Listen to Get Lit poet Vanessa's unapologetic poetry saying "I can only write this poem once." Watch now.
…Let it be said
while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty — and that,
my love, is what sustained us.
-- from “Transit” by Rita Dove
Poetry often stands as a record of difficult times and a testament to how individuals and communities overcome them. As Los Angeles shut down due to COVID-19 and the requisite quarantine, so did the places where people once gathered for poetry and the connection it provides. Amidst social distancing, heightened tension and anxiety from the political atmosphere, L.A.’s poetry community moved online and offered new ways to engage in the art that searches the moment and finds meaning within it.
The late-poet and professor June Jordan stated, “Poetry is a political act because it involves truth-telling.” Its ability to distill truth into a small and mighty form makes it apt for social media and at a time where reported facts are constantly questioned. A recent National Endowment for the Arts survey showed that more adults in the U.S. were reading poetry. Between 2012 and 2017, the estimated percent of adults reading poetry increased from 6.7% to 11.7%, most notably amongst 18-24 year olds. In the poetry anthology “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time,” past U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith noted that poetry can also “collapse the distance between you and fifty different real or imagined people…[and] go some way toward making us, whoever and wherever we are, a little less alien to one another.” Sharing poems in community with others, even virtually, can provide a semblance of closeness prevented by physical distance.
Over the past months, L.A. arts and culture organizations offered online programming that utilized poetry to meaningfully engage with the public they could not open their facilities to. The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design hosted an online and open-air exhibition “Every. Thing. Changes.” that combined visual works, poetry and other texts inspired by the new 2020 decade. The Autry Museum of the American West offered L.A. Poets in Place, a series of readings that focused on aspects of the city that were missed during quarantine (with follow-up workshops that explored the museum’s online art archives). The readings and workshops were held over the Zoom platform, which allowed over 100 participants to simultaneously view each other onscreen, respond to poems with snaps and converse with each other in the chat box. Several audience members shared that they tuned in to reconnect with the home city they moved away from.
Since the beginning of quarantine and social distancing, prominent L.A. poetry groups such as Da Poetry Lounge and the Los Angeles Poet Society pivoted to online platforms to recreate the weekly readings and open mics they hosted in-person for years. Get Lit featured poetry classes and workshops for teens ages 13-19 and will continue to do so throughout the now-virtual school year. Leimert Park-based Community Literature Initiative posted “this week in L.A. poetry,” a weekly round-up of several L.A. poetry events and workshops. Regularly-scheduled poetry readings and open mics from across the region convened online via Facebook, Instagram Zoom or YouTube including Highland Park’s Avenue 50 Studio La Palabra Poetry Reading Series, Santa Monica’s Rapp Saloon Reading Series, Pasadena’s Saturday Afternoon Poetry and Long Beach’s NeverSpeakLB open mic. Eventbrite and Crowdcast continued to be updated with a host of poetry readings, workshops and events broadcast from L.A. and other cities, many of which do not require social media accounts.
Listen to readings from Lindsey Haley, a former farmworker, community activist and poet whose work captures the Chicanx culture:
Before the pandemic, Da Poetry Lounge (DPL) hosted one of the largest and longest-running open mics in the country, with regular crowds of 250 or more packing the Greenway Court Theatre in L.A. DPL began hosting its Tuesday night open mic on their Instagram page; it offered a critical space on the night of an election rife with contention. Poet, playwright, and DPL curator and host Jasmine Williams opened the night’s Instagram Live session with upbeat music, inviting the audience to dance away the day’s heaviness. One at a time, poets helming from Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and other regions joined Williams onscreen to reflect how they felt and share poems that expressed anger, worry or the commitment to joy in spite all of it. Listeners responded with a stream of comments and heart or fire emojis at the bottom of the screen. During a break between poets, Williams reassured the unseen but present crowd, “we’re gonna get through whatever happens today, through love and loving each other.” Gathering for poetry filled the uncertain moment with needed inspiration and human connection.
Listen to the poetry and music of Juan Cardenas, "The Beat of an Angel," which evokes the life and challenges of an angel:
Dove, Rita. “Transit.” Poem-A-Day. Academy of American Poets. April 5, 2016. https://poets.org/poem/transit
National Endowment for the Arts. “U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017 – A First Look at Results from the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.” Sept. 2018. https://www.arts.gov/news/2020/national-endowment-arts-releases-latest-survey-public-participation-arts
Quiroz-Martinez, Julie. Poetry is a Political Act: An Interview with June Jordan. Colorlines. Dec. 15, 1998. https://www.colorlines.com/articles/poetry-political-act
Smith, Tracy K. American Journal: 50 Poems for Our Time. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2018.
Top Image: The poetry section of a bookstore | Nick Fewings/Unsplash