The faces of our city form the Technicolor quilt of the multicultural mosaic. Billy Burgos, a painter and poet from Leimert Park, has started a series of portrait paintings of poets from different Los Angeles neighborhoods. Using acrylic and soft pastel on canvas, he's completed 12 portraits, thus far including poets from Venice, Mar Vista, Koreatown, Silverlake and Leimert Park. Titled "Faces of Poetry," the series was first displayed in Venice at Beyond Baroque Spring 2012, and is now on display at the World Stage in Leimert Park. The opening coincided with the Leimert Park Book Fair on June 30, 2012 -- more on the Book Fair later.
Burgos knows that in a city of neighborhoods there are countless ambassadors representing their districts -- so he paints people he has a relationship with. One of the first Leimert Park poets he painted was Kamau Daaood, co-founder of the World Stage and author of "Language of Saxophones" published by City Lights Books. Burgos grew up in Leimert and first met Daaood 20 years ago at the World Stage Wednesday night writing workshop. Burgos wandered in one day in 1992 just out of high school; "I'd never seen anything like him," he says.
Immediately spellbound by the power of Daaood's poetry, Burgos began attending the World Stage, and soon started to share his own poems. Meanwhile his art career was well underway. Trained in illustration and graphic design at Trade Tech and then Otis, Burgos has technical skills combined with a playful style. By his early twenties he was doing commercial illustration, logo work, graphic design and assorted art jobs. He began portrait paintings on the side, and word of mouth about his talent grew. His ability to paint electric portraits led to many commissioned projects -- literally hundreds of houses in Leimert Park, Ladera Heights and West Adams have portraits on their walls painted by Burgos over the last 15 years. He has also created several book and album covers, and hosts a monthly poetry event every first Sunday at Beyond Baroque.
AK Toney is another poet from Leimert Park and the World Stage painted by Burgos. Founder of the Reading Is Poetry writing workshop series, Toney introduced me to Leimert Park venues like the World Stage, Eso Won Books and the great Jamaican restaurant, Ackee Bamboo. Mentored by Daaood, drummer Billy Higgins and Horace Tapscott, Toney started performing in Leimert in 1990. There are few poets that can rock a set of jazz poetry with the skill and flavor of Toney. From 2008 to 2010, Toney and I were booked together to perform poetry with our writing students at the Leimert Park Book Fair. Being at the World Stage and in Leimert Park reminded me of my former students.
In 2008 I was hired to teach Creative Writing by View Park Prep, a charter high school on Crenshaw and Slauson, a mile south of Leimert Park. On one of my first days teaching I mentioned Kamau Daaood and how important his poems were. Lo and behold a student raises her hand and says, "Kamau Daaood is my grandfather." This proved to be a powerful, positive omen, because right off the bat the students were writing thought provoking poems and ready to perform their work. Besides hosting dozens of student open mics and performances around town, we created three anthologies of their work titled, "Views From View Park." We coined the phrase, "Fight the Good Fight with the View Park Knights!!"
The student poets wrote their hearts out. The premise of the school was founded on principles akin to a man named Lou Dantzler. Dantzler founded the Challenger Boys & Girls Club on Vermont in South Los Angeles in 1970 and transformed the lives of thousands of Los Angeles youth. His legacy was providing opportunity and teaching youth how to work hard in order to achieve their dreams -- Dantzler's book is titled, "A Place to Go, A Place to Grow." View Park Prep's mission is to get inner city students into the top 100 colleges in the nation. Though my position was cut in June 2010 due to budget cuts, several of my former students -- now in college across the country -- still email me their essays and poems. Their success shows that the school's intention is working. I am thankful for the three school years I spent teaching there.
I was back in Leimert on June 30, 2012, for the annual Book Fair. Besides seeing the series of Burgos' paintings, I witnessed Kamau Daaood, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka each read a riveting set of poems. First there was a panel discussing the influence of the Black Arts Movement. Several hundred people looked on as three major figures of the Movement answered questions. I thought of my former View Park students because we read these three poets and studied their poems. It was quite amazing to see all three legends on the same stage next to each other.
Kamau Daaood read first. His first poem was one he had just finished and it was potent. Up next he read his tribute poem to his mentor Horace Tapscott. The closing lines capture the ethos...
my fingers are dancing grassroots
I do not fit in form, I create form
my ears are radar
charting the whispers of my ancestors
I seek the divinity in outcasts, the richness of rebels
I walk these sacred streets remembering
kola nuts and cowrie shells
and how well our uncles wore their trousers
I am Horace Tapscott
and I am not for sale...
Though there was loud music off in the distance, Daaood's incredible delivery and well-crafted words penetrated the crowd and electrified listeners.
Sonia Sanchez was next. She is one of the seminal female voices of the Black Arts Movement, along with Nikki Giovanni and Jayne Cortez. Almost four decades ago Sanchez taught a class at San Francisco State that is now considered the first course covering Black Women and Black literature. As she delivered a breathtaking set of poems and stories on stage, Sanchez said that wherever Black Arts poets went, they brought "the thunder of the angels." A few sentences later she raised one of the central questions of the Black Arts Movement: "what does it mean to be human?"
After Sanchez came Baraka. The Newark, New Jersey poet needs no introduction; at 76 years old he's the founder of the Black Arts Movement and one of the world's greatest living poets. Burgos was commissioned to paint a portrait of Baraka, which was presented at the Book Fair. Baraka's set at the Book Fair was a mix of his longer poems and several remixed haikus he calls "low kus." I've seen Baraka read three times over the last 15 years and he never disappoints.
Burgos also painted a portrait of John Harris, the former owner of Papa Bach, a West L.A. bookstore. "Papa Bach was significant," writes literary historian Lionel Rolfe, "because it was the closest thing Los Angeles ever had to a City Lights Bookstore and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I'm not sure that Harris himself would think he was on that level, for the synergy of Ferlinghetti and San Francisco are a peculiar and special chemistry. But John Harris was a good poet, and his Papa Bach was a bookstore, a cultural center, a publisher and an important link between many things." Harris sold Papa Bach in 1984 after 20 years. Now in his eighth decade, Harris remains active as a poet. In 2011 he came with Michael C. Ford to the Stella Adler Conservatory and read one of the best poems of the night. Harris was speechless when he saw Burgos' portrait of him at Beyond Baroque this Spring.
Other portraits of Los Angeles poets painted by Burgos include Conney Williams, Corrie Greathouse, V. Kalli, Richard Modiano, Rafael Alvarado and the Silver Lake-based poet, S.A. Griffin among others. Griffin is one of the most active Angeleno poets over the last three decades. Emerging from the do-it-yourself ethic of the punk rock era, Griffin's created a legacy of countless performances, events, publications and literary gatherings since the days of Reagan. Especially known for his Carma Bums troupe and association with the late Scott Wannberg, Griffin is another one-of-kind character captured ever so well by Burgos.
Burgos' desire to catalog the city is contagious. In 2011, Griffin and a coalition of local poets and historians created and placed a bronze plaque in honor of Red Stodolsky outside what used to be the venerated Baroque Book Store. Located across the street from the Italian restaurant Micellis on Las Palmas just south of Hollywood Blvd, Baroque Book Store carried loads of small press poetry and a wide range of titles before closing a decade ago. Stodolsky was a confidant of Bukowski and one of the best known booksellers in Los Angeles history. Griffin says he was "one of the humans I miss every day. He really mentored me hard in the way of books, Bukowski and the Beats. We had a reading/party for the plaque on what would've been Red's 95th at the store on May 21st, 2011."
The drive to capture the spirit of the city pushes artists like Billy Burgos and S.A. Griffin to celebrate historic figures. One of Burgos' chief sources of inspiration for the project is the website Poetry L.A., containing videos from over 300 L.A. poets. Burgos looks forward to the forthcoming release of his first book of his poetry titled, "Eulogy to an Unknown Tree." Furthermore he plans to continue the "Faces of Poetry" series, which will be travelling next to the Last Bookstore, and then to Tia Chuchas. Los Angeles is packed with neighborhoods and poets -- Burgos is only getting started.
- More on L.A. Letters:
- Beats and Rhymes: Words on L.A. Noir
- Celebrating Songs of the City (Plus Four DVDs)
- Beats and Rhymes: Besskepp's 'Ode to Stockton'
- Songs of Innocence and Experience: The Tone Poems of David Axelrod and William Blake
- Beats and Rhymes: Ode to the L.A. River
- See the L.A. Letters archives
Top: Kamau Daaood by Billy Burgos