September 22, 2019

West Hollywood’s poet laureate, for better and verse

Poet Kim Dower promotes the work of other writers at her business, Kim-from-L.A., but when she first heard about the opening for the position of West Hollywood’s city poet laureate, she said she hesitated before applying. Even though she was about to publish her third collection of poetry with Red Hen Press, and she had lived in and loved West Hollywood for many years, “I thought, ‘Who am I?’ ”  

Dower, who was installed as the city’s poet in October, is trim and dark haired and laughs easily. In her book-lined business office, where she writes her poetry, she talked with the Jewish Journal about her plans for her new position — and with self-effacing humor about her new title.

“Now, it’s a little bit like being dressed up. Fancy,” she said. “I walk into Gelson’s on Beverly [Boulevard] and I think: ‘Do you know who I am?’ ”

Much like her demeanor, Dower’s poetry, which has been compared with the work of Billy Collins, is often lighthearted with a serious undertone. 

Her first project as the city poet laureate will be to create a collaborative work with her fellow West Hollywood residents, called “I Sing the Body West Hollywood” in tribute to Walt Whitman. The city has printed forms she developed that offer a choice of four prompts to elicit feelings about West Hollywood. In February, Dower will combine the responses into a poem that will be printed, along with the names of the contributors, and distributed during National Poetry Month in April. The West Hollywood Library will also host poetry readings that month and Dower plans to arrange panel discussions. 

Dower has lived in West Hollywood since the 1970s  but  she was born in New York and grew up on the Upper West Side. Her first encounter with poetry came when her Russian Jewish grandmother recited in Russian poems that the woman had memorized as a girl. “We would always sit in the dark for some reason and she would recite Pushkin to me. I didn’t understand a word she was saying, but the sounds were so evocative and chilling and beautiful that I knew they were important.”

Dower began writing poetry seriously at Emerson College in Boston. She published and taught there, but after seven years of Boston winters, she followed her older brother and parents to Los Angeles, settling in a warm, sunny apartment with a lemon tree out back and a swimming pool, just up the hill from the Whisky a Go-Go. Today, she and her husband live in a house near Plummer Park, where their son played as a boy. Family and her business took precedence over writing poetry for several years, but when her son left for college, she contacted her college professor and mentor, Thomas Lux, and began to study with him and L.A. poet Terry Wolverton. “I worked hard,” Dower said, fiercely.

The work paid off. In 2010, Red Hen Press published her first collection, “Air Kissing on Mars.” Her second collection, “Slice of the Moon,” which includes poems about coping with her mother’s dementia and decline, was published in 2013. This year, Red Hen released her latest work, “Last Train to the Missing Planet.”

Although her parents were not observant, Dower said, “Many of my poems are about growing up in New York and my grandparents and the people they knew.” Her grandmother, the one who memorized Pushkin, was very engaged in the activist group Women’s Strike for Peace, and took Dower to meetings when she was small. “The Jewish culture, if not the religion itself, has shaped my work. … I loved the Passover seder, the food, the questions — though I’m not sure I understood then the impact it would have on me.”  

When Dower began her two-year term as the city’s poet laureate, she wrote a poem for the occasion, “Ode to West Hollywood.” Marked by her signature humor, it namechecks the Blue Whale (aka the Pacific Design Center), Barney’s Beanery, Book Soup and Plummer Park.

The “Ode” is also deeply felt. It concludes: 

“because my mother thought the firemen were hot because at dawn
everything can be forgot High in the Hollywood Hills a man embraces
our city his arms stretched pumped loaded the lights below
a feast of life dissolving the night and when he awakens
he hasn’t a clue why there are rose petals in his pocket.” 

Regarding the national stage and the question of how the recent election of Donald Trump as president might affect the humor in her poetry, Dower said that, unlike artists who were too shocked and disappointed to work, she found no other way to respond but to write. In the first week after the election, she finished a poem called “What a Nasty Woman Reads” and shared printed copies with friends who found comfort in it. In another poem called “Still,” she found herself echoing phrases from Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise.”

“It was almost unsettling until I realized that poem lives in me,” Dower said. “Poems are living things and they call to one another in times of distress.”

Dower, who refers to poems as “these creatures,” is adamant that they have a life of their own. “I have no idea what I can do
now except write what comes to me. If it makes [readers] feel powerful in some way,
if it’s useful to someone, that’s what poetry can do.” n