By Brian Dunlap
Los Angeles literature has deep roots. It essentially began in 1884 with Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson. Visiting writers like Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, have attempted to explain this sprawling metropolis. To criticize it because the city didn’t conform to the places they were from or couldn’t see Los Angeles beyond the confines of Hollywood. Other writers have moved to L.A. like Mona Simpson and Attica Locke and have made a life here, writing about the city or being too intimidated to try. But Los Angeles literature has increasingly become a literature written by its natives, shifting it from a literature of exile to a literature of belonging. Writers from Boyle Heights/East L.A., like Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodríguez; Watts like Kamau Daáood and Wanda Coleman; Leimert Park like A.K. Toney; the Westside like 2014 Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman; the young adult fiction of Francesca Lia Block; to Alex Espinoza, Amy Uyematsu, Naomi Hirahara, Helena María Viramontes and Steve Erickson are desperate to communicate their experience and tell us what they mean. To these writers Los Angeles is fundamentally home.
Like all culture in Los Angeles, L.A. Literature just happens. Gallery openings occur, theater productions open, literary reading and open mics take place, all with virtually no media attention. That’s the problem with L.A.; culture happens and no one knows about it. The L.A. Times virtually ignores its city’s lit scene except when the occasional book set in L.A. comes across their desk to review or it’s April and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books occurs. The L.A. Weekly only mentions the city’s literature in best of articles (best independent bookstores, best L.A. writers, best novels written about L.A.) Other than the occasional, maybe even rare, story about an author, etc., in a community paper and the L.A. Review of Books doing a good job publishing Los Angeles Writers and a decent job reviewing its literature, the only regular source of coverage for the Los Angeles literary scene is done by Mike “The Poet” Sonksen with his KCET.org column “L.A. Letters.”
Otherwise, one has to know all the independent bookstores, literary organizations, open mic venues, even museums, so one can keep abreast of what’s going on through the events pages of their websites.
That’s why it was all the more invigorating to attend Beyond Baroque’s event “Three Generations of L.A. Poetry,” Sunday afternoon, hosted by Mike Sonksen. Three generations graced the mic, from legend Michael C. Ford, who knew Charles Bukowski and performed with Venice legends The Doors, who read a long, passionate, engaging poem about the negative effects of creative writing programs on American Literature; F. Douglas Brown who read powerful poems about his son from his 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winning book Zero to Three, made all the more powerful and heartwarming seen through the context of America’s racial history, proving what all America needs to already know: there are good black fathers; to the next generation of L.A. poets, like 2014 Los Angeles Youth Poetry Laureate Finalist Laura Caustic, who read a powerful poem about what it means to be Latina/o in the U.S., especially coming from the Eastside of L.A.
All these poets from A.K. Toney, who is a regular poetry workshop leader down in Leimert Park and founder of Reading is Poetry, an organization dedicated to improving reading and writing comprehension, etc., to Christopher Luke Trevilla of the San Gabriel Valley and even Mike himself shared poems that are urgent, touching on race (what’s it like to be a black man in America), to the Latino/Mexican, Los Angeles, experience, to the gentrification that has made a permanent home in the historically black section of Venice called Oakwood. The three generations of L.A. poets spoke on some of the hard, difficult topics people always say are never talked about enough, through their eyes, their experience, had their voices heard.
These L.A. natives proved Sunday that literary wordsmithing is alive and healthy in Los Angeles and will continue whether the media notices or not.