The Always Already Redefining of L.A. Poetry

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Always Already Redefining of L.A. Poetry

Jessica Ceballos has forwarded me an article by Mike Sonksen (aka Mike the Poet) which was recently published in Entropy magazine. Mike’s articles and reviews the past half-dozen years have in general been the most invigorating commentary on the current scenes in Los Angeles, and he has done his homework on the history of the city’s literary communities. I have to disagree with him, though, when he says that Robin Coste Lewis is “an excellent choice to carry on the work that Luis Rodriguez pioneered as poet laureate” and that “literary Los Angeles is thrilled with her appointment.” I can’t be thrilled with someone who demeans the work I’ve done for over 40 years.

There are several dozen poets I would have been thrilled to hear announced as the next poet laureate, and I named them when I wrote the Cultural Affairs Department and its laureate selection committee several months ago: Douglas Kearney, Sesshu Foster, Amy Uyematsu, Will Alexander, Gail Wronsky, Cecilia Woloch, Elena Byrne, Laurel Ann Bogen, Brian Kim Stefans, Ron Koertge, Charles H. Webb, Paul Vangelisti, Jack Grapes, Holly Prado, Harryette Mullen, Carol Muske-Dukes, Martha Ronk, and Suzanne Lummis.

My list of potential poet laureates reflected the long-standing relationship of these poets with the development of poetry scenes in Los Angeles, and it was not meant to be comprehensive. One could have assembled a list of the most likely potential finalists, though, by combining my list with those named in Mike’s article (December 9, 2016) that surveyed the field of potential candidates:

In addition to many of the poets I listed, he pointed to Gloria Endedina Alvarez, Chiwan Choi, Brendan Constantine, Kamau Daaood, Peter J. Harris, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Ruben Martinez, Marisela Norte, Pam Ward, and Terry Wolverton. Between Mike’s list and my list, one has a compilation of over two dozen poets with sustained continuity to the L.A. scenes. These poets have “always already” been redefining Los Angeles poetry as a multi-cultural phenomenon that reflects the contingencies of urban life and postmodern identity as it plays out in configurations of class, gender, and race. That Robin Coste Lewis did not appear in either list is perhaps a reflection of her dearth of community work as an activist in L.A. poetry scenes. Art is not a democracy, however, and she was chosen by the Mayor to be our representative public figure.

Back when I took what little money I had left over from my wages and “invested” in a magazine and small press that promoted the work of Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo, I envisioned a city that would have a flourishing set of poetry scenes. Thanks to the hard work of dozens and dozens of poets and cultural activists in Los Angeles who joined me in that effort in the past four decades, Ms. Lewis has at her disposal the resources of a diverse and crisis-tested region of poets. I look forward to learning of her specific plans as to how to strengthen the long-standing resistance of these poets to the “manufactured image of L.A.” First, though, she needs to do something she ought to have done before she applied to become poet laureate of Los Angeles: become articulately familiar in detail with the history of that resistance.

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