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Readings & Workshops Blog

For the month of January (Happy New Year!), San Diego-based P&W-supported poet Ilya Kaminsky, will blog about the literary life in San Diego and Southern California. Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa, was awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters' s Metcalf Award, a Whiting Writers Award, and a Lannan Fellowship, among others. Kaminsky begins the series with new books by San Diego authors or authors who will soon visit San Diego.

Next month will mark the first year of the establishment of the new literary press based in San Diego, Calypso Editions, which has, in just twelve months, published such authors as Tolstoy, the great Polish poet Anna Swir, the lively anthology of New Romanian poetry edited by Martin Woodside, and collections of talented debut prose and poetry from Beth Myhr and Anthony Bonds.

The work the press has done in barely one year is really astounding. The Anna Swir book, Building the Barricade, is a brilliant translation by Piotr Florczyk, who is fast becoming one of the best Polish translators. This book is filled with eros and witness.

Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry edited by Martin Woodside is a wild book—probably the most wild book I have read this year—filled with tenderness and empathy and beautiful wordplay. Woodside is able in this small anthology to bring across the whole tradition of modern Romanian poetry, which is a huge undertaking.

Elizabeth Myhr’s debut collection the vanishing & other poems is special. Her language is filled with urgency of our moment, a dwelling in which the silence speaks.

In Anthony Bonds’s novella, The Moonflower King, the hero is forced to make a journey from New York City to his ranch home in East Texas, to find the meaning of death, in a beautifully written story. Bonds is able to pull off a wise, tender book that is both a literary novella and a page-turner. A wonderful debut.

On March 19, Myhr, Bonds, and Woodside will give a talk at the P&W-supported Living Writers Series at San Diego State University to discuss the challenges and joys of starting the co-op press and will also read from their new work. On the same day, Chris Baron, a brilliant poet associated for many years with City Works Press—known for its P&W-supported major event, the San Diego City College International Book Fair—will also read. City Works has done a great deal for literary life in San Diego, publishing both local and nationally-known authors.

Photo: Ilya Kaminsky.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-supported spoken word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about City Lights authors.

City Lights Publishing just released David Meltzer's new book When I Was a Poet. The work opens with the title piece, a reflection on a lifetime of poetry. Packed with pathos, precise syllables, and cacophonic crests, Meltzer's work has been described as "Bop Kabbalah." Thurston Moore says, "Enlightened by jazz, psyche/folk energy, the trees outside the academy, and a woozy sex drive, David's enchantment with dream/mystery/beauty make him a musician's poet."

Meltzer's lines maintain haiku density throughout the work. In "California Dreamin" Meltzer riffs on his Bohemian days in the Golden State, celebrating Anita O'Day, Lord Buckley, Miles Davis, Coltrane, the Troubadour, and Hollywood Boulevard.

City Lights also recently released a new book by Surrealist poet Will Alexander titled Compression & Purity. Los Angeles born, Alexander emerged from Watts in the 70s and has gradually emerged into one of the most avant-garde poets. I heard Alexander read at Beyond Baroque this past September. His thermonuclear images and electric vocabulary transmitted in the black box theater with such intensity that I bought two books.

 Ry Cooder's Los Angeles Stories, a collection of eight short stories, was also published by City Lights. The first of City Light's new "Noir" series, this collection of fiction exists in the old gritty Los Angeles of the 40s and 50s. Cooder's characters inhabit lost landscapes like Chavez Ravine, the Pacific Electric Streetcar, Bunker Hill, and Historic Filipinotown. Cooder captures the colloquial: "Sit down, take a load off, try some pork fried rice. Dig it and pick up on it, it happened like this."

The characters emit warmth similar to Fante's Arturo Bandini. There are unsolved murders a la Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan makes a cameo. Aficionados of Los Angeles letters will recognize Cooder's influences. Fortunately his synthesis is well-crafted. Cooder, a Los Angeles native, loves untold stories like the San Patricios or Chavez Ravine. Considering his many groundbreaking musical albums on such subjects, it's no surprise his first book upholds the same level of verisimilitude.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-supported spoken-word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about the L.A. poetry scene.

I was at Beyond Baroque in October to witness a book release party for Wanda Coleman. Promoted as her last public reading for an indefinite amount of time, it was worth the congested drive to Venice on a Friday night to see her live. The World Falls Away is her second book published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

She is more blunt than ever, writing, "There is no poison I have not swallowed." Coleman reflects on her childhood in L.A., two marriages, and the loss of her son. Douglas Kearney says, "Wanda Coleman's hard-edged new collection interrogates death's nearsightedness. Mother outlives son. Feet wear out before the heart. And the truth teller dies before truth frees her. These poems don't go gently."

Her sharp poetics always hit with musicality, which is a great fit for the Pitt Poetry Series. The series dates back to 1967 and is dedicated to publishing progressive poetry. Wanda's forty-plus years of work places here among the greatest poets ever to come out of L.A.

Wanda Coleman is one of the major writers covered in Bill Mohr's new book Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948–1992, University of Iowa Press. Mohr's book is one of the first real treatments of the history of L.A. poetry. There have been many books on slices of L.A. poetry like Charles Bukowski, the Watts Writers Workshop, and the Venice Beats, but there's never been one book as expansive as this one.

Over a fifteen year period Mohr published a literary journal and several books through his imprint Momentum Press. Mohr's anecdotes about Wanda Coleman, Leland Hickman, Ron Koertge, Gerald Locklin, and Suzanne Lummis bring the Carter and Reagan era alive. His book captures the ethos of the small press movement. Mohr describes the lively circuit of independent bookstores and small press publishers, cataloging the Southern California scene from the Venice Beats to the beginnings of the spoken-word movement.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Author of the novel Motown Burning, and the poetry collection Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, Detroit native John Jeffire teaches English at Chippewa Valley High School where he’s organized P&W-supported after-school performances. Jeffire shared with us how these events have enriched the students’ lives.

What is your most successful literary program?
Our most successful program is our open mic performance night, which includes Rock the Mic events and the annual Motown Word Fest. We bring over 150 high school kids into our cafeteria on a school night to read, sing, play music, rap, and tell jokes. It's magic. It truly is amazing how diverse and talented the performers are.

What makes your programs unique?
We invite local metropolitan Detroit poets and musicians to perform, and then mix the kids and their acts in with them. Some, such as poet M. L. Liebler, actually bring kids up onto the stage with them to perform. It's a blast.

What are the benefits of your programs for your students?
The performers we've brought in have been very generous with the kids, encouraging them to write and express themselves and keep the faith. It's tough to be a teen today—they are expected to know and be so much more than the kids of my generation. I don't know how they keep up. And here in the Detroit area, times are tough. So many of the kids have lost their homes or their parents have lost their jobs. The world they live in is not always kind to them. It's nice to provide them some hours of sanctuary where textbooks, smart phones, laptops, problems, and pressures are put away, and language is their muse.

What's the craziest thing that's happened at an event you've hosted?
I'm proud to say that in several years of putting on these events we've only had one kid suspended for using inappropriate language. The kids are enthusiastic and eager to express themselves, but they've also been respectful. Most of them are not star athletes or members of student council—this is their one opportunity to shine in front of their peers and open up. They really are brave.

How do you find and invite writers?
I invite people I've heard before at the various literary venues around Detroit. John Lamb, Jabiya Dragonsun, as well as P&W-supported writers La Shaun phoenix Moore, Olga Klekner, jessica care moore, Aricka Foreman, M. L. Liebler, and others are all performers I've seen live and respect a great deal. Most of all, they are people who understand that their participation is going to help expose kids to the magic and power of language.

Has literary presenting informed your own writing life?
I've become more attentive to how emotionally significant and potentially powerful those first experiences reading in front of an audience can be. For some kids, this is the greatest act of courage they've ever taken. I relive that sense of fear and also triumph in sharing words for the very first time.

What is the value of literary programs for your community?
The community celebrates dunks and touchdowns—why not poems, stories, melodies, and words? We give a segment of our student population a chance to be heard and make an impact. This is their big moment and it's celebrated. Even the kids who don't perform benefit—they see poetry in a different light after they experience someone like jessica care moore. Attending just one event, they become turned on to literary art. Mission accomplished.

Photo: John Jeffire. Credit: Lea Jeffire.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-supported spoken word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about The Last Bookstore.

I first became familiar with Rothenberg, poet/publisher of Big Bridge and author of more than twenty books, after picking up his book The Paris Journals. The book's format intrigued me immediately, a hybrid poetic/prose travel journey novella about his time in Paris. Rothenberg has edited collections of Phillip Whalen and David Meltzer as well as written several songs for film and television. Rothenberg read this past Sunday at The Last Bookstore.

The Last Bookstore has emerged as a mecca for literary events in Los Angeles and has featured David Meltzer, Sesshu Foster, Pam Ward, the L.A. Noir Poetry Festival, Writers Row, and the site-specific play titled A Record of Light. Located on Spring and Fifth in Downtown L.A.'s Old Bank District, the space has 10,000 square feet, comfortable seats, thousands of titles, and low prices. (They also have several crates of vinyl records.) The ambiance is undeniable in the store and the block itself.

Spring Street is often referred to as the Wall Street of the West; it's a goldmine for architectural historians with the largest collection of pre-World War II architecture in America. The large old banks were all built in classical architectural styles like Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, and Italian Renaissance Revival—elegantly poured concrete gems about a dozen floors each. The Last Bookstore is on the ground floor of a Beaux-Arts building designed by John Parkinson, the architect of Los Angeles's City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum, Bullocks Wilshire, and most of the banks on Spring Street. A plaque in his honor is located on the west sidewalk of Spring near the bookstore.

Literary legends, high school poets, and college students alike speak at the bookstore's events. Their philosophy: three generations on the same stage, all the ancestors on the same page.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Suzanne Lummis, poet and director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, blogs about the P&W-supported Lummis Day Festival in Los Angeles.

Now and then at a reading, you nab the whole audience. When the show is over they rush up to you, wild with joy. But other times, it's that reading where just eleven people show up, only one book is bought, and you drive home grumpy. Then much later, someone comes up to you at an event, kind of shy, and tells you how years back she'd been in a sparse audience at some now defunct café, and how that reading persuaded her to give up her career in advertising, which she despised, and become a writer instead. Now she's happy. And, you think, "Ah, so that's whom that evening was for."

On especially felicitous occasions, you get both, the audience and the person who walks away changed. Take last year's Lummis Day for example. The kick-off poetry reading for the annual gala, also know as the Festival of Northeast Los Angeles, has never failed to please a crowd. And, it does draw a crowd—as many as can fit comfortably into the spacious garden in front of El Alisal, the name Charles Lummis gave to the idiosyncratic house he built with river rock around the turn of the nineteenth century. Eliot Sekular, a champion of Northeast Los Angeles, founded Lummis Day, naming it after my grandfather, who Southwest history buffs remember for his advocacy on behalf of Native American and Spanish California culture. So every first Sunday of June, folks drive across the city, or walk over from around the corner, always in high spirits. It is after all, not only a lively reading with a social gathering afterwards, but the beginning of a daylong party, with bands, folkloric dances, and other entertainments.

Last year, in my opening comments, I mentioned that I felt lucky that my parents had been poetry readers, and therefore I'd never in my life lived in a house that did not have poetry on the bookshelves. Steve Kowit then delighted fiesta-goers with his humor and embracing energy, followed by Mariano Zara, who read a moving personal piece, and poetry-loving actor Dale Raoul (Maxine Fortenberry in True Blood), who presented selections from Poems of the American West. While the assembled gathered in the reception area for a "noise" (Lummis disdained the term "salon" and was bored by "party"), a fellow approached me with a title he'd just purchased from the book table, Poems of the American West.  He was beaming. "Could I please write 'For Alfredo?'"  I asked him to tell me a little about himself so I could personalize the dedication. "Oh, it's for him," he said, and pointed to a stroller holding a boy of about two. Then his wife appeared by his side. And I was, well... I don't want to get sentimental. The English have a word for it—I was chuffed. This little boy would grow up in a house with poetry... it's not everything, but it seems to have the makings of a promising start. 

Photo: Suzanne Lummis. Credit: Penelope Torribio.

Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from Friends of Poets & Writers.


P&W-supported spoken-word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about poetry and activism.

Whether MFA candidates, avant-garde scribes, spoken-word artists, or traditional poets, there are more bards alive now than ever before. But, what exactly does it mean to be a poet? I think of a quote from Los Angeles poet Kamau Daaood. Daaood told Erin Aubry Kaplan in the L.A. Weekly, "When people run to open mics these days, it's mostly about ego–getting fifteen minutes... I [see] it as a jam session, swapping ideas, getting inspiration from other people."

In 2005, Daaood's The Language of Saxophones was published by City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Daaood never pursued being published because he was too busy working in the community. Daaood has performed for more than four decades at festivals, galleries, jazz clubs, churches, schools, prisons, or wherever duty calls.

Another poet with the same commitment is Lewis MacAdams. MacAdams studied with Robert Creeley at the University of Buffalo in the 60s and hung with New York School poets. MacAdams became an environmental activist/poet in Bolinas, California, during the 70s and was a fixture at the San Francisco State University's Poetry Center. In 1980 MacAdams landed in L.A. There he discovered the Los Angeles River, and was outraged by the concrete channel housing the watershed. He decided to begin a forty-year performance piece dedicated to returning the river to its natural state.

One night in 1986 he performed a suite of poems dedicated to the Los Angeles River while being dressed up as a totem of flora and fauna specific to the river. This was the birth of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). Twenty-five years after FoLAR's founding, the River has had several stretches restored back to its natural state. MacAdams started the river's resurrection with poetry. His new book Dear Oxygen, published by the University of New Orleans Press collects forty-five years of his life's work. MacAdams like Daaood has spent a lifetime using poetry to improve his community. Their work reminds me of the benchmark for which poets should aim.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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