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L.A. Letters Guide to Finding Poetry in Los Angeles, Part Two

As April enters its final third, there are still ample opportunities to enjoy National Poetry Month. As noted in Part One, the City of Angels and beyond is a landscape of poets, galleries and bookstores. Though the list is extensive, this column will salute as many of these figures and locations as space allows. I also want to pay respect to organizations and professors mentoring young poets throughout the city as well.

City Lights author Juan Felipe Herrera was recently appointed as the California Poet Laureate. Author of 21 books and a distinguished professor at UC Riverside's Creative Writing Program, Herrera grew up with migrant parents and has lived in San Francisco and San Diego. His many California travels through his childhood shaped his work. Besides being an award-winning poet, Herrera is well-loved by his students. V. Zamora, one of his former students, writes, "Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry workshops were a delightful experience. His style of instruction is geared toward 'creating' and 'generating' creative material without the constraints of a traditional workshop. They always made me feel as though I had just walked away from having eaten the biggest, most delicious meal I had ever had! His most popular saying was, 'no oppression,' and for me this was incredibly liberating -- to have a place where I could just freestyle and create new material without worrying about 'well, is this good?' or 'is this right? Juan Felipe always encouraged us with a kind heart and a lot of love. I have not had a more inspiring and GENEROUS teacher than Juan Felipe Herrera."

Herrera is a part of UCR's powerhouse writing faculty along with Mike Davis, Susan Straight, Chris Abani and others. Along with V. Zamora, I've met many of the recent alumni and they are all up-and-coming young writers. One of Herrera's MFA students Rachelle Cruz will be celebrating the release of her new book on Sunday April 22 with a reading at the Last Bookstore. Other UCR students will also be reading. Herrera's magnetism will undoubtedly serve him well as California's Poet Laureate in 2012.

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Cal State Long Beach's writing program has been a longstanding beacon. Professors like Gerald Locklin, William Mohr and Charles Harper Webb have anchored Long Beach State as a hotbed for young writers. On April 16th I went to CSULB to see Ron Silliman, the Berkeley-born poet, known as one of the original Language Poets and an important critical thinker. Silliman lives on the East Coast now and rarely makes appearances in Southern California. He's also known for writings on poetics, especially his treatise, "The New Sentence." His reading was well attended, and in the Q & A session afterwards Silliman noted how there are more poets in America now than ever before because of the internet and MFA programs. He estimated the number at over 20,000 published poets in North America alone.

A week before I saw Silliman, I saw one of the UK's top young poets Anthony Joseph read at Cal State L.A., where he performed live with the Cal State L.A. jazz band. His latest book, "Rubber Ochestras" was just published by Salt Publishing. The title was taken from a poem by American surrealist Ted Joans. Joseph follows in Joans' tradition as an Afro-Surrealist and a master of metaphor. Joseph also conducted several poetry workshops with Southern California Middle School students in mid-April.

One of the most important organizations in Southern California regarding young writers is 826LA. They have two locations: Venice and Echo Park. They offer after-school tutoring, year-round writing workshops, and other literary-related events for youth, especially for grades 6 to 12. They publish chapbooks and host frequent readings for their students. 826 is always looking for more volunteers interested in mentoring young writers. This summer will be my fourth year in a row to teach a workshop at 826LA in Echo Park.

826LA recently partnered with Poets & Writers Magazine and PEN Center USA to create "A Road Guide to Literary Los Angeles." Packaged as a double-sided poster/map, it lists 28 reading venues, 50 bookstores and 23 literary organizations. The guide is a great starting place for anyone looking to jump into L.A's literary community. The map also includes colorful graphics and text by noted L.A. authors Wanda Coleman, Luis Rodriguez, Nina Revoyr and David Ulin. Five years ago I bought a similar map for San Francisco made by 826LA's parent organization, 826Valencia; I'm glad they decided to create a map for Literary Los Angeles. They are available at 826LA's Echo Park location as well as Stories and Skylight Books.

1714 W. Sunset Blvd.
Echo Park, CA 90026
www.826LA.org

The Armand Hammer Museum features frequent poetry events curated by the UCLA English Department. They recently featured Keorapetse Kgositsile, a seminal Pan-African poet and former Poet Laureate of South Africa. He was also the founder of the Black Arts Theater in Harlem. The Last Poets from New York City in the late 1960s named their group after one of his poems. In May, the Hammer will be featuring L.A. native and award-winning poet, Cathy Park Hong. Hong was mentored by the recently deceased great poet Adrienne Rich, and is now a professor at Sarah Lawrence College. Her homecoming reading is highly anticipated by poetry aficionados.

10899 Wilshire Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA, 90024
www.hammer.ucla.edu

Book Alley in Pasadena is a used bookstore on par with stellar Bay Area bookstores like Green Apple and Moe's Books in Berkeley. Perhaps the Last Bookstore is the only other used bookstore in L.A. with as many overall titles as Book Alley. Located just west of Pasadena City College, they are one of Pasadena's best kept secrets.

1252 East Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91106
www.bookalley.com

Cobalt Poets is a weekly reading every Tuesday night in Canoga Park. Host/poet Rick Lupert is a diehard and has been hosting for over 15 years. Known for his sense of humor and generous spirit, Lupert even produces well-designed broadsheets for his featured poets.

22047 Sherman Way
Canoga Park, CA, 91303

Open Books in Long Beach is on 4th Street in the Retro Row District. Founded in 2003, they've become a mainstay in the Long Beach community. Featuring frequent author events, they also work very closely with Write Bloody Books. Write Bloody is an independent publisher specializing in poetry founded by Long Beach native and travelling poet Derrick Brown. They've published writers like Steve Abee, Rob Sturma, Brown, Buddy Wakefield and Mindy Nettifee. One of their most recent works is "1000 Black Umbrellas," written by Daniel McGinn. McGinn is a longtime factory worker and well respected by other poets for his well-crafted and hard-nosed verse.

2226 E. 4th St.
Long Beach, CA 90814
www.thestoryofopen.com
Rapp Saloon in Santa Monica | Photo by srd515 used under a Creative Commons license
Rapp Saloon is a Friday night reading located in Santa Monica with rotating hosts, held in one of Santa Monica's oldest buildings, on the bottom floor of the International Youth Hostel near the Promenade. Hosts have included Pete Justus, E. Amato, Elena Secota, BC Petrarkos, Dave Nordling and several others.

1436 2nd St.
Santa Monica, CA, 90401

Redondo Poets is a long time reading every Tuesday night at the Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach. Co-hosted by Larry Colker and Stephany Prodromides, a cross-section of South Bay poets and writers have been congregating there for over 15 years.

1820 South Catalina Avenue
Redondo Beach, CA
www.redondopoets.com

Tongue & Groove is a monthly reading at the Hotel Café in Hollywood. Started almost a decade ago by writer Conrad Romo, this event mixes poetry, short fiction and singer-songwriters. Eclectic is the operative word, the line-up goes from punk rock literary legends to award winning fiction writers.

1623 ½ N. Cahuenga Blvd.
www.tonguegroovela.com

Tongue & Groove regular Chiwan Choi just released his 2nd book of poetry, "Abductions." Born in Seoul, South Korea, he moved to Paraguay when he was five and Los Angeles at ten. He learned Korean and Spanish before he learned English. (Speaking all three of these three languages makes him a quintessential resident of multicultural Los Angeles.) Chiwan tells many stories within his work: Korean, immigrant, American, Angelino, poet, husband, teacher, son. His new book explores alien-abduction mythology and his wife's miscarriage. The personal, historical, mythical and specific details merge in his verse. Similar to a microscope, he zooms in and out with his narrative. Sesshu Foster describes Chiwan's style as a "direct address of existential and poetic issues (not academic word play for lack of anything much to say), a breadth of actual experience -- Asuncion to NYC to LA, some of the Korean Diaspora -- articulated with heartfelt evocative imagery."

Journalist/Professor Lynell George is doing her part to inspire the next generation of L.A. poets and writers. For the last three years I've performed for her Loyola Marymont University class, "Telling LA's Story." Synthesizing journalism, history, urban studies and creative writing, George empowers her students and shows them how to cover the city. Her students each create and write their own unique Los Angeles research project, while she coaches them through the process. Inevitably they merge historical research, poetry, journalism, photography and any other medium they like as long as it connects to their story. She helps them find their voice and fall in love with the city simultaneously.

Known for her two plus decades of work with the L.A. Times and L.A. Weekly, George also moderates literary events with authors like Wanda Coleman, Lewis MacAdams and Ry Cooder at L.A.'s Central Library and Vromans Books in Pasadena. Her series of articles about growing up in L.A. during the 70s and 80s attracted the attention of publishers, and her book "No Crystal Stair" was published by Verso. She's also been anthologized in the book "Writing: Los Angeles" and published recently in Boom and Slake, among others.

Years ago George was mentored by the venerated L.A. author/professor Carolyn See at LMU when she was an undergrad. A generation later she's at her alma mater passing on the tradition of L.A. Letters.

Top photo: Open Books in Long Beach by Kenn Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.


More on L.A. Letters:

  • Beats & Rhymes: Revisiting Wisdom and Knowledge
  • L.A. Letters Guide to Finding Poetry in Los Angeles
  • Rapping the Message of Long Beach's Cambodia Town
  • Beats & Rhymes: Detroit vs. Los Angeles
  • See the L.A. Letters archives

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  • About the Author

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