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Connecting Cultures And Building Bridges In Literary Los Angeles

Summer 2013 is off to a whirlwind beginning with a packed calendar of concerts, exhibits, literary festivals and more events than one could attend in several lifetimes. This week L.A. Letters commemorates a few organizations, venues and poets that are building bridges and connecting cultures.

One of the biggest bridge builders in literary Los Angeles is Poets & Writers Magazine. Though the magazine is based in New York, they do a lot of work in Southern California, and all around the country for that matter. Cheryl Klein and Jamie Fitzgerald-Lahey are Poets & Writers' two official West Coast employees. Together they organize funding, sponsor periodic readings and hold roundtable meetings where local writers can dialogue and connect with one another. Perhaps their most important job is that they pay fees to writers giving readings and leading workshops. They strive to serve the entire community and fund writers and workshops in all corners of Southern California, whether it be homeless youth in Hollywood, foster children in Pasadena, an afterschool poetry workshop in West Adams, LGBT organizations in West Hollywood, teenagers at 826LA in Echo Park, elderly at Hollenbeck Palms in Boyle Heights, at-risk youth in Long Beach, or military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome in the South Bay. They also connected me to a school called Hillsides in Pasadena, where I taught two five-week poetry workshops to an earnest group of teen writers and their magnanimous librarian Sherri Ginsberg.

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On June 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Beyond Baroque, Poets & Writers is having their third annual "Connecting Cultures" reading. Five of their Readings/Workshops program partner organizations will be sharing work: Barrio Writers, QueerWise, Red Hen Press, Rhapsodomancy, and Urban Possibilities. Their intention of celebrating Southern California's literary diversity resonates with me. The same ethos guides my weekly column, as well as this entire KCET website. Spotlighting Southern California's cultural patchwork is a full time job. There are countless organizations and individuals in our city connecting cultures and building bridges. Whether it's FoLAR, 826LA, the Tuesday Night Café in Little Tokyo, Beyond Baroque, the Last Bookstore, the World Stage, Corazon del Pueblo, there are countless nonprofit organizations, bookstores, writing groups, and literary festivals focused on connecting cultures and building bridges.

One such man is writer and publisher Abel Salas. Salas is the founder of the eastside publication "Brooklyn & Boyle" and one of the key figures at the Boyle Heights Gallery Space, "Corazon del Pueblo," on East First Street. Salas covers the Eastside art scene, and has also been active in opposing the anti-immigration legislation of Arizona. In the last few years he has organized a number of readings across not only Los Angeles but the Southwest, which are focused on bringing attention to these recent events. The next big event Salas is organizing is on June 28, honoring Boyle Heights poetic icon Gloria Alvarez. Alvarez is known for thoughtful poems and pioneering writing workshops for Chicanas and women of color dating back to the early 1980s. See my recent article "Iconic Women of Literary L.A." for more words about her. The Alvarez tribute will be held at the new Medford Studios, where El Sereno, Boyle Heights, City Terrace and Lincoln Heights intersect.

Corazon Del Pueblo in Boyle Heights | Corazon Del Pueblo Facebook

"City Terrace Field Manual" author and National Book Award winner Sesshu Foster is another writer celebrating Alvarez at the forthcoming event. Foster has been a longtime advocate of Los Angeles culture. Besides his own award-winning literary career, he co-edited the first multicultural poetry anthology in Los Angeles history back in 1989: "Invocation L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry." Foster's co-editors were Michelle T. Clinton and Naomi Quinonez. Among the 33 poets published within are Gloria Alvarez, Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, Fred Voss, Amy Uyematsu, Linda Albertano, Victor Valle and Keith Antar Mason among many others.

The editor's short introduction to "Invocation L.A.," is a manifesto of sorts that speaks to the evolving character of the city. This short excerpt captures the spirit:

More than half of this work is written by women, who, urged, on by the feminist movement of the seventies, speak confidently and clearly to indict patriarchal cultural assumptions. These poets are thus doubly grounded in tough conditions, and their poetry will not be denied. As one would expect of urban poetry, the images are not always pretty or painless, but there is a metaphor of hope etched in these pages by women and men who are not afraid of contradiction or struggle. These poets make bold statements of survival, not so much in celebration, but in challenge. The book is a testimony to America's growing multicultural literary talents.

These words authored in 1989 ring true now more than ever. There are many more organizations and writers now pushing these values that Foster and his co-editors presciently forecasted a generation ago. In 2013 there are more organizations and bridge builders than it is possible to name, though I do my best to draw attention to as many as I can. Salute to pioneers like Foster and Alvarez, who have been laying the groundwork since the days of Reagan.

The annual Leimert Park Book Fair is upon us yet again, on Saturday June 29. I've been there almost every year dating back to 2007. I wrote about last year's festival in my column, when it was in conjunction with the art show, "The Faces of Los Angeles Poetry." I saw Kamau Daaood, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka read consecutively on the main stage on a sublime afternoon, needless to say they each represented with precision, grace and aplomb.


The theme for this year's edition is, "I Read Therefore I Am." Among the many great authors appearing in this year's festival are crime writer Gary Phillips. Conney D. Williams, the Artistic Director at The World Stage, will be coordinating the Poet's Stage like he does every year, and a few of the poets scheduled to appear are Gloria Alvarez, Peter J. Harris, Imani Tolliver, Billy Burgos, S. Pearl Sharp and Michael Datcher.

I'd like to close this column out by not only saluting the benevolent figures above, but also my former students from View Park, the high school I taught at for three years. I still hear from many of my former students when they return home each summer. Earlier this week, three of them in their final undergraduate years, Jamal Carter, Monique Mitchell, and Chris Siders attended my poetry workshop and gave their time to mentoring teen writers at 826LA in Echo Park. Though Jamal, Monique, and Chris are only in their early 20s they are already building bridges and connecting cultures. Their capacity to donate their time and contribute energy is impressive especially when considering that most people their age have other priorities.

Here's to Poets & Writers Magazine, Abel Salas, Gloria Alvarez, Sesshu Foster, the Leimert Park Book Fair and my former students, these emissaries are doing the part to connect cultures and improve the present and future of L.A. Letters.


Top: Beyond Baroque in Venice. Photo: Flickr/InSapphoWeTrust/Creative Commons

About the Author

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