Lynne Thompson SC ’72 speaks on her journey from lawyer to LA poet laureate

A woman with short hair wears a blue vest and blue earrings.
Scripps Board of Trustees Chair Lynne Thompson SC ‘72 is LA’s new poet laureate. (Courtesy: Lynne Thompson)

Scripps College Chair of the Board of Trustees Lynne Thompson SC ’72 was on her landline phone with a friend when she saw her cell light up and two small words appear: “poet laureate.” Not thinking much of it, she went to check the email. To her great surprise, the email contained big news — she was to be named the poet laureate of Los Angeles for 2021.

“I just about fell over,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.’”

Thompson is a veteran of the poetry scene: Her work has appeared in numerous poetry reviews, she has released multiple books and she currently serves on the boards of multiple literary organizations, according to a press release from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office announcing her recent appointment.

However, being named this year’s poet laureate came as a true surprise to her — in part because she almost didn’t apply for the position in the first place.

“I wasn’t going to do it, but I was persuaded by friends to,” Thompson said. “[The appointment] was quite a surprise because we have wonderful poets in LA, and not just the city but the county, and it could have been anybody else, so I do feel very honored that they picked me.”

After the initial surprise, however, Thompson began to feel the excitement of being awarded such a distinction.

“[Shock] was my first feeling, but my second feeling was vindication,” Thompson said. “When I started writing poetry, some friends and family said, ‘What are you doing? You’re a lawyer. That’s stupid — there’s no money in it.’ I said, ‘I know that, but this is really my passion.’ So it was a sense of vindication that having followed my passion, I’m now getting a reward for sticking to my guns.”

Thompson’s father, a “big poetry lover” and writer, sparked the poet’s passion from a young age, providing plenty of reading material and a model for what a writer could look like: “I think I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” she said.

While chasing that interest, Thompson wrote poetry all through her teenage years and into college. During her time at Scripps, two main factors honed her craft: her literature classes and the poets she had the opportunity to meet. Of those poets, Edward Hoagland and Jayne Cortez were some of the most influential, she said. Thompson remembers Cortez in particular having a big impact on her at the time. 

“It was the first time I had seen poetry without any punctuation, and I thought that was interesting,” Thompson said. “Plus, she was a young-ish African American woman, so it was the first time I was really seeing someone [like her] in the flesh who was doing this — that stayed with me for a long, long time.”

While Thompson continued to attend readings and peruse others’ poetry after college, she also found herself drifting further away from poetry than she had been in her youth. She obtained her J.D. after graduating from Scripps and focused on legal practice for a while, but after about 15 years reconnected with poetry.

“I went back to [poetry] because I’d always really loved it,” Thompson said.

“I think one could argue that all poems are political. Some are just more overtly political, and I think I’ve started to move into that territory a little bit.”—Lynne Thompson SC ’72

Since then, Thompson has mainly shifted her sights from the law to poetry as she reintroduced the craft into her life and focused on writing again. While her works cover a wide range of topics, she has found that certain themes tend to emerge more often in her publications: Family has been one of the biggest recurring themes, appearing frequently in her most recent book, “Fretwork.”

“I’m the daughter of immigrants, so there are a lot of poems about that,” she said. “And lately, of course, it’s been very hard to write poems that were not exclusively political — everything from the George Floyd murder to the elections [and] everything that has affected the country at large.” 

One of Thompson’s most recent publications reflects this growing trend. Published earlier this March, the piece is a response to legislation introduced by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton to prevent federal funding for schools teaching The New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project

But the intersection of poetry and politics is hardly a new phenomenon, according to Thompson. 

“I think one could argue that all poems are political,” she said. “Some are just more overtly political, and I think I’ve started to move into that territory a little bit.”

Thompson is planning to use her tenure as poet laureate to the fullest. In order to do so, she is currently working on multiple projects to help increase community exposure to poetry. 

“I’m trying to work with some folks to see if I can develop some topics for curriculum, particularly focusing on middle school and high school, but I’m also trying to think of ways that I can bring poetry to the broader community, to seniors, to younger kids — anyone who doesn’t ordinarily get exposed to poetry,” she said.

In addition to developing the poetry-based curriculum, Thompson is also currently working on a weekly poetry podcast hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library. The first episode aired April 1.

“[On the podcast], I’ll read someone’s poem — not my own, but the poem of someone else that I admire that I think the public would enjoy hearing, so that people will hopefully over time say ‘Oh yeah, I can go to that website and get my dose of poetry for the week,’” Thompson said.

For any aspiring poets, both at the 5Cs and beyond, Thompson has two main pieces of advice.

“Read as much as you possibly can as broadly as you possibly can because all of that will, if not immediately, eventually affect your writing,” Thompson said, “And write every day, even if you’re not writing something new … so that you just have an automatic muscle after a while. I think that’s the way that you ultimately start to build your craft over time.”

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