October 3 is National Poetry Day. While most know that April is National Poetry Month, October's National Poetry Day is much less publicized. Either way, every day, week and month is National Poetry time here; nonetheless, considering the National day just passed, this is an ideal moment to talk about the state of poetry and the role it plays in contemporary culture. This week L.A. Letters discusses the idea of street poets, two new books and a new venue on L.A.'s historic Central Avenue.
Over the last few months, in several magazines, newspapers and blogs like Poetry, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Flavorwire, there have been several articles with lists of poets and book reviews of poetry anthologies that question poetry's purpose and value in the 21st Century. The play-by-play details of who said what are too much to recount here; a quick web search can have you reading responses for hours and many have. One of the biggest reasons for all the debate is because of the sheer number of poets writing today -- some professionally trained, and some just earnest writers with little or no knowledge of literary tradition. Whatever your tastes are or education level is, you can bet there's a genre of poetry to match it.
Penguin poet Michael Robbins recently lamented in the Chicago Tribune about what he called "competent verse." Sharing his experience as an editor at a literary journal a few years ago, he discusses reading hundreds of poems that were written well enough, but most failed to really move him. He attributes the competent poems to the rise of MFA programs. He writes, "I have nothing against MFA programs in principle -- at their best, they teach the interested young how to construct and think about poems, how to avoid amateurish pitfalls, how to use metaphor and poetic language. But creating freakishly good poems is not something you can teach. It requires more than skill or talent. It requires what I stubbornly persist in calling imagination."
Robbins, quoting his favorite poet Frederick Seidel, characterizes the many competent poets as "All engine and no art." Another way to say the same idea is that MFA's teach technique, and not soul. The soul and imagination that makes a poem great comes from someplace else. Social historian, and UC Riverside Professor, Mike Davis writes, "The ivory towers play dirges for the dead and give awards to the already rewarded. But poetry should be more than clever crossword puzzles. It needs to earn an honest living from resistance: speaking about asphalt and unemployment, prison and childbirth, and the beautiful abandoned young people in our urban deserts. It should be sung from the street by bards like these."
Street Poets Inc. is a Los Angeles-based non-profit corporation that is doing exactly what Davis says above. "Saving lives -- One Rhyme at a Time," is their motto. They have been leading writing workshops and performing publicly in schools, community centers, theaters, youth conferences, retreats, and all kinds of other venues since the organization first took shape back in 1997. Street Poets works with approximately 400 youth in our L.A. County school and juvenile detention camp workshops annually. Their performance group is composed primarily of formerly incarcerated youth and young adults who have grown up, healed, and evolved in and around the Street Poets community over the years.
Streets Poets started after founder Chris Henrikson taught a poetry workshop in an L.A. County Probation Camp as a volunteer through the Writers Guild of America in 1995. Henrikson had a deeply moving experience with the program, and this activated him to do more with poetry than just pursue his own advancement. "The mission," Henrikson says, "is not just to inspire people with our performances, but to engage them in the creative process, in the transformational practice of poetry. We act on the understanding that a creative community is a healthy community. A creative community is an empowered community."
To this end, Street Poets facilitates youth initiation retreats. They also go on hikes, take trips to the ocean, and do things like white water rafting missions. Henrikson uses nature to help youth find their voice: "When they begin to see the world with the eyes of a poet, they also begin to see everything as ritual. When they step out into nature, they begin to remember their own true nature. They realize that the real magic is there and in themselves, not in a cell phone or video game."
"We see writing poetry," Henrikson says, "as a sacred healing practice and the performance or oral presentation of that poetry as a natural extension of that practice ... When we find our voice as writers and spoken-word artists we reclaim the power to define our own lives, to heal ourselves and, ultimately to dream a new world into being." (The next Street Poets' Community Open-Mic is Saturday, October 12, 5 p.m. at Eco-logical Art Gallery, at 4829 W. Pico Boulevard.)
The latest news with Street Poets is their new van, appropriately named, "Poetry in Motion." Thanks to the James Irvine Foundation, Street Poets have a customized Mercedes Sprinter 2500 van that serves as a mobile recording studio, poetry/hip-hop performance venue, and writing workshop space for youth and adults of all ages and backgrounds. Launched in spring of 2013, the van's exterior was designed by acclaimed Los Angeles artist Sage Vaughn. Henrikson says, "With the Poetry in Motion van, we're trying to re-weave the fabric of community here in L.A., by bringing the practice of poetry into unexpected spots throughout the city. Since the spring, we've been rolling it out a couple times a week to different locales, from the city's Summer Night Lights sites in various projects and parks, to places like Leimert Park, Echo Park Lake, 3 Worlds Café in South L.A., the SOLA Food Coop Fundraiser at Fais-Do-Do ... and any number of street corners and businesses throughout the city."
I went to see the Street Poets and the Poetry in Motion van on Wednesday October 2, 2013 at the 3 Worlds Café on Central Avenue, just a few blocks south of the former Lincoln Theater where greats like Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong once played regularly a few generations ago. The story of the 3 Worlds Café mirrors Street Poets, because they both exist with the intention of serving the Los Angeles community. One of the founding partners of 3 Worlds is legendary Kogi truck proprietor Roy Choi. Choi has partnered with the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, Jefferson High School, and Dole Foods. The name 3 Worlds refers to Los Angeles unity between Black, Brown and Asian. Their location, along the famed former Central Avenue Jazz District, is also significant because the area had been decimated by economic restructuring and long forgotten by most Angelenos. 3 Worlds is a platform for building Los Angeles unity and rebuilding Central Avenue.
Choi recently spoke at an international conference in Denmark on the social responsibility of the chef. Choi feels that chefs have the influence to change the world, and that too many only cater to the privileged. In his talk, he outlines his own perspective and used 3 Worlds Café as an example of how he intends to use healthy food to uplift a community and inject new life. Following his talk the blogosphere has been abuzz on Choi's comments. Similar to the Street Poets, Choi wants to serve the community and reach a bigger audience beyond the privileged. Choi has commented extensively in interviews his philosophy on street food and being connected to the city. His forthcoming book, "L.A. Son: My Life, My Food, My City" is one of the most anticipated books this fall for foodies and non-foodies alike. Choi is a visionary, and definitely an iconic L.A. figure.
Every Wednesday Night the 3 Worlds Café hosts a poetry open mic. They have many more special events and nights of poetry in the works. Andrew Simmons of the L.A. Weekly, commenting on 3 Worlds wrote, "we're guessing the purpose of 3 Worlds is multifold -- for starters, to empower the local high school students by teaching them culinary and perhaps business skills and also bringing a needed source of good, healthy food to an area where it has not historically been easily accessible."
The day I was at 3 Worlds I met a warm staff and a cozy space on the east side of Central Avenue. The Poetry in Motion van was parked out front, and they were engaging patrons of the café to write a poem and then record it in the van. Several members of the Street Poets team, including Taylor Maxie, Keith Morgan, and Arturo Quiros, were manning the van along with Henrikson. I also saw the Boyle Heights native and well-loved Los Angeles poet, Francisco Escamilla, also known as the Bus Stop Prophet, with them, accosting passing pedestrians to write a poem. Escamilla has worked with the Street Poets for over a year now. He says, "It is refreshing and inspiring to be a part of an organization that not only teaches the healing aspects of expressing one's self through the poetic medium, but also actually actively practices the message they preach. There is a genuine compassion in the people who work there." Escamilla, Henrikson says, "has emerged as a truly gifted school workshop facilitator and mentor for our youth. Kind of a match made in heaven."
The Street Poets have also worked closely with Luis Rodriguez. They first began working with him in the County Probation camps back in the mid-90s. Henrikson says, "If Street Poets had an elder council, Luis J. Rodriguez would be one of the first people we'd want in that circle." They also collaborate with another non-profit, the Rhythm Arts Alliance, to integrate African drumming into their performances. "Because the poems themselves tend to stir up a lot of deep emotion in people, we've found that the drums are a powerful way to move that energy around and invoke a kind of ancestral presence to help hold the space for the kind of soulful dialogue we strive to inspire." Most of the staff and young adult Street Poets participate in monthly sweat lodges as well. Their methodology has been informed by the indigenous healing traditions of both Africa and the Americas.
Before closing this essay, some words need to be said on the idea of street poets over the 20th Century. Commonly associated with movements like the Beats, the Black Arts Movement, Nuyorican poets, and Punk Rock poets, the idea of "street poets" is one that has been in popular culture for at least 50 years. Some would argue that Baudelaire was a street poet in Paris in the mid-19th Century. Some of the best known street poets would include Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Miguel Pinero, the Last Poets, Watts Prophets, Jamaican dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, British punk rock poet John Cooper Clarke, and many others. Emerging from Punk Rock and the 1980s performance art scene, the Los Angeles poet S.A. Griffin has been called a street poet. Griffin grew up on the Beat poets, and over the years has associated with Venice street poets like Frank Rios.
Griffin differentiates between different camps in the poetry world when he says, "It can generally be argued that a street poet might be the voice of the people, whereas the academy would be the voice of the power elite." This idea has been voiced by many over the years. One individual that has bridged the world between street poets and academia is Jerome Rothenberg. Rothenberg has spent his nearly 60 year career pushing a more global poetics. Rothenberg advocates ethnopoetics in anthologies he has edited, like "Technicians of the Sacred." His anthologies have published West African griots, Navajo chants, Hasidic tales, Iroquois legends, Asian epics, the Kabbalah, immigrant histories, and other alternative forms not usually considered poetry by Western standards. Similar to L.A.'s Street Poets, Rothenberg has drawn from the ancient and indigenous traditions as a way of making poetry relevant to these times.
Black Widow Press recently published "Eye of Witness," an almost 600-page Jerome Rothenberg reader featuring hundreds of his poems, manifestoes, and essays organized chronologically. Rothenberg is not only one of the biggest advocates for global poetry; he has been highly prolific over his long career. He's spent many years opening up the poetry canon and has advocated poetries of indigenous people around the world. Rothenberg writes, "I believe that everything is possible in poetry & that our earlier 'Western' attempts at definition represent a failure of perception we no longer have to endure." The new anthology of his work is a goldmine of writing that crosses borders and languages.
Rothenberg's pioneering work has helped create the space for organizations like Street Poets and the millions of writers around the globe that may not fit into the traditional literary world. Moreover, these poets that are connected to their communities can arguably have a great influence than those appointed by the academy. As Henrikson says, "Poetry is a great tool for approaching and stepping through the gateway of our wounds in order to claim our gifts." Henrikson shares sentiment with Rothenberg, when he says, "We also begin to realize that our own personal story is part of a much larger story with deep ancestral roots that connect us to each other."
This direct connection to the community and the world at large is what a lot of contemporary poetry lacks. This is why organizations like Street Poets are so important. S.A. Griffin says, "In time, it is the academy that will write about the poets of the street. That is why we in the small press world, i.e. street poets, must be more diligent about documenting our own wild history, otherwise, what little might survive could end up whitewashed by the big hand of the power elite."
Fortunately, new media and the small press scene are flourishing and have opened up new pathways and outlets for street poets and those not anointed in the poetry canon. Gamechangers like Street Poets, 3 Worlds Café, Roy Choi, S.A. Griffin, and Jerome Rothenberg have played important roles in creating new definitions by insisting that poetry and healthy food are vital elements that everyone deserves access to, not just the privileged. Salute to these alchemists and equalizers, they are luminaries in the landscape of L.A. Letters.
Top: Poetry in Motion van rolls into Fais Do Do in West Adams. All photos from Street Poets Inc. Facebook.