By Brian Dunlap
When the calendar turns to April it’s National Poetry month. Around the country the literary community emphasizes poets and poems that too often get left in the shadows of the literary world in favor of novels and memoirs or just narrative writing in general. Here at Los Angeles Literature, I’ve highlighted some talented Angeleño poets for Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Months, etc. along with talented narrative writers.
Since this month celebrates poetry, I’ll be highlighting some of the talented Angeleño poets that capture their L.A., and that speak to the diversity of voices found in Los Angeles Literature. In a city that produced the likes of Charles Bukowski, Luis J. Rodriguez, Amy Uyematsu, Kamu Daaood and Eloise Klein Healy, there are plenty to enjoy and not enough time to highlight them all. Plus, if anyone attends one of the over 30 plus open mics in the Los Angeles area, from Whittier, to Venice, to Sylmar, to Santa Ana and Pomona and all points in-between, one will find that Luis J. Rodriguez’s words ring true. “[Los Angeles] is a great poetry town.”
In the years since the Venice beats–think Lawrence Lipton and Stuart Perkoff—in the 1950’s, to today, there have been many poetry anthologies that attempt to highlight the essential poets of the city and attempts to collect the essential poems that speak to essence of what Los Angeles is. They range from the more recent and well known—”Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond” edited by Suzanne Lummis and “The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles” published by L.A. press Tía Chucha—to the older and lesser known anthologies such as “Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond” by Suzanne Lummis, “Poetry Loves Poetry: An Anthology of Los Angeles Poets,” by Bill Mohr and “Two Hundred and One: Homenaje a la Ciudad de Los Angeles/The Latino Experience in Los Angeles” by the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association.
The early Los Angeles poetry anthologies featured nearly all white writers and some, such as “Voices from Leimert Park: a poetry anthology,” that came along later, focused on a specific racial or ethnic group as a corrective to being ignored and left out by the city’s larger literary community. With the publication of “Wide Awake” and “The Coiled Serpent” came, by far, the most inclusive anthologies of Los Ángeles poets. And with “The Coiled Serpent” came an anthology that included many lesser known, up and coming and emerging L.A. poets of color: Vickie Vertiz, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Art Currim and Karineh Mahdessian.
Also there are two books (that I know of) that chronical the history of Los Ángeles’ poetry scene: “Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992” by Bill Mohr and “A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990” by Sophie Rachmuhl. Bill Mohr is one of the major figures in the Los Angeles poetry scene, who is a professor in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. Sophie Rachmuhl is a French academic who became enthralled by the city’s poetry scene when she was a visiting professor at UCLA in the late 1980s. I have only read “A Higher Form of Politics,” but both books, after building a context for the history they chronical, begin with the Venice Beats. Then both authors detail the history and poetic readings, workshops, and poets associated with Los Ángeles’ oldest literary institution Beyond Baroque established in 1968 in Venice, where it resides in the old Venice City Hall today. After, both books discuss the origins how the poetry scene in Los Angeles became more diverse with the Black Arts Movement—Watts Writers Workshop—and the changing scene with spoken word and Avant- Garde in the 1970s and 1980s.
Unfortunately both books end at the beginning of the 1990s and do not chronical the most diverse era in Los Angeles literature where poets such as Luis J. Rodriguez, Wanda Coleman, Sesshu Foster, and narrative writers like Nina Revoyr, Walter Mosley and Naomi Hirahara have written poetry collections and books that depict Los Ángeles’ complicated racial history as well as the vibrant communities their characters of color, or they themselves, come from. These last 25 years in Los Angeles Literature have also seen this increased output by native Angeleños from Alex Espinoza who grew up in La Puente to Mike Sonksen who has lived everywhere from Little Osaka in West L.A., to the Long Beach area, to the San Gabriel Valley.
From now until the end of the month I will be highlighting several Los Angeles poets that helped to make the city’s literary community so vibrant.