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This Year in L.A. Letters: Part 2

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Picking up where last week left off, this week L.A. Letters presents more notable books from 2013, as well as a few new developments and notes on the last year in literature.

One of the biggest themes in recent years is the emergence of more and more creative enclaves across Southern California. As much as neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Leimert Park, and Venice drive the creative landscape, there are dozens of hidden pockets bursting with activity. The expansion of creative sites adds new life to unexpected pockets, like Pacoima, Alhambra, Whittier, Downey, La Puente, Northridge, North Long Beach, Laguna Beach, a few of these lesser known sites will be noted along with the books listed below. 2013 has been a busy year.

Before mentioning the book list, there are a few announcements to make. Congratulations to KCET's pioneering columnist Jeremy Rosenberg for winning the California Historical Society's inaugural book award, for his manuscript, "Under Spring." The award is well deserved. Rosenberg wrote two weekly columns at KCET and has been diligently covering the city's arts and personalities as a journalist at places like the L.A. Times for 15 years. The book will be published by Heyday Books in Fall 2014.

In more book news, U.S.C.'s Annenberg School for Communication is making a digital push for Annenberg Press, with a new focus on publishing innovative scholarly work in an e-book format. Long respected for publishing an academic journal, Annenberg Press is branching out to the wider market, and their first three books are already available. One of their biggest forthcoming titles is a collection of political cartoons, edited by the celebrated artist Mr. Fish. A look at their forthcoming titles shows work addressing topics like the Arab Spring, China, the NSA, and Wikileaks. The future of the press looks promising on the basis of their content alone.

Among the many recent venues hosting readings, one of the most progressive in the city is Machine Project on Alvarado Street, just north of Sunset in Echo Park. The informal venue hosts about two free events a week, "scientific talks, poetry readings, musical performances, competitions, group naps, cheese tastings and so forth." The building's location is the former site of Frank Sosa's 33 1/3rd Books, which existed for almost a decade. Sosa sold independent literature and had one of Banksy's first L.A. art shows, along with Brian Cross and Eric Coleman of Mochilla, back in 2001. Over the years Saul Williams and authors like John Sinclair appeared at the shop before the venue closed its doors a few years back. This is why Machine Project being in the same building is excellent. Last week Douglas Kearney gave a multimedia poetic performance, and some of the city's best publishers, like Les Figues Press, have been holding regular events there. Over the years Les Figues has published some of the most artful anthologies and themed poetic manuscripts, like "The Noulipian Analects." Their most recent books by Dodie Bellamy and Chris Tysh keep their innovative ways alive.

Another great recent development is a bustling performance and web series in Orange County, called "Live at the Ice House" in the city of Orange near Chapman College. Curated by Philip Romero, frequent music and poetry events have been held in his venue with a collective of up-and-coming artists. Romero wears multiple hats as a musician, filmmaker, producer and art director. Singer-songwriter Joshua Douglas is one of his close comrades, and partner on music and film projects. "William Pilgrim & the All Grows Up" is their musical project, intended to call attention to teenage homelessness. They have filmed several web episodes and are now producing a documentary on their local community of artists. Drawing a large diverse crowd, their venue and series continues to become more popular, debunking stereotypes about activism and community service in Orange County.

And finally, congratulations is in order to the great poet David Judah from Machine Pomona for his recent engagement. The longtime host of Lionlike Mindstate recently proposed to his fiancée and she accepted. Furthermore, his gallery/performance space in Downtown Pomona continues to flourish with a busy schedule of art and poetry events.

Now on to the books.

Two Sides of the Same Hunger
by Jasmine Colbert
SEP Publishing

Colbert is a Pasadena-based poet that writes elegant verse connecting the dots between John Coltrane, Gwendolyn Brooks, and digging the crates. The book consists of 42 poems, some of them meditations, some affirmations, and a few are lists; all of them are rooted in musicality. The ease of her line makes for easy reading aloud: "As we enjoy the comfort food of this familiar hour." A conversational tone makes the poems direct and satisfying. A quiet power bubbles up: "Believe me when I say there is an end/to the end you seek." Colbert also performs her work live in jazz venues. These poems hold up on the page and the stage. This collection of love poems is meticulously crafted.

A Book Beginning What And Ending Away
by Clark Coolidge
Fence Books

Clark Coolidge's latest 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. 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. Coolidge is the bridge between the Beats, the New York School, and Language Poets, and his skills are so precise that each camp claims him.

by Kevin Coval
Haymarket Books

"Schtick" is Kevin Coval's 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 and offers a multi-dimensional perspective. 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.

Robert Stacy-Judd's plans for the never-built National Hall in Hollywood | from Never Built: Los Angeles
Robert Stacy-Judd's plans for the never-built National Hall in Hollywood | from Never Built: Los Angeles

Never Built Los Angeles
by Greg Goldin & Sam Lubell
Metropolis Books

"Never Built Los Angeles" is a mind-blowing volume of over 100 visionary designs that never made it past the drawing board. Created in conjunction with an exhibit at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, "Never Built" offers a window into a future we could have had. Page after page the book shows "what if" master-plans by luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, the Olmstead Brothers, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Morphosis, and dozens of other important architects. The full-color regalia of master plans in these pages, combined with the utopian and experimental urbanism presented within, make for a majestic dream-book and fantastic roadmap to Never Built Los Angeles.

The Muse is Music
by Meta DuEwa Jones
University of Illionois Press

This interdisciplinary text spotlights the influence of jazz on African American poetry, from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary spoken word poetry. Jones connects the dots between generations, from the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, hip hop and bebop jazz. Her extensive knowledge, on both the history and technical aspects of these movements and their poetics, grounds the book in well-researched scholarship. Jones discusses contemporary poets like Saul Williams and Major Jackson, and she shows how they merge "the vernacular, the literary and performance."

Songs in the Key of Los Angeles
by Josh Kun
Angel City Press

Using sheet music from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, "Songs in the Key of Los Angeles" provides an illuminating musical window into Southern California from 1849 to 1959. Featuring the colorful and elaborately designed covers of over one hundred pieces of vintage sheet music, the songs and accompanying prose cover the whole gamut of Los Angeles history, from mythic missions, orange groves, Hollywood history, the railroad, Jazz Age waltzes, Mexican folk traditions, and the rise of West Coast Jazz. The book also features contributions from William Deverall, Jim Heimann, Victoria Dailey, John Koegel, Stew, Van Dyke Parks, Inna Arzumanova, and Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje. This will be a classic for years to come.

Songs in the Key of Los Angeles
Songs in the Key of Los Angeles

On The Edge
by Char Miller
Trinity University Press

In "On the Edge," Char Miller deftly explores environmental and water issues and the meaning of place along the U.S.-Mexico border area, with particular focus on San Antonio and Los Angeles. Miller offers a crash course in environmental history, with a wide range of topics and writers cited. Whether writing about water politics, immigration, or careless development, he gracefully bridges the conflicting environmental and human edges in these essays and skillfully creates a roadmap of transformative local sites across the Southwest. Miller weaves historiographical and autobiographical elements to write a compelling narrative that in essay after essay urges readers to raise their awareness to the many environmental challenges growing every day.

Collected Poems
by Ron Padgett
Coffee House Press

Clocking in at almost 800 pages, this book of collected poems reflects the work of a man in his seventh decade. Among the hundreds of poems in the collection are a variety of forms and lyrical registers. His playfulness in itself is inspiring. Padgett's lightness of touch jumps from every page. As he says, "It's enough/to make you happy." Generally speaking, his voice is consistently direct and funny, but he also dabbles with nonlinear narrative and sonic poetry. Some of the pieces are more traditional, some are prose poems, and some share the tone of Jack Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma." A certified member of the New York School, and close comrade to the legendary Ted Berrigan, Padgett is a living leviathan and this collection is his box set.

Eye of Witness
by Jerome Rothenberg
Black Widow Press

Jerome Rothenberg is one of the biggest advocates for global poetry and has been highly prolific since the 1950s. His anthologies have published West African griots, Navajo chant, Hasidic tales, Iroquois legend, Asian epic, the Kabbalah, immigrant histories, and other alternative forms not usually considered poetry by Western standards. He's spent many years opening up the poetry canon and has advocated poetries of indigenous people around the world. Rothenberg writes, "I believe that everything is possible in poetry and that our earlier 'Western' attempts at definition represent a failure of perception we no longer have to endure." The new anthology of his work is a goldmine of writing that crosses borders and languages.

The Speech
by Gary Younge
Haymarket Books

Younge tells the background story to Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech in this perfect short book. The author provides a deeper context to the era, and discusses the year leading up to the day King delivered his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Young highlights key confidants in the civil rights movement, like Bayard Rustin, and also addresses how King's speech has been misread over the years. Most of all, the book further explicates why King's speech was so effective, as well as providing a deeper context behind some of the specific ideas. In his conclusion, Younge writes, "Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreams of a better world where historical wrongs have been righted and good prevails. That is why the speech means so much to me and why I believe that overall, it has stood the test of time." Younge's well written account is a masterpiece.

Speaking of inspiring, the Los Angeles landscape of arts and letters maintains a dynamic standard. 2013 has been eventful to say the least. Advocates like Jessica Ceballos mobilized dozens of poets for organized readings on the Metro and in underground street tunnels. In other developments, poet Luis Rodriguez is running for governor, and deserving writers like Will Alexander won the American Book Award, and Joe Gardner won the Joe Hill Labor Poetry Award. Readings all over the city, from the Machine Project, Machine Pomona, the Cobalt Café, Rapp Saloon, A Mic & Dim Lights, and the Ice House, served hundreds of poets in 2013 and will serve hundreds more next year. Simultaneously as we speak, the World Stage fights for survival, and legends like Wanda Coleman and Richard Dedeaux from the Watts Prophets recently passed. Salute to these titans. Their legacy is why it is that much more important to carry the work on. All in all, 2013 has been one of the best years yet in the firmament of L.A. Letters.

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