2 local poets: ‘The spirit of activism has always been in LA poetry’

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Southern California may not get the credit it deserves for its strong literary community and a great spoken word scene. However, poets Shonda Buchanan and Mike Sonksen tell Greater LA the poetry community could be the most diverse scene in the city of Los Angeles.

“You can do poetry seven nights a week, and, prior to the birth of my daughter, I would often do 2 or 3 venues in one night,” said Sonksen.

Here are some spots Buchanan suggests checking out to listen to or read poetry:

“The spirit of activism has always been in Los Angeles poetry,” said Buchanan. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons we are not as applauded and lauded as other people, because we are very much about speaking our truth as poets.”

Selections of their poetry is below.

Poet Shonda Buchanan. Photo courtesy of Buchanan.

You Will Not Die (for Andrew Johnson, my unborn grandson and Baby Lewis)
by Shonda Buchanan

Dear beautiful black wrestler boy
you are not the cutting of your locs.
You are instead the lotus wind that escapes from slits in the laughing earth
when a great tale is being told, when fault lines shift,
when virgins disappear, when houses crumble to dust.
You are not the scissor hands of someone you trusted
yanking out your roots and branches.
You are instead Hannibal’s 37 elephants, 15,000 horses, 30,000
soldiers making the Alps tremble in a destined march to end
an empire of tired, corrupt men.
You are not the timber sound of your hair falling
on a wrestling mat.
You are instead the tender moment when language
convinces love to come, to trust
and live in a dangerous place anyway.
You are not decent, complicit eyes ignoring your public rape.
Not one man’s small useless organ beating in placid,
soon-to-die chest.
You are not the weakness of your knees,
Not the tightness of your throat. Not the doubt cracking your lungs.
Your back to us, your cheeks dry,
shocked by the sudden taste of history in your mouth.
Boy becoming man
Man becoming leader
Leader becoming king.
Returned to us.
You are every black child, black student,
black boy, man, father, husband, uncle, cousin
they tried to keep down.
You are the porcelain of dreams, the wet of water
the cold jade of fire on the tip of a poet’s spear.
You are the darkest of darkness
where beautiful black magic is born.
You are magic.
You are gris gris and Coptic crosses.
You are not defeated.
You are the precious spell I cast when I write.
Your body is an ancient tongue that holds babies’ placenta-palm secrets.
You are Wanda Coleman’s ghost, pissed and on fire.
You are the ancestors singing of you
long before the stars wept slave blood when America was born.
You are the blade we polished again and again
by antebellum fire’s light
so we could live. So we could get you here.
You will not die with their hands in your hair.
We will not die with their hands in our hair.
You are James Baldwin’s caterpillar hatchet eyes.
You are family reunions and first loves and teeth under pillows.
You are books and prayer beads in the hands of children.
You are Aretha’s two changes of outfits in her casket.
You are cowrie shells in the hands of elders.
You are a beautiful blackrose boy
in a field of beautiful blackrose boys.
You are alive.
You are magic.
You are alive.
You are magic.
You, we, will never be defeated.
You are alive. You are magic.
Beautiful black wrestler boy.
You are magic. You are magic.

Poet Mike Sonksen. Photo courtesy of Sonksen

I am still alive in Los Angeles!
By Mike Sonksen

I am still alive in Los Angeles
even as the price of rent rises
and gridlock strangles central arteries
I’m old enough to remember disco parties
and the build up to the 1984 Olympics
and news reporters like Jerry Dunphy
and Hal Fishman; I remember
when Fernando Valenzuela
was a rookie -- Years before I
loved Wanda Coleman and Bukowski,
my first LA poets were Chick Hearn
& Vin Scully -- Then I read Mike Davis
and Carey McWilliams and watched
the gospel of Huell Howser looking
at things that aren’t here anymore recalling former glory like Ralph Story I’m still
from Panorama City to Pomona
I am still alive in Los Angeles
as they build high speed trains
down Crenshaw and out into the San Gabriel Valley changes in transportation
for the new generation foreshadow
the nation’s transformation as millennials
on bicycles call for the return
of the Garden City; green in the 21 st Century
is a matter of survival -- witness the revival of the wetlands the riparian watershed is a
sentinel for sustainability unbridled consumption is a liability,
observe residents of Angel City playing
their part restoring nature’s heart
I am still
alive in Los Angeles from festivals to funerals, baby showers to weddings, each
generation ever more beautiful
reality is ever musical -- throngs of people mix and match creating the patchwork
mosaic of multicultural souls coming together to call
LA home. The community is a poem in progress called Los Angeles.
The angels in a city singing synchronicity from Central to Century City--
Olympic was 10 th street and Pio Pico was the last governor of California when it
belonged to Mexico, he was born a Spanish citizen-- see the city Zen
soaring to satori on a Saturday morning circling the Evergreen Cemetery
or hiking up hills in Culver City
I am
still alive in Los Angeles as mamas monitor laundromats from Lankershim to Long
Beach, I walk the long streets from Magnolia to Manchester, Rosemead to Redondo
I am still alive in Los Angeles though there’s no more open space; most of the wetlands
have been replaced by condos, Trader Joe's and makeshift dog parks. The expanding
corporate heart charts a frenzied facelift of never-ending Christmas but only a few are
on that wish list. There’s a generation of kids on snapchat
and commuters want that fast track
Alive in Los Angeles!
I am still alive in Los Angeles.
Thanks to family, friends and poetry. The past, present and future of my city gives me
energy. Untold generations of history from Biddy Mason
to Chavez Ravine to Toyo Miyatake punctuating the power of place turning the page
sharing authority because we share the story
of the city unfolding -- no hierarchy,
we all belong to this city – its oral her-story.
I am still alive in Los Angeles! Today I drive around LA with my son and daughter like I
once rode with my grandfather.
There’s no more Perino’s or the Brown Derby but there’s still Fosselmans, Cole’s,
Philippe’s and the Pantry. My children spill ice cream in the back seat, Together we are
alive in a city of destiny.
I am still alive in Los Angeles!