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Banned Books Week and the Freedom to Read

As Banned Books Week comes to a close, there were more events in L.A. than I could visit. Dozens of libraries had read-outs where people read out loud for an extended period; Zinextravaganza, an event foreshadowing the famous L.A. Zine Fest in February, happened at the Last Bookstore on September 26; Cliff's Books in Pasadena closed on the same day with a massive discount sale. Some publishers were asking readers to pose with their favorite banned book, and then post the photo on Twitter with the #bannedbooks hashtag. This week L.A. Letters highlights a few writers, events and organizations on the frontlines, battling censorship and fighting for the freedom to read.

According to the American Library Association, "there were 464 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2012." A look at the Top 10 challenged books reveals popular books like "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "The Kite Runner," along with "Beloved" by the very respected Toni Morrison. Though it's not in the Top 10 of this list, Luis Rodriguez's "Always Running" is another book that has been challenged and banned over the last 15 years. Just last week, school officials in Asheboro, North Carolina banned Ralph Ellison's award-winning 1952 book, "Invisible Man." The book was quickly reinstated after the social media firestorm and the reaction of bloggers across the country. As this incident reveals, things are gradually improving in the battle against censorship, because of new tools like social media that disseminate information quicker. Nonetheless, censorship like this happens all the time, whether it's in North Carolina or Arizona, and most of the time it's unreported.

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The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA) is an important voice in fighting censorship, promoting literacy and independent bookselling. In the last decade the independent bookstores that have survived have often become much more creative in their business model, and have also formed coalitions like SCIBA to advocate on behalf of authors and each other. Their annual tradeshow and awards ceremony are underway this weekend. Local authors, like Naomi Hirahara and Josh Kun, are up for awards.


American Book Award Winners

There are many venerated small publishers that specialize in books focused on alternative histories and social justice. These include publishers like Haymarket in Chicago, Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, and PM Press in the Bay Area. Aunt Lute Books in Oakland is a multicultural woman's press, founded in San Francisco in 1982. This week their book, "A Simple Revolution: The Making of an Activist Poet," written by Judy Grahn, won an American Book Award. This is well deserved for the poet/editor/publisher/activist Grahn -- she has been one of the most influential voices in the gay women's liberation movement, dating back to the 1960s.

Grahn formed coalitions with lesbians of color, progressive straight feminists, and gay and straight men alike, that were committed to social justice. She was very involved in the seminal Women's Press Collective that published women poets on both coasts. She also worked closely with the excellent African-American woman poet Pat Parker in the 1970s. Grahn's book, whose title was inspired by one of Parker's poems, recounts her long career and shares her many experiences, including iconic scenes like the Altamont Music Festival, Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and A Woman's Place Bookstore, among many others. The warmth of her prose combined with the fascinating stories she tells makes it easy to see why the book won an award.

The celebrated and prolific Los Angeles poet and essayist, Will Alexander, also won an American Book Award this week, for his book of essays, "Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat." Alexander is known for his explorations of Caribbean and European Surrealism, postcolonial history, and contemporary scientific theory. Alexander's interdisciplinary work blends aesthetic, political, historical, social, cultural, scientific, and theoretical discourses together.

This collection, published by Essay Press, contains essays, prose texts, a lecture, and a few interviews, from 1991 to 2007. Alexander's wide-ranging knowledge makes for highly engaging prose. In the article, "Alchemy as Poetic Kindling," he discusses Octavio Paz, Bob Kaufman, and what makes for revolutionary poetry. Among many notable passages, he writes, "The poet in this era of the past 200 years has had to surmount the power of tyrants and magicians, and has had to take on the authority of a phantom egret ruling from a transparent throne of sound."

Ultimately, though, Alexander shows how poetry retains its power, "fed by aggravation and danger, by opprobrium and fatigue, like a current pulsing through ignescent waters." Alexander asserts that the forces that create poetry are what makes it powerful and timeless. In the conclusion of his piece he writes, "in terms of its deeper archery, poetry is able to open its target congealed in lightning. It carries the power to illumine, to exemplify transformative purity and stamina, which predates Homer, which survives the blast of Armageddon."


South El Monte Arts Posse

Over the last two years I have noted many organizations, like Writers At Work, the World Stage, Beyond Baroque, and the Tuesday Night Café. Another important literary arts organization promoting literacy and fighting censorship is The South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP). SEMAP is a group of writers and scholars dedicated to preserving the forgotten history and untold stories of El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley. Working on a number of projects, including an oral history of the region, they have also held several literary readings in nontraditional spaces and venues, not usually occupied by poetry. One of its founding members, Romeo Guzman, explains why they started their many arts-related activities. Guzman says, "Our desire is to create place, but in an active and often times embodied experience, through public arts specifically."

Guzman and his co-conspirator, Caribbean Fragoza, are dedicated to expanding the arts and preserving the history of the San Gabriel Valley because, as Guzman says, "there aren't any cultural institutions and there is very little historiography, or even journalism, about this place." SEMAP has been very busy doing projects, like, "Constructing alternative historical narratives with high school youth... taking them out to the riverbed, where Joaquin Murrieta hide... playing music to evoke Legion Stadium."

The mission is personal to both Guzman and SEMAP Co-Director Carribean Fragoza. They both grew up in the area. Guzman grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and played soccer at Mt. San Antonio College, before transferring to UCLA and eventually going all the way to Columbia for his Ph.D. He's published national articles on politics, art, and culture. He's come back home to continue work in his local community. His partner, Fragoza, is a renaissance woman that works as both an interdisciplinary writer and visual artist. South El Monte is her hometown. After graduating from UCLA and CalArts' MFA Writing Program, she is currently finishing several book projects. They started SEMAP to harness the spirit of their academic work and apply it on the local level. Most recently, SEMAP produced, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," a night of poetry and music dedicated to the Smiths and Morrissey. SEMAP also worked with a collective of San Gabriel Valley writers, artists, and musicians known as the Art Movement for the event.

''Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now'' reading with the South El Monte Arts Posse | Photo: SEMAP Facebook

The reading was held at Florentino's Restaurant in El Monte. Poems about or inspired by the Smiths and Morrissey were read by Caribbean Fragoza, Kenji Liu, Vickie Vertiz, and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo. Jose Maldonado, lead singer of the Smiths cover band "Sweet and Tender Hooligans," played a few songs and sounded a lot like Morrissey. Called the "Mexican Morrissey," Maldonado told a heartfelt story about the first time he met his hero. Vickie Vertiz's poem, "Xicano Love Letter," did a beautiful job explaining Morrissey's popularity in the Mexican-American community of Southern California. She commented on the similarities of the working class eastside to Morrissey's home in Manchester. Vertiz, writes, "We were your second chance/American Manchester, empty tire/factories and soot-covered eyelids/Bloody broken front teeth from gravel/and steel-toes."

Though SEMAP came up with the themed idea for this evening, the night was hosted by Efrain Oquendo and DJed by Mike Rawk from the Art Movement. The Art Movement are major allies of SEMAP in the El Monte area, and they are very active in poetry and music. Oquendo is also a lead singer of a reggae band and has an excellent singing voice. In between poets he also riffed on current events. Artists like Natalie Lupercio and Henry Cruz work closely with him. Other local writers like Christopher Luke Trevilla were in the house; there wasn't an empty seat in the room. SEMAP and the Art Movement are doing an excellent job keeping literature alive in the San Gabriel Valley.

As I frequently note, there are countless other organizations and outstanding writers promoting literacy and fighting censorship across Southern California, and for that matter America. Across the country, over 150 poetry venues, including several local venues, will be hosting and live streaming readings this weekend as a part of the international event, 100,000 Poets for Change. Every single event and artist is necessary. As events in Arizona and North Carolina reveal, we need advocates out on the frontlines to keep reading free for all citizens.

Salute to all the publishing houses, the Southern California Independent Bookstores Association, writers like Judy Grahn and Will Alexander, and organizations like SEMAP and the Art Movement. The important work being done by these gamechangers makes them behemoths in the landscape of L.A. Letters.


Top: Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Books, with a display of banned books.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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