The Book Pages: The case of the forgotten Los Angeles poet

It started with a mystery.

My colleague Sandra Barrera was working on a real estate story and asked me if I’d ever heard of the poet Henri Coulette. I hadn’t. I googled. I didn’t find much at first.

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That might have been the end of it, but after saying I was curious who this French fellow was – he’s not French, he’s a native Southern Californian, I’d learn – Sandra connected me with Jackie Coulette, the late poet’s former wife.

That’s when things got interesting, and the results are in a story that we published this week, “Remembering Henri Coulette, a forgotten voice of Los Angeles.”

Among the things I was surprised to learn: Coulette saved a trove of “Citizen Kane” materials the studio had planned to incinerate. Copies of Coulette’s second collection of poetry were destroyed through some error at the publisher. He studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman, inspired characters in Ross MacDonald and Christopher Isherwood novels and taught poet Wanda Coleman.

Those elements and more are in the story, as are quotes from smart people who knew and could tell me about Coulette’s work like Boris Dralyuk, Dana Gioia, Andrew Lyndon Knighton and Jackie Coulette. I also got invaluable help locating photos and archival materials from Karina Cardenas, who works in Special Collections & Archives at the Cal State L.A. library. (Librarians are the best.)

But there were some things that didn’t make the published piece.

Like this: Late one evening, I sat under a small circle of lamplight in our darkened house researching Coulette’s time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I’ve never been there, but my wife Jocelyn attended the Iowa Center for the Book graduate program. She’d been invited by its founder, printer Kim Merker.

I came across a photo I’d never seen of Coulette, who’d been occupying my mind for months. It was from the mid-1950s; he was with another student, a handsome bearded man who had his arm slung around Coulette’s shoulders.

What a cool guy, I thought. Then I read the caption.

That cool guy was Kim Merker, my wife’s benefactor; he turned out to have been pals with Henri Coulette. And 70 years later, here we were, reuniting them in a way. I restrained myself from waking her up to share this late-night revelation.

Then Jocelyn had her own as I was getting the piece ready to print. While searching for some files, she came upon her own decades-old correspondence with Merker, which we read, marveling at his charm and kindness.

Later that night, his name still seemingly in the air, a book popped up online I’d never seen before, newly up for sale: A hand-printed chapbook of four Coulette poems that came from the library of … Kim Merker. (These chapbooks were handprinted by a “JC,” which makes me wonder if these might be the initials of Jackie Coulette, who makes art, but that remains unanswered for now.)

At this point, you wouldn’t be wrong to expect me to shine a flashlight under my chin and say, “Isn’t that spooooky!” Trust me, I’d understand.

But this serendipity doesn’t strike me as creepy; it seems like what happens when something long undisturbed gets stirred up by genuine interest and curiosity.

If anything, moments like these reflect the connection we have with books and writers when their work touches us.

And that’s a mystery I hope I don’t ever get tired of investigating.

Copies of poet Henri Coulette’s poetry collections, “The War of the Secret Agents” and “The Family Goldschmitt,” along with the posthumously published “Collected Poems.” (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

Portrait of an editor as an intense young book nerd. (Photo credit Dana Pelsone / Courtesy of Erik Pedersen)

Here’s something else my wife uncovered while searching through some boxes: A photo of your slightly younger future Book Pages editor.

Taken a few years ago (cough), this photo is the work of my wonderful sister, Dana, the first journalist in our family and someone who knows how to get stuff done.

I can still remember the day: I’d just picked up some new comics and wanted nothing more than to be left alone to read them. Dana needed a photo for the Pasadena City College newspaper and she was going to get it, dragooning me into posing with some textbooks to illustrate the story she was working on.

Fine, I was beat. But in what I’d like to think was as an early example of my future trajectory as both a layabout bookworm and problem-solving editor, I suggested it would be much funnier if the kid in the picture had some comics slipped into his books, giving the image some, er, subtext or whatever baloney I offered up. My dear sister agreed, and she got her photos.

And I got to read my comics.

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Thanks, as always, for reading.

Rafael Frumkin tells tales of flying Jung biographies

Rafael Frumkin is the author of “Confidence.” (Photo credit Fig Tree / Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Rafael Frumkin’s debut novel, “The Comedown,” is being developed as a series by the Starz network, and the author’s latest, “Confidence,” has just been published. Frumkin, who spoke with Michael Schaub about the book, scams and more, responds to our Q&A.

Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

I’m always recommending “God Says No” by James Hannaham because it’s so funny and dark and just kind of perfect for the current moment despite being published in 2009. I also love Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule” and C.E. Morgan’s “The Sport of Kings.” They’re both books about horse racing but they’re also about so much more than horse racing: race, class, gender, and ill-begotten power.

Q. How do you decide what to read next?

I usually go to one of my bookshelves, give the spines a once-over and pull out a book that looks appealing to me. It’s fun because it feels like I’m browsing an independent bookstore. Currently, my reading list is about a year-long, so it’ll be a while before I can idly browse again!

Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?

I love the trippy surrealism of Josh Wheeler’s “Acid West.” I’m also partial to the elegant, floral design of Nina Renata Aaron’s “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls” and how the cover of Rosen Andersen’s “The Heart and Other Monsters” communicates so much with such simplicity. Also, all these books are as good as their lovely covers promise them to be, if not better — highly recommended.

Q. Is there a genre or type of book you read the most – and what would you like to read more of?

It feels like the boundaries are so porous among genres that I’m not sure what I read the most of. I suppose you could say I’ve read a lot of literary realism, but now I’m branching out into more speculative fiction and thrillers. I’m trying to read more graphic novels, too, because there’s some truly groundbreaking work happening in that genre. Also, I’m a huge lover of longform creative nonfiction: I’ll eat up an essay collection with a spoon.

Q. Do you have a favorite book or books?

Respectfully, this is an unfair question, because there’s just so much to choose from! I could give you some tried-and-true answers (“Dubliners,” “Bluets,” “Tenth of December”), some more contemporary answers (“There, There”; “Thrown”; “Exhalation”), some Gen X answers (“NW,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” “The Underground Railroad”), some millennial answers (“An Unkindness of Ghosts,” “What Should Be Wild,” “The Epiphany Machine”). A lot of these books are widely recognized, and those that aren’t yet, deserve to be.

Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

There were a lot of books in my house growing up: one of my earliest memories is of accidentally sending a cinderblock-sized biography of Carl Jung flying down the stairs. I didn’t learn to read until after many of my peers — I must have been 6, almost 7 — and I’m grateful for all the adults who were so patient with me during that time, my kindergarten teacher especially. My parents also read to me from birth, which was very lucky, and which gave me extra incentive to climb my way up out of illiteracy. But I never had a teacher or a librarian reach down from their desk and hand me a copy of a life-changing book. I always dreamed of that happening, but mostly contented myself with finding books on my own.

Q. What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?

Reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” was a visceral experience. I’m very affected by horror — it’s off-limits as a film genre for me, because every horror movie I’ve watched just sticks with me and terrorizes me — so I should have known going into Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece that I was going to be consumed in a scary way. And I really was: I read the book over the course of a few humid summer days and could do absolutely nothing else besides sleep, eat, and pause to monologue to my partner about how simultaneously enchanted and horrified I was. There’s a reason this book is so popular: it scares the living daylights out of you with information that’s all been true at some point, somewhere in the world.

More book coverage

Here are some poetry collections by L.A. writers that capture the range of the city’s voices. (Covers courtesy of the publishers: (top row) Viking, Red Hen Press, Black Sparrow Press, Lynx House Press, Alice James Press, Perugia Press. (lower row): Knopf, Cahuenga Press, Red Hen Press, Kaya Press, University of Arizona Press, What Books Press)

LA Poetry

Here are 22 books to read by a range of Southern California poets. READ MORE

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Eleanor Catton’s latest novel is “Birnam Wood.” (Photo by Murdo MacLeod / Courtesy of Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Literary luminary

A decade later, Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton returns with “Birnam Wood.” READ MORE

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“Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age” by Katherine May is among the top-selling nonfiction releases at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

The week’s bestsellers

The top-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE

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What’s next on ‘Bookish’

The next free Bookish event is today, March 17 at 5 p.m. with guests including Rebecca Makkai, Tim Blake Nelson and Chef Ronnie Woo talking books with host Sandra Tsing Loh.

Also, if you missed it (or want to relive the action), you can watch our Noteworthy episode featuring our celebration of 10 Southern California writers who published memorable books in 2022.

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