Poetics of Location by Mike Sonksen
Writ Large Press, 2016
64 pages – Writ Large Press
Los Angeles is one of those hard to pin down places because everyone has their own vision of what it is. There are some that look to LA as the land of Hollywood and celebrity – with idols of fame that dot the landscape; a place one can go to reinvent themself. The city of “perfect” year-round weather paired with a dysfunctional transit system that forces everyone into their cars. You have the track homes and Victorian marvels blocks from one another, both with their own sets of history. It is a city of enormous sprawl – individual communities closed off from one another. Then there is the varying topography that can shift from desert to mountain to sea all in an hour’s drive (without traffic of course). Then on the other side of all that sunshine is LA Noir with tales of gangsters and murders that fascinate to this day. But what really encompasses LA? What does it mean to the people who live here? Will live here? The truth is, LA is an amalgamation of all the aforementioned things while being none of those things at the same time. Like every major city, it is a place whose history and spatial relationship is wholly unique to the individual. Everyone has a story, and few understand that the way Mike Sonksen does.
As both a poet and a scholar, Sonksen has dedicated his life to the city of Los Angeles. His work on the column “Departures” for KCET is a wealth of information, sharing the rich histories of LA neighborhoods, single buildings, and community events, as well as important figures. Artistically, he has been presenting his unique brand of socially conscious and educationally grounded spoken poetry across the city and beyond for many years. Bringing together years of labor, he recently released chapbook Poetics of Location on Writ Large Press’ imprint Small Print. The chapbook, like much of his work, explores the voice of the city by combining his artistic and scholarly approaches to the concepts of location, space, history, mapping, and the effects all these things have on communities, resulting in a collection that is a pleasure to read.
“If you listen they will tell you,” the opening line to Sonksen’s poem “Arrival Stories” – a poem that brings together personal accounts of how individuals arrived in LA – perfectly encapsulates what makes Sonksen so adept at what he does. He listens. He listens to the history of a place. He listens to the city, its streets and alleys. He listens to the buildings as they change or stand fast through out many generations. Most importantly he listens to people and the people’s interaction with the landscape that really shape the history of Los Angeles. This level of detail is evident in his work from the care and scholarship that goes into knowing the history of a life. Sonksen’s work shows equivocally that he cares about people, all people, not just a single story.
After Sonksen listens to the stories that the city has to tell, he maps. In the introduction to the book Sonksen speaks on his process when he states that he has “always been guided by mapping information, uncovering a little known relevant fact or telling an untold historical narrative”. His maps are those that encompass more than crossroads. He maps as documentation, as historian, as social activist, and an analysis of place, taking reference from many scholars work and synthesizes them into something all his own. Peter Turchi’s concepts of The Writer as Cartographer take residence in his writing approach; so do Dolores Hayden and her seminal book The Power of Place. While not referenced in the introductory essay, The Poetics of Space by Bachelard is present in the work through the discussion of how events leave lasting traces on a space.
The poems themselves are broken up into three main sections. While each section touches on the idea of mapping and location, each section has a more specific focus. The first Turn a New Leaf discusses shifts in time, in ideology, in social justice, and perception. The opening poem “Modernism” charts the path that brought about modernism and the roads that it laid out for the next generations to come:
symbolism, decadence & impressionism,
Baudelaire’s passionate observer
set the archetype for the flaneur
dada anarchists & automatic writing
dream work & collaboration
breaking down boundaries
words set free
make it new
art as social action
Like Derrida, who performed his theories in the texts he presented, Sonksen is presenting the reader with these sketches of the historical and cultural landscape landscape, literally mapping out Modernism and the resonances that it left behind. Other poems in this section continue themes on these of change as well as social and racial injustices that have occurred.
The section Landmarks dissects the definition of what a landmark is, explicating the various meanings through his poetic devices. On one level he talks about historical buildings and locations, while on another he touches on the meaning of landmarks as metaphor for historical moments, as well as the intersection of the two. Mainly this section is a celebration of forgotten sites of those that people do not always appreciate anymore. An acrostic poem about Union Station in Los Angeles is a great example of his mapping of history through poetic forms while focusing on a landmark many people neglect:
Union Station is a hallowed crossroads
Nerve center of the City Beautiful
Iconic Mission Moderne Span-Deco
Opulent floor mosaics made of marble
Noisy voices echo through tunnels…
Two other poems in this section form the shapes of the things that they are discussing, calling back to modernism and tying it in with the first section of the book. I especially enjoyed the visual power of the piece on groves. Taking a list and giving it a visual nature gives the concept so much more voice and power.
The final section Southwest Concerto takes the poems on the road. Sonksen covers the Southwest and its rich history of travel, of hope, of despair, colonialism, and change. Ultimately shining a light on the roots of an area that is far richer than any settler would have thought. The poem “Language of Blood” discusses the human cost of our shared: history in the desert.
The sociopolitical context equals Conquest
settlement, occupation, language
soil, cooperation and blood purity
discord, empowerment and memory
the social relations of power
codes of coercion and ideological fissures
Not all of the poems in this section discuss America’s shared failures; they also discuss our shared successes and hopes. There is a power in reporting on a history that wishes to be forgotten. It gives voice to the voiceless. The previously mentioned poem arrival stories brings together what makes Los Angeles as wonderful a town as it is, the great collection of people and their vastly different stories. The people are what make up the spirit of a place in the eyes of this poet and he focuses his effort on mapping that out in order to give it voice.
With all the mention of voice, one thing to note is that Sonksen is a modern day bard at heart. So the majority of his poems have a vocal quality to them. They are best heard or read aloud so you can truly pick up on the harmonic resonance that are strewn throughout. The language play that Mike Sonksen employs is a mix of old school hip hop with an historian’s flair that has a rhythm that should be appreciated.
For work that is so formally and theoretically rich, one thing as that has always struck me about Mike Sonksen’s work, which continues in this collection, is how much enjoyment he is able to bring into learning. All of his poems are educational, a true treasure trove of information – little known gems that he meticulously mines and then joyfully shares with anyone who will listen. This joy is so utterly infectious that you cannot help but feel good after having come in contact with it. As cheesy as this notion sounds, if you have ever had the pleasure of hearing him speak you will know exactly what I mean. Mike Sonksen is here to remind you that “We are alive in Los Angeles,” a city rich with history, and what a time it is.