Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last year, the Homestead was approached by business owner and poet Karen Cordova and poet and publisher Andrea Watson of Taos, New Mexico about an intriguing idea to have the museum be the setting for a series of poetry readings under the general theme of migration from New Mexico to Los Angeles.
Over a series of monthly meetings, the “Take a Detour from Route 66: Taos to L.A.” program took shape and expanded to include tomorrow’s offerings at the John A. Rowland House, the 1855 residence of the Rowland family just a short distance from the Homestead. While Route 66 was a core thematic element, so, too, was the preceding Old Spanish Trail, which operated from 1829 to 1848, and which the Workman family used to migrate to this area in 1841. Native Indian trails and railroad lines also had their importance noted for the event.
With the Taos Arts Council; Watson’s Three: A Taos Press; Cordova’s business CordovaGifts.com; the La Puente Valley Historical Society; the Old Spanish Trail Association; and the Genealogical Society of Hispanic America, Southern California Chapter as sponsors and contributors, the event features fifteen poets, several historical commentators, a musician, pottery makers and a culinary historian over the weekend.
Today, on a bright, cool and sometimes breezy afternoon, we had five venues for poetry readings on the site, including a room in the Workman House, the courtyard behind the landmark, two rooms in La Casa Nueva, and the lawn to the west of the home. Artists were also in the Homestead Gallery, including potters and jewelers.
Visitors were divided into five color-coded groups and then escorted by museum staff to the reading locations over the course of a little over two hours. At each spot, a presenter gave some historical context, including one who talked about the indigenous native Kizh-Gabrieleño, another who grew up in Avocado Heights just west of the museum, but who is the descendant of early settlers in New Mexic and California, and a third whose ancestor Lorenzo Trujillo migrated with the Rowlands and Workmans to California.
As for the poets, there was an astonishing range of readings, including Karen Cordova’s persona poem in the guise of Nicolasa Urioste, the wife of William Workman, whose life story is almost completely unrecorded, so Karen gave an impressionistic rendering of what Nicolasa might have thought about the tremendous transformation entailed over her long life through most of the 19th century. Max Early, a Laguna Pueblo Indian, read a poem that detailed the invasive changes affecting his people over the years since European contact.
Madelyn Garner reflected on the life of her late sister in a very personalized and affecting rendering titled “Route 66: a Love Story.” Andrea Watson contributed a striking piece called “The Poem in Which Frida Kahlo Commandeers My Car and We Drive Like Bandits to L.A.,” a poem that was whimsical, reflective, humorous and an homage to the great painter, who is the subject of a less-than-flattering portrait by her domineering husband, Diego Rivera housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is where the poem ends.
Alexis Rhone Fancher read “For the Sad Waitress at the Diner in Barstow,” which spoke to the loneliness, aimlessness and frustration that can involve life on the sparsely-populated portions of Route 66. David Meischen, in his “Making a Famine Where Abundance Lies” utilized the 1960s television show “Route 66” to explore the conflicting identities of one of its stars, George Maharis, who was a sex symbol for women viewers, but who was also gay.
Scott Wiggerman’s work “Going the Distance” used prose and haiku to explore the manifold elements of a trip on Route 66 by a black family that had to use a guidebook for “negros” that would assist them in finding lodging, food and other services that were available to them in a racist society. Jeffrey Alfier’s “A Little Peace in Yermo” is centered around a small desert town along Route 66 that was a haven for those fleeing from megalopolises and unending suburbia, but could also be a stifling and uninspiring place.
After the readings were through, visitors were invited to the Pio Pico Memorial Walkway to purchase books and have them signed, talk to representatives of the Old Spanish Trail Association and Genealogical Society of Hispanic America, and partake of roadside chili, cornbread muffins, and homemade root beer, courtesy of culinary historian and chef Ernest Miller, who has conducted many interesting and informative food history programs at the Homestead.
As I browsed the tables after the readings and picked up several volumes from poets who were with us today, I was particularly struck by Peggy Dobreer, who brought a portable typewriter (yup, a real live typewriter) and treated those who bought a copy of her collection, In the Lake of Your Bones, to a poem created and typed on the spot. I was really happy to have her create a poem for my wife, who has had some personal challenges in recent months, and can’t wait to get home to present it to her!
What a way to end a great day and to be able to incorporate poetry to our offerings was a real treat for everyone–poets, presenters, visitors and museum staff, too.