It'd be nice to produce great art with a Montblanc pen in your hand, an immense feather pillow under your ass, a full belly, and a trust fund dumping million-dollar interest payments into your checking account every few days, but it rarely works that way, and in poet Laurel Ann Bogen's case, it didn't.
"I started writing poetry at USC," says Bogen, an instructor in UCLA's writing program and literary curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I was suffering from teenage angst, writing as a release of emotion. I was completely unprepared for the 1960s. I had gone to a private girls' school, where I'd led a sheltered existence. My books were everything in my life. Things got radical, I got into protesting the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, dove headfirst into the arts community . . . It was a riotous time to be alive, but not anything I'd lived before."
Her first poem of note was a commentary on how most people live, "Les Chiffres"—French for "the ciphers." It earned her the Academy of American Poets award for the USC campus, and she was the only freshman ever to have won it. She continued weaving politics and psychology into her poems, as in "The Interrogator," in which she writes of post-World War II America: "They loved the war and they loved each other so much they wanted to bring it home with them. . . . The war nestled dreamily like all good babies/broken crockery and smashed-in faces. Our world without end. Amen."
Social outrage itself, however, was not everything to Bogen's poetry. There was also schizophrenia, which drove her into institutions several times between the ages of 21 and 36. While much has been made of the connection between mental illness and art—poetry particularly—quite a bit is romantic crap. Bogen says poetry saved her from madness. "I found the discipline to turn my mind from madness to poetry was the same discipline I needed to turn my mind from madness to health, to force my mind to focus on writing rather than the voices in my head," she said.
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Today, Bogen is a pillar of the SoCal literary community, working closely with such institutions as the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, as well as acting as teacher and mentor to numerous emerging poets, including Erica Erdman, Michelle Ben-Hur and Matthew Niblock.
But her poetry still speaks to the disenfranchised—those torn by either the horrors of the world surrounding them or the world inside them—with grace and empathy. "I think because poetry requires that you go inward and resolve issues for yourself—issues important to you—poets tend to be a little self-absorbed and focused on the psychological process, how things affect them," she says. "Most artists are more than a little egocentric; you almost have to be to produce good art.
"I think if I can show someone they're not alone in their pain and anguish and mania, if I can help someone discover something in themselves from what I've been through—help them find their voice—I'm happy."
Laurel Ann Bogen reads with LA poet Amy Uyematsu at the Fidelity Federal Bank, 19900 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-0905, Fri., 8 p.m. Free, but donations accepted.