INTERVIEW WITH TOM LAICHAS
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love how “Santa Clara Av” and “Navarre Ct & Alhambra Ct” explore specific streets, and we understand they’re from a larger project, 300 Streets of Venice California. How do you choose the streets you write about and how do these resonate with you in particular?
Tom Laichas: The short answer is that I walk the neighborhood and I write what I see.
I started haphazardly. If I noticed something — an unoccupied folding chair left open at a busy intersection, a headless doll sitting on a wall, a chicken running along a residential street — I’d pull out a back-pocket notebook and jot it down, like a handwritten polaroid. About three years in, I read Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, which she wrote while exploring West L.A. streets not far from Venice. Both embed rituals of observation into walking.
For a while, I focused on the distinctive and the grotesque — the folding chair and the headless doll. I was very selective. Then I read Cole Swensen’s translation of French poet Nicholas Pesquès’ Overyellow. Pesquès isn’t walking. He’s staying put. Over the last several decades, he’s written a series of poems, all focused on one mountain slope carpeted with yellow English broom and visible from his own home. Again and again, he writes about that slope and those flowers. But it’s really never the same. Each of his poems is distinct from the other because, moment to moment, both landscape and awareness change.
So I made a rule, an homage to Pesquès: I’d write a poem about every street in Venice. Depending whether you count unnamed alleys as streets (and some alleys do have their own street signage) there are a little over three hundred streets. How many streets does it take before one looks like the other, before there’s nothing new to say? Pesquès (and I think Basho and Mullen as well) would say that, so long as your mind fully engages the object of its attention, one street will never look like another.
RR: In “Santa Clara Av,” Oscar D is mentioned by name. Can you tell us more about the person and the history there?
TL: His name was Oscar Duncan, and he was murdered on June 4, 2012.
His story goes back to the explosive rise in street killings from the 1970s through the early 2000s, a crisis often “explained” through simplifications that became journalistic clichés: crack cocaine, gang violence, Crips and Bloods. Behind that was the war on drugs, a military-minded police department, the tough-on-crime rejection of successful prison rehabilitation programs, institutional racism, targeted reductions in social spending, and the economic turmoil that followed the recessions of the 1970s.
The media — I’m talking about both the Los Angeles Times and local TV news outlets — named the victims of these murders if they were white, Asian, or celebrities. Black and brown victims, if named at all, were either characterized as likely gang members or exonerated as having “no known gang affiliation.” At best, the media treated the murders as though they were a natural disaster, an attitude of moral resignation recalling the last line of L.A.’s most famous film: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
One L.A. Times journalist, Jill Leovy, became appalled at the invisibility of victims and their families, at the way their grief and loss were marginalized. That kind of treatment, Leovy believed, stripped people of their dignity, distorted the data, and, by the way, misinformed Times readers about the nature of their own city.
So Leovy created a weekly blog, “The Homicide Report.” Her aim was to provide a full obituary of every single murder victim in the L.A. This was an enormous undertaking: throughout the 90s, L.A. averaged well over 800 murders a year and peaked at over a thousand (a number since reduced to under 300). Leovy was indefatigable, devoting hours to speaking with family and friends, rendering a textured portrait of each murder victim’s stolen life. She didn’t sugarcoat or sentimentalize, but she did restore dignity to the dead. Under out-of-town ownership, the Times let her go in 2017, but the blog has continued, and that’s how I found Duncan’s story.
I didn’t want to write about Duncan himself—Leovy says what needs saying, and I have nothing valuable to add. What struck me, though, was how little time it took for Venice (though not his family and friends) to forget his death. Gentrification has brought with it a rapid turnover in the local population. So “the streets”— that is, the people living on them—don’t remember this killing. For the physical street, of course, the day of Duncan’s death was just another day of being a thing, a slab of concrete.
Occasionally, a street artist will spraypaint a murder victim’s face and name on a wall in memoriam. That lasts until the property owner has it painted over. Otherwise there’s no memorial to mark this or any other death in Venice.
By the way, Venice has no place for the dead. No hospital, no cemetery, no mortuary. Bodies vanish. Histories vanish. Long before COVID, Venice quarantined grief indoors. Venice Beach enjoys its reputation as quirky and edgy, a small West Coast dose of laissez les bons temps rouler. But this isn’t New Orleans. In New Orleans, you die and there’s a procession. Here, there are no public rituals of sorrow. We talk “community,” but really, can you call yourself a “community” if you don’t come together to acknowledge the dead? That absence of public acknowledgment characterizes L.A. generally and, maybe, most contemporary cities.
RR: Both of these poems give surprising importance to inanimate street features, but also emphasize how individual people are overlooked. Is this issue of erasure something you’ve felt or seen personally?
TL: Yes, erasure is absolutely the right word, and it is the right word for L.A. generally. One of the best books on the city is Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. Klein articulated something people have been thinking about here for decades: that L.A. practices amnesia with the same dedication that some of us practice yoga or meditation.
I remember, when I was younger, seeing a pothole near a curb. Inside was a length of metal rail, a fossil from the Red Car, L.A.’s first interurban railway system and one of the world’s most expansive. I had no idea the system had ever existed. A few weeks later, the Bureau of Street Maintenance showed up and patched the hole. The evidence disappeared. I can’t count the times the city’s past has creaked open, revealed something I didn’t know, and then slammed shut.
Venice in particular has erased nature. Much of the area was marshland fed two hundred years ago by the L.A. River and, after the river changed course, by Ballona Creek. There’s a nature reserve a few miles south of Venice which preserves a hint of that ecosystem, but otherwise it’s entirely buried.
Some of the wildlife survives. With COVID-19 keeping us off the streets, possums, coyotes and raccoons have become bolder. Sightings have gone way up in the last couple of months. But these animals didn’t arrive last March. They’ve been here all along, stealthy and staying out of our way. I’ve read that many animals which once hunted or foraged by day, have become nocturnal just to avoid our gaze. And we avoid their gaze—an erasure of another sort.
Then there are the social erasures. The histories of the Tongva people — whose descendants still live in the area — as well as African-Americans, Jews, and Latinxs — are not widely known. A very divisive issue in Venice right now is homelessness. There are thirty or fifty thousand people sleeping rough in L.A. on any given night, a disproportionate share of them in Venice. You can’t say the problem is “invisible.” But whatever their individual situation—addiction or job loss, rent hikes and eviction or mental illness—it’s submerged beneath this catch-all term, “the homeless,” which conceals far more than it explains.
By the way, the erasures extend well beyond categories of ethnicity and economic marginalization. Before COVID, hundreds of people assembled on Saturdays or Sundays for Venice’s Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist services. There are also mosques and Hindu temples not far from Venice. And yet, a lot of us don’t register just how much faith traditions matter in the lives of our neighbors.
RR: What themes, images, or ideas have you found yourself exploring in this project?
TL: You’ve identified a couple of themes. One is the way the city’s physicality embodies its aspirations, its suffering, and its pleasures. Another is the omission and erasure of history, nature, and certain kinds of social solidarity.
I take yet another theme from the anthropologist James C. Scott. In Seeing Like a State, Scott argues that human social structures, left to themselves, are cussedly complex. A centralized government which seeks to extract resources or enforce loyalty will fail if it tries to accommodate itself to the social practices of every little burg. So centralizing states develop bureaucratic tools that enable officials to simplify social relationships: the census is one example; the registration of births, marriages and deaths is another. You can’t just change your own name, for instance. You have to get court approval, and the new name has to be registered.
I trained as a historian, not a poet. My dissertation examines the vast expansion of California’s administrative capacities, particularly through its budgetary practice. This is really unglamorous stuff, the kind of thing that makes eyes glaze over. Then comes a public health crisis, and suddenly the relationships between knowledge, power, and financial resources are matters of life and death.
Governments (and also, of course, corporations) embed such systems of knowledge in the physical environment. For instance, the utility pole medallions at Navarre and Alhambra identify that intersection as one node in a vast energy transmission network. These medallions also remind us that the state surveils our physical space and can, potentially, ferret us out from the data.
This is nothing new. We take street names and addresses entirely for granted. But the practice of naming and numbering streets was imposed in the 18th and 19th centuries to assist police, tax collectors, and postmen. The association between owner, address, and street name reveals persons and property to the state and to those private interests which mine public records for their own benefit.
This is, of course, exactly contrary to the erasure we talked about earlier. This is a system designed to encode memory, preserve it, and enable its instant retrieval. Many of the poems in 300 Streets touch on the relationships between Venice’s residents and such institutional systems of knowledge.
I’m also interested in Venice Beach as an imaginary and sometimes hallucinatory landscape. I find that a morning walk can escalate very quickly from a purposeful stroll to a trancelike meditation. Sometimes it takes just a couple of minutes for my mind to drift all the way from a barking dog to the Big Bang’s residual radiation. It’s John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life” — I woke up, got out of bed and, before I knew it, everybody spoke and I went into a dream.
RR: Do you have a favorite street or place in Venice?
TL: I like what everyone else likes. I like the boardwalk on a Sunday in the summer. I like the “walk streets,” the narrow pedestrian paths that squeeze themselves between houses and yards. I like watching ducks from the canal bridges. I like dolphins. If I get to the beach at the right moment, dolphins come very, very close to shore.
I particularly enjoy discovering places the maps don’t name. There’s a Department of Water and Power electrical substation in Venice. Coming along the alley behind it, you see these enormous spools, maybe ten or twelve feet across. They’re not particularly unusual for a utility substation, but they’re a surprise so close to homes and apartments.
Right now, I’m liking my backyard. This being Southern California, there’s an afternoon seabreeze most of the year. I’ve got a medium-sized water fountain, a few sets of wind chimes, and an accommodating crew of birds, bees, and butterflies. If I have to shelter in place during the crisis, I’m grateful to be sheltering here.
Tom Laichas’ work in Issue 7.2: