by Brian Dunlap
Last Saturday was the 5th annual Poetry Circus and the first time I attended. I was an hour late, but the circus ran from 5 pm – 10 pm at the Merry-Go-Round at Griffith Park. 44 L.A. poets were scheduled to read over three rings. 44 L.A. poets with vastly different voices and stories to tell.
Folding chairs were set up facing two mics. Local independent presses-Tía Chucha’s, World Stage, Sadie Girl-had their own tables set up around the Merry-Go-Round, selling mostly local authors.
The setting was perfect as Griffith Park is always beautiful. The chaparral-covered slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains’ eastern terminus provided a peaceful, quiet backdrop and break to the built expanse of L.A. The Merry-Go-Round near the old zoo. But the stars were the L.A. poets.
At first I didn’t like the format: each poet got three minutes to read, scheduled one right after the other. How would I keep track of all the poets I didn’t know and how would I be able to digest their powerful words? The readings went by so fast, how could I make new discoveries? As Ring One continued on, as Jerry Garcia, George Hammons, Kelly Grace Thomas and CSL Ferguson read, the format grew on me as I settled in to the entertainment and joy of the event and of a large swath of the L.A. literary community coming together to strengthen and further build the community.
Some poets read about: growing up in black neighborhoods, peers with big afros and deep voices, while other’s sported naturals, afro picks stuck in the back of their hair; the black body and police violence; sonnets about the power of poetry and the humanity in all people; how an old work place felt like a circus; of a beloved uncle who recently passed away; among other themes and ideas.
Ring Three that kicked off after a break to ride the Merry-Go-Round, a marionette performance by the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, to keep the circus theme going, and Luis J. Rodriguez’s feature, featured a plethora of Los Ángeles poets I knew or heard of: Gerda Govine, Lynn Thompson, Ashaki M. Jackson, Erika Ayón, Connie Williams, Alyssa Matuchniak, Cynthia Alessandro Briano, Julayne Lee and Mike Sonkson. They read as darkness slowly engulfed Griffith Park and the first hints of coolness tinged the air. As each poet’s name was called, they stepped to one of the mics and amid applause and raucous cheers of excitement, they read.
The most powerful moment was when poet Nicelle Davis, founder and organizer of the Poetry Circus, personally introduced the youngest poet, a former student of hers, who had just graduated from high school in the spring. He stood at the mic with poise and confidence of an established poet. His two poems were recited as spoken word, orated smoothly. One was about the black body, his black body and his unsafe place in American society, and what he’s learned about what society’s expectations are of him and what his dreams are.
After he read, I noticed him talking to Luis J. Rodriguez, former L.A. poet Laureate and L.A. literary icon, mentor and activist. My heart swelled. Upon hearing his two poems, I immediately hoped he would pursue a literary career. His poems showed he had the talent and that his ideas were necessary enough that people needed to hear them. There is no better person to talk to about pursuing a literary life in L.A., especially for a young writer of color, than Luis J. Rodriguez, a man who has always said poetry saved his life from the gang life and drugs he was involved with as a young man.
After the poets finished reading, the night was not yet over, but mine was. I enjoyed connecting and reconnecting with literary Los Ángeles, but I had no desire to stay for the literary cabaret. In the pitch dark of Griffith Park, I somehow found my car, and said goodbye to the Poetry Circus until next summer.