By Brian Dunlap
A bustling York Blvd., with mouth-watering smells wafting in the air from food trucks parked curbside. Near the corner of York and Avenue 50 is Pop-Hop Books, one of L.A.’s many independent bookstores.
I’ve decided to fight the traffic from Mar Vista because the three local poets, Joseph Rios, Michele Brittan-Rosado and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, were reading plus San Francisco poet Heather June Gibbons, out on her book tour for Her Mouth is a Souvenir. The night was cool and Pop-Hop small.
Pop-Hop Books was founded in 2012 at a time when Highland Park lacked such a cultural community space. At a time when people still questioned the viability of a bookstore as a business. But the community has a long history of literary arts. Writers like Charles Lummis, Hubert Selby Jr., and former L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith (in nearby Mt. Washington) among others have called the area home. And Arroyo Books served the community for years, opening in 1990 and curated an extensive selection of Chicano and Latin American literature for Highland Park’s then majority Latino population.
On this night, January 10th, the crowd was intimate, held in rapt attention as each poet read. Michelle Brittan-Rosado read first. Originally from Vacaville, she now lives in Long Beach. She read for only the second time from her full length debut Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. Her poems explore her mixed-race identity (California- Malaysian) and she talked about how her mother is still a Malaysian citizen and has not yet become an American citizen, still wanting to hold on to her identity and culture and family back home. Plus, her work explores coming of age, diaspora and cultural inheritance.
Then Brittan-Rosado read her poet “Customs” that explores these ideas:
At the airport, after a long journey, a mother
and father divide like a cell-foreign
and domestic-into their respective lines
for citizens and noncitizens.
The short shotgun-like dimensions of Pop-Hop helped foster a warm, intimate atmosphere. A space that made talking with writers before and after the readings inviting.
When Joseph Rios read, he spoke about when he started out as a poet, a Chicano from Fresno-Clovis attending Fresno City College nearly 12 years ago. He mentioned looking at the poets (students and teachers alike) in Fresno State’ creative writing program as the big time. How he wanted to get to know and learn from them. This was at time Michelle Brittan- Rosado attended the Fresno State program and he described how they met, hanging out at department parties. Rios read a Fresno poem called ‘Southpaw Curse” dedicated to Romiro and Victor Martinez, a Fresno artist and his brother Victor, the first Chicano to win the National Book Award for his Fresno-set young adult novel Parrots in the Oven. Part of the poem goes:
Ramiro parks his elliptical bike in Tokyo
goes inside and drinks two bottles
of warm sake and reads Parrot in the Oven
in the voice of Burgess Meredith…
He leaves rubbing his throat
still with much more to say
And I remembered when Victor Martinez signed my copy, he was the first writer to say, “Good luck on your writing.”
When San Gabriel Valley native Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo read, she spoke about her week long residency at Gettysburg National Battlefield. While there she’d asked if any Chicanos or anyone that had brown skin had fought in the battle and was informed there was no evidence and no knowledge of that. This illustrated how people like her are left out of the narrative the county always tells about its self. This led into the reading of several of her Gettysburg poems, speaking to fish-out- of-water feeling, of being “other” while there; the looks she got when she was in town.
Heather June Gibbons is the type of poet that doesn’t say much when introducing her poems and lets her work speak volumes. At least that’s how she read at Pop-Hop. Living and teaching in San Francisco has influenced her work, but she is not a writer of place. She reads poems about failed love, among others. She invoked the Bay and the Bridge.
When the night was over and Pop-Hop went to sleep, I drove back across town, satisfied by a night of good literature and by how the intimate reading venue helps sustain Highland Park’s, and the city’s, vast literary culture.