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Notes from L.A.'s Literary Underground

As much as "underground" is an over-used term in regards to art and music, it fits in many cases because best seller books and blockbuster films always overshadow poetry and more creative literary work. This anonymity and alienation from Hollywood is why poets have always occupied a central role in L.A.'s artistic underground. This week L.A. Letters highlights a few game-changing scribes from the literary underground as well as a few key sites within the landscape where the magic happens.


Poetry for the People

Third-generation Angeleno, poet, activist, and educator, Jessica Ceballos is a one-woman literary festival hosting monthly readings in both Highland Park and Venice. Recently she hosted an event in an underground tunnel below Figueroa in Cypress Park. Back in the 1920s and 30s as automobiles began to take over the city, many underground tunnels were built near elementary schools below major roads like Figueroa, Valley Boulevard, or Olympic, to protect pedestrian schoolchildren from being hit by speeding cars. By the Vietnam era most of the underground tunnels began to be sealed shut because they had become sites for vagrants to get intoxicated, drug dealing, or other more explicit activities not compatible with young students. Most of these tunnels remain sealed shut to this day.

Thanks to the vision and persistence of Yancey Quinones of Antigua Coffee House in Cypress Park, the city has agreed to open up the tunnel near Figueroa and Avenue 34 for a monthly art event. After four years of conversation the city saw Quinones' wisdom to utilize the tunnel, and now there's a monthly art event: the Cypress Village Art Tunnel. Quinones is an urban visionary and has been described as a "Coffee Roaster, Entrepreneur, Supporter of Building Sustainable Communities, Dreamer, Do-er."

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He picks a different curator each month for the art tunnel. In August, he chose Jessica Ceballos. She brought a cadre of word artists, painters, and musicians to make the tunnel a lively showcase of art and poetry. The up-and-coming East Los Angeles musical trio El Haru Kuroi performed a set, along with a whole slew of poets and painters in the program. Writers included Annette Cruz, Billy Burgos, Dennis Cruz, Iris de Anda, Julio the Conga Poet, Just Kibbe and His Poetry Car, and Rebecca Gonzales. Visual artists included Billy Burgos, Cakeshop Oddities, Dennis Cruz, Giovanni Solis, Jason Macaya, Jason McCormack, Renae Barnard and Tima. Other contributors included the Flying Pigeon bike shop.

The tunnel was bubbling with great energy all night. A steady crowd came and went because the North East L.A. Artwalk was in session. Cypress Park is having a rebirth and this event is an important indicator -- the timing for it all is excellent. Jessica Ceballos reflected on her role, "This was so important to me, growing up near Cypress and Glassell Parks. Again, building sustainable communities requires establishing a cultural presence. The tunnel provides a unique, but familiar way for the community to experience the multicultural roots of the area."

Jessica is truly a local who grew up on Monte Vista and Avenue 57, before moving to Eagle Rock. "Highland Park is my hometown," she says. She has been writing poetry since her teen years, and even hit many open mics during the mid-90s, like Project Blowed. She spent most of her 20s travelling outside of L.A., and after returning home a few seasons ago she picked up the pen with ferocity, and sooner than later she began hosting events at Avenue 50 Studio.

She explained the gallery's ethos and how it corroborates with her monthly reading:

Avenue 50 Studio is committed to addressing the furthering of an established culture that is always evolving. Featuring the arts and artists of Mexico and Central America, and the literary artists of diverse backgrounds, my intention was to create a space where talented artists of varying disciplines and diverse backgrounds can inspire and engage with the community and each other, in order to build bridges of cultural understanding. These readings help build communities, by establishing a cultural presence.
Poesia Para La Gente on the Metro Red Line | Still from vimeo


Ceballos also hosts literary events in nontraditional spaces like taco shops, laundromats, produce markets, day-labor training centers at Home Depot, and most recently the Los Angeles Metro, via the Red and Blue Lines. She calls it, "Poesia Para La Gente" -- Poetry for the People. The idea is to destabilize poetry events from the formal or academic setting and bring poetry to the people, literally, especially in public spaces that are not usually considered for events. She adds, "By providing a welcoming non-traditional, unique, and one-time-only public platform for sharing the power of the spoken word, we hope to stimulate intercultural understanding within the diverse population of the Northeast Los Angeles area -- and beyond."

Held every other month, the program has had great success. The Metro readings especially: "While all readings have their unique and important significance and scenarios, the Metro provided a metaphor for what we are trying to accomplish as a whole -- to encourage dialogue by bridging gaps between the communities and cultures of Los Angeles." She is an advocate for the city and poetry equally -- she sees verse as the ultimate bridge builder. "The use of poetic language can ease the barriers that we place on dialogue," she says, "and all forms of intercommunication -- thus creating a platform for cultural understanding." Jessica Ceballos is doing all she can to connect Los Angeles.

Here are two monthly events hosted by Ceballos:

The Great Beyond (open mic)
Third Sundays of the month
at Beyond Baroque in Venice
681 Venice Boulevard

Bluebird Reading Series (open mic)
Second Sundays of the month
at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park
131 North Avenue 50


Express, not impress

Sunday Jump is a free poetry open mic series held in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles on the first and third Sunday of each month. Now in their second year, the event was founded by three Filipinos: Eddy M. Gana Jr., Stephanie Sajor, and Janice Sapigao. Emerging from the same community as Little Tokyo's Tuesday Night Café, the warm and open atmosphere I felt at Sunday Jump made it one of my favorite mics I've been to in quite some time. Held between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. at Kapistahan Grill on Temple, their night is guided by two community guidelines: "(1) Free speech, not hate speech, and (2) Express, not impress."

Furthermore the founders stress that the open mic "is for all those who have ever been marginalized to migrate from the margins and let our voices find freedom and a home." I was there for Poetry Palooza, and among many excellent moments Eddy Gana and Stephanie Sajor did a cover of their co-host Janice's poem in honor of Janice, who is moving back to the Bay Area. Their reading of her poem was both touching and comical. You could tell they were all very connected as writers. The sincere poets I met and encountered at Sunday Jump made for a truly memorable poetic evening in the City of Angels. Hot plates of Filipino food and ample libations are on the menu for those hungry. The space is a bit tucked away on Temple, but well worth the time to find it.

Sunday Jump at Kapistahan Grill | Photo: Sunday Jump Facebook

The Labyrinth

The sprawling upstairs section at the Last Bookstore is called the Labyrinth. A few new boutiques have opened up there, including DTLAb, Writ Large Press's new retail space. Located in one of the upstairs vaults in a space of about 150 square feet, Writ Large will be selling their own imprint titles, books by other local indie publishers, works by local artists, and music by local musicians. The name dtLAb was chosen because dt=downtown, LA=Literary Alchemy/Los Angeles and LAb=laboratory. As the name suggests, the space intends to be a literary laboratory for Downtown L.A.

Writ Large founder and Editor in Chief, Chiwan Choi, says the space "will be more than a shop. It will be a space that will hold workshops, book clubs, experimental arts events, site-specific installations. It will also be a space for people to drop in, hang out, and talk about this city and writing and the arts." Choi adds, "we have no outside funding of any kind. No donations, No kickstarter. No nothing. Just on our own."

The shelves of dtLAb will not only feature Writ Large titles by Choi, Kim Calder, Khadija Anderson, and Billy Burgos but also books by Kaya Press and other handpicked indie artists. Choi is optimistic on the space's future as well as downtown itself. He gives four main reasons why they are opening:

1. We want to do our part bringing foot traffic into The Last Bookstore because it's quickly become an institution.

2. From what we experienced at the Grand Park BookFest in March, we know that there are people who LOVE the books being written and published in Los Angeles and want to buy them!

3. We want to experiment with events, with presentation, with collaboration (which is why it's called LAB).

4. It's part of a bigger project called The Year of Underground Publishing.

The soft opening of the space will be in the next week, but the grand opening festival on September 7 will include music, writers, art, and all kinds of literary shenanigans from noon till closing. They will also always have access to the bookstore's large main stage for bigger events like the grand opening.

One of Writ Large's most significant side projects connected to The Year of Underground Publishing is their weekly Tuesday night event, "Music to Drink To" at King Eddys Bar on Fifth and Los Angeles. The brainchild of Peter Woods, the event promotes both local writers and local DJs. Each week Woods invites one of the many stalwart vinyl wizards he knows to come spin an eclectic set for the historic bar's denizens. DJs so far have included Danny Holloway, DJ LP, and Santana Westbrook from KPFK's Truthseeker Radio.

Writers are invited to come write while they drink, and after six weeks a zine/chapbook will be produced, which will include all the contributing writers. The event is now in its fourth week; the word is spreading. L.A. Weekly scribe Joseph Lapin tweeted after attending last week that he swore he saw Bukowski at the end of the bar. There may be some short readings incorporated into future versions of the night, but for now it is about hearing choice music, journal writing, and spirited conversation. King Eddy's is one for the ages and this night pays honor to the venue's tradition.

Throughout the Valley, Long Beach, the Inland Empire and Orange County there are authentic dive bars like King Eddy's where emerging writers meet with friends. Though Downtown is the city center, there are countless sites with similar creative energy. Frank'n'Hanks in Koreatown was an old favorite for years and years. There are too many to name. Salute to the hundreds of tucked away galleries, bars and bookstores throughout the city.

To conclude this account, the Antigua Coffeehouse, the Cypress Village Art Tunnel, Sunday Jump, the dtLAb, Writ Large Press and King Eddys are all critical incubators of L.A.'s literary underground. Salute to them along with Jessica Ceballos and Chiwan Choi, they are all prodigious alchemists in the topography of L.A. Letters.

Top: Cypress Park Tunnel Art Walk. Photo: waltarrrrr/Flickr/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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