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Transforming Poetry Spaces in Los Angeles


As Mike "the Poet" Sonksen showcased this month, there's a smorgasbord of poetry to enjoy throughout the city. Apart from coffee shops and traditional literary spaces, poetry in L.A. also finds it ways into unlikely spaces. In these cases the poets transform the space, albeit temporarily, into something living.

For National Poetry Month we asked several poets in Greater Los Angeles to cover events in non-traditional spaces. Below are responses from the poets, including a poet, event curator, and student, who all cover separate venues and events in L.A. that showcase poetry outside of its element.

Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge

Kaya Press Booth at the Los Angeles Festival of Books
Kaya Press Booth at the Los Angeles Festival of Books

By Rachelle Cruz

The instructions: "Write a postcard to someone who isn't here. You can write about your experience at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, if you want. Leave your postcard here for others to read and be inspired to write."

Last Saturday at the Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, festival participants, including a group of sixth graders from an elementary school in West L.A., created an Exquisite Corpse (a Surrealist collaborative poem) using postcards. As a poet and teacher, it was a thrill for me to see students and their families excited about making art and writing poems about their communities and love for reading.

One student wrote: "Dear Grandma, I hope that one day you can come here. I love you." Other students doodled and wrote their love for Los Angeles, their schools, dinosaurs, and poetry on the postcards. Later, students taped them on posterboard to share with passersby who were also invited to contribute.

The Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge was hosted by Kaya Press, an independent publisher of Asian Pacific Islander diasporic literature, which recently relocated to the University of Southern California (USC).

During the organizing phase of the Lounge, Kaya Press emphasized their vision of a space that would highlight independent literary publishing in the Los Angeles/Southern California area and provide an interactive experience of book-making for visitors of the booth. They invited independent presses and publications, such as Writ Large Press, Les Figues, eohippus labs, Tia Chucha, Boxcar Poetry Review, and many others to share the booth space.

Throughout the day, many passersby spent hours engaging with local authors and participating in art activities. Red velvet cupcakes and cookies were passed around to celebrate the birthday of a local poet. At the Make-Your-Own-Anthology station, visitors selected a cover, then edited, collated and bound anthology pages featuring poems published by small presses. They also mapped literary institutions in Los Angeles, folded paper airplanes, banged the keys on an old typewriter and wrote poems.

Visitors were encouraged to hang out, create, and have fun, rather than awkwardly collect flyers and purchase books (which happens at so many typical festival booths). Kaya Press transformed the booth into a space for making art and literary experiments. The Smokin' Hot Indie Lit Lounge was a creative respite where participants rested from the heat and rejuvenated themselves with creative and community interaction.

Rachelle Cruz is the author of the chapbook, Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood (Dancing Girl Press,2012). She hosts "The Blood-Jet Writing Hour" Radio Show on Blog Talk Radio. An Emerging Voices Fellow, a Kundiman Fellow and a VONA writer, she lives and writes in Riverside, California.

Poesia Para La Gente (Poetry for the People)

Poesia Para La Gente at The Los Angeles Mission
Poesia Para La Gente at The Los Angeles Mission

By Luivette Resto

In December 2010 I inherited the La Palabra poetry reading series held every fourth Sunday of the month at Avenue 50 Studio, located appropriately on Avenue 50 in Highland Park. It's fitting that La Palabra is held in a space that respects and showcases Latino/a art. The gallery complements the spoken word as much as the spoken word complements the art -- there is a symbiotic relationship with the two. It's not unnatural to have a painting or a portrait about injustice, as a poet reads about books being banned in Arizona. It's as if the space is a living organism that feeds and reflects the energy of the poets. But what happens when the space changes?

Last summer La Palabra was awarded a grant from the James Irvine Foundation for an offsite reading series called Poesia Para La Gente (Poetry for the People). The goal of the series is to hold poetry readings in non-traditional locations -- places other than coffee houses, institutions, or galleries. We understand that due to geography or finances not everyone can attend a poetry reading. Therefore, Poesia Para La Gente's intention is to bring the poetry to the community, wherever that may be.

The inaugural program was held on September 16, 2011, at Homeboy Industries, a non-profit gang rehabilitation organization in downtown L.A. We had to open a second room to accommodate the overflow of people, and like with every La Palabra, we started with an open mic where many Homeboy Industry participants shared their work, which prompted them to be the featured poets at the November La Palabra. This is one of the goals with Poesia Para La Gente: establishing relationships with other organizations that have a strong sense of community and outreach.

The second Poesia Para La Gente event took place in December at the L.A. Mission, with featured poets reading in the auditorium. Considering it was the holidays, the mission seemed like a logical place for a poetry reading, where the spoken word could provide a sense of hope and motivation for those facing tough times.

The next Poesia Para La Gente event is being planned for May at a Highland Park Mexican restaurant, where The Taco Shop Poets will read. Again, a non-traditional space that will provide wider access of the spoken word to the Northeast Los Angeles community.

Like line breaks in a poem, choosing a space for a poetry event is never arbitrary. The space should be a reflection of the featured poets, the energy of the audience, and the event itself. Regardless if it's an art gallery, restaurant, or gang rehab center, the space is a work of art by itself. It just like a poem tells a story, and the melding of poetry with the space creates a brand new story worth listening to.

Luivette Resto's first book of poetry "Unfinished Portrait" was published in 2008 by Tia Chucha Press and was named a finalist for the 2009 Paterson Poetry Prize. Currently, she lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, José and their three children. Resto is an adjunct professor at Citrus College where she teaches English Literature and composition writing.

Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour

Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour at Harvelle's in Downtown Long Beach
Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour at Harvelle's in Downtown Long Beach

By Samir Benouar

Stairs to a basement bar almost never lead to a classy situation, unless, of course, you stumble down the steps to Harvelle's in Downtown Long Beach. Once a month, poet Derrick Brown hosts the Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour, putting on an elegant evening of poetry, comedy, and music, in the uncommon form of a contest. Met at the door by a team of cocktail waitresses in flapper dresses, military caps, and gloves up to their elbows, show-goers pay a reduced price if dressed in similar attire -- about half the attendees were dressed to impress, showing the cult-following Brown has created around his event.

The unique quality of the atmosphere and those in attendance play directly off the setting. Harvell's, with tufted red leather adorning walls, doors and plush couch-like seats, with a bar stocked full of beer and booze, seem like a blast from some prohibition-era speakeasy past. Lining the wooden floor are candle-lit table booths, adding a different touch from the usual rows of chairs at poetry readings. It feels like Sinatra is backstage, getting his last powder before going on.

At the night of my attendance, the first contestant was David Ohlsen. Decked out in his cocktail uniform, a suit, yellow button up and tie, Ohlsen, a former UC Riverside student, was dressed far from the bohemian garb normally seen at literary events. He was given, along with each of the six other competitors, an object picked from the many alley-ways or streets of Long Beach by Brown and his compatriots at Write Bloody Publishing. A 1980s board game called Teen ended up in Ohlsen's hands, who wrote a poem detailing the ridiculous nature in which we reach our youth. Steeped in comedy and the innate reality of pop culture's need to sensationalize, Ohlsen was a great creaking door, opening up to six more acts of similar perspective and nutty nature.

Literary events in L.A. are not often found right out your front door. Yet, a lot of what does happen in L.A. is inventive, innately funny, and above all else, uniquely entertaining, worth the time to watch and the time to create.

Samir Benouar is a Sacramento native and student in the University of California Riverside creative writing program.

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