If April is any indication of the coming months, we're in store for another festive Southern California summer. The last few weeks have been packed with poetry, live music and cultural events. This week L.A. Letters offers a quick scene report from our rich backyard. Like my old friend DJ Dusk would say, "We're not done."
"You look good Los Angeles, come on," said Azul Amaral on the microphone to a few thousand people last Saturday, April 20, at Grand Park. The Boyle Heights website L.A. Taco sponsored "Taco Madness," an event where a dozen of the best local mobile taco chefs brought their trucks to the park in order to go head to head in a judged competition for city bragging rights. Respected critics from local magazines went to each truck and sampled the goods. By the time I arrived the lines were too long to try any of them. I'm sure they were all excellent. The crowd was the biggest I have seen in the park yet, and smiles dominated the landscape. The music melted with the sunny afternoon. I ended up getting nachos because the line was the shortest. They were definitely top shelf nachos, and though I wanted to try the tacos, I was very happy to see the park swinging so lovely on a Saturday afternoon.
The all day party featured several of the city's best DJ's mixing live on stage, like Azul, DJ Destroyer, Eric Coleman, Brian Cross and Aaron Byrd. Azul got on the mic from time to time between records to salute the crowd. Longtime denizens of Los Angeles night life remember his voice from the legendary club Firecracker in Chinatown where he played a major role as DJ, host and photographer for a dozen years. The happy audience was spread throughout the park -- kids were splashing in the large central fountain, partygoers in the roped area drank microbrews and cold cocktails, Man One and a few local artists painted on the north side of the stage, and the DJs played and played. DJ Destroyer had the crowd in frenzy when he debuted the new Daft Punk track, "Get Lucky." It was quite a party. Grand Park is fulfilling its role as a cultural hub.
The next day was the second day of the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and also Ciclavia. I didn't make Ciclavia because I was already scheduled for the book festival, but I saw hundreds of bicyclists on the train. Knowing the parking mess that the day suggested, I decided to park at Union Station and ride Metro to USC. It seemed less stressful and cost about the same either way. Most of the bicyclists stayed on the train riding west towards Culver City. The L.A. Times Festival of Books was epic like it always is. Salute to Kaya Press, Writ Large Press and Peter Woods from the Last Bookstore. The day was warm and it was a whirlwind of short conversations, running into old friends and adventure in every direction.
Though it's on a smaller scale than Grand Park, the Cypress Park Library plays a similar role in its local community as a hub of artistic and cultural events. A few days after the weekend, on April 24, legendary Angeleno poet Luis Rodriguez was at the library for a special reading called Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles, with Broken Sword Publishing, Santino Rivera, Lalo Alcarez, Ricardo Acuna, Deadlee, Frank Lechuga, Jim Marquez and I.
The event was the brainchild of Art Meza of the Cypress Park Library and Broken Sword Publishing. Founded by Santino Rivera, Broken Sword released "Ban This" last fall and they have steadily appeared at a number of book fairs and academic conferences over the last year across the Southwest. Though Rivera currently resides in Florida, most of his readership is in California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Following the political climate in Tucson and Southern Arizona over the last few years, Rivera organized with several Chicano poets around the country, including Art Meza at the Cypress Park Library. Meza and Rivera have also collaborated with David Cid at the Cal State L.A. Chicano Studies Department to host several readings and cultural events.
Besides his interest in books and the library, Meza is also a record collector and photographer known by the handle Chicano Soul. Broken Sword Publishing's next book will feature his photography of classic cars and will be called "Lowriting." The book will also feature selected writings related to the theme of low riders, classic cars, Chicano Soul, and kindred styles. An open invitation for submissions was announced at the library reading. Further announcements will be made with more details about the deadline and so forth.
Luis Rodriguez spent some time appreciating the display of Meza's photography hung at the library. There was a great camaraderie among the writers and shared spirit. Rodriguez read three epic poems, including one about the first poetry reading he ever attended in 1973. He spoke of the power of poetry and how it transformed his own life. One of my favorite Rodriguez poems is "Always Running." This same title ended up becoming the name of his best-selling 1993 memoir. The theme of "Always Running" is apropos to these chaotic times. In the second to the last stanza he writes,
I ran across bridges, beneath overhead passes,
And then back alongside the infested walls
Of the concrete river;
Splashing rainwater as I threaded
My heels colliding against the pavement.
So much energy propelled my legs
And, just like the river,
It went on for miles...
The restless spirit Rodriguez describes is widespread in our society. A full house crowded into Cypress Park to see him live. He invited everyone to his bookstore in the Northeast Valley, Tia Chuchas, as well as to the Celebrating Words Festival on the grounds of L.A. Mission College in Sylmar, on Saturday May 18. The theme of the festival, "Liberating Histories: The Rise of Banned Literature," is in propinquity with Broken Sword Publishing and the ethos of contemporary Chicano literature. Luis Rodriguez is more than just a very active writer and public speaker; he is a public intellectual, ambassador and friend to all.
Rodriguez's groundbreaking career has helped pave the way for next generation writers like Art Meza, Santino Rivera and Ricardo Acuna. Acuna, a poet and filmmaker, performed a powerful poem about missing the bus on First & Broadway. His extended metaphor on looking for your stop and when to get on and off the bus was masterfully executed. The Cypress Park Library continues to bring together generations of writers.
Speaking of next generation writers, here's to the Get Lit Players. On April 26, 20 different teams of high school poets will be competing against one another in a judged recitation called the "Classic Slam." Founded by Diane Luby Lane, the Get Lit Players is a team of high school poets from across the city that memorizes classic poetry by known writers from the canon like Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, as well as their own work. Lane started Get Lit with the mission of increasing literacy in high school youth. I worked with Get Lit for a season three years ago and observed first-hand the magic that happens when you get a group of committed and organized teenagers focused on poetry. Lane's vision with the Get Lit Players connected her with former California Poet Laureate Carol Muske Dukes, and other great poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca and Joy Harjo.
Saturday, April 27, is the 7th annual DJ Dusk Festival at the Mar Vista Youth Center. Tarek Captan aka DJ Dusk was a highly-respected activist and DJ killed by a drunk driver in 2006. Dusk mentored youth in Mar Vista for almost 13 years; he originally volunteered there during his UCLA undergrad days and ended up becoming a permanent member of their family until his untimely demise. For all that knew him, Dusk remains an inspiration. His family started the annual festival to celebrate his legacy and help raise funds for the honorable work done at the Mar Vista Youth Center. There's no shortage of stories on Dusk's charisma; I remember one late night at an afterhours party where Dusk, Jeremy Sole, Frohawk Two Feathers and I freestyled for a small crowd until the sun came up.
Known for not only his skill in mixing but his unique diction, Dusk would grab the microphone throughout the night and yell, "One time for your mind Los Angeles! If you're feeling alright now, make some nooiise!!" Dusk always sparked the crowd. Shortly before his passing he recorded a verse in the studio with Miles Tackett from the Breakestra. The verse appears on the 2010 Breakestra song "`Posed to Be." Dusk rhymes alongside Mixmaster Wolf and Jurassic 5 legend Chali 2na. His short verse comes in the middle -- packing a lot in 8 lines, he explains his name:
I'm the time of day when sun & moon meet
When the heavens shine beautifully & night & day greet:
Dusk! Hey yo, I'm known for nice blends
If ya like the way it feels-- notify your friends.
Time is time join the masses on the move.
All my artists & activists steady show & prove,
Show & prove with the needle & the groove,
I got the kind of rhymes that'll make your mind move...
Epitomizing the b-boy activist, existential mixmaster, Dusk's swagger comes off effortlessly. The annual festival honoring his legacy continues to get bigger every year. Dusk loved Los Angeles more than anybody, and is remembered for always encouraging everyone.
When I'm at Grand Park and see a large crowd celebrating our city or I watch the sharp young poets from the Get Lit Players, it's hard not to think of Dusk because that's what he was all about: celebrating Los Angeles, enjoying music and sharing knowledge with the next generation. The same spirit emits from Azul, DJ Destroyer, the Cypress Park Library, Art Meza, Santino Rivera and Broken Sword Publishing. Dusk would always say, "We're not done," and he's right yet again because the city is bustling now more than ever with art and culture. Here's to Dusk's legacy and these other titans, they are powerful emissaries in the landscape of L.A. Letters.
Top: Luis Rodriguez at Cypress Park Branch Library. Photo from Cypress Park Branch Library Facebook