Reading Route 66: The Literary Road from Chicago to Los Angeles

Route 66 connected Los Angeles to Chicago. Known as the Mother Road, generations of Americans travelled through the nation's heartland going back and forth. This article is going to take a cue from Route 66 and begin in Chicago before heading back to LA.

Last week I went to Chicago for the first time for the Association of Writing Programs Conference, otherwise known as AWP. 10,000 writers from across North America were there attending panels, workshops and live readings. Before highlighting some of the contemporary authors and publishing companies I saw at the conference, I'd like to take the time to salute a few of my favorite Chicago writers, architects and musicians. The cultural legacy of Chicago is every bit as rich as Los Angeles, in fact, natives of the Windy City would probably scoff at the comparison.

"Giants lived here once"

One of my favorite all-time books is Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make." It's an 80-page prose poem written in 1951 that celebrates Chicago's underbelly: the gamblers, grifters, sceneshifters, writers and fighters. "It used to be a writer's town and it's always been a fighter's town." Ironically the book was banned in Chicago shortly after publication, even though it's really a love-song to the city.

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The book was a response to Carl Sandburg's 1916 poem "Chicago," in which he coined the phrase, "City of Big Shoulders." Sandburg was a central figure in the Chicago Renaissance with Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay - the generation before Algren. Algren references them and laments a lost Chicago: "Giants lived here once." Algren had critical friendships with other stellar Chicago writers like Richard Wright and Studs Terkel. His descriptions of Chicago are electric: "A midnight bounded by the bright carnival of the boulevards and the dark girders of the El. Where once marshland came to flower. Where once deer came down to water."

While I was riding the subway into Downtown Chicago from O'Hare Airport and looking at the metal train tracks and towering skyline, I thought of the hip hop artist Common. In the early 90s the lyrics of Common, then known as Common Sense informed me about Chicago. Particularly his second record, 1994's RESURRECTION. His descriptions of growing up in Chicago are packed with images, like this excerpt from "Nuthin' To Do": "The days of Old Chicago and Fun Town/As shorties we run 'round, play strike outs till sun down/But the shit ain't as fun now, and the city's all run down/We'd troop down to Jew Town, talk a cat down on some gear/Have enough for a Polish and car fare."

Chicago skyline | Photo by anthony.tison used under a Creative Commons license

Equally influential in my Chicago interest is the architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan is considered the Father of the skyscraper and one of the Pioneers of Modern Architecture. A century after Sullivan, Chicago's field of skyscrapers is one of the densest skylines in the world, rivaling Manhattan. Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright during the 1890s in Chicago when the city was growing rapidly. Wright spent two decades in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, known for having the largest concentration of Wright designed homes anywhere. Thanks to my great comrade the Chicago native and current Southwest College Professor V Zamora, I was able to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's house on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park. It was surreal to stand in front of the hand-carved front facade of his home after reading about him for so many years.

Chicago's built environment is packed to the gills with architecture, parks and public art. Another influential architect from the era of Sullivan and Wright is Daniel Burnham, the father of the City Beautiful Movement. The idea of the movement was that epic architecture, wide boulevards and ample park space would create civic loyalty and make residents care more about their city. Burnham implemented his plan in Chicago during the 1890s and much of his design remains in place. V Zamora drove me across the city in all four directions and it was more beautiful than ever.

Third World Press

Back at the AWP conference there was such an array of author events and panels that it was hard to choose who and what to see. The Book Fair alone featured over 500 publishers from all over the world. One of the few presentations I did see focused on the Literary Legacy of Chicago. I was excited to see Haki Madhubuti as one of the panelists. An educator, publisher, and poet, Madhubuti has authored over 25 books, including the poetry book "Run Towards Fear," and "Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: The African American Family in Transition," which has sold over a million copies. He is one of the biggest contributors to the Black Arts Movement.

Originally known as Don L. Lee, Madhubuti emerged in the mid-60s with several books of poetry. Using $400 he'd earned from a reading, he bought a used mimeograph machine and started Third World Press in Chicago's South Side in a basement apartment in 1967. Sooner than later Third World Press was publishing Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, Derrick Bell and many other authors, in addition to Madhubuti himself. They are one of the oldest independent publishers of Black writing, with several hundred titles in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children's literature. They are now housed in a multi-million dollar building in Chicago. I briefly spoke to Madhubuti after his presentation and he was very gracious. Most of the authors I've met half as famous as him weren't half as personable as he was. It made my day that such a great author was still humble and caring after all these years. His sincerity impressed me.

Tia Chucha Press

After briefly meeting Madhubuti, I ran into Luis Rodriguez. I've known Rodriguez for a decade and have done numerous readings with him. His own life is like Route 66. He had been writing in Los Angeles and hosting poetry workshops in East L.A. at Self-Help Graphics in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was in Chicago where his writing really took off. He moved to Chicago in 1985, right on time for the city's emerging poetry scene. Marc Smith created the Poetry Slam in 1986, which took off soon after moving to the Green Mill Lounge, where it still continues every Sunday after 27 years. By the time Rodriguez arrived to Chicago he found himself immersed in the city's literary world. His first book "Poems Across the Pavement" won several awards and Rodriguez soon found himself travelling to New York and Europe performing poetry with other Chicago writers. Rodriguez eventually moved back to LA after about 15 years, but it was in Chicago where he created the blueprint for his very successful writing career.

Last weekend Rodriguez was back in Chicago at the AWP conference doing several readings and also to promote Tia Chucha Press, his publishing company. Its mission statement is to publish "quality, cross-cultural voices in literature that offers a window into worlds often neglected by most mainstream media and publishing." Over the years he's published poets like Patricia Smith, Terrance Hayes, Chiwan Choi among others. Michael Warr's new book "The Armageddon of Funk" is Tia Chucha Press' latest book. Warr is a well-respected San Francisco poet and lifelong friend of Luis Rodriguez. They both lived in Chicago in the 80s and collaborated on countless readings and workshops. Rodriguez himself has a new book "It Calls You Back," the sequel to his bestselling "Always Running." Rodriguez is just like Madhubuti, a literary legend still humble and connected to the community.

Kaya Press

Shortly after running into Rodriguez and Tia Chucha Press, I saw the table for Kaya Press. Kaya recently relocated to Los Angeles after spending the last 18 years in Berkeley and New York City. Located on the campus of USC, they are an independent not-for-profit publisher of Asian diasporic and Pacific Island literature. I first became aware of Kaya through one of my favorite L.A. books ever, Sesshu Foster's "City Terrace Field Manual," which they had published in 1996. The book is a series of loosely connected prose poems about growing up in the East Los Angeles district of City Terrace. Simply put, it's one of the best books ever written about East LA. There's a story behind every line. He's earned every inch. Foster has since gone on to even more success with two award winning books published by City Lights. Foster remains close with Kaya Press, and he was their featured reader when they had their L.A. opening party in early 2012. Kaya is busier than ever, publishing authors like New York poet Lisa Chen and Shoson Nagahara.

"Lament in the Night" is Kaya's latest book. Written by the mysterious Shoson Nagahara, the text includes two novellas originally published in 1925. The title novella set in 1920s Little Tokyo follows the Japanese American protagonist as he makes his way through L.A. trying to get a job, a meal or some kind of break. Undergoing racism and oppressive conditions, Nagahara's own journey mirrored the life of his book's subject. Born in Hiroshima in 1901, he came to Seattle in 1918. In 1920 railroad work brought him to Los Angeles. Each night after his grueling work shift, he came home and started writing. The character's interior dialogue is almost reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground." A press based in Little Tokyo published his work in 1925. Misunderstood at the time, the book now reads like a window into a lost Los Angeles. There are no traces of Nagahara after 1928. Literary historians assume he went back to Japan because there were no more records of him on the U.S. Census and his name does not appear on the records of the World War 2 internment camps either. Kaya is doing important work putting this book back in print.

After waiting so many years to get to Chicago I was not disappointed. The skyscrapers, cold weather and historic architecture make for a backdrop that's easy to celebrate. My trip not only satisfied my interest in Chicago's poets and architecture, I also connected with several venerable Los Angeles publishers and authors present that weekend. Third World Press, Tia Chucha and Kaya Press really impressed me with the focus of their missions. This trip showed me that there are still a few publishers and authors dedicated to uplifting and improving the local community.

Here's to the giants that make up both Chicago and L.A. Letters.



Mike Sonksen aka Mike the Poet is a spoken word artist, tour guide, educator, journalist, and historian. L.A. Letters celebrates bright moments from literary Los Angeles with spoken and written word. See his Departures StoryShare videos here and here. Keep up with his activities by following his tumblr and Youtube channel.

About the Author

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