Fire Captain Emmett Finch barely escaped when a wall collapsed in a Los Angeles warehouse fire. Feeling he’d been given a second chance at life, he decided to use it to also become a poet. Previously, he’d only ever written a maintenance manual for an LAFD fire boat, but he prayed for his wish, and then wrote his first poem at age 44. Now, reaching his 100th year, he has amassed over 6,000 poems.
The warehouse fire happened in 1965, the same year Emmett moved to Malibu, where he says he found his muse: “For it is here, where Nature displays Her many garments of loveliness, that one can draw close to the Creator of all life, love, beauty, and inspiration.” Malibu became so essential to his poetic transformation that he began signing his name as “Emmett Finch, The Malibu Poet.”
Born in 1921, Emmett grew up in Manhattan Beach. His rosy youth of school days and driving fast cars was interrupted by World War II. Suddenly, he found himself manning a secret radar tower on the remote Hawaiian atoll called French Frigate Shoals. The isolation was tough, but he discovered a fullness in the island’s wild beauty, the easy fishing (“a bite on every cast”) and swimming in the warm ocean—although sometimes it was necessary to shoot the sharks away first.
After the war, he became interested in flying, but gave up after two crash landings in the empty fields that still divided up Los Angeles. He settled for boating instead and got his daredevil kicks by waterskiing from Catalina Island to the mainland.
In 1951, he joined the LA Fire Department and worked in South Los Angeles, in San Pedro on fire boats and in the Pacific Palisades. He retired in 1978, but continued to fight fires from his own backyard, including the Woolsey Fire in 2018, during which he refused to evacuate and saved his West Malibu house with a garden hose.
The rural west is his favorite part of Malibu, and he has even advocated that it become its own town.
And so I highly recommend,
That the people in 456
Stay with all their affluence,
And leave us in the sticks.
—From “In the 457”
In 2020, Emmett released his eighth book, “Poems for Malibu and Mermaids,” in which he shares impressions of his 50 years here. He also delights in inventing stories about a Malibu lighthouse keeper who falls in love with a mermaid and woos her by installing a hot tub. This creates a major distraction when all her mermaid friends want to warm up, too.
The hot tub is overflowing,
And the temperature has dropped.
The Mermaids gripe and give complaints,
‘Cause the water isn’t hot.
Our Mariner has chores to do,
And the Lighthouse to keep clean,
While all the time he’s hearing laughs,
And noisy Mermaid screams.
—From “The Mariner’s Dilemma”
Emmett’s other favorite subject is cowboy poetry. He has released a series of books called “Poems from the Old West,” and a spoken word album called “The West Returns,” which is on YouTube.
On May 6, 2021, we celebrate the 100th birthday of “The Malibu Poet.”