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Literary Touchstones of L.A. Letters

If there's one thing election season reinforces, it's that Angelenos are lucky to have such a reservoir of cultural attractions in our own backyard. What better way to escape your television set, campaign robo-calls and so forth than attending an art show, language event or museum? Here's a run-down of a few events and books that really helped me close out October with a strong dose of art and culture.

I learned a lot at the 7th annual L.A. Archives Bazaar event last week. Held in several rooms of the USC Doheny Memorial Library, there were hundreds of people discussing Los Angeles history and literature, looking at historic photos and maps and trading artifacts below the decorated vaulted ceilings of the illustriously-designed edifice. There were exhibits from the Academy Film Archive, Port of Los Angeles Archives, Getty Research Institute, Japanese American National Museum, UCLA William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Banning Museum, there were literally hundreds of museums, organizations and publishers with displays along with special collections, panel discussions, educational sessions and two photo galleries. There was so much to take in that I can hardly wait for next year when I can show up early in the day and enjoy the full breadth of the event.

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Cheers to L.A. as Subject and USC Libraries for their consistent stellar work celebrating and preserving our city's archives and untold stories.

L.A Archives Bazaar | Photo by Al-Insan Lashley

I was fortunate to catch the influential Black Arts poet Eugene Redmond read live last week at Cal State L.A. The Poet Laureate of East St. Louis, and now retired professor, is the author of over 25 books and founder of the seminal poetry journal Drumvoices Revue. Though Redmond is almost 75 years old, his charisma filled the Music Hall black box theater with a palpable vitality.

Redmond sat on the stage in a comfortable chair and a microphone. For over an hour he shared selected excerpts and stanzas from his extensive catalog of poems, standing up occasionally to animate key phrases. He also explicated a few of his poems, including his epic poem about East St. Louis. He talked about the late great poet Henry Dumas and his friendship with writers like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Toni Morrison. One of the most touching elements of his presentation happened when it was revealed that Cal State L.A.'s University President in attendance was Redmond's childhood friend from over 65 years earlier. They went to school together in East St. Louis during the 1940s. Their onstage embrace and comical exchange created a warm spirit in the room. Redmond talked of the importance of friends and family and explained how his poetry is an instrument he uses to "collect people."

Redmond's visit was sponsored by the Los Angeles Center for Contemporary Poetry & Poetics. Under the direction of Cal State L.A. English Professor Dr. Lauri Ramey, one of their major aims is, "Presenting activities and events to promote the full range of poetic voices from diverse cultural backgrounds and approaches to the genre." Their numerous poetic events are geared towards "establishing strong links with the community and other academic and cultural partners through the dynamic vehicle of poetry." To this end, they have partnerships with the British Council Poets-in-Residence, and poetry mentorships with Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Schurr High School, and Chester W. Nimitz Middle School. Aside from Redmond, a number of significant award-winning writers like Adrienne Rich, AB Spellman, Rita Dove, Linton Kwesi Johnson, just to name a few, have appeared at Cal State L.A. in the last few years.

There is a legacy of great writing at Cal State L.A. dating back to its earliest roots. Alumni like Henri Coulette, Carolyn See, Sesshu Foster, and Eric Priestley went on to literary greatness after starting there. Statement Magazine is Cal State L.A.'s literary journal, now in its 63rd year of production. The staff writers are a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. They have frequent events both on campus and off campus at places like the Last Bookstore.

As any frequent reader of this column knows, there are no shortage of small presses and local authors in Southern California. The Indie Shelves Initiative is a new section at the Last Bookstore showcasing over 30 books by local authors and small presses. The brainchild of playwright/poet Billy Mark, the point of the project is to "increase the visibility of independently published literature, and encourage new readers to explore the catalogs of local presses." Participating presses include Barnacle Book, Gorsky Press, What Books/Glass Table Collective, as well as key players from the literary community like Roz Helfand, Suzanne Lummis, and the Los Angeles Poverty Department. The kick-off event and debut of the shelves is this Saturday, November 3.

One of the small press authors being featured is Eric Priestley. Priestley is a Los Angeles writer and original member of Budd Schulberg's Watts Writers Workshop. Well-respected for his poetry books like, "Abracadabra," he identifies even more as a novelist. His most recent novel "For Keeps," published by L.A.-based Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, is a locomotive of Los Angeles imagery, from Chavez Ravine to Jefferson Park. Pam Ward writes, "From his 'Z' talk vernacular to the monotone clip of L.A. cops, Priestley's ear, pressed to the pavement, has spit-perfect pitch."

Speaking of small presses, congratulations to writer Mariah K. Young for winning the James D. Houston Award and having her book, "Masha'Allah" published by Berkeley-based Heyday Books. Her animated collection of nine short stories about East Oakland prompted Jervey Tervalon to write, "'Masha'Allah' is as beautiful and cruel as Oakland can be. Mariah K. Young's far ranging and ambitious collection calls to mind the urgency and power of Junot Diaz's 'Drown.' In her work, race, identity, and culture are secondary to shared humanity." A recent graduate of UCR's MFA Program, where she worked with Susan Straight and Chris Abani, Young is now a professor at Southwest College and active in the local literary scene. She will be reading stories from her new book at the Last Bookstore on November 9.

Dating back to their publication of "Howl," City Lights has always pushed the envelope. The tradition continues with their new book "Sister Spit." Edited by award-winning poet and performance artist Michelle Tea, this collection of writing and artwork brings together an all-star cast of queer and counterculture artists like Eileen Myles, Beth Lisick, Tara Jepsen, and many more that toured universities, art galleries and night clubs with Tea and her legendary collective known as Sister Spit. Founded in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, it is only appropriate that City Lights is the publisher of their first anthology. Tea writes in the Introduction, "The night of the very first Sister Spit, fifty females signed up to perform. We were unable to fit them all into the program. Our audience pushed back through the bar and spilled onto Valencia Street." Uniting punk rock, feminism, do-it-yourself literature and underground zine culture, Sister Spit set a precedent of ground breaking live poetry performances from Brooklyn to Portland.

"Everywhere we went we found our people, and they were and were not who we thought they would be. Our country welcomed us. Incredibly we realized that we belonged here. Our worlds got bigger and we returned to San Francisco changed." Over the last 15 years they have toured through all corners of the country, and Tea herself has published seven books. She is now the editor of City Lights' new imprint Sister Spit Books.

By telling our untold stories, the do-it-yourself spirit of indie presses, hard-working authors and cultural historians keep our cultural climate both grounded and provocative. Here's to L.A.as Subject, Eugene Redmond, Cal State LA's Center for Contemporary Poetry, the Last Bookstore, indie presses and authors like Eric Priestley, Mariah K. Young and Michelle Tea for offering an alternative to television and politics. These illustrious figures are important touch stones of L.A. Letters.

Top: L.A Archives Bazaar | Photo by Al-Insan Lashley

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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Thanks again, Mike the Poet, for documenting Los Angeles' magnificent poetry legacy. West coast writers, like the rough and smooth California coast, have been doing the damn thing for decades.