Category: Californian Poets

A Whole Ecosystem: Collective Effervescence in Los Angeles Poetry, an article by Mike Sonksen, to Introduce “Mike...


Mike Sonksen (a.k.a Mike the Poet)

Interlitq To Run “Mike’s Spoken Word Corner”

Mike Sonksen, Poet, Performer, Journalist, and LA Tour Guide

Mike Sonksen’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

 


V. Kali reads her poem while Pam Ward and Jaha Zainabu look on

A Whole Ecosystem: Collective Effervescence in Los Angeles Poetry

“It was kind of a snowball effect. My first venue was the Woman’s Building downtown on Spring St. where I met Wanda Coleman and Michelle Clinton, both from Watts, like my mom. Wanda was the first to publish my work in an anthology called Women for All Seasons,” declares Pam Ward.

Native Los Angeles poet Pam Ward is talking about what happens when you start attending poetry venues across the city. Ward came up in the 1980s Los Angeles Poetry scene. Her experiences with the welcoming poetry community echo legions of poets across America that find the landscape of bookstores, coffee houses, libraries, theaters and galleries that host poetry as the inclusive community they were always looking for.

“Venues were more than readings, they were living, breathing experiences,” declares Ward. I joined the poetry community after Ward in the 1990s and I echo her wholeheartedly.

“I loved open mics and always met people who gave me flyers saying they were hosting something and asked if I wanted to read,” Ward recalls. “Sometimes I’d run from the Iguana Cafe in Noho and then read at the Roxy then Ya Yas Teahouse.” Ward knows LA and she “loved tooling through town and going all over, from Self Help Graphics on the east to Midnight Special Bookstore at the shore.”

Ward captures the dynamic zeitgeist of the poetry community. And if you want to get sociological with it, poetry open mics can generate what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” or in other words, a communal shared experience. I know of no better platform than an open mic to build community and empower writers.

When I interviewed Wanda Coleman in 2013 six months before she passed, she shared similar stories to Ward’s about running around the city to different poetry venues back in the 1970s. Live poetry’s collective effervescence is a timeless phenomenon.

There are too many venues and pioneers to name them all here but this article covers many places and faces that have participated in the rise of the Southern California poetry community. Moreover, in anticipation of a forthcoming column spotlighting audio recordings of poetry, herein also lies a brief history of Spoken Word poetry with a special focus on its evolution in Los Angeles.

(One quick note: If there are any venues in this essay that were missed, I encourage you to write your own history. We can never have too many accounts about the poetry community and the more histories we have written, the more inclusive the history. Some of the venues mentioned here have been written about at greater length elsewhere and when possible, these other histories are linked.)

 

The Rise of Spoken Word

The rising popularity of Spoken Word poetry across America is because the egalitarian spirit offered in the field of bookstores, coffeehouses, clubs, and libraries hosting readings provides a refuge where all are welcome. This welcoming community spirit is particularly significant in Southern California because the geographic sprawl has made many feel isolated, so the inclusive hospitable world of the poetry scene fills a void for those looking for inspiration and a refuge.

Spoken Word Poetry’s popularity has especially emerged in the last generation. There are many factors that have contributed from 35 plus years of poetry slams, hip hop’s continued influence, HBO Def Poetry Jam in the early 2000s, the rise of YouTube, hundreds of open mics held across the country to more recent developments like the inaugural poem in January 2021 written and delivered by Amanda Gorman. There have also been thousands of teachers using poetry in their classrooms and the immediate sound-bite nature of poetry is perfect for the short attention span.

Deeper still though is that Spoken Word has always been with us. The roots of its current popularity go back to the earliest beginnings of poetry millenniums ago and are linked over the last century through threads like the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, the Black Arts Movement, Chicano culture, Punk Rock, performance art, musical theater, let alone hip hop. Before going further a quick definition of “Spoken Word,” is necessary.

 

What is Spoken Word and Why Does it Matter?

The Poetry Foundation states that Spoken Word is “A broad designation for poetry intended for performance. Though some spoken word poetry may also be published on the page, the genre has its roots in oral traditions and performance. Spoken word can encompass or contain elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater, and jazz, rock, blues, and folk music. Characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play, spoken word poems frequently refer to issues of social justice, politics, race, and community.”

Spoken Word is often delivered in colloquial, conversational, direct vernacular language and like the parlance of William Carlos Williams aligned with the “American Idiom.” The American Idiom in the 21st Century has evolved since Williams’ time but the common thread is that the poet’s direct experience is centered anchoring the gravitas of their message. Furthermore, the overall aesthetic is closely connected to hip hop. African-American culture is a guiding influence and many spoken word poets use musicality, a hip hop cadence or rhyming register.

Another way the hip hop spirit pervades Spoken Word is that some of its poets have nom de plumes or monikers similar to hip hop MCs or graffiti artists. This is how Rob Sturma becomes Ratpack Slim, Charles Clayton  —> A Kold Piece, Cory Cofer —> Besskepp, Kevin Stricke —> Stricke9, Phillip Martin —> PhillHarmonic, Gershwin Hutchinson —> Blackbird, Terry Robinson —> Hymnal and countless other examples.

On top of Spoken Word being very hip hop influenced, it is ultimately a timeless form because poetry began with the oral tradition. Former two term United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser writes: “The original artist-priest sang her stories and poems; today’s traditional writer sits at his computer and taps out what might otherwise be sung.” Kooser wrote these words in an essay, “Poetry as a Basic Human Need,” that was in a 2007 anthology, The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, a book examining Spoken Word with several essays tracing its trajectory.

Evidence of the emphasis on the oral expression of poetry exists globally whether it’s the ancient Greek epic poets, West African griots, the troubadours of southern Europe, Irish bards, Japanese haiku poets like Basho, almost every culture had its incarnation of oral poets, even Geofrey Chaucer was known for reciting his poems. The emphasis of poetry on the page is a newer development from the last few centuries.

There have been ideological differences between the different poetry camps, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s as poetry slams, spoken word and performance poetry surged. Kooser notes in the essay quoted above that during his tenure as National Poet Laureate he must have “been asked a hundred times what (he) thought of spoken word poetry.”

Dozens of poets and literary scholars have weighed in over the last generation. Some academics criticized Spoken Word and performance poetry a generation ago. This has slowly changed and there are now many well respected poets that thrive on both the page and the stage. Some have even won National Book Awards.

 

The False Binary of Page and Stage

There are also many poets that “were never caught up in an artificial conflict between page and stage,” writes award-winning poet, editor and publisher Michael Warr. Warr served for many years as the Founding Executive Director of Chicago’s Guild Literary Complex, a place where poetry performances and books coexisted. “‘Performance poets’ and ‘academic poets’ converged upon the same book section at the store,” Warr writes in the Introduction to Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex.

Former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez lived in Chicago for 15 years through the 1980s and 90s and he was Warr’s roommate for a time. Rodriguez started his publishing company Tia Chucha Press as the publishing wing of the Guild Literary Complex in 1989. Venues like St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York, Beyond Baroque in LA and City Lights Books in San Francisco share a similar ethos uniting the page and the stage.

Guy Le Charles Gonzalez wrote in a 1999 Poets & Writers essay that the Academy of American Poets created National Poetry Month in April 1996 in part because performance poetry was becoming so popular.  The rise of performance poetry was a gradual process but it took off in earnest in the late 1980s into the 1990s.

The Spoken Word movement surged as an amalgamation of hip hop, poetry slams, the political spirit of punk rock and the presence of poetry in films like Poetic Justice and Love Jones among others. Spoken Word also appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show and in Lollapalooza when Michele Serros and Maggie Estep opened up for musicians at the festival in 1994.

The Chicago poet Marc Smith started the poetry slam in the Windy City around 1984-85 in venues like the Get Me High Lounge and Green Mill. By 1990 there was a National Poetry Slam with teams competing from across America. Nearly every major city had thriving poetry venues, especially Chicago, New York, Boston, the Bay Area, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Detroit and of course Los Angeles.

A New York Times essay in September 1994 written by Ken Tucker recounted Spoken Word’s rise in the 90s while providing a historical overview. Tucker wrote, “At a time when culture and entertainment frequently seem overrun by computer-era technology and ironic self-consciousness, spoken-word performances radiate a sincerity, simplicity and directness that many listeners find refreshing.”

This is even more true now. The immediacy and directness of Spoken Word is especially refreshing in the Covid era as we have been physically and socially distanced on our smartphones and laptops. Before going further, I want to look back through the 20th Century to key developments that influenced the evolution of Poetry.

 

Poetry As a Transfer of Energy

In the early 20th Century a few poets like William Butler Yeats and Vachel Lindsay were known for their charismatic reading styles. A few decades later Dylan Thomas was also. Many of the poets from the Harlem Renaissance read poetry accompanied with jazz like Langston Hughes.

Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay in 1950 was a watershed moment that proposed a poetry that embodies “a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge.” Olson writes about “the kinetics of the thing.” His idea of “Open Verse or Composition by Field,” considers the breath and how a poem transfers energy to the reader and the listeners. Olson emphasizes the power of the syllable and how “it is from the union of the mind and the ear that the syllable is born.”

Olson was writing “Projective Verse” in opposition to what he referred to as closed verse which he saw as the old base of poetry based more on “inherited line, stanza, over all form.” Olson’s emphasis on the syllable as a core unit of poetry that bridges and electrifies the mind and ear accurately captures the evolution of poetry in the 20th Century and simultaneously foreshadowed dynamic work that came in the following decades.

A few years after Olson’s essay, Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of his epic poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955 affirmed the transformative spirit of projective verse. Ginsberg’s long lines based on the breath channeled the power of his voice and the piece inspired the entire crowd in attendance to stand cheering. Michael McClure was there and he surmised “that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America….”

Jack Kerouac was also there and he wrote about Ginsberg’s poem and that evening in his 1958 book, Dharma Bums. The poem even became so controversial that when Lawrence Ferlinghetti published it in a manuscript for City Lights Books in 1956, the San Francisco Police and US Customs seized the book and it became the subject of a long court trial because many thought the poem was obscene. More than anything this moment affirmed the power of poetry and how the public reading of a work could excite all who hear it.

In the coming years public poetry readings in the similar spirit of Ginsberg became more popular and poetry scenes emerged around America, especially in the Bay Area, New York and in Los Angeles, especially in Venice. Many of these poets read with jazz musicians. More on this shortly.

 

Generations of Poets

Leroi Jones was originally a Beat poet and close friends with Ginsberg. In 1965-66 he changed his name to Amiri Baraka after Malcolm X was assassinated and then Baraka started the Black Arts Movement. Spirited poetry readings with live music were a big part of this. The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron emerged with their poetry accompanied to music in the following years. In Los Angeles the Watts Prophets came to rise simultaneously.

The West Coast extension of the Black Arts Movement, particularly the poetry branch flourished at the Watts Writers Workshop from 1965 to 1973. A whole roster of writers became iconic poets renowned for their live readings including Ojenke Saxon, Kamau Daáood, the Watts Prophets, Eric Priestley and Quincy Troupe. Jayne Cortez and Wanda Coleman were also there and both delivered poems like their life depended on it. These poets sometimes performed poetry with jazz, especially with pianist Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra.  (Contemporary LA poets like Daáood and AK Toney continue the jazz and poetry collaborations to this day.)

 


AK Toney (Photo by Divinity X)

In New York City venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe played a seminal role. According to the “About” section of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe website, the venue itself actually opened in 1973 in the living room of writer and poet Miguel Algarin’s East Village apartment. Algarin worked with other playwrights, poets and musicians of color like Miguel Pinero to create the space because the mainstream academic and publishing world at the time was not open to them. This gathering of writers became so popular that a “Nuyorican Poetry” anthology was published in 1975 and the New York City poetry community flourished with the Nuyorican as an epicenter.

Miguel Piñero’s “Short Eyes,” became a Broadway hit and the Nuyorican poetry scene continued to attract bigger and bigger crowds. “By 1981,” their site says, “the overflow of audience and artists led the Cafe to purchase a former tenement building at 236 East 3rd Street, and to expand its activities and programs from the original space on East 6th Street.”

The Nuyorican started hosting slams in 1989 and in 1994 they published the anthology, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. New York had many other seminal venues and comprehensive histories of them have been written elsewhere but locations like the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the Black Cat Cafe and the Brooklyn Moon Cafe are frequently grouped with the Nuyorican in NYC poetic histories.

Dozens of writers that went on to distinguished careers came from the NYC slam scene including Maggie Estep, Jessica Care Moore, Paul Beatty, Stacyann Chin, reg e. gaines, Sarah Jones, Taylor Mali, Beau Sia and Saul Williams. Williams, Sia and others starred in the 1998 film Slam and the documentary Slam Nation. In Philadelphia around this same time, the poet Ursula Rucker recorded spoken word tracks with the hip group The Roots. Her debut record Supa Sista in 2001 fused spoken word with hip hop, neo-soul and electronica.

 

Poetry Every Night of the Week

This brings us back to Los Angeles. Dating back to 1998, I have hosted open mics across LA County from Long Beach to the Los Angeles River, as well as in Venice, Boyle Heights, Echo Park, Highland Park, Koreatown and at Southwest College, Cal State LA, Pasadena City College and Woodbury University. Nonetheless, years before I ever hosted or even read publicly, my friends and I cruised the city soaking up poetry.

When I started at UCLA in 1992-93, I started attending readings in Venice, Long Beach and Los Feliz and underground hip hop shows in Leimert Park. We hit open mics like the Good Life Cafe on Crenshaw and Exposition, 5th Street Dicks, the World Stage, the Onyx, Beyond Baroque and the Midnight Special Bookstore.

The more I attended, the more I met other poets who invited me to new venues. “Word of mouth helped,” explains Pam Ward, “and people like Rob Cohen of Caffeine Magazine and Don Kingfish’s listing kept us up to speed on places to read.” Similar to Ward, I learned poetic geography and history from being immersed. There’s an energetic momentum that snowballs the more you attend.

Before you know it you can be out several nights a week attending readings in every neighborhood. This is Durkheim’s collective effervescence. And though there are districts like Venice, Leimert Park/Inglewood, Boyle Heights, Watts, Long Beach, Highland Park and Los Feliz/Hollywood that are literary epicenters, there are poetry venues in almost every corner of LA County.

There are even poetry subgenres from more academic and conservative to experimental and avant-garde and other subdivisions. The countless different venues cater to these variations. I’ve seen all ages of poets read their work from as young as kindergarten all the way into their late 90s.

Pam Ward’s stories capture the lit scene’s electricity. In addition to Wanda Coleman and Michele Clinton, Ward befriended poets like Amy Uyematsu and Gloria Alvarez. Ward’s enthusiasm for the poetry community captures the camaraderie and diversity:

“The variety of venues provided different rhythms, intriguing environments, engaging commentary and cool, badass friends. I heard Merelene Murphy and Michael Lally at Lulu’s and a whole New York vibe emerged. I took El Rivera home and she hooked me up with the World Stage. I read with Yvonne de la Vega at the Apex, a hedonist hole in the wall with slasher writing all over and fell in love with her hypnotic delivery. RIP, she was one of the best.”

Another poet who schooled me on Los Angeles poetry is Michael C. Ford. Ford filled me in on the earlier days. During the Beat Generation era in the mid 1950s, there were a lot of jazz and poetry events. Ford was in high school when he met Beat poets Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen during his senior year. The year was 1958 and it was at THE LA Jazz Concert Hall on Jefferson and Crenshaw.

 


Michael C. Ford (Photo by Yaryan)

Housed in what is now a church, the space was a former movie palace converted into a concert hall featuring nightly jazz performances. On several nights between 1957-1959, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen and Stuart Z. Perkoff recited their poetry at The LA Jazz Concert Hall with live jazz players. One particular four-day concert series was called “The West Coast Festival of Jazz & Poetry.” The Festival is described in Lawrence Lipton’s book on the Venice chapter of the Beat Generation, “The Holy Barbarians.”

Ford later on became friends with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek before they became the Doors when they were all in Jack Hirschman’s poetry class at UCLA in 1964-65. Ford did his first public reading in June of 1969 at the Cinematheque 16, a former theater located on Sunset Boulevard where Book Soup now is. Jim Morrison invited Ford, Hirschman and Michael McClure to read while Robby Krieger played guitar. Morrison read the full “American Prayer,” for the first time that day. The event was a benefit for Norman Mailer.

Years later Ford collaborated with the punk band the Minutemen when they featured his poetry in their liner notes. (Read A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990, by Sophie Rachmuhl for more on Michael C. Ford and 1980s Los Angeles Poetry.)

Ford was a key member of the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center’s early cadre that included Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Wanda Coleman, Laurel Ann Bogen, Eloise Klein Healy, Jim Krusoe and John Harris among others.

 

Poetry and Punk Rock

During the same time I first attended open mics, I also hit punk rock concerts at UCLA, Sunset Boulevard and at the Palomino in North Hollywood. On several occasions I saw spoken word poets open up for punk bands. There was an intersection between poetry and performance art. (This connection between poetry, performance art and punk rock was even stronger in New York, see Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, the band Television and many others.)

Spoken Word was often grouped under the performance art category, especially in the early 1980s. The poet and Los Angeles River activist Lewis MacAdams told me that when he arrived in LA in 1980, poetry, performance art and punk rock intersected at warehouse parties, galleries, small clubs and bars in undercover corners of the city.

(Read Doggerel Life: Stories of a Los Angeles Griot by Ulysses Jenkins for a firsthand account of LA’s early 1980s performance art scene. Jenkins is especially known for his pioneering video art but he’s also a poet and he writes about performance art events with poetry he did at the Lhasa Club and along the LA River.)

The punk band X formed from Beyond Baroque’s poetry workshop in the late 1970s. The band’s founding members met each other at the weekly Wednesday workshop. Beyond Baroque was founded in Venice in 1968 by the author and former Santa Monica High School teacher George Drury Smith. Smith loved surreal literature and was deeply involved in the day-to-day operations for the first dozen years, but by 1980, he stepped aside.

Beyond Baroque continues as a seminal location for Los Angeles poetry. They have been an epicenter for the intersection of the Beat Generation, poetry and punk rock. (Read Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992, by William Mohr for more on Beyond Baroque and this era.)

Steve Abee is a poet that bridges punk rock, the Beat Generation and the spoken word scene that emerged in the late 80s, early 90s. “Beyond Baroque is really the connection between Beats and Punk,” Abee states. “That’s literally where it happened. That place housed LA Beats. I think the poet aspect of punk rock was more interested in spirit and promise, as well as protest, but poetry is by nature more personal and contemplative.”


Steve Abee

When many people think of punk rock and poetry they think of Henry Rollins. Rollins was the lead singer of the punk band Black Flag and has also had a successful career doing spoken word since the mid 1980s..

The poet S.A. Griffin was deep in the LA punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s. Griffin’s shared several stories with me about the Lhasa Club and similar spaces like the Water Espresso Gallery, Al’s Bar and The Anti-Club. Griffin hosted countless events featuring poets like Wanda Coleman, Dave Alvin and Laurel Ann Bogen. “The Lhasa was ground zero for most of what happened during the ’80s in Hollywood,” Griffin recalls, “whether it was music, performance, poetry or whatever. We all read here as single acts, and performed here countless times.”

The Lhasa Club was also the first place Abee read while he was a high school senior in 1985. He described the scene he came up in: “I think there was also an egalitarian vibe to all of it, punk, beat, spoken word, you know, saying all voices are to be heard. We censor nothing. We want it all.”

 

The Egalitarian Spirit

“And all voices should do what they need to be heard,” Abee continues. “Do it yourself (DIY). I think both poetry and punk embraced the local due to that DIY egalitarian ethos. You and your friends are a band, a zine, an experience, a voice. Punk rock was really a continuation of the underground culture vibe that stretches back to the bohemians of Paris.”

Abee was also a frequent reader at the Onyx Café coffee-house on Vermont in Los Feliz. It was an old school neighborhood coffee house with couches and comfortable furniture. In the 90s there were still many indie coffee-houses scattered across the city before Starbucks took over. There was a popular reading there for many years that melted spoken word, punk, hip hop, slam poetry and the unexpected. Milo Martin. Ben Porter Lewis and Nathan Green hosted its popular Sunday series in the late 90s.

According to SA Griffin, the Onyx Café opened in 1982 and was originally located by the Vista Theater where Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards intersect.  A few years later, the Onyx moved a few blocks west on Vermont.

The Onyx was one of the first places I ever read my poetry around 97-98. I was inspired by all the voices. I remember seeing reg e. gaines and Jerry Quickley read memorized pieces and they both rocked the house. The spirit was bohemian but also subtly Hollywood because it was just north of Hollywood Boulevard. The Onyx was also somewhere Beck performed before he had a record deal.

Many of the poets who read there remain connected and can still be found around LA reading their poetry. The vibe was so memorable that even though the Onyx closed in late 1998, there’s still an “Onyx Survivors” Facebook page.

 

Theory, Praxis, Strategy, Tactics

Ruben Martinez wrote about the vibrant Latino poetry community of the 1980s, especially at a space called Cafe Cultural. I first heard Martinez read about this venue at Beyond Baroque in 2010. His piece vividly described the venue circa 1984 and the writers who were there.

“Café Cultural was at 2036 East First Street,” Martinez writes “on the southwest corner at the intersection with St. Louis. The building has a brick façade with elegant cornices of urns and vines and flowers. Inside the ceiling was tall, the space dark and deep, and there was a concrete floor. This is where we made revolution— which is made with speeches and songs and poems and paintings, by selling books and magazines and buttons, with endless arguments over theory and praxis and strategy and tactics, lots of food and drink—ah, Norma’s famous chile rellenos. Jackson Browne loved them.” (It was like that! Jackson Browne even attended and he’s been a big supporter of LA poetry, most recently with the Get Lit Players, a teenage performance poetry troupe.)

Martinez mentioned poets like Rubén Guevara, Marisela Norte and Sesshu Foster who read with him there. Foster ended up publishing the above quoted piece on his blog. Foster and Martinez mentored youth poets at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights in an afterschool poetry club during the 1980s.

An important cohort of women poets emerged from the Eastside of the city in the 1980s. Women like Gloria Alvarez and Marisela Norte have been writing for over 40 years now. Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno have been important neighborhoods for poetry. Luis Rodriguez has written about the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association that started in 1976. When he started working with them in 1978, they were holding writers’ workshops in Highland Park on Figueroa.

Founded by Victor Valle as an extension of the Chicano arts and literary magazine, ChismeArte,  this group was instrumental for Rodriguez because they published his first story. They also introduced him to Manazar Gamboa. “Manazar became my friend, teacher, mentor,” Rodriguez recalls, “since I also lived the street life and poetry/words were my life line out of my own traumas, losses, and addictions.”

 

Writers of All Genres

The Los Angeles Latino Writers Association moved to Echo Park around 1979-80. The group continued to expand and they started the Raza Reading Series where they invited poets like Lorna Dee Cervantes, Jose Montoya, and Gary Soto to feature. “We created the Barrio Writers Workshop for Chicano writers in all genres,” Rodriguez remembers. “Well known people such as Naomi Quinones, Marisela Norte, Helena Viramontes, David Diaz, Jesus Meno, Roberto (Dr. Cintli) Rodriguez, and artists like Barbara Carrasco were part of these circles. We met the ASCO arts collective, people like Harry Gamboa, Pattsi Valdez, Gronk, Diane Gamboa, and Willie Herron.”

Rodriguez and the Barrio Writers Workshop began working with Self Help Graphics in East LA. In 1982, Rodriguez became the director of LALWA and the Managing Editor of ChismeArte.

Simultaneously, Rodriguez also worked with Manazar Gamboa to start the Galeria Ocaso on Sunset and Micheltorena. Rodriguez was the poetry curator and they kept the space busy with readings, music, art & workshops. By the mid 80s, Rodriguez moved to Chicago to join its literary community, but it was his early days in LA with Victor Valle, Manazar Gamboa and these writing groups where he got started.

When Rodriguez moved back to LA in 2000-2001, he and his wife started Tia Chucha Cafe Cultural Gallery and bookstore. Tia Chuchas has become an institution and it continues to this day. In many ways the roots of Tia Chucha’s date back to these earlier spaces and workshops.

 

A Reading in Every District

Throughout its history, countless writers have lamented Los Angeles’s lack of one central focal point. The city’s literary community abides by this to some extent but within the sprawling landscape of literary venues, there are a few central nodes that have served as significant hubs in the city’s poetry and community arts scene like Venice, Leimert Park, Boyle Heights, Long Beach, Northeast Los Angeles/Pasadena and Los Feliz/Silverlake/Echo Park. Over the years there have been efforts to bring these communities together.

Among many seminal moments in Los Angeles Poetry there’s the Los Angeles Poetry Festival founded by Suzanne Lummis and Sherman Pearl in 1989. It ran from 1989 to 1994 and in its heyday, the festival did one poetry event in each of Los Angeles’s 15 city council districts. Funded by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, they not only did events in libraries, bookstores, coffeehouses, museums and galleries, they often used more unconventional sites like Kelbo’s Ribs on Pico, and St. Bede’s Episcopal Church.

Suzanne Lummis sent this list of some of their specific events. The readings included “Poets React to L.A.,” “Representations of Exile—Language Poetry in Los Angeles: Reading and Symposium,” “Poetry in the Arroyo: 1900—1991,” “Deaf Poets Evening,” “The Poetry of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,” “Tribute to Black Bards,” “Work and Heart: Poets Reading About Work,” “Poetry and Conscience,” “Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos Closing Party (Reading of scary poems and elegies for the dead) and “The Poem, the Play and the Song.”

Following the festival’s five year run, Lummis published Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, an anthology from 76 Los Angeles poets—published by the Festival’s imprint, Red Wind Books. Through the second half of the 90s, the festival alternated years and then transitioned into a reading series at the LA Central Library called “Newer Poets Reading. ” Lummis has also done other iterations of the festival like the 2011 Poetry Noir Festival.

Previously mentioned locales like the Woman’s Building, the World Stage, Beyond Baroque, Self Help Graphics, Tia Chuchas, Avenue 50 and other sites like Barnsdall Park and the William Grant Still Center have been epicenters for poetry events. Guided by community principles, these venues have gone a long way towards creating collective effervescence.

In the years between 1997 and 2000, six seminal poetry venues emerged around the same time: Avenue 50, Da Poetry Lounge, A Mic & Dim Lights, the Flypoet Showcase, Tia Chuchas and Tuesday Night Cafe. They have all flourished consistently over the last two decades with a longevity seldom seen. As vibrant as the literary community is, many spaces come and go.

Though for most of its existence the Flypoet Showcase has been a feature-only monthly event showcasing about 5-6 poets since 2001, it began as a weekly open mic in 2000 at the Monsoon Restaurant at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Hosted by John Hensley aka the Flypoet, it was held on the eatery’s second floor in a big room.

Phillip Martin and I attended the first several months and during that time we ended up meeting two other poets we became close friends with: Cory Cofer aka Besskepp and Ladon Seven Epperson aka Hollywood 7. 22 years later we all remain close. The Flypoet Showcase continues to this day and it often includes a performance painter, a few spoken word poets, a singer-songwriter or two and even sometimes a soul singer or some other vocalist.

 


Cory Cofer (aka Besskepp) with DJ JB

 

Founded in 2000 by Kathy Gallegos, Avenue 50 was recently featured in a Los Angeles Times essay written by Vickie Vertiz. “Gallegos created the space to help Chicanx and Latinx visual artists who were being rejected by local museums,” Vertiz wrote and because Gallegos knew writers face similar gatekeepers, she embraced hosting poetry events in Avenue 50 also. There have been multiple reading series there over the last 22 years, usually on Sundays. Hosts over the years include Suzanne Lummis, Jessica Ceballos, Don Newton and Angelina Sáenz. Luivette Resto remembers Avenue 50 as the first place she read her work in Los Angeles 17 years ago.

 


Luivette Resto

 


Jessica Ceballos

 

Little Tokyo to Historic Filipinotown

The Tuesday Night Project in Little Tokyo has also been called Tuesday Night Cafe. For the last two decades, the Tuesday Night Project has been a mecca for hundreds of LA’s Asian American poets. Founded by traci kato-kiriyama in 1998, countless poets have started here. When the event initially began, traci was working at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and she had just graduated from Cal State Fullerton. Community leaders at the Little Tokyo Service Center, specifically Evelyn Yoshimura and Bill Watanabe gave her permission to host poetry in a prominent Little Tokyo courtyard.

 


traci kato-kiriyama and Amy Uyematsu

 

traci was assisted by her JANM co-workers Cara Chow and Vicky Murakami. The series took off quickly because there were so many who needed a creative outlet including the band Visiting Violette composed of Lee Takasugi and Glenn Suravech, the here and now theater company, the Union Center Cafe and supporters at Visual Communications including Linda Mabalot and Abe Ferrer. DJs Mike Nailat and Byron Dote played between poets and an early open mic performer Johneric Concordia, became the host for several years. Concordia is now the co-owner of The Park’s Finest, a popular eatery in Historic Filipinotown.

After all these years traci is still involved with the Tuesday Night Project as the director of the organization. Their flagship series Tuesday Night Cafe is now curated by Sean Miura with a team of young organizers. Moreover a related event, Sunday Jump, held in Historic Filipinotown has emerged from the Tuesday Night series.

 


Allan Aquino

 

Tuesday Night Cafe is where I met the poet and Cal State Northridge Asian American Studies Professor Allan Aquino. Aquino started in September 1994 when he read his poetry at the Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture in the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium theater stage, an event hosted and curated by Irene Suico Soriano. Soriano bridged communities and brought a lot of poets together from across the city. She has many fond memories:

“I remember co-hosting my first literary reading with the Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture at Cabrillo Beach with Wendell Pascaul who incorporated his own reading series ‘Our Path To Follow’ (toured SoCal Universities and colleges) into the program we put together! It was so exciting to invite writers to a Filipinx centered venue and also be able to offer an honorarium for their creative labor!” Soriano went on to host events at the Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese American Community Cultural Center and the Highways 18th Street Complex in Santa Monica.

Soriano even hosted an event at the Getty Museum in November 2002 for a CD project called  “In Our Blood: L.A. Enkanto: Filipina/o American Poetry and Spoken Word from Los Angeles.” The album featured Filipino poets representing different L.A. County neighborhoods. The album was co-produced by Aquino, Soriano, Cheryl Deptowicz, Dorian Merina, and James Ardena. The response to the album was so strong that they not only did the reading at the Getty but at several colleges.

 

An Entire Ecosystem

Compton College Professor David Maruyama was one of the editors of disOrient Magazine, an Asian American Literary journal from the late 80s and early 90s. Maruyama also worked with Irene Soriano, the World Stage in Leimert Park and Barnsdall Art Center in East Hollywood. He describes a time in the 1990s when many of the community arts centers mentioned above cross pollinated.

“There were a lot of collaborations,” Maruyama recalls. “One was called, ‘When Words Collide.’ There were poetry performances by the LA River. At one point, Beyond Baroque poets read at World Stage. For Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), we never had a space. We did read at 5th Street Dicks coffee as invited by Father Amde from the Watts Prophets. It was an entire ecosystem.”

And this ecosystem continues to this day. One of the other longest running venues besides Beyond Baroque is the World Stage in Leimert Park. The World Stage was founded by the great poet Kamau Daáood and the legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins in 1989-90. The Stage has evolved a lot over the years but it remains in Leimert Park on Degnan Boulevard. They even now have a publishing wing, World Stage Press.

In the 1990s and much of the 2000s, their writing workshop, aka the Anansi Writers Workshop was run by Michael Datcher who modeled the workshop after June Jordan’s “Poetry for the People Program.”  Datcher was mentored by Jordan at UC Berkeley and he carried on her legacy at the Stage with Daáood, Pam Ward, S. Pearl Sharp, Imani Tolliver, Conney Williams, Peter J. Harris, Shonda Buchanan, V. Kali, AK Toney, Alice the Poet and so many more. Shonda Buchanan published two anthologies that came from the Stage: 2006’s Voices from Leimert Park and a follow up in 2017, Voices From Leimert Park Redux: A Los Angeles Poetry Anthology.

Now in 2022, the Community Literature Initiative and Sims Library of Poetry started by poet and professor Hiram Sims are also affiliated with the World Stage. Sims teamed up with Conney Williams to start World Stage Press. World Stage Press has published almost 70 books in the last five years, including collections by Williams, Pam Ward, V. Kali, Niki Billingslea, Cynthia Guardado, Imani Tolliver, Kuahmel, Charles Clayton, Karo Ska and Jaha Zainabu.

Los Angeles poetry keeps growing. Poets like Rick Lupert and Don Campbell have hosted events for 30 years. There’s also the Los Angeles Poets Society based in the San Fernando Valley closely connected with Tia Chucha’s. Another significant reading is the Sandra Bland series started by F. Douglas Brown at ArtShare in 2016.

There are traveling series like Sparring with Beatnik Ghosts which has hosted 88 shows between San Francisco and LA with one-offs in Santa Cruz, Oakland, Berkeley, and various bookstores and galleries along the coast. Daniel Yaryan started his Sparring series at the Li Po Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown on August 23, 2008. He even hosted a reading at the original Six Gallery site where “Howl” was first read in 1955 on Fillmore Street.

Over 400 poets have read in the series including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Wavy Gravy, ruth weiss, Jerry Kamstra, Michael C. Ford, David Meltzer, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Wanda Coleman, Jack Hirschman, Floyd Salas, Lewis MacAdams, Julia Vinograd and QR Hand.

Yaryan’s Sparring series has bridged generations, poetic styles and West Coast poetry. When asked why he started it, he says, “I was compelled to see a legacy of poets live on. This would be done through honoring the living elders and the recently deceased poetic giants. Also, seeing to it that there’s a voice for now and into the future. It’s important to recognize the past to ensure a new chapter for the artform — to rejuvenate it and keep it alive.”

Yaryan recently published Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts Omnibus, a 600 page book dedicated to Michael C. Ford with hundreds of poems from dozens of poets and tributes to departed poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Wanda Coleman and F.A. Nettelbeck.

 

Slammin’ Poetry

When it comes to Los Angeles Poetry Slams, Da Poetry Lounge on Fairfax at the Greenway Court Theater has been a slam epicenter over 20 years. Many poets who were on HBO Def Poetry Jam performed here like Gina Loring, In-Q, Sekou Andrews, Besskepp, GaKnew, Poetri, Shihan, Steve Connell and Thea Monyee. The actor Omari Hardwick was also one of the originals before transitioning into TV shows like Power. Another regular, Javon Johnson started as a Slam champion before going on to get a Ph.D. and writing a book called Killing Poetry, a treatise on the poetry slam and how spoken word transformed 21st Century poetry.

Similar to Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Da Poetry Lounge also started in a living room. Founded by Dante Basco, Poetri, Brotha Gimel and Shihan, the four poets began in Dante Basco’s living room around 1997-98. (The name “Da Poetry Lounge,” came from “Dante’s Poetry Lounge.”)

The reading became so popular that they moved around before landing at the Greenway Court Theater on Fairfax where they continue every Tuesday night. Recently, they have staged the annual LA Get Down Festival a week-long of spoken word and hip hop programming. The City of West Hollywood just honored Shihan along with Amanda Gorman.

Spoken Word venues like Da Poetry Lounge emanated a deep hip hop thread. A Mic & Dim Lights in Pomona founded by Cory Cofer aka Besskepp and James Brady, aka DJ JB is another location that was open for 20 years with a heavy hip hop vibe. Held Thursdays in the Pomona Arts Colony on Second Street, countless poets from the Inland Empire read here until it stopped in October 2020.

 


Cory Cofer (aka Besskepp)

 

In between poets, DJ JB mixed beats by J Dilla, DJ Premier. Pete Rock and other golden era hip hop producers. Journalist Lee Ballinger paints the picture, “People you’ve never met greet you warmly. And the lights are very, very dim. The hip-hop vibe is deliberate. Besskepp says hip-hop is what inspired him to become a writer.”

Besides Besskepp and JB, their core team included Brother Dvooa, Tamara Blue, Simply Kat, Ghetto Spear, LaVoice, Bomani, Judah One and Mark Gonzalez. In later years they were joined by Metaphysics, David Romero and Matt Sedillo. There have been offshoot readings like Lionlike Mindstate that spawned from A Mic & Dim. Lionlike Mindstate has had its own 14-year history and its founder Judah 1 started a two-week poetry festival in May 2022 in conjunction with the LA County Fair.

There was an infectious warmth at A Mic & Dim that reflected Besskepp. Every time he ended the night he’d recite the same 20 line poem and most of the crowd chimed in because they all knew it by heart. This was collective effervescence at its finest. The last four lines go:

I’m tired of fist fights

Just like  i’m tired of gym tights

I’d rather be in a cafe or something

With a mic & dim lights!!

 

Sacred Spaces

Besskepp, similar to Pam Ward, has memories of running around the city multiple nights a week. “I was grateful,” he recalls, “to encounter three of the dopest weekly open mic’s a poet could ask for during my first couple of years in the poetry scene. 33 1/3rd on Mondays, Da Poetry Lounge on Tuesdays and World Wide Open Mic in Leimert Park on Wednesdays.”

33 1/3rd was at Luna Sol Cafe on the north side of 6th Street by MacArthur Park. Besskepp recalls: “Hip hop, revolutionary, dim lit, vegan food and host Jerry Quickley. Definitely a vibe and energy I longed for, and the venue I mostly tried to model Dim Lights after.“  The resident DJ at Luna Sol was the late great Al Jackson. I was there in 2002 when the power went out midway through the night and the reading still continued. Saul Williams and Besskepp rocked in the dark and nobody left.

Besskepp remembers Da Poetry Lounge for their “big receptive crowds, Hollywood, Slam Poetry, with super funny and engaging hosts in Shihan and Poetri that offered the biggest stage in SoCal.”

The World Wide Open Mic, according to Besskepp embodied “love, nostalgia, Leimert Park, OG poets to learn from and host Scrap Lover Zulu making you feel welcome like you were sitting in his living room.” These venues were formative to Besskepp.

“Being present at these sacred spaces weekly,” he says “fed my soul, spirit and appetite to be creative.” And as Besskepp noted, each one had charismatic hosts. Venues usually embody their host’s personality.

The Still Waters Experience is a spoken word event that began in 2007. Founded by Oshea Luja aka MrFood4Thought and his wife, Queen Socks, it’s an intergenerational jam that’s moved between Watts, Inglewood and Carson. MrFood4Thought grew up in Watts and he’s a caretaker of the Watts poetic legacy. Over the years they have honored the Watts Prophets, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets, Raspoet Ojenke, Dee Dee McNeil, Kamau Daáood and other luminaries. The featured poets are presented with handcrafted awards for contributing to poetry’s past, present and future.

One more seminal venue was the Venice MoZaic which ran from 2003 to 2014. Venice MoZaic was started by bassist Nickie Black, Poet Joanna Silva, Evolve, Artist Kristen Corning and DJ Gann. The crowd mixed spoken word poets, singer-songwriters, old Venice Beats and eclectic creative folks. DJ Ordell Cordova spun records. Nickie Black was inspired by the Venice Beats who hosted Salons in the 60s and 70s.

Nickie is a Venice native that remembers the old Venice poets who were still around when he was a kid in the 1970s. Nickie met Phillip Martin aka Phillharmonic on Abbot Kinney one day in 2003 and invited Phil to come read on the opening night. I went too and the rest is history. We read there together almost every month over 11-years.

Phill and I met in the Fall of 1992 at UCLA. One day he saw me writing and told me he wrote poems too. Slowly we started reading our poems in the dorm and eventually started hitting open mics. The first one we hit on a weekly basis was at the Westwood Brewing Company next to UCLA. This is where we met poet, publisher and founder of Writ Large Press Chiwan Choi who we remain close with. The Brewing Company open mic was hosted by Ordell Cordova and called “House of Green.” It was eclectic with poets, singer-songwriters, comedians, rappers, punk bands, even headbangers. Chiwan Choi remembers it as “chaotic, diverse, you never knew what to expect from week to week.”

Phill’s poetry melts hip hop, surrealism and existential electricity. Here’s an excerpt from one of his popular poems:

The Spirit Joins The Flesh so all the elements can positively mesh, time & space is the treble clef, It’s neither black or white…dance…delight in night….the moon is my shadow I cannot fight…but fight the fight that set us free to feel the breeze…I’m confused by my wants and these are my needs…& these days I’m a scholar of need…plant seeds that grow to trees…I’m just one of the leaves…1 + 1 = we… The spirit joins

the flesh..

 

Poet Laureates & Poet Teachers

A quick word needs to be said about poet laureates across America. Poet Laureates are ambassadors of poetry that publicly read and write specific poems for city events or other official civic occasions like inaugurations, parades, specific holidays etc.

In 2012, Los Angeles started its Poet Laureate program. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Wanda Coleman was called Los Angeles’s unofficial poet laureate but by the time the program started, Coleman was in ill health and ended up passing the following year. The city’s first official Poet Laureate was Eloise Klein Healy, she was followed by Luis J. Rodriguez, then Robin Coste-Lewis and now Lynne Thompson.


Left to right: Lynne Thompson (LA Poet Laureate), Natalie Graham (Orange County Poet Laureate), Hope Anita Smith (El Segundo Poet Laureate), David “Judah 1” Oliver (Pomona Poet Laureate)

West Hollywood started their official City Poet program in 2014 with Steven Reigns and they are now served by Brian Sonia Wallace. Other local cities like El Segundo, Pomona, South Pasadena, Altadena and Anaheim have Poet Laureates. Altadena is served by Peter J. Harris and Carla Sameth as Co-Poets Laureate, El Segundo’s Poet Laureate is Hope Anita Smith, Pomona has David “Judah 1” Oliver and Orange County’s Poet Laureate is Natalie Graham.

There’s been a National Poet Laureate since 1988 and a California Poet Laureate since 2005, though there were earlier versions of a California State Laureate dating back to the 1910s. Al Young was the California Poet Laureate from 2005 to 2008, Carol Muske Dukes served from 2008 to 2011, Juan Felipe Herrera from 2012 to 2014 and Dana Gioia was appointed from 2015 to 2018. The next California Poet Laureate is in the process of being selected. Los Angeles started its Youth Poet Laureate Program in 2014 and the first one was Amanda Gorman. In 2017 Gorman became the first National Youth Poet Laureate.

Long Beach is starting its own Youth Poet Laureate Program. There’s been Poet Laureates in San Francisco for the last generation and the first one was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A distinguished list has followed: Janice Mirikitani, devorah major, Jack Hirschman, Diane di Prima, Alejandro Murguía, Kim Shuck and now Tongo Eisen-Martin. In Philadelphia, their first official Poet Laureate was Sonia Sanchez.

There are thousands of American teachers who use spoken word, open mics and slams to teach. Many teachers are also poets and there are organizations like 826LA, Street Poets, the Get Lit Players and WriteGirl, that mentor teen writers and use poetry to empower youth and encourage literacy. Add all this up and poetry books are also selling better than ever.

I have hosted open mics at every school I have ever taught at. Spoken Word poetry and evolving youth are compatible. I use the open mic format in every class I teach to foster student expression whether it’s on the high school or university level. Several of my former students now host their own open mics.

All and all, Spoken Word is for the people and it has been for time immemorial. Whether poetry is used to inspire students, help people deal with reality or celebrate public and civic history, it is indisputable that poetry has a utilitarian value that yields collective effervescence for its participants. It is an entire ecosystem that flourishes because it nourishes so many spirits.

The egalitarian spirit of the poetry community provides a refuge for anyone looking to express themselves and hear others do the same. Pam Ward breaks it down: “One thing Michelle Clinton said that I never forgot, ‘don’t wait for someone to bestow a writing moniker on your head, if you write, you’re a writer.’”

“The scene was vibrant and bustling all over,” Ward exclaims. “I couldn’t get enough. I never waited for invites to read. I always supported other poets and so people put me on. If not, I hosted my own thing and kept it pushing, baby!”

 

***************************

Postscript: On June 9, 2022, as this essay went to press, the Recording Academy announced that it is adding an award for the Best Spoken Word Poetry Album. Though they have been awarding the best spoken word album for many years now, it was always a celebrity or a celebrated author’s audiobook awarded and not specifically a poet. This is a big deal for spoken word poets and reaffirms the rise of spoken word discussed in this essay.

Author’s Note: I have recited poetry in almost every space above and most in the list below. There are hundreds of poets to thank and even more groups to honor like the many graduate writing programs and workshops like Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA and others but this piece is 9,000 words so I leave anything unsaid to the next writer. Gratitude to F. Douglas Brown for our conversations about this essay. To anyone I have missed, you know who you are. Thank you for your energy building the poetry community.

 

 

Further Reading:

Beyond Bukowski

Cross-Strokes: Poetry Between Los Angeles and San Francisco

Poesia para la Gente (Poets Reading at Metro Stations)

 

 

Suggested Books:

Voices from Leimert Park; Edited by Shonda Buchanan

Voices From Leimert Park Redux: A Los Angeles Poetry Anthology; Edited by Shonda Buchanan

Cross-Strokes: Poetry Between Los Angeles and San Francisco; Edited by Neeli Cherkoski and Bill Mohr

The Spoken Word Revolution Redux; By Mark Eleveld

Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City; By Laurence Goldstein

Doggerel Life: Stories of a Los Angeles Griot; By Ulysses Jenkins

Killing Poetry; By Javon Johnson

Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond; Edited by Suzanne Lummis

Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond (Pacific Coast Poetry Series); Edited by Suzanne Lummis

Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992, By Bill Mohr

The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles; Edited by Daniel A. Olivas, Neelanjana Banerjee and Ruben J. Rodriguez

A Higher Form of Politics, By Sophie Rachmuhl

Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex; Edited by Michael Warr

Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts Omnibus; Edited by Daniel Yaryan

 

The Following List organized alphabetically includes many iconic poetry venues of the last three decades in LA. If any were missed, write your own history. We need all the accounts we can get.

A Mic & Dim Lights

ArtShare

The Atlas Supper Club

The Anti-Club

Avenue 50 Studio

Barnsdall Park

Battery Books

Beyond Baroque

Blue Chips

Blue Line Poetry Readings (on the Metro).

Blue Nile Cafe

Booksoup

Bootleg Writers Underground

Chattertons/Skylight Books

Chevalier’s Books

Cobalt Cafe

Coffee Cartel

Collab/Oration

Corazón del Pueblo

Da Poetry Lounge

Dime Slot

Downbeat 720

Eastside Café

Eso Won Books

Espresso y Cultura

Fais Dodo

Fifth Street Dicks

Flight School

Flypoet Showcase

Gasoline Alley

Gatsby’s Books

George Sand Bookstore

Green

Groundworks Venice

Highland Grounds

Highways

The Iguana Cafe

Industry Cafe & Jazz

The Kickback Coffeehouse (Melrose)

La Luz de Jesus

The Last Bookstore

Lhasa Club

Lionlike Mindstate

Los Angeles Central Library

Los Angeles Poets Society

Los Angeles River Center

Lucy Florence

Luna Park

Luna Sol

McCabes

Midnight Special

My Place Café

Onyx

Open Books

Organic Soul Movement

Page Against the Machine

Papa Bach Books

Poetic Research Bureau

Poetry in Motion

Portfolios

Psychobabble

Rapp Saloon

Re/Arte

Redondo Poets

Sacred Grounds

Self Help Graphics

Sims Library of Poetry

Sisterhood Bookstore

SpellCast Open Mic Expressions

Spread Love-n-Spoken Words

The Stella Adler Theater

Still Waters Experience

Stories Books

Sunday Jump

SWAAM

33 1/3rd Books

Tebot Bach

Temple Bar

Tia Chuchas Centro Cultural

Tonalli Studio

Tribal Cafe

Tuesday Night Cafe

The Ugly Mug

The UnUrban Cafe

Valley Contemporary Poets

Vinegar Hill Books in San Pedro

The VirgiL

Water Espresso Gallery

Woman’s Building

Words

The World Stage

Zen Sushi

 

 

About Mike Sonksen

Mike Sonksen aka Mike the PoeT is a 3rd-generation Southern Californian. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his latest book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. He’s written for KCET, Poets & Writers, Wax Poetics, PBS SoCal, LA Taco, LA Review of Books, LAist, Boom and the Academy of American Poets. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK & Spectrum News. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University and taught high school before that. Follow him on Twitter & IG @mikethepoetLA

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Charles Harper Webb, Poet, Editor, Musician, Psychotherapist, interv...

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Charles Harper Webb, Poet, Editor, Musician, Psychotherapist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Charles Harper Webb’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your upcoming novel is scheduled to be released in May 2022. Without divulging too much, can you give readers a glimpse into the project and possibly also discuss the inspiration behind the work?

CHW: The easiest way to answer your first question is to quote the so-called tag-line for the book: “In the fast-paced, sexy, and very scary literary thriller Ursula Lake, a husband and wife trying to save their marriage and a rock musician trying to get his career back on track find big trouble, natural and possibly supernatural, in British Columbia’s spellbinding wilds.”

The book was inspired by several fishing trips I took into northern British Columbia back when I lived in Seattle. It’s gorgeous country, haunting and wild in every sense of the word—the perfect setting for the novel I wanted to write. The plot grew out of the characters, of course, but the setting, too.

DG: Many writers have said that the difference between poetry and fiction is that the former is crafted with precision instruments while the latter requires hammers and wrenches. Why are such distinctions ultimately unhelpful and how did your work as a poet ultimately influence the direction of your prose?

CHW: Writing a good novel requires precision instruments as well as wrenches and sledgehammers. I prefer a running metaphor: sprint versus marathon. Poetry-writing skills can benefit prose, just as prose-writing skills can benefit poetry. I’ve tried to bring both skills to bear on Ursula Lake. I hope that my prose embodies poetic virtues such as rhythm, conciseness, strong imagery, and potent metaphor, just as I hope my poetry makes good use of the devices of narrative, not the least of which is entertainment value.

DG: One of your crowning achievements was collecting and editing work for Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology. Readers will find no shortage of candid, powerful, and brave poems in these pages. Indeed, the anthology feels and reads like a response to much of the tepid “academic” verse written today. Was this your original intention, and, if so, what would you say is wrong with much of the work written today?

CHW: The Stand Up anthology, which has gone through three different editions, began as an attempt to collect poems which I felt sure that my undergraduate students at CSULB would enjoy. “The cardinal sin of art,” I tell my students, “is to bore.” Too many times, beginning readers of poetry find themselves befuddled and stupefied by the poems they come across, even in prestigious books and magazines. Veteran readers, including me, may also feel that way. This, needless to say, isn’t good for readers or writers of poetry. The three Stand Up anthologies were among my many attempts to  return poetry to being a pleasure, not a chore. To make it, dare I say, fun.

Too much of the poetry being written today fails, it seems to me, to take into account the reader ‘s pleasure or lack thereof. Except in writing workshops and submissions to one’s mom, no writer is owed the reader’s attention. Attention must be earned. Too many poets seem to forget this.

DG: Very relevant to this discussion is your collection of essays about the state and craft of poetry, published in 2016, under the title A Million MFAs Are Not Enough. On one hand, the title seems to say it all—greater instruction of creative writing won’t revitalize the essence of poetry; on the other hand, you’ve successfully taught craft and aesthetics to students who are now publishing their work in some of the best literary magazines, meaning there are benefits and advantages to this approach. In your view, what are the pros and cons of a degree practically non-existent in mainland Europe—the MFA?

CHW: The title of my book means to imply that a readership of poetry specialists, even a fairly large one, should not be the ultimate goal of poets and poetry. I have wanted, from my beginnings as a poet, to entice the “general reader” back to poetry.

Poets have to learn their craft, and a good MFA program can help serious students move forward, and save them years of trying to re-invent the wheel. Students should realize, though, that having an MFA doesn’t guarantee a good teaching job, or any job at all. Nor can it turn every student, however diligent and well-meaning, into a Shakespeare, a Keats, or even a Colley Cibber. The MFA is simply one possible step on the road to possibly writing good poems.

DG: Before embarking on a teaching career, you were a professional rock musician for over ten years. We’ve already discussed the similarities between poetry and prose, but music, despite being a different genre, seems to be even closer to poetry, mainly due to the former’s melodic characteristics, which the latter has much in common with. It would be interesting to hear more about the nature of your musical career—how did the years of being on stage ultimately make you a better poet?

CHW: I think that music and poetry come from similar places in my psyche. My musical ability translates into what poets call “a good ear.” That means I’m sensitive to what sounds good, whether music or poetry. Many of my poems have a propulsive rhythm that feels very rock-and-roll to me. I try to bring the same high energy to my poems that I brought to music.

As a professional musician, I learned the importance of exciting the audience, and giving them a good time. If a band fails to do that, they either don’t work, or don’t work for long. Poetry is a different story. Poetry which pleases almost no one can flourish in academia if a few influential academics champion it. Since there is a very limited market for poetry, there is no real trial-by-marketplace. A receptive audience has no chance to overrule the arbiters of taste, as can still happen with music and novel. (These arbiters of taste, by the way, often have very peculiar, or at least atypical tastes. I could write a whole essay about the reasons why.) My goal has always been to write poems of high literary value that simultaneously enlighten and entertain.

DG: It’s sensible to assume that music still dictates, to a large extent, the writing of your poetry. Is the same true for fiction, or do you gravitate towards something else?

CHW: I try to bring the same musical qualities to my prose as to my poetry. I want my fiction to possess high energy, and utilize language that can roar, whisper, and sing as it tells stories that give the reader excitement, emotional involvement, insight, and pleasure. In both poetry and fiction, I try to write books that I would like to read.

DG: Will you continue focusing on fiction after the publication of your novel or will you return to poetry, and which one, for you, is more enjoyable to write, and which is more enjoyable to teach?

CHW: I plan to continue to write both poetry and fiction. Because I wrote only poems for so long, I have a buildup of fiction-energy that I’m currently using to fuel short stories and two new novels, as well as a collection of prose poems.

Poetry is more fun for me to write than fiction, because poems come out in an exciting rush and generally take less time to complete. The sprint versus the marathon. Also, if a poem fizzles, it doesn’t cost me a year or more of my writing life. I find great satisfaction, though, in creating a whole world, as one can do in a novel and on a smaller scale, in a short story. I’m fascinated by the human psyche, and enjoy delving deeply into characters, watching a compelling story grow out of their interactions with each other and the world.

 

About Charles Harper Webb

Charles Harper Webb has published twelve books of poetry, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms & Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, and Brain Camp. His latest collection, Sidebend World, was published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. A Millions MFAs Are Not Enough, a collection of Webb’s essays on the craft of poetry, was published in 2016 by Red Hen Press. Webb’s awards in poetry include the Morse Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Felix Pollock Prize, and the Benjamin Saltman Prize. His poems have appeared in many distinguished journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Poets of the New Century, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. A former professional rock musician and psychotherapist, he is the editor of Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, and recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the Guggenheim foundation, the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award, and the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Phoebe MacAdams, Poet, Educator, interviewed by David Garyan


Phoebe MacAdams (photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Phoebe MacAdams, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

DG: You were one of the founding members of Cahuenga Press, which has the wonderful distinction of being “owned, financed and operated by its poet-members,” as the website says. Can you talk about how it all started, how things have changed over the years, and some of the new projects you’re taking on today?

PM: Cahuenga Press started as an idea of Harry Northup and Holly Prado. It was born out of a desire to have creative control over our poetry and to be able to determine when and how we publish our books. Harry and Holly asked me, Bill Mohr, James Cushing, and Cecilia Woloch to be part of the project, and so originally, the Press consisted of three men and three women. Bill Mohr and Cecilia Woloch are no longer with the press and Holly Prado passed away on June 14, 2019. Recently we asked Jeannette Clough to join us, so we are now two men and two women.


Cahuenga Press in 2016: Me, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, James Cushing (photo by Celeste Goyer)

Harry wanted to form the press to allow individual freedom for the poets involved, for the press to be self-sustaining, which it is, and to publish at least one book a year. For Harry, “there is also the personal connection with the poets whose work I admire and respect, and to be able to share common goals in poetry: continuity, memory, hope.” Holly wrote she wanted “to keep alive and make visible an attitude toward poetry that’s serious, lyrical, irrational, skillful, thoughtful: to encourage poetry that respects both feeling and intellect, the muse and keenly-studied language.” I wanted to be part of a poetry family, where each member supports each other’s creative freedom and process. I was glad to have the burden of seeking publication lifted. It is a great gift.

Our poetry styles are very different, yet we come together with total respect for each other’s work. We get together regularly to read new work to each other, share food and talk. We are a creative family. Once a year we gather at my house to have a publication party for our new book, The house has a large backyard and there is a raised area, like a grass stage. We sit in the back around tables to hear new work. We usually have 70-90 people who gather to listen, eat and buy books. All the proceeds from the books go back to the Press, along with our contributions. With Covid, of course, we have made adjustments. Our last publication party was on Zoom, and we are now meeting on Zoom, but we continue. We hope to meet again in person this spring.

There have been changes to Cahuenga over the years. Bill Mohr is a full-time literature professor at Long Beach State, and Cecilia Woloch now publishes her work with BOA Editions and other presses, so they are no longer part of Cahuenga. The four of us continued for many years. After Holly died, Jeannette Clough agreed to join us. We are gathering in person less now because of Covid, but we stay in touch by e-mail, by Zoom and on the phone. Our next book will be Tangled Hologram by James Cushing which will be out this spring (2022).

The Cahuenga family is intact.

As Harry said (and made t-shirts for us with this on it):

“Nothing Stops Poetry!”


Cahuenga Press July 2021 (photo by Ron Ozuna)
Jeannette Clough, James Cushing Me, Harry Northup

DG: Before moving to LA, you were part of the Bolinas scene. A recent article in The New Yorker even quotes an untitled poem by Ellen Sander that mentions Lewis MacAdams:

I swear to God
Me and Angelica
w/Juliet
met a diabetic monkey
in a tree on Hawthorne
in the Sheriff’s yard
and if that is not as good
as Tom or Bob or Lewis or Joanne or even Bill can do
You Can Kiss My Ass

In this respect, how was the LA scene different from the Bolinas one, both on a social and creative level, and did you find that you settled in quickly, or did it take some time to adjust?

PM: Lewis MacAdams and I moved to Bolinas in 1970 to be in the country and to start a family. We had friends in Bolinas: Tom and Angelica Clark, Joanne Kyger, Duncan and Genie McNaughton, and others. It is a beautiful rural community in Marine County on the Coast an hour north of San Francisco, built along the Bolinas Lagoon, a large body of water home to a variety of birds and other critters. We rented a house at the end of Nymph Road overlooking the Pacific in upper Bolinas, the Mesa. My two sons, Ocean and Will, were born there. Bolinas was unincorporated and its governing body was the Bolinas Public Utility Board, which determined who and how many people could get a water meter and build a house. Lewis got involved with local politics and was on the BPUD. I worked at the school.  It was the first time in my life I had been part of a community that truly controlled itself. The whole community rallied to prevent a big county sewer system from being built in Bolinas which would have opened up the town to massive development. We fought this and won, designing a sewage treatment system based on a series of ponds. There were incredible people in town, and the brilliant scientist and ecologist Peter Warshall helped design the sewer project.

View from Mt. Tamalpais

The other defining moment in Bolinas happened in 1971. In dense fog at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 19, two massive Standard Oil Company tankers met in a catastrophic collision in San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Bay. The oil spill drifted toward Bolinas and the entire town turned out to try to keep the oil out of the Lagoon and to save as many birds as we could. With logs, hay and anything we could get our hands on, we kept most of it out and spent days cleaning birds. It brought the community together. The complete story of this time can be found in Orville Schell’s The Town that Fought to Save Itself (Pantheon Books, 1976)

Bolinas was a community of poets, artists, rebels, and visionaries who gathered to make a forward-looking living space. We organized poetry readings, walked to each other’s houses to read and talk. We’d meet downtown for coffee and donuts, or at Smiley’s, the local bar.

The best book about Bolinas is an online book: Dreaming as One: Poetry, Poets and Community in Bolinas California 1967-1980 by Kevin Opstedal. This wonderful history is filled with many photos of the time.

(www.bigbridge.org/bolinas.htm)

Our marriage began to fall apart, and eventually, Lewis and I separated. Bolinas is a beautiful place, but it never felt like home to me, and while I figured out what was next, I moved to Colorado, where my mother lived. Eventually, Lewis and I decided that we needed to live closer together for the sake of our two sons and I moved back to California. I settled in Ojai, which a friend told me was Southern California’s version of Bolinas, a wonderful tip. I immediately felt like I belonged in Ojai. My kids went to Elementary and Jr. High School there. However, as they got older, Ojai began to feel too small—not enough going on for two teenage boys—and so we moved to Los Angeles, an hour and a half away. Ojai was close enough for me to visit, and my kids went to a great school—Harvard-Westlake, where Lewis was teaching creative writing.

Living in Los Angeles was hard for me at first. I felt that I had no community.

Then, in 1988, Harry Northup, who was a well-known Los Angeles poet and who had run the reading series at Gasoline Alley since 1986, asked the poet Bill Mohr and me if we wanted to take over the reading series. Gasoline Alley was a coffee shop on Melrose Avenue, and Bill was a long time Angelino. He was very active in the literary community. Thanks to Bill, I met many poets who came to Gasoline Alley to read. I began to feel part of a creative community again. Of course, L.A. is spread out, so no walking to people’s houses for coffee and talk, but we drove to be to be together. The LA literary community is tightly knit, thanks largely to Beyond Baroque, which is the center of the city’s poetic life (see question 6). In 1989, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, James Cushing, Bill Mohr, Cecilia Woloch, and I came together, creating Cahuenga Press. We were a creative family.

Lewis continued to be deeply involved in politics and started an organization called Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), whose goal is to bring back the LA River. This became an enormous project with many successes, and before he died, the city named a park along the river after him, The Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park. He is considered a local hero for his efforts on behalf of the river.

I am grateful to be part of the literary community of Los Angeles, but not involved in city politics. I taught for 26 years at Roosevelt High School, a large inner city high school in Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles). It was a job I loved up to my last day. (See question 7 below for reflections on that.)

I have been fortunate to live in literary communities: San Francisco, Bolinas, Boulder and now LA. Of them all, I feel most at home in Southern California.

DG: In Aram Saroyan’s 1998 collection, Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, there’s a work, “For Lewis MacAdams,” that must surely hold a special place in your consciousness, and I will quote all of it:

I can always count on you and Phoebe
To invite a few extra people
To any party we give. You two are the social couple
Here in Bolinas, we well as the mysterious,
Weird, insane, glamorous, captivating, delightful duo

You both just naturally are. And we count on you
To be. You’re into politics, too.
And Phoebe knows poetry. A poem of hers on giving birth
Is in today’s new issue of The Paper.
Last night you both were here for my birthday

And our housewarming combined. So were
A couple of other people I know only
Slightly. No matter. You know them perhaps slightly
Better than I do, and in that there is comfort.
The two of you are great at parties.

Phoebe threw a small toy at me at one point

Last night. I don’t know why she did it, and I know
I won’t ever know. She just did. You brought me
City Money, your first book, inscribed to me
with the words “Hell’s Bell.” I tell you,
I don’t need to understand. The two of you
Are perfect, that’s all. And if it’s perfect mystery
Or perfect insanity, all the better.
We love you.
Keep that in mind, will you.

What were the emotions you felt upon first reading Saroyan’s poem, written years after all the events, and do you take trips down memory lane often, or are you somewhat glad that the joys—but also the difficulties—of youth have been celebrated and overcome?

PM: When I read this poem, I laughed out loud. What a romantic interpretation of Lewis and me!

First of all, I have to admit that I have no memory of this party or of throwing a small toy at Aram. I wonder why I did that? Aram and Gailyn bought a wonderful house on Hawthorne Road on the Mesa, the upper section of Bolinas. It was nestled in among trees in a street off the main road. They were old friends and I was very happy that they were able to buy a house and settle in it to raise a family—Aram to write his poems, and Gailyn to paint her paintings.

To characterize Lewis and me as “glamorous, captivating and delightful” is such a stretch of the imagination from where we were at that point—Lewis and I were actually hanging on to our marriage by our fingernails. It was not very long after the time of this poem, I think, that we finally separated and then eventually, divorced.

It’s true that we did sometimes bring people with us to gatherings. Once a group of poets arrived in Bolinas, the secret got out and folks headed to the Bay area to visit. Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley stayed with us for a while, Franco Beltremetti came out, along with Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Bill Berkson, Joe Brainard, and various others. Some stayed and took up residence in Bolinas, others went back to New York, Boulder, or wherever they lived permanently.

The great social couple in Bolinas was actually Bob and Bobbie Creeley. They had bought a marvelous California farmhouse on Terrace Avenue, the road that joined downtown Bolinas to the Mesa. In the middle of their kitchen was a big round wooden table surrounded by chairs. There folks would gather and talk endlessly while Bobbie filled up coffee cups. The conversations around that table were a source of inspiration, joy, and comfort. When it got too hot inside, we all went outside and sat in chairs on the grass.

Joanne Kyger also held court in her house, a kind of glorified three-room wooden shed until she and her husband, Donald Guravich, built a beautiful large studio room in the back of the property. Joanne could talk to anyone and conversations at her house were an endless delight. The walls were covered with paintings. The surfaces were filled with all kinds of tchotchkes: Buddhas, little statues, candles, incense, small paintings, blessings of various kinds, all fascinating, all Joanne.

If we got tired of being in people’s houses, or people needed to go to bed, we would go downtown to Smiley’s bar and continue.

It was a time of world class talk!

Bolinas was filled with amazing people, and it was a beautiful place to live. I will always remember walking downtown on Terrace Avenue surrounded by nasturtiums and monarch butterflies; or standing on Ocean Parkway, the road overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and watching the waves coming in one after another, sparkling in the sunlight. There was much to love.

However, in all this beauty. Bolinas never really felt like my spirit’s home. When Lewis and I split and my life fell apart, I did not stay in Bolinas. I went to Colorado Springs to be near my family while I got myself back together. Finally, Lewis and I decided that we needed to be near each other for the sake of our sons. Lewis had moved to Los Angeles, and I moved to nearby Ojai. As I said earlier, a friend told me that it was Southern California’s version of Bolinas. As soon as I arrived in Ojai, I felt like my spirit was home. Though I am now based in Los Angeles, I visit Ojai frequently and still feel at home there.

My son, Ocean, lives in San Francisco with his wife, and their three children. They were both born in Bolinas and his wife’s parents are still there and so they spend a lot of time in Bobo, as we call it. When I go up to the Bay Area to visit, we often go up to Bolinas for the day. Though I am living happily in Southern California, I feel great tenderness for Bolinas.

Lewis always felt his home was Bolinas. This spring, the family and close friends will gather to bury Lewis’ ashes in the beautiful Bolinas Cemetery on Horseshoe Hill Road.

Bolinas will always be part of us.

DG: If you had to choose one poem you wrote in Bolinas and one in LA that you’re particularly proud of, which two poems would they be, and why?

PM: These two poems are very different and far apart in time in my life. I wrote the first one, Happy Birthday Bolinas, in the late seventies when I was living there with my two children and with Lewis MacAdams. It embodies a kind of mystery that is still challenging to me. I have loved this poem for years and I am still not certain about the meaning of it, if we can talk about meaning in a poem beyond the poem itself.

 

Happy Birthday Bolinas

for Joanne Kyger

Good morning, Joanne. This country is two hundred years old.
One green car. One white car. One convertible.
The heart is a muscle, the heart is a door.

Dream 1: I am in a concentration camp. I am on the beach. The water is black. I am standing by the wire. I am talking to someone outside the wire. We are standing face to face talking. There is no difference between life outside and inside except for the wire. I am in the apartment of the commandant. I strip in front of an empty bed. I get in and make love to the air.

Dream 2: There is a car machine, stripped down. There is a driver somewhere. A voice says, “Now you have to make another one.” The second car will be identical to the first.

A death’s head.

Dream 3: I go out of my house to the pre-shamanistic exercises. We do splits standing on our hands in preparation for the shaman movie. I am awkward. The woman teaching is a shaman. She has silver discs on the tops of her hands and on her palms.

O Great Tongue, do not abandon us. Our conversations make a difference.
All I want out of life is to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The tone was honest and the words fell about in the length.
The song is resilient. The song is a muscle.
Birds fly over, grass moves in the breeze.
Rational Mind, you are so stupid here in the morning, in the gentle aching
where the door is open and the view is clear.

—from Sunday, Tombouctou Press, 1983

 

The dreams are in dream time, and trying to explain them means that I am using my “limited Rational Mind.” But doing so, I would say that dream 1 refers to a division—inside and out—but that really the two are one. Each side of the division is identical. Dream 2 might be telling me that I will have to remake my life (which I did do, in fact, when I left Bolinas) A Death’s Head? Well, these days, that is everywhere, isn’t it? Dream 3 has always been Joanne to me. She was the guiding spirit of Bolinas, our Soul, our singer, our healer, magical, full of silver discs, our teacher.

Dreams are woven into Joanne’s poetry, one part of her constant chronicling of spirit, and so they are here. These dreams are still meaningful to me, a message from some deep consciousness which I am still musing on.

Poetry was serious business in Bolinas, where the Tongue reigned supreme and where conversations were our lifeblood. What a joy it was to walk from one house to another to talk, then go down to the beach and talk some more, maybe eventually end up talking in Smiley’s, the local bar and hang out. Conversation was the coin of the land.

Bolinas was a place of a kind of magic, magic of song. It was a lovely time, and this poem brings it all back to me.

The second poem The Large Economy of the Beautiful, is the title poem from my selected poems which came out in 2016, published by Cahuenga Press.

 

The Large Economy of the Beautiful

I am wearing my birding hat
and crazy paraphernalia:
binos and bottles, little notebooks and pens
as the cars whiz by on Highway 1.
today I have learned about Syrinx, nymph
beloved by Pan,
also the throat muscle and cartilage of bird song.

the Black Skimmer moves along the top of the water
trolling for fish,
the California Cormorants stand on the sand
drying their wings

willet, whimbrel,
dowitcher and plover
yellow feet, red bills
Great Blue and Snowy White

at night the shapes of birds move differently:
wings calling

us to rise from our daily difficulties
and sing ourselves into form

—from The Large Economy of the Beautiful, Cahuenga Press 2016

 

Here, the mystery is birds. My husband and I are birders, an activity we began after we retired in 2011. My husband takes exquisite photos of birds. The bird life in Los Angeles is a treasure. We live in Pasadena, and are among them. They sustain me in this city and have led us to wander to Mono Lake, to Arizona, to Colombia. I love to be with their movement, their song and calls, their wonderful names. They give us beauty and give us wings within. I have come to them here in this big city and they are everywhere—the world of the urban wild.

This poem speaks to this joy and also to all the stuff that birding entails. You see birders with the equipment mentioned, binos, bottles, also birding hats, scopes, etc. There can be a lot of paraphernalia involved! Birders tend to be a gentle, joyful lot, how not to be in the presence of such beauty.

And this Los Angeles brought to me—the nymph beloved by Pan, birds and joy.

DG: In your poem, “these joys are temporary,” there’s a powerful metaphor about freedom, and I would like to quote the work in full:

over 100° today, yesterday 106°
when I didn’t go to hear Dana Gioia at Vroman’s,
having read his poems on line;
“new formalism”—why would you do that?
tie yourself up in old rhythms, smother
the exuberance that Walt won for us.
today I contemplated pictures at Avenue 50 Studio,
brave images of violence in Mexico
where artists who talk about killings are punished by death.

we are fortunate to walk these streets in any meter we choose
then come home to
turkey salad, jumbo artichokes, heirloom tomatoes,
frozen blueberry yoghurt.

The first line of the last stanza seems to imply that while poetry today is fortunate enough to have the possibility of making greater connections with the real world, it instead chooses to further distance itself by adopting tradition instead of innovation. Would this be a correct assessment of how you feel or is something else going in the poem?

PM: My poem, “These Joys are Temporary/And I Praise them,” was written on a very hot summer day in Los Angeles. Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena’s famed family bookstore which opened in 1894, had scheduled a reading of Dana Goia. Dana Goia is part of a school of poetry known as New Formalism. New Formalism is a movement in American poetry that has promoted a return to metrical rhymed verse and narrative poetry on the grounds that they are necessary if American poetry is to regain its former popularity. Along with Goia, some of its adherents are Timothy Steele, Maelyn Hacker, and Mark Jarman. This poetry is radically different from the work of any of the poets I grew up with and considered my mentors and teachers:  Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Alan Ginsberg, Bob Creeley, Joanne Kyger. The poets that I love take their inspiration in the poems of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams—poems with vitality and surprise, poems that are rooted in the speech of America. They are free, wild, and full of energy. They are not constrained and imprisoned by a set of metrical patterns or rhymes. I find that anathema to the spirit of modern American poetry.

Which is why, in my poem, I ask “why would you do that?” Why would you “tie yourself up in old rhythms, smother/the exuberance Walt won for us.” Walt Whitman opened up the verse form for us all—blew it wide open with his free verse. Free verse for a free country. I feel this is a great gift to American poets, and to the world. To return to strict rhythms and rhymes of the last century is going backward. It’s un-American!

The afternoon I did not go to hear Dana Goia read at Vroman’s, I instead went to a small gallery near where I live—Avenue 50 Studio. There was an exhibit of past political violence in Mexico, where I read that artists in Mexico who talked about the killings were punished by death.

The line “we are fortunate to walk these streets in any meter we choose” refers to a double freedom: the freedom artists have in this country to talk about anything they wish without fear of governmental reprisals, and the freedom American poets have thanks to Walt Whitman to write in free verse, “any meter we choose.”

I end the stanza with a description of the delicious foods we eat in California summers. The poem is part of a series of poems that I entitled “Small Dinners.” My plan was to anchor the poems in our summer food, a kind of love poem to the incredible wealth of fresh produce that we have in California.

So, after lines of appreciation to Walt Whitman and our literary legacy, the poem ends with a more grounded appreciation of the glorious fruits and veggies of our state, great temporary joys.

DG: With Bill Mohr you coordinated the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue. Can you talk about those years, some of the people who read/attended the events, and why programs like this are important not just for LA writers, but for poetry in general?

PM: When I started coordinating the Gasoline Alley reading series with Bill Mohr in 1988, I did not know many poets in Los Angeles. Bill (founder of Momentum Press, editor, poet and scholar) knew the literary scene well and because of him, I met many of our local poets: Suzanne Lummis, Ron Koertge, Laurel Ann Bogen, Steve Kowit, Jack Grapes, Amy Uymatsu among many others. This was a weekly series and we hosted a great number of poets in the course of running the series for two years. It was a wonderful way to get to know them. I would read their work in order to do introductions before the readings, and became familiar with a lot of the LA poets as they came through the doors of the coffee shop.

Hearing poets read is important—to really understand the beauty of poetry, it must be heard, and live readings are essential. It is a joy to go to a local coffee shop, and over a latte, hear some of the best poets in California. It is also a chance to get to know them, to talk with them afterwards, and in this sprawling city, to feel part of a community. There have been many reading series in LA – from the wonderful Aloud series at the Central Library’s beautiful Mark Taper Auditorium, sponsored by the Library Foundation, and the longstanding series, Library Girl, at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica organized by Susan Hayden, to the series at tiny Battery Books in Pasadena curated by the LA poet Steve Abee. All of these are a joy and you often get to hear poets whose work you don’t know well, so it opens you up to new voices.

The oldest series in Los Angeles is at the venerable Beyond Baroque, which was founded by George Drury Smith, who started publishing a magazine at a storefront in 1968. It is now housed in the old Venice City Hall on Venice Blvd. Beyond Baroque is the heart of Los Angeles’ literary life and going to the reading series on Friday night is like going to church. It’s a sacred space, as well as a place to meet friends, hear great poetry and find books in Beyond Baroque’s bookstore. One of my fondest memories of Beyond Baroque is the night that Ed Dorn came to read. He was dying of pancreatic cancer at the time and this was his last reading. After he had finished the entire audience rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation, very unusual for LA audiences. Tears were shed.

Poetry readings are always important, but particularly in LA, where we live so far apart. There is no walking to someone’s house to read a few poems in LA. Beyond Baroque, for instance, is an hour’s drive from my house in Pasadena, so readings bind us together. They make us family.

That said, we are (hopefully) just coming out of a two-year pandemic when all live poetry readings stopped happening. Beyond Baroque had its first in-person reading this March. Many of the reading series moved online to the Zoom format. Zoom kept poetry readings alive for us and I am eternally grateful for Zoom. It is not a perfect format. It is an odd feeling to read your poems facing a screen where you are looking at yourself and little squares of a completely quiet audience which wiggles its fingers to show its appreciation. However, in spite of its difficulties, Zoom has some advantages over live readings. I have been going to more readings than ever, readings in Ventura or Ojai that I don’t always get to. And the readings are attended by people all over the country and the globe. I am hoping that many venues will continue to have an on line option along with their live readings.

As Harry said, “Nothing stops poetry” and nothing stops poetry readings, either!

James Cushing at a Cahuenga Press Reading

DG: For many years you taught English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt High School, before retiring in 2011. How did teaching in this setting influence your writing?

PM: I started teaching at Roosevelt High School, a large LA Unified school in East Los Angeles, in 1986, not long after I moved to LA. I had gone to and taught at private schools my whole life and I wanted a change. When I went to the Roosevelt campus, I loved the warm friendly atmosphere and the principal, Henry Ronquillo. I was hired on the spot to teach English in the Magnet program. When I started at the school, the student population was 5,000. It was one of the largest schools in the country and had a student population about the size of the population of the town of Ojai where I had lived before coming to LA. I was overwhelmed by the size, but somehow the school worked. The principal supported his teachers and many innovative programs. I loved teaching at Roosevelt until my last day in June of 2011.

I met my husband, Ron Ozuna, at the school. He taught in the science department and his colleagues decided that we were meant for each other, and kind of threw us together. It worked! We were married in 1995, with my principal and a lot of Roosevelt teachers at the wedding. Ron and I taught in an interdisciplinary program together and started outdoor education at the school. We took many students for weekend trips to Catalina Island and Mono Lake, and other outdoor programs. They loved it, and so did we.

Teaching is more than a full-time job. We worked from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, then came home to grade papers and plan lessons for the next day. Naturally, the big issue for me was how to find time for writing. I decided that I needed to incorporate my teaching life into my writing. I taught creative writing for many years and when I assigned writing to my students, I wrote along with them. I began to write poems that would help me figure out what I was doing in the classroom.

So much goes on in a week.
July 29, 1996, I watch the news:
a bomb at the Olympics,
the crash of TWA flight 800.
We talk in class about roundness
and the spirit of the bear.
My students write poems
in the Japanese garden.
We discuss the Puritans,
sin and virtue.
I wonder about my mole,
do I have cancer?
I collapse with stress, sleep, recover.
So much goes on in a life, and

what is teaching, anyway?

One poem became many. After reading 1968, by the poet Ed Sanders, a wonderful journal history in verse, I decided to keep a poetry journal for one year, to see if I could answer my question in a meaningful way. I did this for the academic year 2001-2002. I wrote as I moved through my day, in my conference period, after school, etc. One advantage of teaching is the generous vacation time, during which I could edit my work. Eventually, that collection of poems became a book, Livelihood, which was published by Cahuenga Press in 2003. It is a book that I treasure, filled as it is with memories of a profession that I loved.

To date, it is my most popular book.

DG: What are reading or working on at the moment?

PM: On March 11,  2019, the World Health Organization declared the Covid 19 epidemic to be a pandemic, and on March 19, Governor Newsome issued a stay-at-home order for California. I began going out only to go to grocery stores—covered with a long raincoat, a mask, and gloves. We did all the disinfecting that was recommended and lived inside our house.

I kept a journal of the events, and kept up with friends and poets on Zoom. However, little by little, the atmosphere of the pandemic began to affect my creative life. I was taking enough precautions so that I was not particularly afraid, but there was a prevailing atmosphere of dread. In addition, the entire country had to listen to the lies and appalling misinformation of our president. That bothered me particularly. The sense of honesty and dignity that I had grown used to during Obama’s term had completely disappeared. Everything that I held dear in our American government was being chipped away. Words meant nothing to the president. I felt myself in a kind of despair and the daily onslaught pushed me inward, into a protective cocoon.

Happily, after Biden’s win, things began to be better. We all got our vaccines and boosters and began to venture out into the world again.

My creative life, however, did not recover so quickly. For many months. I did not write poems, but kept writing in my journal.

As I began to feel a bit more hopeful, I looked over my journals and realized I had a substantial record of my spirit’s life. I have always loved day books that track one’s mind and heart over time. I love Holly Prado’s Weather, a wonderful chronicle of her life day by day, and I love A Day Book, by Bob Creeley. I decided to take the essence of the journals that I was keeping and distill them into what I called snapshots—snapshots of my inner life. I started with my journal that began in July of 2019 and began pulling out what seemed significant to me. It is progressing little by little—we will see how it goes.

It feels like a project that sustains.

 

About Phoebe MacAdams

Phoebe MacAdams was born and raised in New York City, but has lived in California most of her adult life, first in the poetry community of Bolinas in Northern California, and then in Ojai in Ventura County. She has been active in the Los Angeles literary community since her move here in 1986. She is a founding member of Cahuenga Press, a poets’ cooperative press (1989-present), with the poets James Cushing, the late Holly Prado and Harry Northup, and recently Jeanette Clough. Its goal “is to create fine books of poetry by poets whose work we admire and respect; to make poetry actual in the world in ways which honor both individual creative freedom and cooperative support.”

For two years, Phoebe ran the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue with poet Bill Mohr. She taught English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for twenty-six years until her retirement in 2011. She has published seven books of poetry: Sunday, Ever; and with Cahuenga Press, Ordinary Snake Dance, Livelihood, Strange Grace, Touching Stone, and her most recent Cahuenga title, The Large Economy of the Beautiful, New and Selected Poems. In 2017, Beyond Baroque Books published Every Bird Helps: A Cancer Journal.

According to Amelie Frank, “What she reports back to us from her daily pilgrimages should give us hope: truth and beauty are at hand everywhere we look and always just as we need it most.”

She lives in Pasadena with her husband, Ron Ozuna.

Spitting Out Seed, a poem by Michael Koch, published by Interlitq

Spitting Out Seed

a poem by Michael Koch

published by Interlitq
27/02/2022

Click here to read “Stars and Stripes,” by Michael Koch

Click here to read “Nature Lover,” by Michael Koch

 

Spitting Out Seed

Wind blew.  Clouds broke.
A sail billowed.  A man waddled
toward his wife.  An oily smear
caught fire.
Someone leaped from a window as
a car sped past.
Money bobbed to the surface.
A sparrow sank.
A short circuit
shot the breeze.

 


Michael Koch is a poet, translator, and visual artist whose Jamaican-Slavic heritage only partially explains his passion for syncopation and absurdity. His most recent book, Street Theology (Night Horn Books, 2019), was cited by the San Francisco Public Library as a staff pick.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), a poem by Willis Barnstone

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Artist: Willis Barnstone

 

With his creation formula E=mc2Los Alamos makes a bomb nuclear.
He shares the fear.

 

About Willis Barnstone

Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The author of more than 70 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).

He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.