Over the last five years, a number of books and anthologies have been published to spotlight literary Los Angeles and its rich landscape of poets and writers. The newest anthology is the most extensive yet. Tia Chucha Press has just released, “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles.” Edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas and Ruben J. Rodriguez, this collection includes 160 poets from well-known seasoned scribes like Wanda Coleman, Kamau Daaood, Michael C. Ford, California State Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, Peter J. Harris, Ruben Martinez, S. Pearl Sharp, Amy Uyematsu and Terry Wolverton to up-and-coming younger bards like Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, F. Douglas Brown, Jessica Ceballos, Chiwan Choi, Francisco Escamilla, William Gonzalez, Douglas Kearney, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Teka Lark, Karineh Mahdessian, Jeffrey Martin, Luivette Resto and Vickie Vertiz.
The book is dedicated to three great writers who have died in the last few years: Wanda Coleman, John Trudell and Francisco Alarcon. The volume’s four-page “Introduction,” is written by Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez and it goes a long way to describe the collection’s spirit.
“For me, Los Angeles is smoldering, deeply poetic, expansively settled, with rebellion beneath the normalcy, which has un chingo to do with our collective and personal spiritual awakenings, creative birthings, political schooling---why our lives are in flames,” Rodriguez writes in the anthology's introduction. He connects this smoldering spirit to the many civil unrests Los Angeles has had over the last Century and also to the contemporary shifting economic conditions that are transforming the city as we speak.
Rodriguez uses the checkered history of the city to explain the necessity of the book and his own role as one of L.A.’s guardian angels. He also connects this stewardship to the book’s title: “The coiled serpent is connected to the earth, but also ready to spring, to strike, to defend or to protect.” The poems in this collection are meant to protect Los Angeles from ever-present forces that threaten its communities.
He continues: “As I write this, mostly black and brown people in L.A. are being driven off older urban areas. Witness the gentrification of Echo Park, Highland Park, Pico-Union, Venice, sections of South Central. There’s a big 1930 Art Deco building on Broadway downtown where in the early 1980s I rented a space for $60 a month. Today this building has million dollar lofts.” This background information presented by Rodriguez lays the groundwork for the 340-plus pages of poems that follow.
As the inscription on the back-cover states: “This collection is more about range than representation, voice more than volume.” The poems discuss “the natural and unnatural condition of our city in the first 15 years of the new century: inequalities of income and race, how peace can blossom in a time of perpetual war, the escalation of police killings and climate peril.” Poems like Laurel Ann Bogen’s “Blue Smoke and Steel,” and F. Douglas Brown’s “What I Know About Watts,” debunk popular myths about the City of Angels, revealing another side that is only known by long-term residents. Other poems like Jen Hofer’s “Resolve,” catalog a day in the life of a local and capture the geography of her imagination: “The liquid light liquefies everything it touches, which is everything, making the opposite of halos, which is the exact outline of things against their backdrop of sky or wall of tree,” Hofer reveals.
The book’s hundreds of poems capture “the native and the immigrant (and so-called immigrants who are actually natives), the queer and straight, women and men, young and old, humanity in all its colors, voices, and fluidity.” In poem after poem, the electromagnetic spectrum that is Los Angeles is revealed again and again. “The angels here/have pigeon’s wings/blue collars/washed in sweat/the common salt/in tears/tongues swirl/in a stew of cultures/singing asphalt songs/in the mist of seagulls,” laments Kamau Daaood in his poem, “Los Angeles.” The asphalt songs swirling from Los Angeles’s stew of cultures make truly melodious music in the “Coiled Serpent.”