Harold Abramowitz Smokin Hot Lounge

Small Presses: Poetic Communities Coast to Coast

For local book denizens, April is far from the cruelest month -- it is National Poetry Month, and the megalithic Los Angeles Times Festival of Books takes over the USC campus on the weekend of April 20 and 21. In spite of the ever-changing climate of the publishing industry and new tablet technology, there's been a rise in boutique small press publishers across the country concerned with producing well-crafted printed books. Hundreds of small presses across America are producing poetry books; the number is probably even higher than that. This week L.A. Letters spotlights a few quintessential small presses and communities of poetry across the country that are redefining the art form and promoting community simultaneously.

Before diving into these small presses and communities, here's a quick word about a great unknown book store on L.A.'s Eastside called Seite Books. Located on Rowan Avenue where Boyle Heights and City Terrace meet, this bookstore is easily one of the most undercover poetry venues in the city. On Sunday April 21, Seite will host Boyle Heights bard Rebecca Gonzales and her event, featuring Conney Williams and Luivette Resto. And in regards to the L.A. Times Festival of Books, Kaya Press is hosting their Smokin' Hot Lit Lounge with other L.A. small presses like Writ Large, Finishing Line, Les Figues, and Gold Line Press, among several others for their second year in a row. A lively milieu of indie authors will be presenting their work and hosting writing workshops all weekend long at the Festival. The dynamic community of small presses in L.A. is a microcosm for the rest of North America.

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Fence Books is a New York-based small press that emerged from the biannual literary journal of the same name. I first learned of Fence when they published Douglas Kearney's award-winning 2009 book, "The Black Automaton." Shortly after that I saw their book, "Negro League Baseball" by Harmony Holiday, and most recently they have published two books by Clark Coolidge. Coolidge is the author of over 40 books and Peter Gizzi calls him, "a one-man avant-garde." His latest book on Fence, "A Book Beginning What And Ending Away," is definitely difficult poetry, but if you persist with it you can crack the code. More than anything it reveals Coolidge to be like a jazz musician with abstract sound poetry. Playing with sonic elements and syllables to make new combinations drives his work, "Seawater crushed the grasshopper." The velocity and musicality of his verse rewrite grammar and meaning.

More than almost any other poet, Coolidge really is the bridge between the Beats, the New York School, and Language Poets. His skills are so precise that each camp can claim him as their own. I first learned of Coolidge's work with his prose book on Jack Kerouac, "Now That's Jazz." Coolidge is a famed Kerouac scholar, which is a helpful point when considering his work. Daniel Yaryan, the Santa Cruz-based poet and founder of the Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts reading series, says, "Coolidge cultivates words as a Nikola Tesla of language arts ... Postmodernist, New York School, Language poet or whatever term you use for his work, he's an original ditching categories altogether with a higher aim of bringing words and their association with the performer to life."

A few months ago, Coolidge headlined an episode of the Sparring series at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, owned by Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, to a sold out crowd of about 300 people. Coolidge was flanked by the likes of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Wavy Gravy, Joanna McClure, Jerry Kamstra, Sharon Doubiago, and others, gathered by Beat scholar and poet Gerald Nicosia. By all accounts Coolidge split the wigs of listeners in attendance. His new book was actually written from 1973 to 1981, but this is the first time the entire volume will be published together along with extra documentary notes. It could easily be called a poetic "Infinite Jest," because it is almost 600 pages and very esoteric to say the least. Longtime fans are ecstatic that the book is finally in print in its extended form. Publishing this offering by Coolidge reveals Fence's intention to "redefine the terms of accessibility by publishing challenging writing distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence rather than by allegiance with camps, schools, or cliques." The Fence community of writers sponsors three book prizes and organizes numerous readings around New York and beyond.

Haymarket Books is based in Chicago and named after the Haymarket Riots during the Gilded Age. Known for their books on politics and social justice, they have also published a few poetry books including two by Kevin Coval. "Schtick" is his latest, "a tale of Jewish assimilation and its discontents; a sweeping exposition on Jewish-American culture in all its bawdy, contradictory, and inventive glory." Coval turns the lens on his own family, as well as popular culture, to explore how Jews have transformed out of the diaspora, "landing on both sides of the color line." Coval pulls no punches, offering a multi-dimensional perspective like only an insider can.

Combining his own personal memories with a litany of cultural touchstones, these poems bridge Lenny Bruce, Al Jolson, Ronald Reagan, Don Rickles, Public Enemy, Sammy Davis Jr., Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, and "the secret relationship between Blacks and Jews." Humor and astute observations drive the poems. Coval does all of this in about 75 poems over 203 pages. He even deconstructs policies in Israel and writes bold, courageous words in an epistle poem to his father, titled, "Explaining Myself [1]." Among many potent lines he writes,

this time dad, we are on the wrong side of history I mean Jews who support Israel without question, I mean our friends and family in this country, I mean it's like we are Mississippi crackers, white south Afrikaners when Mandela was locked up.

Coval goes where very few will, writing detailed reflections and exposes about his own family, in both a negative and positive light, "This is the truth. It will venerate us/ it will exodus, the truth will set us free!" Coval's love for his family, people and city is communicated again and again in the poems.

Coval is also the Founder of "Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival." He leads the Young Chicago Authors and is responsible for a whole gamut of literary events happening in the Windy City.

Haymarket Press is also publishing the new poetry book, "Bury My Clothes," by famed performance poet Roger Bonair-Agard, as well as a book by Boots Riley of the Oakland-based hip-hop group, The Coup. Haymarket's new catalog continues the storied legacy of poetry in Chicago.

Moontide Press is based in Orange County and has quietly been publishing several top shelf poetry books over the last five years, including "Tide Pools" an anthology of Orange County Poetry," "Sleepyhead Assassins" by Mindy Nettifee, and "What We Ache For" by Eric Morago. They also host a popular reading series in Fullerton at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center. Their newest book is "The Silence of Doorways" by Sharon Venezio. Known for her central role in the Valley Contemporary Poet series, this is her first full-length work. Serenading Picasso, Descartes, Sartre and the Grateful Dead, she writes, "A good way to fall in love / is to drive ten miles over the limit / with no seatbelt." Travelling back to the geography of her childhood, she says, "my father is a ghost in my camera lens / collecting variations of light." Venezio constructs a kaleidoscope of daring lyrical images.

Tinfish Press is based in Hawaii and, like Fence Books, it started as a literary journal. They gained fame over the last decade for publishing formally innovative Asian poets like Barbara Jane Reyes and Linh Dinh. Chinese poet Yunte Huang's 2005 award-winning book "Cribs" is one of their best known titles, and one of the best poetry books I have ever read. They also published Australian poet Hazel Smith's "The Erotics of Geography," among other respected titles. Susan Schultz, Tinfish's Founder and Editor, has always had a knack for spotting progressive poets as well as writing her own forward poems.

Tinfish's latest, Shultz's, "Jack London is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry of Hawaii" follows their precedent of innovative poetry. She even has a short prose poem about Clark Coolidge in the new book. Schultz describes the 250-page book further: "This anthology features seventeen writers of poetry (and some prose), as well as their statements about being a Euro-American writer in Hawaii ... [it] presents writers whose work has been deeply influenced by Hawaii, and whose poetry adds valuable voices to a complicated mix of ethnic cultures." Addressing questions of identity and the legacy of colonialism, these writers share the courage of Kevin Coval when turning the lens on themselves to consider political, social and cultural circumstances in Hawaii and the Pacific Rim.

The Undeniables is a writing group started in the San Fernando Valley by two old friends and writing partners with close ties to Chicago. Seven years ago, Edren Sumagaysay and Erik Matsunaga began a writing workshop that eventually began to be called The Undeniables, because the core writers kept getting published in different journals and invited to read their work in universities and bookstores. I met Sumagaysay last year when Traci Kato-Kiriyama invited him to read with us at the Last Bookstore, along with Allen Aquino, Cara Van Le, Irene Soriano, Audrey Kuo and others.

The core group of seven scribes grew over the years to include almost 40 writers at one point. Sumagaysay specializes in substantive editing and likes to talk face to face about writing. He says, "Throughout the entire writing process, from the first line, to manuscript development, to editing, to publishing, The Undeniables offers advice, critique, accountability, live sessions, workshops, editors, coaches, anything a writer would need to finish the story they want to share, in the best possible way."

They've published ten books, including three by Sumagaysay and works by Vicky Luu, Clint Pereira, and Giovanni Ortega, among others. Between publishing new poetry, appearing at colleges around Southern California, and local readings like the Tuesday Night Café, they epitomize the vibrant spirit of L.A.'s diverse literary scene.

All across America, small presses and writing workshops are keeping poetry alive, building community and fighting ignorance. In this age of instant gratification and ephemeral sensations, coalitions of poets are publishing and producing work to counteract the assault on our collective consciousness. This week L.A. Letters salutes Seite Books, the small presses at the LA Times Festival of Books and other small presses like Fence Books, Haymarket, Moontide, Tinfish and the Undeniables. These small presses are incubators of community and powerful supernovas in the galaxy of both international and L.A. Letters.


Top: Smokin' Hot Lounge at L.A. Times Festival of Books, 2012. Photo by Harold Abramowitz/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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