by Brian Dunlap
A lot has happened in Los Ángeles Literature in May. Writers were running workshops for the community and they all came together on the 19th and 20th in Pasadena’s Theater District for the 7th Annual LitFest Pasadena, celebrating local writers and presses. Plus, as many L.A. writers teach at local high schools, community colleges and universities and as the school year ends, they’ve been reflecting on the impact they’ve had on their students. One has been recognized for his teaching with an award.
At the start of May, political poet Matt Sedillo announced he’d been chosen by the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, as their new writer-in- residence. He said he wants to use his position much in the same way Luis J. Rodriguez did during his time as the Poet Laureate of Los Ángeles: to bring poetry to all corners of the community he serves; the East L.A. County and West Inland Empire region Sedillo will be serving. He plans to bring poetry workshops and readings to local community colleges like Chaffey and high schools like Pomona High and bring students and community (especially communities and students of color) to the dA Center for different literary events that empower them to write their own truths on topics directly relevant to their lives. Sedillo has already put his plan into action when, last month, he teamed up with the exhibit Imagine Pomona that asked Pomona residents, “What is Pomona?” Residents were asked questions like: What’s your idea of a great community? What is missing from Pomona? Sedillo ran a workshop as part of the series titled “Personal is Political.”
Poets Jessica Wilson Cardenas, Dr. Irene Sanchez and Nancy Lynée Woo are just a few of the local writers who ran community and guest creative writing workshops around the Southland this month at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock, UCLA and at the 1888 Center in Orange respectively. Jessica Wilson Cardenas’ workshop “What I See Around Me” was about “Observation, memory and speaking your truth” that brought “teens, adults and seniors together in a conversation around place making and identity.” Dr. Sanchez’s UCLA workshop “Time Together” was a writer’s workshop for womxn of color in academia, dedicated to self-care and healing in the academy. Woo’s workshop at the 1888 Center “Real Artists Don’t Starve” was about saying goodbye to the idea that artists must struggle just because they are artists. It aimed to shift people’s thinking to get artists out of the self-defeating mindsets that prevent them from making money as an artist or pursuing an artist’s life.
LitFest Pasadena brought together many of the Southland’s most powerful writers and literary presses. Southern California’s oldest independent bookstore Vroman’s (est. 1894) has served as LitFest’s main host, with panels and readings both upstairs and outside in their courtyard. The most powerful panel I attended was a reading performance by The Ovary Office, four black women poets (V, Kali, Pam Ward, Bridgette Bianca and Jaha Zainabu), whose unflinching factual truths about racism, sexism and the intersection of both, about their bodies, mixed with enough humor to help lighten the reading’s heaviness, demonstrated the full power literature can assert. Ward, the organizer, infused the humor by creating a courtroom like atmosphere by using a meat tenderizer as a judge’s gavel and a wooden board she banged it against to bring order to the reading when she thought it was getting out of hand, accompanied by the cries of “Order! Order in the court!”
The other panels and readings I attended over the two days of LitFest were “The Future of Publishing” that featured the local presses of Kaya (publishing Asian and Pacific Islander Diasporic literature), Prospect Park Books (general trade publisher focusing on fiction, mysteries, cooking/food, humor, and regional/gift titles), Rare Bird Books (independent publisher of approximately fifty+ books each year in multiple formats, including print, ebook, audiobook, and limited edition), Lil Libros (introducing children to bilingualism and Latin American culture through picture board books ), Red Hen (publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, and promoting literacy in our local schools), and New Vessel (translations of foreign literature into English). The Table Reading Series featured: Jian Huang, Jillian Lauren, Joshua Mensch, Angelina Sáenz, Seth Fischer, Antonia Crane, Josh Tager, Brian Lin, Bridgette Bianca. WORD: The Return of the Spoken Word Poetry Panel featured poets: F. Douglas Brown, Mike Sonksen – Moderator, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, and Jessica M. Wilson Cárdenas. Truth in Identity: Writers Share Their Truths With the Next Generation — A Reading featured: Pat Alderete, Jean Guerrero, Detrice Jones, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Benin Lemus, Gary Phillips, Andrew Ramirez, Jevey Tervalon, and Daniel Voll. The Storytellers of Our Community featured: Erika Ayón, Nadia Hunter Bey, Tommy Domino, Penelope Lowder, and Jaha Zainabu, all storytellers from the Leimert Park Village and Community Literature Initiative (CLI) run by L.A. poet Hiram Sims.
Further, as May signals the end of the school year, L.A.’s local teaching writers, like novelist Alex Espinoza (professor at Cal State L.A.), have been reflecting on the past school year. Espinoza said in a Facebook post:
This semester, I taught a class for the Honors College. Our title was “LA: Sunshine and Noir.” Some of the things we examined were gentrification, homelessness, wealth disparity, and food insecurity. We read “Day of the Locust” and talked about stardom and fanaticism and the interplay between fantasy and reality. We looked at the Rodney King trial and the LA Uprising through the eyes of Ana Devere Smith. We read essays about immigrant campus and ICE agent sweeps, maquiladoras, and Scientology. I’m lucky to be able to have such passionate and forward thinking students who are bold, unafraid, and courageous. As we wrapped up, one student, Hannah, presented me with a plate of home baked brownies, and another gave me a thank you card. She wrote the following:
“Dear Alex (Professor Espinoza):
Thank you for a wonderful semester! I came into this somewhat hesitant of what to expect, but on the first day of class you tackled these thoughts and made me think otherwise. I didn’t know what to expect but I am coming out of this class with so much more knowledge about LA that I hadn’t known before. Although you’ve stated to the class how difficult this semester was or more so how demanding and busy it was, I’d like to commend you for your constant efforts/communication to our class. I am appreciative of this class for what I’m taking out of it but also for getting the chance to learn from such an understanding and passionate professor like you! You’re a hard worker and are great at what you do. Whether you know it or not, you’re making a difference in your students’ lives! Take this break to enjoy and relax; you deserve it! Thank you so much for a fun and interesting semester and class.”
Whenever I’m doubt and think I’m dumb or that I don’t know anything or whatever, can someone remind me of this? And this is why I do what I do. For them. Always have. Always will. Thanks, my students. I am so very proud of you all.
Also, Mike “The Poet” Sonksen (Adjunct Professor at Woodbury University) had his essay “The History of South Central Los Angeles and Its Struggle With Gentrification” published by KCET, nominated as a finalist for the LA Press Club Awards. The awards ceremony will be held on June 24. Plus, Sonksen was awarded Woodbury’s Excellence in Teaching Award for the 2017-2018 school year, given by the associated students for his outstanding efforts. And in a campus article about Sonksen titled “Mike ‘the Poet’ Sonksen Helps Pave the Way for Woodbury’s Aspiring Writers,” it opens “Hint to aspiring writers on campus: if you want to get published, hang out with Mike the Poet.”
Lastly, the 8th annual L.A. Zine Fest went down yesterday at the Pasadena Convention Center, where L.A.’s Zine community converged to discuss and bond over DIY literature, but unfortunately I was unable to attend. I hope it was as wonderful, if not better, than last year’s Zine Fest.