Laurel Ann Bogen and the Healing Art of Poetry

Mark Bizzell


This year was only the fourth time in U.S. history that a poet read at a presidential inauguration.  Only Democratic presidents have followed the tradition, started by President Kennedy in 1961 with Robert Frost.   Bill Clinton tapped Maya Angelou to read at his 1993 inauguration and Miller Williams, father of singer Lucinda Williams, at his second one in 1997.


For Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, Cuban-American Richard Blanco read “One Today,” a poem he wrote for the occasion.  With verse meant to heal the nation after the Newtown shootings, the poem received positive to mixed reviews.


“Poems like this are called occasional poems and are difficult to write,” says acclaimed poet Laurel Ann Bogen, who also teaches poetry at UCLA.  “Of course, in this type of circumstance expectations are high and as a writer you are constrained by time and subject.”


Writing inspiring and healing poetry is familiar to Bogen, who won the esteemed American Academy of Poets College Prize while attending the University of Southern California at only age 17 in the late 1960s.  She has since won numerous awards and her books, such as Washing a Language and Do Iguanas Dance, Under the Moonlight?, stand the test of time.


Speaking to Bogen in her West Los Angeles home, I notice the walls are covered with framed media-coverage of her work, avant-garde pictures spanning decades of her performing the spoken word, and original artwork created from her verses.  Books spill out from every nook and cranny of the room while her large black cat sleeps under the California sun streaming through the window.


One reason she teaches is to spread her love of poetry.  From 1996 until 2002 she was literary curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she coordinated the Writers in Focus poetry series.   And the performance troop Nearly Fatal Women, comprised of poets Suzanne Lummis and Linda Albertano, along with Bogen have performed nationwide.



“Poetry saved my life.  I’ve suffered from mental illness and find that reading, writing and performing poetry allows a focus for a mind that is rife with conflicting thoughts.  I also teach poetry to patients at a mental health facility here in Los Angeles,” Bogen says.  “I have seen many times people open up as poetry becomes an outlet for thoughts that cannot be expressed any other way.”


Bogen is especially noted for her live performances, with her next book of poems inclusive of bar codes that can be scanned by a smart phone to hear her live readings.  The yet-to-be-titled book comes out next year, and will be her eleventh.  She has also been published in more than 100 publications.


But she reminds me that poetry is not strictly a scholarly art form.  To the unfamiliar, poetry can seem inaccessible she says.  Although older poets living and passed are well known, poetry is flourishing in today’s world.  Modern times have brought many new forms to the medium. 



Poetry slams are competitions of spoken word popular with college students.  In addition, a Google search reveals more than 50 types of poetry in addition to the numerous traditional styles.  Just like modern opera and ballet, poetry has evolved to attract younger readers.


 “Some of my students just need a creative outlet, or have something they want to say,” says Bogen.  “That’s not say that beginning poets are necessarily good, but that’s not the point.  I myself experienced a 12-year period where I could not get published.  Looking back, my poems from that time were lacking, but I was persistent.”


Being a poet is not going to make anyone wealthy; the phrase “starving artist” has a ring of truth to it.  Many keep their day jobs. T.S. Elliot was a banker at Lloyds of London and William Carlos Williams, who wrote Poems in 1909, practiced medicine for the next 40 years.  Mary Oliver, America’s current best-read living poet, has said she only took jobs throughout her life that were not too involved, lest she be distracted from writing.  The richness of poetry may never be found in money or fame, but rather deposits into the soul. 


Author Bio:

Mark Bizzell is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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