By Brian Dunlap
Sunday at the Hollywood Hotel was a time to build community. 13 writers and active participants in the Los Ángeles literary community came together to discuss creating, nurturing and sustaining the community that means so much to them. Also, they came together to remind everyone, they too are writers, by sharing their work.
This was another edition of “The Table Reading Series”, created by Los Ángeles novelist Natasha Deón. It began last year with “the goal to help raise up the next generation of writers and readers to be actively engaged in the writing community; to invest in them, give them a space to begin, to reach new or estranged writers in Los Angeles, and to provide fresh outlets for writers and fans to engage and contribute to the vibrancy of the Los Angeles literary community.”
Jessica Ceballos (y Campbell), an indigenous me/xicana-afro-euskaldunak poet, writer, teaching artist, publisher, curator; Karineh Mahdession, L.A. poet and literary event curator; and Angelina Sáenz, a poet and professor, produced and organized the reading. They invited all 13 writers (Art Currim, Audrey Kuo, Brian Dunlap, Cynthia Alessandra Briano, Elmast Kozloyan, Jess Castillo, Jessica Wilson Cardenas, Kelly Grace Thomas, liz gonzález, Luis Antonio Pichardo, Mike Sonksen, Natalie Patterson, Sarah Thursday, Wyatt Underwood, and even Angelina Sáenz) and produced an accompanying zine that included one poem from each writer, distributed to everyone present. Some read their poem from the zine, some read another poem or two. Female poets read their powerful words on women’s—their own—empowerment, that fit perfectly into a weekend that included the women’s marches across the country. Luis Antonio Pichardo read a poem in Spanish. I read two poems about Los Angeles. The readers all read one type of social justice poetry or another, with Mike Sonsken reading his poem titled “LA is Better When We Ride Together.”
but policy makers don’t take the measures
necessary to ensure equity across the board
the trend is rising poverty, a city of working poor
Resegregation has dislodged diversity
One could just listen to how moved the audience was by each poem and poet they heard
However, it was the question and answer session that followed, where the talk was of sustaining and improving L.A.’s literary community, that brought out the writers’ passionate feelings. One aspect that was stressed was supporting literary organizations and events that already exist. Historically in Los Ángeles it’s been difficult to get Angeleños to support social and cultural entities (theater, museums, nonprofits, literary organizations, etc.). They instead complain about the lack of a vibrant theater scene or literary community without working to build up the scene or community. Other times Angeleños just repeat what already exists (why do we need another open mic, the city already has 50 or so?) because they haven’t taken the time to see if that reoccurring event or organization already exists, or it’s not run right, or for some other reason.
The discussion emphasized Angeleños should find what’s needed to improve a reoccurring literary event or literary organization, knowing what they are best at (how they can best help) and what resources they know about or can provide. Collaborate and Angeleños will find businesses and people willing to help (what can I do for you and what can you do for me?).
Another aspect of how to create, nurture and sustain the Los Ángeles literary community that was discussed was how to get the neighborhood that a literary organization or reading, etc. is located in, to be involved, either to help sustain that part of the literary community or for them to attend (be an audience member at a reading, for example) and support the poets and writers (especially the local ones) by buying their books. This kind of work, several panelists emphasized, including moderator Jessica Ceballos (y Campbell), is slow-going, stretching out over a long period of time, for a myriad of reasons—historical or otherwise—depending on the specific neighborhood the literary organization or reading is located in.
In this situation, they said, it’s vital for the people running the readings or organizations to invest the time in becoming an important part of the neighborhood. Make connections with the people living there. Have them understand what you are doing (what you are providing) and why you are doing it in that neighborhood. Conduct outreach.
At one point Jessica asked Mike Sonksen—third generation L.A. native and teacher, known for his published articles and poetry about L.A.—about his perspective on how the literary community has evolved over the years, what works and what doesn’t to nurture and sustain the community, having been a part of the community the longest of anyone on the panel.
When the questions and answer session concluded and “The Table Reading Series” ended, no one wanted to leave. For those several hours Sunday at the Hollywood Hotel, the L.A. literary community was nurtured and sustained. The invited poets wanted to continue socializing with their peers, shake off the isolation of writing, and interact with the larger populace that made up the audience. They wanted to continue to build community.
Excerpt from “Persimmons” by Audrey Kuo
of course you are
a gardener’s daughter
I see his hands
pulling this branch close
knowing when to cut
where to join
Audrey Kuo is a poet, writer, and community organizer who is deeply invested in building networks among queer and trans people of color working towards collective liberation, grounded in healing justice and disability justice. Their work is shaped by their identity as a queer, genderqueer second-generation Taiwanese-American.