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Building Community Through Poetry

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The theme of community artists working together to remake the city and our world is one that is returned to again and again each week in this column. This week L.A. Letters celebrates two new books and two open mic venues that put the community over the individual in order to improve our environmental and cultural landscape.

Recently published by the University of Iowa Press, "Redstart: An Ecological Poetics" is a collaborative volume of poetry and literary criticism penned by two of the world's leading eco poets, Forrest Gander and John Kinsella. Though the term "eco poet" is self-explanatory in many ways, essentially eco poets are environmental activists that use poetry to investigate the relationship between nature, culture, language and perception.

Kinsella writes in the short prose piece "A Note on Ecopoetics":

Poets operate in communities, and their ecologies are crosshatched. They connect and divide communities that aren't even aware of their existence. A poem is a part of an ecology -- it uses and maybe gives. I've always found collaboration a way of challenging the security of self-affirmation. Of recognizing the crosshatched nature of an ecology. Of creating a field of failings and inadequacies and announcing common purposes in trying to repair and redeem. Collaborative writing can be redemptive.

Both writers have authored numerous books, served as university professors at prestigious schools, and won major awards. Nonetheless compared to most poets from an academic setting there's much more urgency and real world concerns at the forefront of both men's work. One of the book's key features is that the only way to figure which poet wrote each piece is by seeing the initials listed after each -- the emphasis is more on the message within the text than who actually wrote it. Ecopoetics is known for de-emphasizing the ego-centered agency: the poem is written in a stance of "self-reflexivity" where the poem originates in the landscape rather than the poet's mind. Furthermore, eco poets reject any attempt to order the world into some kind of unity or permanence. Ecopoetic texts are more open texts that favor an encounter with the world on the landscape's terms.

Gander writes:

...the United States and China are locked in a tug of war to determine which country can spew more carbon. For both, natural resources are snorted up for immediate highs. Perhaps these facts place particular responsibilities on the poets of both countries. Maybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitant, can be promoted by poetic literacy; maybe poetic literacy will be deepened through environmental literacy.

Neither author seems to be under the illusion that poetry is a panacea; still the text espouses an environmental ethic and aesthetic that builds dialogue and attracts attention to important topics. Gander writes, "because its meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, poetry may offer different, subtler, and more complex expressions than the language of information and commerce."

Gander's co-author Kinsella is an Australian Vegan anarchist that has even stopped flying in airplanes at times in order to not emit a carbon footprint. Kinsella has done considerable work in the Australian outback and is one of the biggest advocates for the rights of Australia's Aboriginal people. One of Kinsella's other books, "Activist Poetics," is unavailable in the U.S. but highly regarded in international poetry circles.

This collaborative volume between Gander and Kinsella is an excellent introduction to eco-poetics and will undoubtedly send fascinated readers deeper into both writer's extensive bodies of work.


"Chorus: A Literary Mixtape," published by MTV Books and edited and arranged by Saul Williams, shares the same ethos of urgency demonstrated by our eco poets. Back in 2010, Williams put out a call on social media for two poems on any topic, and he ended up receiving over 7,000 poems. Williams culled those poems down to 100 and stitched the work together like an exquisite corpse text. The back cover describes the work's contents: "Chorus is the anthem of a new generation of poets unified by the desire to transcend the identity politics of the day and begin to be seen as one. One hundred voices woven through testimony and new testament. It is the cry of the unheard. The occupation of the page itself."

Similar to "Redstart," the individual poet's name is not emphasized. The only way to identify who wrote what is by checking the footnotes in the back. Williams writes, "I made an attempt to weave poems and voices together as a DJ would, noting the tempo, mood, and theme of each piece and attempting to find a smooth way of blending into the next." The roster of poets includes prominent performance poets, street poets, and even a few award winners like National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes and respected writers like Major Jackson, Mike Ladd and Kevin Coval.

Hardcore poetry enthusiasts may have a hard time not looking up which poet wrote what, but the overall work is a well-intended ambitious effort. The democratic spirit of the book is its greatest asset. Aside from the Acknowledgements at the end, Williams composed a hyper-text poem that runs through all of the poems in the book. Each poem contains a few words in red and bold, and all of those words read together to form another poem over the length of the whole work. There are a few blank pages at the end and large print exclaiming "Add your voice." More than anything, "Chorus" seems to be a call to speak louder and with conviction about improving the world. As Williams writes in his short preface, "Here are our fears, disbeliefs, visions and wishes welded into words. Here is our love, our desires, sprung from the incessant chatterbox of our adolescence. Here is the voice of the un-dead and the un-compromised. Make no tradition of this. We have had enough."

Saul Williams is originally known for his role in the film "Slam" and as an award-winning performance poet. "Chorus" includes some of his slam poet cohorts like Patricia Smith, Beau Sia, Staceyann Chin, Amir Sulaiman, Taylor Mali, and Suheir Hammad, along with writers like Porschia Baker, April Jones, Def Sound, and the actress Amber Tamblyn, among many others. Williams had editorial assistance from Dufflyn LAmmers and Aja Monet in the selection process. Reading as a whole, the book is indeed a tour de force.

Saul William, Chorus Tour, Chicago 2012 | Photo by swimfinfan used under a Creative Commons license
Saul William, Chorus Tour, Chicago 2012 | Photo by swimfinfan used under a Creative Commons license

Before closing out this column, I want to shout out two poetry venues held on Tuesday nights that subscribe to the same community-minded vibe as the poets mentioned in the above books. "Flight School" is a weekly open mic in the Culver City Arts District held in an eatery called "The Industry Café & Jazz Restaurant." Hosted by the charismatic vocalist O Smith, poet Gia Scott-Heron, and multi-instrumentalist Hank G, this open mic is a nocturnal affair that goes from 9 p.m. to Midnight. Equal parts live music and poetry, there are even weeks where dance, live art and theater make their way into the performance schedule. There's a warm spirit of camaraderie at "Flight School" that you will not see in many of the city's venues. The spirit of cooperation and encouragement is emphasized rather than the competitive vibe many open mics project.

A similar open spirit can be found at the Tuesday Night Café in Little Tokyo. Hosted on the first and third Tuesdays each month by Traci Kato-Kiriyama, this venue runs a little earlier from 7 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. Both of these locations emphasize building community and have been known for giving many young writers their first break.

Here's to these important venues, eco poets like Forrest Gander and John Kinsella and the 100 poets published in "Chorus." These illustrious figures are critical builders of community in the geography of L.A. Letters.

Top: Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. Photo by stonebird used under a Creative Commons license.

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