How to experience Los Angeles as a poet

I was walking in Venice with poet Tom Laichas when he showed me a hard-to-describe object protruding from the strip between sidewalk and street. It was about the size of a fire hydrant, made of cement and decorated with faded hippie hieroglyphics.

“If you dig it up, you'll find a god from before Easter Island,” Laichas imagined.

He demonstrated one of the most important ways to experience Los Angeles as a poet, which is to pay attention to things that seem out of place. “You know there must be a story about how they got there,” Laichas explained, “but that story has been lost.”

Tom Laichas

Venice Boulevard

Poet Tom Laichas in Venice. As a boy growing up in Silver Lake, he saw words in his head as real as trees – and he still does.

Experimenting with this approach and other strategies I've learned in conversations with various LA poets offers new perspectives on our often overwhelming city. They make you feel more attuned and insightful – like a poet!

1. Go beyond yourself

One of my main findings is that contemporary LA poets don't write odes to their own personal melancholy. Laichas, author most recently of “Three hundred blocks from Venice, California, imagines the experience of his neighbors. In 'Venice Bl', for example, he movingly depicts the experiences of two elderly neighbors: 'Neither of them says The pain is unbearable or I can't live like this anymore.” He was inspired to invent these elders by thinking about the strangely structured cinder blocks of a dingbat apartment on 6th Avenue in Venice. He shared this with me as I walked around the block – which I did with all the poets I spoke to so we could discuss how they absorb their surroundings in real time.

The first poet I tried this with was Viva Padillawho owns the bookstore re/arte on Cesar Chavez Avenue. There I met her for the first time, sitting behind the counter, with the regal air of an empress, surrounded by her loyal subjects: books and a customer who read with the concentration of someone climbing a rope ladder.

Viva Padilla

Using Google Maps to triangulate the course of my desmadre over the years

Viva Padilla looks into the distance behind a red veil.

Viva Padilla, a first-generation Chicana, is the author of the poetry collection “INSUMISA.”

Padilla and I talked about her poem “Using Google Maps to triangulate the course of my desmadre over the years.” Then we strolled along Cesar Chavez Avenue, where I saw the hands of mannequins in a nail salon and a sign advertising an upcoming concert by Nicky Jam and Wisin & Yandel, which I recognized as favorites of first-wave reggaeton students when I taught English in high school. downtown LA

What Padilla noticed was completely different. “This bloc has always reminded me that we are closer to the border than they would have us believe, that our cousins ​​and families are right there.”

For Padilla, her block of Boyle Heights is like Tijuana, with the tortillerias and panaderias and the street vendors of shopkeepers, brooms, cowboy boots and cacti. For her, East LA is a gateway to family.

Marigold bouquets are for sale in the water on Cesar Chavez Avenue.

Shakespeare saw 'the marigold in the eye of the sun'. These examples were for sale on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights.

2. Feel language as music

I also asked Padilla about her use of slashes within lines. Typically, slashes in poetic lines mean a line break, but these lines didn't break, just slashes, as in “a tree full of mockingbirds/ and a Camaro full of swans,” which, honestly, was kind of driving me crazy, because how come she didn't use a line break?

She told me in her calm voice, which sounds like an ancient oracle, “When I write poetry, I try to write a song that will never be played, but is pleasant to the ear and not boring.”

Teresa Mei Chuc

City of roses

It's like any poet Teresa Mei Chuc told me about her process of generating what she called “poetic energy.”

Teresa Mei Chuc stands in a bright red dress among green trees and looks into the distance.

Teresa Mei Chuc is a poet, publisher, and high school English teacher who finds inspiration in nature and music.

Two flowers with skinny green stems and pink petals appear to be kissing each other.

“Busy with growing – that is the amaryllis / Growing especially at night,” wrote poet Denise Levertov. These flowers grew side by side at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

“Poetry is connected to music,” Mei Chuc graciously explained at a picnic table under a tree at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Arcadia.

“The flow of it,” she explained. “Poetic energy is like jamming.”

3. Walk instead of drive

The enthusiasm these poets all showed for walking made me feel like I don't need a total personality transplant to experience LA as a poet. I can simply exercise pre-existing qualities, just as the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion can all become their better selves by simply applying their certificates of approval from the Wizard of Oz.

Two palm trees with thin branches stretch into a peach sky.

Palm trees in the arboretum bring Teresa Mei Chuc back to the Mekong River of her childhood in Vietnam.

For example, Mei Chuc and I walked side by side in the Arboretum until she disappeared into the shadow of a tree she climbed as a little girl when she came to visit her family after they settled in Pasadena as refugees from Vietnam.

In the shade of the tree, she told me about climbing an avocado tree in front of her parents' house, sitting at the top and escaping her angry father, who was rejoining the family after nine years in prison. Vietnamese re-education camp.

“Trees give us a safe place to go,” she said. “Many people have a tree that they turn to in times of need or when they need silence.” This reminded me of the song “Killing me gently” by Roberta Flack and later the Fugees, insofar as this is exactly how I think about trees and how did she know?

This walk with Mei Chuc made me feel tapped into a poetic instinct. What really touched me about her poetry was this one poem, “In the City of Roses,” in which she notes that people with houses and people without houses sleep the same way:

their bones curl
in the same
sleeping position

A man's hand grips a branch of a eucalyptus tree, surrounded by shadow.

“Neither my father nor my mother knew / the names of the trees / where I was born,” wrote WS Merwin. This is a Eucalyptus microthecaan endangered tree in the Australian section of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

She wrote this poem about people who sleep outside on New Year's Eve to save their spot for the Rose Parade and about people who sleep outside because they don't have a house. She asked me why this sentence stuck with me and I said that I think about this poem when I lie on my side in bed at night.

Horse legs trot over red confetti sprinkled along a street.

“Decorating my house / my horse my dog ​​/ what will I do / if you fall,” asked May Swenson. These horses trot over confetti during the Rose Parade in Pasadena.

4. Expect transformation

I walked around the block with Hiram Simspoet and publisher and founder of Sims Library of Poetry on Florence Avenue in Inglewood. The Sims Library could be combined volume-to-volume with the only other in-store poetry library I've ever visited, the Poetry Association of America in Brooklyn. Yet it started as a book-filled suitcase that Sims lugged around as they taught community college students who otherwise wouldn't have access to poetry. The suitcase is still on display, a reminder of how poetry and poets change and grow.

A woman with red roses in her hair spins as she dances with her colorful dress.

If your language feels like music, you can dance a poem. This dancer swirls along Cesar Chavez Avenue during the 77th annual Mexican Independence Day Parade and Festival.

5. Think about poetry and poets often

Sims and I talked about how all the poets he knows spend a lot of time in libraries and that the big dream of almost every poet he knows is to have their own poetry space. This really ties in with Padilla having her own literary magazine and bookstore. Mei Chuc did that her own publishing housecoming out soon with a series called “Poetry of Place” featuring poems describing Los Angeles neighborhoods from Alhambra to El Sereno to Westchester.

As we emerged from his crowded storefront for a walk around the block, Sims and I stopped in front of a garden that his neighbor had devoted entirely to dandelion-like flowers. I thought this might technically be the case a cat's ear but managed to suppress my impulse to suddenly turn this into a story about experiencing LA like a picky botanist. Instead, I listened to Sims extol the virtues of a poem titled “Dandelions” by Perre Shelton.

“I'll play it for you on YouTube when we get back,” he promised, and he did so in his office, where there was only one chair and he was sitting on it, which let me know our interview was almost over. .

Three young men walk towards a zebra crossing, behind them is a wall full of colorful graffiti.

To experience LA like a poet, the best way is to walk.

But that was okay, because by then I had a theory about how to experience LA as a poet. All I had to do was road test it, which I did at Leimert Park during the 15th anniversary celebration of SWAAM — Spoken word, art and music this summer.

The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center was standing room only and everyone inside was heard and celebrated as if it was everyone's birthday.

The artists took the microphone to speak their truths with verve, spark and flow. They had stage names such as Unconscious, Martian the Creator, Complicated Passion and Wild Flower, who invited everyone to respond to her during the introduction of a manifesto about her right to dance. She said there was a bottle of spiced pear brandy at the back of the bar.

Meanwhile, the live band made us feel language as music by accompanying the performances with straightforward renditions of Sly and the Family Stone and Teddy Pendergrass. People really liked my list of ways to experience LA as a poet and had some ideas of their own.

Conney Williams said, “Be authentic.”

Paul Mabon said, “Be vulnerable.”

Ron Dowell told me this about how he experiences Los Angeles as a poet: “I take public transportation trips so I can see people in their true natural state. They stop working and are tired, or they face mental health problems. I go to Skid Row and talk to people.”

That really piqued my interest. “Do you just walk up to them and tell them what's going on?”

“No,” he said, “I'll bring a blessing bag, a gallon ziplock bag with protein bars and containers of water and maybe an Oreo cookie plus a Slim Jim for more protein, to start a conversation or just to talk. at least get a smile.

And that's why, to experience Los Angeles as a poet, I now carry a blessing bag.

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