. Being from L.A. gives me a fresh perspective on the art of literature. The East Coast reaches back to Europe, I reach back to Asia and Africa. I think L.A. puts different people in front.

Can you talk about your Larkisms? I particularly love this one, titled “Liz Taylor Suite”: “things happen to everyone, some people are just better at making them sound sad larkism.”

Larkisms are my purviews of the world coated with organic sugar and sprinkled with Xanax. They are pieces of advice to help you get through the day and laugh off the BS many people throw at you in La La Land. I started doing these in college. I would put them on the whiteboard on the door of my dorm room at Mount Saint Mary’s College.

These titles are fantastic: “Fran Kubelik Has a Nice Apartment,” “Debbie Reynolds was a Good Organizer,” “Mr. Stryker, Do You Really Want to Turn This Into Some Kind of War!!!!!!” How do you pick your titles?

The titles of my poems are based on old books and old movies. I sometimes pick the title of poems after the poem is written and sometimes after, but I always try to pick a title that reveals a bit more about the poem. Fran Kubelik is Shirley MacLaine’s character in the film The Apartment. Debbie Reynolds is referring to the Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher incident and an incident of mine, a horrible one.

In my mind, all good stories are based in facts that are decorated with fiction. Everything I write has a secret meaning. The titles give a message. The order of the poems gives a message. I seem very random, I am not. If you buy my poetry, I want to give you a bit more. My poems are maps to treasures of old L.A.

There’s a persona behind a lot of your first-person poems that feels powerful and consistent. How much of this collection is memoir and how much of it is fantasy? I noticed you make an appearance by name in “Random Violence,” for instance, but I assume that you aren’t actually a serial murderer, as suggested by “Party Monster.” Feel free to avoid this question, too, if that is part of the fun.

This book is a surreal version of me. There is a lot of me in these poems, but I’m also using experiences of my own and others to discuss larger issues. While I’m giving a critique of US culture, I am also critiquing myself. I feel that me laughing at myself in this book makes it a lot easier for people to take my critiques of society. No one really wants to hear from a do-gooder, because: How do they understand the challenges of making a decision between right and wrong? People know that I have had challenges. I can discuss a variety of topics, because I have experienced them. I haven’t been in the same spot my entire life.

In regards to the serial killing thing, my lawyer states that I must say I never murdered anyone.

Some of your poems read like flash fiction (“What Would Have Happened if Ms. Wandrous Hadn’t Died,” for instance, which has one of my favorite lines: “she only traveled down it, because she thought it was a shortcut, it was not a shortcut, but it was faster”). I’m a fiction writer, so I’m curious how do you manage plot in poetry?

Dorothy Parker, Philip Levine, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton are poets I admire. I’m also a huge fan of Southern Gothic. I like Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, and Zora Neale Hurston. I view what I write as Southern California Gothic. How I deal with plot? That is a hard question. What I do when I am writing a poem is to try to speak to a larger point, nothing I do is just literal. My plot is always a figurative device, if that makes sense. Even the answers to these questions are literary devices.

What’s next for you?

I am working on a book of poetry based in Montclair, New Jersey, and finishing up my science fiction novel on a bicycle mechanic who saves the world or destroys it. If the bicycle mechanic saves or destroys the world would all depend on your feelings in regards to anarchism.

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Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her HomeBeware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds.


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