I knew her first as that white-haired woman who sat in the front row at Beyond Baroque’s poetry readings. She did not sit there knitting like Madame DeFarge. She rocked back and forth, gently, in time to the rhythms of the poems. At other times, in the Wednesday night poetry workshop, she would comment on the poems read, and her comments were honest and ultimately supportive.
I learned that her name was Frances Dean Smith. Later on, she would adopt the name FrancEyE, a poetic pun on her “frank” nature. We became friends. I also got to know Marina, her daughter by the often controversial poet Charles Bukowski.
Frances Dean Smith was born in San Rafael, California in 1922. Her family moved around a lot during her childhood-Los Angeles, Maine, Brooklyn, Massachusetts, as described in her recent book of prose poems, Grandma Stories.
She grew up and studied poetry at Smith College, served in the WACs during World War II, and was published in a few magazines, including Scholastic and The Saturday Review of Literature. In the 1960s, she came to Los Angeles, and after her brief affair with Bukowski, and the birth of Marina, she began attending a workshop at a Hollywood coffeehouse called The Bridge. Here her friendship with poets Joseph Hansen and John Harris would lead to the creation of a new poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque in Venice, where FrancEyE became a mentor to many poets.
Her work was published in various small journals and underwent a change, as she became more open about her experiences. Yet she had to wait until the 1990s for her work to appear in book form. In 1996, Sacred Beverage Press published a collection called Snaggletooth In Ocean Park (FrancEyE lived in Ocean Park up until two years before her death). Her publications also included the 2004 chapbook Amber Spider, Grandma Stories (2008), and her newest book, Call.
Everyone in the LA poetry community has known FrancEyE or known of her. She has probably influenced far more poets than she ever realized. Although she was often jokingly referred to as “the bearded witch of Ocean Park,” she was a compassionate activist for progressive causes. She frequently spoke at City Council meetings, and in 2004, was a recipient of the Church in Ocean Park’s Communitas Award for community activism.
In 2007, she moved to the San Francisco Bay area to be nearer to her daughter and returned occasionally for visits. Her health failed but we heard that she kept writing as much as she could. A week ago, she broke her hip, but refused surgery. That was like her, I thought. She acted upon her own idea of when it was the right time to leave.
But FrancEyE will never leave us, not as long as we have her legacy of humor, candor, and faith in the written and spoken word.
A memorial service for FrancEye will be held at 1pm, June 21 at the church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill Street.