One very lovely evening a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with L.A.’s very own Noir Poet, Suzanne Lummis, over dinner to discuss film noir and poetry. Honestly, I had very little knowledge of film noir and its sensibilities however, with the help of Suzanne’s guidance and some delicious peach cobbler a la mode, we discussed its importance in society, and how it has transformed film and its influence on poetry.
“I have ‘noir cred.’ I lived in a tenement located in the non-trendy area on Vermont below Sunset,” says Suzanne. She described her old neighborhood where she saw the mean streets of Los Angeles unfold in front of her. She has invited noir into her life and in her writing by creating a class at UCLA Extension called “Poetry and the Movies: The Poem Noir.” During our conversation, I got a great look into the class and how its set up. “Students who take my class write poems they normally wouldn’t write. It’s darker and less sentimental” she says sipping her wine, coolly.
Film noir is a term normally used without consideration of its truest form. According to Suzanne’s “Noir Corridor” section on LAPoetryFestival.com, film noir is a “term coined by French film critics in the 40’s to describe a new, uncharacteristically gritty export from Hollywood, low budget black-and-white movies whose stories revolved around crime, human fallibility and the darker passions.” Noir films were normally the “B” features for the bigger, more accessible “A” features, normally cheery Technicolor musicals or comedies with happy endings. American filmgoers and critics dismissed noir films, but the French welcomed these complicated and sordid plots.
Popular pulp noir stories in mystery magazines gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The best stories of urban violence, crimes and rogue detectives were published in Black Mask. Mystery writers began focusing more on the darker human sensibilities in these crime stories, rather than the deductive form of crime solving that was popular in the late Victorian era. Sherlock Holmes never carried a gun, and I doubt you would find Detective Poirot drinking gin at a local bar. These detectives and crimes were dandified.
Suzanne confidently stands by the idea that the French gave America three very important cultural cornerstones: “The Statue of Liberty, chocolate éclairs and the term film noir.” After the Second World War, the French began watching American cinema after a hiatus. They noticed the contrast of earlier romantic themed musicals and how these moodier, sexier films were capturing the collective unconsciousness of post World War II America. They noticed that, as much as America could hold it’s cheery, optimistic façade, there was a complementary cynical side ready. These movies highlighted “human nature, people’s darker capabilities and their obsessions with money, lust or revenge.”
As we continued our discussion, we moved on from film noir and its beginnings to the main character in each of the movies and stories that embodies noir, the Detective. Suzanne cites a passage of Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” delving deep into the psyche of the detective and sets the moral code for these men; “he talks as the man of his age talks [… with] rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness.” The noir detective is a very complex man that who mirrors human sensibilities and the gray area we all inhabit. The lone detective finds his inspiration in the mythos of the Great American West, as loner cowboys always protected small towns from greedy bandits. After their work is done, cowboys ride off into the sunset, while the noir detective walks into the mist.
Poetry noir, in its purest form, has witty allusions to the noir subject matter. It can also be poetry that invokes the urban landscapes, that alludes to crime and the knowledge of this territory. It allows for a cool, removed view of reality, completely immune of to the sentimentality in poetry that can take away from the real emotional epicenter of the poem, found in the description of the surrounding environment. Instead of allowing an outpour of uncontrolled emotion, there is distance between the reader, poet and subject, much like the distance the detective keeps when solving his crimes. There is a fine combination of detachment and engagement.
In the poem “Femme Fatale,” from her book In Danger, Suzanne explores the archetype of the noir femme in a contemporary setting attempting to solve her own “crime story she’s in/ betrayal and larceny, few clues”. Women in noir are mysterious, unpredictable and invasive. At the end “she’s innocent so far, but someone/ will disappoint her. Even now you’re beginning to/ even now you’re in danger.” There is no room for wallowing or pity, just the ability to “show yourself, as a poet, no mercy in your writing,” says Suzanne. That is the core of poetry noir.
Driving away from dinner that night, bright full moon shone, exposed shadows on buildings I would not have otherwise seen. Noir does the same. It casts shadows on the unexpected, the dangerous and the violent, putting vulnerability and humanity on display, to find the quality of redemption in those situations without melodrama.
Suzanne Lummis’ poetry does that and much like the detective, cool, detached, her vulnerability is blurred like the fogged street lamps and cigarette smoke, not completely visible but it still lingers.
Lauren Villa was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she proudly resides. Once an aspiring astronaut, Lauren found her calling with words when she could not reconcile the torrid relationship she had with Physics. She loves penguins, the Dodgers and vodka.