As many have noted in the last few days, September 4, 2013, was the 232nd birthday of the founding of Los Angeles. A big part of what had made L.A. blossom and flourish has been the dynamic energy in the creative arts. This week L.A. Letters celebrates the spirit of collaboration and a few local ambassadors doing interdisciplinary work uniting poetry, performance, theater, education, and activism.
Rachel Kann has been one of the most active poet/writers in the Southland since the late 1990s. After her early undergrad years she went back and forth between L.A. and New York, making noise in both the theater community and the poetry slam circuit. Rather than continuing to concentrate on poetry slams, she focused her efforts on teaching poetry workshops and hosting community literary events. For seven years she hosted one of Southern California's most influential poetry open mics of the last dozen years: "co-lab:ORATION."
The title is self-explanatory: Rachel encouraged collaboration, and this meant violinists, beatboxers, DJs, horn players, guitarists, keyboardists, tap dancers, drummers, singers, and anyone else that had the gumption to contribute their energy on stage. Each poet would choose which musicians they wanted to collaborate with, and the tempo for it. They would read their poem accompanied by a whole range of optional musical backdrops, whether it was a free jazz jam session with several players on stage, or a more intimate presentation with just the poet and flutist, or perhaps a single drummer. Needless to say, the show was always swinging. It started at the Knitting Factory early 2001, and soon moved to the Temple Bar where it remained until 2008. Hundreds of writers and musicians participated.
I performed there many times, and recall seeing a who's who of local spoken word artists and very talented musicians jamming with the poets. The open canvas nature of the event encouraged artists to push themselves and create new combinations. DJs, like Lynk and Jedi, were heavy in the rotation for years, but there were also a few times where DJ Jeremy Sole stepped behind the decks. On many nights, Double G from DaKAH came to play, and dozens of other heavyweights dropped in from time to time, like Sage Francis and Saul Williams.
Other contributors included poets Rob Sturma, Bridget Gray, Gina Loring, and Rachel McKibbens along with beatboxer Joshua Silverstein, singer-songwriter Emily Wells, and Write Bloody poets like Derrick Brown and Mindy Nettifee. There would always be some very sublime moments, and the show was always a tour de force; the inherent spontaneous nature of the reading guaranteed that there never was a dull moment. Rachel ran the night with grace and exuberance, often helping a lot of poets become freer on stage. Rachel became the encouraging older sister a lot of people wish they had.
Somewhere between hundreds of poetry performances, Rachel also taught hundreds of poetry workshops with disadvantaged youth, and earned her MFA at Antioch University. For the last seven years she's taught poetry and fiction workshops through the Writers' Program at UCLA Extension. Among her many accomplishments, she performed one of her poems at the Disney Concert Hall and last year she performed her poetry at TEDx UCLA.
Her short story "The Historian" was just adapted into a short play and will be presented in Santa Monica Rep's Wave Fest September 21-29. It will be directed by Jennifer Bloom, Founder of Santa Monica Rep, and will star Pocho Joe, aka Joe Hernandez-Kolski, and Chelsea Povall. Recently Rachel hosted "Write Club Los Angeles" at the Bootleg Theater, where she went head to head against Pocho Joe and won in a close competition. Her new novella "The Bent" will be published by Black Hill Press in early October. She describes a guiding concept of the work: "The bent. Some of us are just born with it. Born hellbent for a head-change, a new perspective, a moment's comfort, a whisper-hole to hole up in." Rachel's been bent on building community, the act of writing and cultivating her colleagues and she's going stronger than ever.
San Fernando Valley poet/host/publisher Rick Lupert is also an ambassador on the same level of magnitude as Rachel. Lupert has quietly published 16 books of his own poetry since 1994, along with a dozen other assorted anthologies. He has published dozens of local writers, including Rachel, who says, "Rick was instrumental in me finding my Jewish voice in my poetry, because he asked me to write a poem for his anthology, 'A Poet's Haggadah,' at a time when I was really blocked, and somehow it unlocked something in me."
Lupert has a gift to help clear blocked poets, and he's been doing it longer than just about anybody. He's hosted his weekly Tuesday poetry event at the Cobalt Café in Woodland Hills since 1994. The few breaks he has taken over the years have been covered by guest hosts and close friends occasionally, but for the most part Lupert has donated his time and energy into creating a Los Angeles poetry institution.
Over the years he has created a central focal point for poetry in the San Fernando Valley. Furthermore, he creates a broadside for each poet that he features. He takes one of their poems, a photo of the poet, and then creates a well-designed poster incorporating both. Lupert has published hundreds of these poem-posters, dating back to the 1990s.
His latest book, "Nothing in New England is NEW," demonstrates his ability to fuse poetry and comedy in well-crafted verse. Lupert's timing and sense of humor unfold gracefully in his work. Among many notable characteristics, he has an uncanny knack for nailing punch-lines in an effortless manner. Take his short 4-line poem:
Driving the East Coast
is miles of highway surrounded by forests
unlike in Los Angeles where the forests
have all run away from the freeways
like frightened little dogs
Most of his poems are short, but they pack humor and style in efficient short lines. His gift for phrasing his daily observations manifests in a whole slew of short, pithy poems, like this one:
is bound for L.A.
Lupert has the gift for making the audience laugh and think simultaneously. Hearing him read his engaging work, it is clear that he loves sharing it and would continue to produce more and host for others, whether or not anyone recognizes him for it. Similar to Rachel, Lupert has been an important creative catalyst and a very altruistic agent for hundreds of L.A. authors.
One more catalyst I've encountered recently is the activist and motivational speaker Josof Sanchez, founder of "Operation Street Kidz," a community-based organization that helps kids manifest their hidden talents through a progressive education curriculum involving the arts, media, film and music. Similar to Luis Rodriguez and Father Greg Boyle, Sanchez is very charismatic and has a special gift for reaching youth from all walks of life, whether they are incarcerated gang members, or just feeling frustrated and misunderstood. His 40-acre boys ranch in Lancaster has become internationally known, and Sanchez is invited to speak by community centers and school districts throughout the country. Most recently he piloted a successful gang intervention and arts program in the Pasadena Unified School District.
Dating back to the late 1980s, Sanchez has also been at the vanguard of the "Black and Brown" racial tension issue. As a gifted bridge builder, he has been very effective in creating strategic alliances and creating unity through neighborhood coalitions. After 30 plus years of motivational speaking, Sanchez is gradually being honored for what he loves to do. His work was featured prominently in the documentary film, "Someone Who Gives A Damn," produced by the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center. The dozens of creative workshops hosted by Sanchez over the years have helped open doors in the film, entertainment and music industries for hundreds of inner city teens. Sanchez takes great pride in his ability to empower youth.
Before closing out this week's column there are a few noteworthy events to mention.
First, on Saturday September 7 at 1 p.m. at the Last Bookstore, Luis Rodriguez and Sesshu Foster will be in conversation as a part of the DTLA LABFEST at the Last Bookstore. This will be a rare chance to listen in on two of the most influential L.A. authors of the last generation, discussing the state of the city, current events and L.A. letters for an hour. Following these two titans will be readings from authors from KAYA Press, Writ LARGE Press, Emerging Voices like Kima Jones, and a whole slew of almost 30 wordsmiths until nightfall when two great musical acts Quetzal and El Haru Kuroi will close out the night. [Ed. Mike "The Poet" Sonksen himself will introduce the event and perform his poetry at 12 p.m. Don't miss it!]
Next, the East West Players, Smithsonian and Japanese-American National Museum (JANM) are teaming up for a travelling series of short plays to be held at the museum in Little Tokyo on six consecutive Saturdays, beginning mid-September. On Friday, September 13, for one night only, they will be staging all six acts by way of two scenes at a time a half hour apart. Directed by Jennifer Chang, the 45-minute show draws from a series of six short plays and excerpts from six award-winning writers: D'Lo, Ova Saopeng, Judy Soohoo, Giovanni Ortega, Vivian Keh, and Jeanne Sakata. The content varies, from very political to more personal situations exploring the dynamics of family.
Performance artists Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Johnny Kwon are the two actors for all six acts. They will be moving around the space, because each play was written as a site-specific show to be presented in a gallery at JANM. Following the opening night, the series will be held every Saturday at 1 p.m. at JANM, through the end of October. The series is highly anticipated.
These artists and events are a big part of what has made Los Angeles such a great city over the last 232 years. Moreover, there are countless more new productions and influential game-changers to salute in future columns. Check past columns for the many others I have already noted. And for those interested in witnessing the dynamic community firsthand, attend the events listed above as well. Thanks to visionaries like Rachel Kann, Rick Lupert, and Josof Sanchez, the creative community and young artists and writers have several venues and outlets in which to collaborate and hone their craft. Salute to these creative catalysts, they are ambassadors and alchemists in the geography of L.A. Letters.
Top: Poetry in Chinatown. Photo: Harold Abramowitz/Flickr/Creative Commons