Compton-born Dr. Robin Coste Lewis was just appointed the new Los Angeles Poet Laureate. Winner of the 2015 National Book Award and a Provost’s Fellow in Poetry and Visual Studies at USC, Lewis is an exceptional choice to follow the sterling benchmark set over the last two and half years by Luis Rodriguez. This essay will not only spotlight Lewis and how she is redefining Los Angeles poetry but also several other voices and their books that are working in the same spirit as Lewis to rewrite the narrative of Southern California poetry.
Lewis is a masterful poet and scholar having studied at Harvard, NYU and USC among other institutions. Her award-winning book from 2016, Voyage of the Sable Venus from Alfred A. Knopf publishing is a tour-de-force cataloging depictions of the black body in Western Art. Meditating especially on the depiction of the Black female figure throughout time, her lyric poems “consider the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self.” The title poem is almost 80 pages long and is comprised entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present. Melding historiography, cultural criticism and art history within her poetics, the experimental narrative is groundbreaking and triumphant.
The Real Compton
In addition to the powerhouse title piece, the collection also includes a few autobiographical poems bookending the long poem and one reflects on her childhood in Compton. The poem, “Frame,” recalls the agrarian history of Compton, the former restrictive housing covenants of Southern California and her memories of the people who lived in the farms in the southern section of the city during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The piece begins poignantly: “There’d been a field, a farm, hobos asleep in a chicken coop,/ white people whose dogs chased us every day on our way to the pool.”
The piece also explicates the diversity of African-Americans in California and the close relations of her neighbors in Compton. Lewis writes: “Throughout the whole state, every third person/ was from Lousy Anna: New Orleans,/ Algiers, the West Bank, La Place, Plaquemines,/ Parish, Slidell, Baton/ Rouge. We took pies and cakes to anyone new, but never heard/ a sound from the farms. They never brought us nothing either.” Lewis captures both the hospitality and frigid social conditions that characterized the Compton of her youth. Her own family is from New Orleans and this poem also speaks to the huge Creole influence that still exists across Southern California, especially in Compton, Watts and Willowbrook.
As Lewis breaks down in her poem, the Compton of her childhood was a middleclass Black enclave where there were still a few poor whites living in the undeveloped southern side of the city. Lewis’s poem maps the intersecting lives, the small farms, the constant presence of the LAPD, the bakery from Hawaii, the landing field for the Goodyear blimp, the Victoria Park Golf Course and other landmarks of Compton, Carson and surrounding area she grew up in. This was the landscape before 1980s Gangsta Hip Hop put Compton on the international map with a warped and exaggerated perception of the city’s true spirit. There is still a small rural part of Compton where houses with large lots have horses near Greenleaf Boulevard in the Richland Farms district of the city. Lewis explains in her poem that, “You could live here for years and never/ understand: Were you rural, industrial, or suburban?/ We thought we were home.” As stated above, a few pockets like this still exist in not only Compton but in nearby Willowbrook and though a few people know this, Lewis is the first Los Angeles poet to document this forgotten local history.
Redefining Los Angeles Poetry
Last year Lewis was interviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books and she spoke thoughtfully about how much she loved growing up in Compton and what it means to her to be a native of Southern California. In the piece titled, “A Door to Robin Coste Lewis’s Los Angeles,” she waxes poetically on her writing influences like Audre Lorde and Sharon Olds, postcolonial literature and her own writing process. Lewis also offers many thoughts on her early years in Compton and what it means to be a Los Angeles poet. She begins by stating what previous notions of a Los Angeles poet were and how she would like to see a more inclusive perspective. In one particularly poignant excerpt she says:
“I don’t know if I understand myself as an LA poet — to me that image has always been represented as white, Venice Beach, a little Beat, folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of LA. Much of this work remains disinterested in LA’s history of jubilant and tense migrations from all over the world: so many Asian countries, South and Central America, the Gulf States, just to name a few. So few people who are engaged in the LA literary scene actually participate in the diverse communities who are here…”
“.. I’m interested in redefining what ‘LA poet’ means. And what that means has nothing to do with the representation of Los Angeles in the media. ‘LA Poet’ for me means people like Wanda Coleman, for example, or the Watts Writers Workshop, or Garret Hongo, Juan Felipe Herrera. It means Samoan poetry and Korean poetry, and the politics of la linea. Of course, almost primarily, it means Mexican and Chicano poetry, Salvadoran poetry, Filipino poetry. Do you know what I mean? LA is one of the — THE — most diverse cities in the world. It always has been. It’s a jubilant site of migration. I’m very, very grateful I was born here.”
The multicultural spirit of this sentiment Lewis expresses above is why literary Los Angeles is thrilled with her appointment. She knows that there are hundreds of diverse Angeleno poets telling the city’s story and they have been here and telling their stories for generations now. Lewis’s seminal work promises to continue to elevate not only women of color but the entire diverse milieu that comprises Los Angeles poetry. Mayor Garcetti and the Department of Cultural Affairs have made the perfect choice in Lewis. As her track record shows, she will certainly help further redefine Los Angeles poetry with her forward vision and prescient eye.
The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. Tia Chucha Press
Our most recent Poet Laureate, Luis Rodriguez has been devoted to this idea for the last three decades. He carried on the work of serving the city and redefining LA poetry by making hundreds of public appearances and visiting every single branch in the Los Angeles city library system. Rodriguez set the bar high with not only his frequent public readings but with his publishing company. In April 2016, his publishing company, Tia Chucha Press published The Coiled Serpent, a multicultural poetry anthology with over 160 Los Angeles poets. This year, Tia Chucha follows up with another innovative anthology, The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States.
This new anthology edited by Leticia Hernández Linares, Rubén Martínez and Héctor Tobar is 320 plus pages and is the first anthology dedicated to Central American writers in the United States, following the groundwork laid by the publication Izote Vos: a collection of Salvadoran American writing and visual art, published in 2000. Divided into three sections, El Camino Largo (The Large Road), En Voz Alta (In High Voice) and La Poesia de Todos (the Poetry of Everyone), the book includes an equal mix of poetry and prose. The prose selections include essays, fictional short stories, creative nonfiction narratives and memoirs focused on community engagement.
In the Preface, “Stories from Our Unincorporated Territories,” editor Leticia Hernández Linares writes: “Home was behind us, always somewhere else. Born into 1970s Los Angeles, a few months after my parents arrived in the United States, I experienced El Salvador as a distant place we referred to as ‘back home.’” Linares’s intention with this anthology is “to retrace our steps and chart the unincorporated territory of our stories.” Moreover, she writes, that this book, “embodies our canto popular. This Tia Chucha Press anthology demonstrates how we continue to shift the map, what no amount of anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobic backlash will erase.”
Beginning with the seminal Rubén Darío poem, “The Wandering Song,” the writing in the book travels back and forth in geography and time bridging a plurality of themes and concepts. As much as Los Angeles plays a central role in the text, there are also references to Washington D.C., San Francisco, Oakland, Texas and New York City. Furthermore, the writers come from not only El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, but also Belize, Costa Rica and Panamá. As the editor notes in the Preface, the writers “string together voices and pieces of language to craft terms to define themselves.” In piece after piece, the writers define themselves and expand the standard narrative.
Acclaimed Angelena poet Iris De Anda ruminates on her mother’s childhood stories and being half Salvadoran in her poem, “Descalsa.” Salvadoran-American scribe William González celebrates the Westlake district’s central role in the Central American diaspora in his poem “Poor Westlake.” Meditating on gentrification and the changes in the 21st Century cityscape, González writes: “Poor Westlake/ even though capitalism/ is swallowing you alive/ you will forever/ be embedded inside/ our corazon.” Patrick Mullen-Coyoy offers many answers in his poem, “Where is Guatemala?” Rather than breaking down the geography his poem offers a litany of what Guatemala is. “It’s conversations over dinner about family/ virtues, views, and values,” he asserts. “Not something the sociologist-anthropologist-tourist/ can easily catalogue in their guidebook.” The poem concludes, “Hard as I try, I still can’t tell you where Guatemala is.”
Almost every piece in the collection reclaims language and tells a lost narrative. Adela Najarro’s “After the 1979 Revolución Nicaragüense,” travels back and forth in time from the early 20th Century and the time of poet Rubén Darío to the Nicaraguan political turmoil of 1979. Najarro laments back to “1920, after Rubén Darío’s death,/ the entire nation agreed to rename// a city in his honor. His birthplace// Metapa, became Ciudad Darío/ poetry became a national pastime.” Najarro contrasts this period to the later time when “armed men in jeeps,/ ghost shadows dancing on skin,// all too often.” The poet reminds us that: “Sometimes/imaginative sonnets/by long dead poets// allow us to escape.” This homage to long dead poets is echoed later in the book when Salvadoran-American poet Harold Terezón pays tribute to the venerated Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton in a list poem enumerating the ways he appreciates Dalton. For instance: “You are the Roque I will build dreams tragic nails will not puncture.” Terezón always plays off the similarity in sound of Roque to rock to pay tribute to the deceased poet’s strength. Roque Dalton is also one of the four people the book is dedicated to.
Another writer in the book that is highly active in the Los Angeles poetry community is Cynthia Guardado. Guardado is a Salvadoran-American poet and a professor at Fullerton College that just had a book published on World Stage Press. Her poem in the anthology, “Eight Women in the Kitchen y una Poeta,” captures the energy of being in the kitchen in San Salvador while a group of women make pupusas and a lone poet sits at the table with them. Guardado writes in jest: “They laugh loudly/ like a choir when I say I will write/ about them.”
The writers from The Wandering Song not only write about what happens in the home, they render a plurality of experiences from war zones to tender family moments. These writers bridge the diverse communities of Central America and run the aesthetic gamut from high literary style to hip-hop to Spanglish acrobatics. This is a powerful collection of prose and poetry giving voice to a group of writers that have been unheard for too long.
Basic Vocabulary, Amy Uyematsu, Red Hen Press
A singular voice, with a similar force behind her is Amy Uyematsu. Uyematsu is a pioneering Los Angeles Japanese-American poet that has been breaking walls down since her undergraduate days at UCLA in the 1970s when she was a co-editor of the first Asian-American Studies Anthology, Roots An Asian American Reader. Basic Vocabulary is her fifth collection of poetry. The title is taken from the opening section of the book which is a cycle of 35 short poems offering poetic definitions of important words to the poet. In the 34th poem in this series, “Wind,” she wonders, “if the world of pond and forest/ ignores the roar of human quarrel/ in spite of our endless raging/ does it welcome us/ as if it knows we belong—/ leaf, muse, wind/ all of us breathing/ as one.” In this piece and others, she contemplates war and peace with Zen compassion.
Uyematsu is also a retired math teacher and often muses on figures of math. In the section, “When the Numbers Don’t Add Up,” she meditates on former students, memories from growing up in Pasadena and the transitory nature of contemporary culture. One of the most memorable pieces is inspired by National Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Fuzzy Equations.” Uyematsu offers some of her own fuzzy equations in the piece, “Juggling Excess and Imbalance in a Time of Drones.” In the piece, Uyematsu lists 18 different scenarios that are equally fuzzy. For example: “Bigger classes + underpaid teachers + corrupt bureaucrats + over-testing = kids who can’t Frickin read or write,” or “Restaurant table of 7 friends + 7 cell phones = 1 pitifully lonely meal.” Some of the examples are both poignant and funny like: “Leftover rice + bacon + green onion + egg + soy sauce + salsa = Japanese lunch for my Chicano husband,” and “3 emails + 2 voice messages + 1 text = no guarantee that a Gen X child will call back.” She also writes, “2 lumpectomies + 31 days of radiation = 1 more breast cancer survivor,” and “Suffering + courage + forgiveness = heart.”
In another poem, “Juan’s Numbers,” Uyematsu riffs on a former student of hers and the numbers close to his heart. “As in Culver City 13, Venice 13,” she writes. “Playboy and Echo Park and Sotel 13,/ Juan and his allies grin if the answer/ falls on their favorite number/ 13 as in ‘m’ the thirteenth letter/ ‘m’ as in ‘La Eme’ for Mexican Mafia.” Two stanzas later she writes: “For all his noisy bravado/ he’s still not hardcore/ math sucks! He complains/ but he never cuts class/ lucky for Juan it’s his mom/ who still makes him fear for his life.” Uyematsu’s poetics tell the truth of living in Los Angeles reflecting her many years of earned wisdom.
A World Below, Rocío Carlos, Mindmade Books
Born in Monterey Park, the poet and professor Rocío Carlos is an elegant voice breaking boundaries with her poetry. Recipient of the Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2003 and a professor at both Art Center and Otis, Carlos is very active in literary Los Angeles and has been since the mid-1990s. A graduate of both Cal State LA and Otis, Carlos has lived her entire life in Los Angeles County and knows the city intimately. Much of her poetry maps her life and existential journey. A World Below is a chapbook of 18 of her poems. Recently she told me: “A poet is a mapmaker. Every word marks a location, a point in time, a place in history, a star in the constellation of neurons, a map of the body of the poet. It is the poet’s own stigmata, own user’s manual, primal scream, joyful noise and death rattle. It is all, what kills the poet and gives the breath of life.”
Poems of hers like “53rd Street,” and “Maywood,” juxtapose concrete and abstract images to vividly map her Los Angeles. In “Maywood,” she writes, “Downwind from Vernon/ the smell of glue wakes you/ the gray is unrelenting/ the Jacaranda a paste/ of lavender.” Carlos has collaborated with poet Rachel McLeod Kaminer on a published project called, “Attendance,” where they describe geographic ecosystems through documentary poetry.
Carlos’s poem, “Coyolxauhqui, Los Angeles,” is one of my favorite Los Angeles poems. She connects the dots between the firmament, freeways, bridges and the river. The poem begins: “My fingers/ cartographer, surgeon/ make a map of Los Angeles/ a map of my body.“ Going back and forth across time, her poetic register addresses her own life, the spirit world and the city’s ephemeral nature dating back to before colonization and the place we know it as now. “My eyes are away from me/ in the smog somewhere/ they see fire coming/ the deer are fleeing,” she exclaims. Continuing she adds, “I saw the desert once, / a pile of women’s bodies.” The solidness of the landscape and city give her solace: “And that river, cheap corsetry:/ here is whalebone and scaffolding.” In this poem, she maps the city and herself simultaneously. She offers the key, the legend, “it smells like rendered bones.” Carlos knows that the poet reconciles gaps in reality. The last two lines of the piece say: “This is my foot stirring the winds/ that bring fire.”
Carlos is an emissary bridging communities between cultures and realms of reality. She explains further in a recent conversation: “Where Los Angeles comes into play is that I super impose the map of the poem onto the map of the city. And onto my own life. And onto my actual physical body.” She is presently completing a full manuscript of poems. Her voice is a part of an emerging cadre of poets remapping Los Angeles.
Still Waters Publishing
A large part of the new spirit of Los Angeles poetry comes from the dozens of small publishing companies across the city. Still Waters Publishing is the brainchild of Melanie and Oshea Luja. These two poets are better known by their nom de plumes: Queen Socks and Food 4 Thot. They are both poets, educators, event hosts, holistic life-purpose coaches and activists. The core focus of their press, according to their website is “Poetry, Non-Fiction, Fiction and History, particularly works that have an edge to them, or are completely distinct from works published by most large commercial presses.” Their signature event, Still Waters has hosted the likes of the Watts Prophets, Ojenke from the Watts Writers Workshop, World Stage co-founder Kamau Daaood and many other influential poetic voices.
Internal Balance: Would You Marry You? Melanie & Oshea Luja, Still Waters Press
One of their first publishing projects is a book they co-authored: Internal Balance: Would You Marry You? The book centers on the idea of “Alternative Soul-Care,” which is about helping people align their energy and raise their inner vibration. The text combines poems, aphorisms, writing exercises, short essays and affirmations intended to connect the mind, body and spirit. The authors remind us that: “we are born balanced and become so conditioned by civilization that nearly all is forgotten. Peace becomes elusive, and we begin to react like robots, responding mechanically to the unfolding of our life.” They want us to get off the treadmill, stop being robots and to feel the internal balance that is our birthright when we claim it. This unique book is timely and much needed in this swift and technological era.
Articulate Scars, Derek D. Brown, Still Waters Publishing
Derek D. Brown is a young Los Angeles poet that has taken the city by storm. Over the last three years, Brown has read all over town and embedded himself deep in the fabric of the city’s poetry scene. The founders of Still Waters Press were so impressed with Brown that they chose him as one of the first authors they would publish. This collection of poetry and prose holds just under 60 pieces. Brown has an infectious charisma that translates equally on the page and stage. His sincerity is disarming and this is how he has made his way around the poetic landscape so quickly. The poet and professor Hiram Sims is another one of Brown’s mentors and Sims writes in the book’s “Afterword,” that: “Derek’s poetry, if you allow it, will hold you in the kaleidoscope of brilliant black light, swirling in his disco-ball illumination.” Brown mixes humor and truth in punchy poems. Here’s a quintessential set of lines capturing his spirit: “Below sixty degrees in Los Angeles/ is slit wrist to this native. / Long sleeves and non-hipster scarves are evidence of this cruelty.” A few lines later he notes: “They say it never rains here. / That’s a lie.” Brown makes light of Southern California stereotypes and tells it like it is.
Peace in the Pocket, Kuahmel: Soul Brother No. 7, World Stage Press
Peace in the Pocket is a technicolor collection of poems from a seasoned, unique, original voice. Kuahmel freely speaks his mind with frankness rare in these times. His poems ask questions that not everybody is ready to answer and this is part of why his work is important. In the piece, “Am I Safe to Speak My Mind,” Kuahmel asks a series of questions that get to the heart of his poetic intentions. He asks: “Can I criticize my country without you revoking my patriot pass and citizenship? / Must I fear that the privileged will bring their wrath down on me for daring to call them out? / Maybe the tastemakers will use some cute little dismissive label to silence me with? / Do I have permission to enter your mind and expand it?” Whether he’s chronicling the funk of the city or showing women what they got right about men, this native Angeleno is an impresario of words, phrases and dynamic musicality. Nicknamed “Soul Brother No. 7,” Kuahmel is a 21st Century voice in tune with the times.
World Stage Press
Founded in 1989-90, the Leimert Park-based World Stage is one of the oldest literary establishments in Southern California. Originally founded by celebrated jazz drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood, it is seen by many as the continuation of the Watts Writers Workshop which began in 1965. Though Higgins died in 2001 and Daaood is no longer directly involved, the World Stage is still going strong and most recently they started a publishing company. They have published more than 15 titles including works by Hiram Sims, Cynthia Guardado, Camari Carter, Lida Parent-Harris, Malaika James, Heather Parker and the latest by Kuahmel. Dedicated to publishing African-American literature and beyond, they are an important new publishing company in the emerging landscape of local presses.
As the above essay demonstrates, the state of Los Angeles Poetry is alive and well. Historically voices like Robinson Jeffers, Thomas McGrath, Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, Stuart Perkoff and Philomene Long set the early standard. These writers coupled with communities like the Arroyo Seco artists, Venice Beats, Watts Writers Workshop, the Woman’s Building and Beyond Baroque established the benchmark. Now though in 2017, there are more poets than ever and more venues and small publishers than there is space to mention. Luis Rodriguez has played an important role with both his public readings and publishing projects. And these days, it’s no longer just Venice, East Hollywood and Watts that have vibrant literary communities around Los Angeles. There are dynamic poetic communities in Boyle Heights, Historic Filipinotown, Leimert Park, Long Beach, Little Tokyo, Pacoima, Pasadena, Pomona, Southeast LA, the South Bay, Koreatown and dozens of other eclectic outposts. This website Entropy is also an important contributor to this movement.
And though April is National Poetry Month, every month is National Poetry Month for dedicated poets. In mid-April I went to the www.houseofwriters.orgon James M. Wood Boulevard in Koreatown. Poets & Writers was holding a roundtable discussion about bridging writing communities across Southern California. The Korean poet Tanya Ko Hong read a poem in Korean and then asked the poet F. Douglas Brown to read the English translation. Hong was preparing to host a reading the following Sunday about the 25th Anniversary of the Rodney King Rebellion. Working with poets from Leimert Park and Highland Park, the event was intended to bring the Korean and African-American communities together. This type of uniting communities happens all the time in 21st Century Los Angeles poetry. In the last month, I have witnessed professors like Sara Borjas at UC Riverside, Obed Silva at East Los Angeles College, Janice Lee, Jen Hofer and Douglass Kearney at CalArts and Allan Aquino at Cal State Northridge inspire their students teaching multicultural poetry. Considering the plethora of colleges in Southern California, there are hundreds of other professors doing this as well.
In the last week of April I saw the legendary Los Angeles poet Kamau Daaood read live at Union Station with pianist Mark DeClive-Lowe, saxophonist Randall Fisher, drummer Dexter Story and stand up bassist Corbin Jones. Daaood, of course, is the co-founder of the World Stage and one of the preeminent Los Angeles poets dating back to the late 1960s. Daaood’s readings are like religious experiences because he recites so masterfully. Daaood opened up his reading with an invocation: “Open the circle of wholeness. Come with your sleeves rolled up.” Chanting this phrase and other kindred words, the melding of his words with the music was transcendent. Daaood read one poem acapella, “Blue Pachuca,” a piece from his 2005 City Lights book, The Language of Saxophones. This poem is about his mother and it was equally powerful as the pieces accompanied by music. Prior to Daaood, Jimetta Rose and Melanie and Oshea Luja each read a few pieces with the musicians. The live musicians are each very accomplished and worthy of their own recognition. A few days later many of the same live players were scheduled to play in Little Tokyo as a tribute to Bronzeville.
For those that do not know, Little Tokyo became Bronzeville during the Second World War when Japanese-Americans were interned and African-Americans moved into the area. During the Bronzeville era, several jazz clubs relocated to Little Tokyo along First Street and many of the biggest names in the genre played there. Most recently on the weekend of April 29th and 30th, 2017, this storied history inspired a group of artists and activists known as Form Follows Function and Visual Communications to present a two-day program to commemorate the Bronzeville history. The program occurred on the north side of First Street between Central and San Pedro Street and it used several different storytelling techniques to mark this history and of course one of these methods was poetry. Furthermore, this date was chosen because it marked the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the policy that placed Japanese-Americans in the Internment Camps. Poet and activist Maya Santos teamed up with Joel Quizon and Rani de Leon to host poetry and live music. Events like this Bronzeville retrospective epitomize the emerging spirit of recognizing the true history and multicultural legacy of creative Los Angeles.
These multimedia events are a part of the same spirit that is redefining Los Angeles Poetry. As the Robin Coste Lewis quote at the beginning of this essay states, Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world and it is appropriate that the poetry reflect this. Considering Lewis’s own groundbreaking work and her deep connection to growing up in Southern California, she is an excellent choice to carry on the work that Luis Rodriguez pioneered as poet laureate. Furthermore, Lewis is joined in her progressive platform by voices like all the poets in the new Tia Chucha’s anthology, Amy Uyematsu, Rocío Carlos, Melanie and Oshea Luja and Kuahmel along with writers from the World Stage in Leimert Park, A Mic & Dim Lights in Pomona, Sunday Jump in Historic Filipinotown and the Tuesday Night Café in Little Tokyo along with dozens of other groups like Chiwan Choi, Judeth Oden Choi, Jessica Ceballos Campbell and Peter Woods at Writ Large Press. Congratulations to Robin Coste Lewis and salute to these changemakers pushing forward and redefining Los Angeles Poetry.