Author, educator and poet Mike Sonksen reflects on the solace provided by public art, books and the creative community in L.A. during a dark time in our world.
It’s hard to find words after the recent, devastating mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, amid the ongoing malaise of the pandemic. I have been turning to public art, books, poetry and our creative community in Los Angeles for some light. There is comfort here for all of us, if we look for it.
“The Light at the End of the Tunnel – Heart of Los Angeles” installation by neon artist and native Angeleno Tory Dipietro reminds us to go forward through the darkness. Located at the west end exit of the 3rd Street Tunnel before Flower Street in Downtown Los Angeles, Dipietro’s huge, red neon heart is 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, bisected with “Los Angeles” in script, against white plate steel. Neon glass tubes of purple, blue, green and yellow glow a welcoming and bright rainbow of color.
Dipietro dreamed up this concept early in the pandemic and it took two years to become a reality, in March 2022, with the help of former Department of Cultural Affairs director and neon advocate Al Nodal. Dipietro told me that she loves using neon as a medium because it is not only beautiful but gives light. Her hope was to create a piece to offer light to her city in this challenging time. In fact, just as of yesterday, she announced an invitation to the Los Angeles community to join at the Candle Light Vigil for Recent Victims of Gun Violence & Silent Protest Against Gun Violence at the installation, this Saturday night, June 4.
As I shared with KCET in September 2021, we can find inspiration in public art, along with books, poetry, and our creative and literary communities–these are the light at the end of the tunnel. We are. Let’s resolve to keep pushing. Together.
As the school year comes to a close, I have nearly completed two semesters of teaching in the classroom, after 18 months at home via Zoom. Although I finally have been back in the room with most of my students, for each class, a handful of students have been joining us online because of vaccine restrictions or other limiting factors. Teaching in the hybrid model this last year has been intense.
This is a complicated moment, and I continue to feel cautious and unsure of what to expect next, yet optimistic. I am not alone. Many of us are wavering between anxiety and an anticipation for new chapters, a fresh start. There is a growing social movement to right the wrongs of history. Though this spirit has been brewing for some time, the Covid-19 era initiated a tipping point and increased activism. The combination of the pandemic and countless tragic events post lockdown, including the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine, at-risk abortion rights and racially motivated mass shootings across the U.S., are galvanizing people to advocate for justice and a reckoning against the prevailing order in society.
Books Are Bridges
Throughout the pandemic, I have taken solace in books, and I would like to share five titles that have inspired and touched me during this time. Several authors and musicians lost their lives to Covid, and I will honor them here, too.
We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane
Los Angeles-based author Cassandra Lane’s debut memoir, We Are Bridges, is a moving narrative that goes back and forth between the early 20th-century South and present-day Los Angeles. Beginning with her pregnancy at 35, Lane unpacks her childhood growing up as an African-American woman in Louisiana–and reveals the lynching of her great-grandfather Burt Bridges in 1904. Lane skillfully connects the dates and dots of the history of her great-grandfather Bridges, grandmother, mother and her younger self, and explores how it all connects to the birth of her son in Los Angeles in 2007.
Lane has shared that she spent years researching and had an intent to heal generational trauma and exorcise lingering family ghosts by writing the book. It’s genesis began over 20 years ago and Lane took several trips from L.A. to Louisiana to revisit the landscapes she describes. The precision and meticulous interweaving of details testify to the skill of her crafted prose.
The book culminates with the birth of Lane’s son, Solomon, and the reader cannot help but be inspired by her courage, self-knowledge and power for frank, evocative description. Underneath the narrative and historical speculation there are two love stories, her great-grandparents and her own relationship with her husband, Marcus. Ultimately, she honors her ancestors, confronts her own shadow and emerges in the light, a woman liberated from the past and former fears. Lane shows how we can all be bridges to a freer future in our own lives.
A Quilt for David by Steven Reigns
A Quilt for David by celebrated Los Angeles LGBTQ poet Steven Reigns, whose words were recently featured on billboards in West Hollywood for National Poetry Month, is a patchwork of documentary poetry that recounts the life and times of a Florida dentist, Dr. David Acer, in a small conservative town during the 1980s. Dr. Acer was wrongly accused of infecting eight of his patients with HIV and turned into a scapegoat, even villainized in a People magazine cover story and by several tabloid talk shows. During the time that Acer was in the public eye, the general public was ignorant about HIV. Reigns spent several years doing investigative research, and the 85 pages of poems in this collection show how medical misinformation and cultural bias create fictional scenarios that are not rooted in science. Reigns shows how the false claims made in the early 1990s about Dr. Acer would be quickly denied now, but three decades ago, the prevailing anxiety and ignorance about HIV clouded public perception.
Every detail in the book is based on fact. Reigns’ work explains that because Dr. Acer was gay and later infected with HIV, his patients found it convenient to blame their dentist rather than “disclose their own full stories of HIV infection,” and that they “had their own circumstances and motivations to blame outside risk factors, to blame David Acer.” Reigns points out that the noninvasive dental cleaning each of these patients received was not capable of transmitting the virus, but people were too ignorant then to know it. In some cases, Reigns read up enough on these individuals to offer alternative scenarios, like their own careless sex lives that they did not want to admit or disclose. Reigns was so thorough that he wrote short poems based on each of the individuals who made their public claims. His poems refute their claims and set the record straight.
During the decade of research that Reigns conducted to write this poetic narrative, he also found that there were sloppy researchers, unscrupulous lawyers, invasive private detectives and greedy people who all contributed to how the story was misconstrued. Reigns attributes the smear campaign directed at Acer to “hatred of gay people, repressive parents, people wanting a perfect victim, mob mentaility, and collective anxiety about HIV and what it meant about you if you contracted it.”
Reigns writes in the Introduction, “I tried to shred previous ideas, to remove the stuffing, and rip out ill-aligned seams. I hope these patchwork poems give you an idea of that time and another way to remember David Acer.” The litany of short documentary poems in this book add up to one long poem that shows how a web of lies was sewn to falsely accuse the Florida dentist. Though Dr. Acer died 30 years ago, Steven Reigns masterfully re-envisions his life and corrects the record. This is a unique book of poetry and one deeply aligned with our times.
X LA Poets edited by Linda Ravenswood
The X Poets anthology spotlights 10 Los Angeles women poets: Shonda Buchanan, Allison Hedge Coke, Arminé Iknadossian, Rachel Kann, Teresa Mei Chuc, Viva Padilla, Chelsea Rector, Luivette Resto, L.A. Poet Laureate Lynne Thompson and editor Linda Ravenswood. The anthology emerged from Project 1521, a group of artists and writers formed by painter Sandy Rodriguez and KPCC radio journalist and Taco Shop Poet Adolfo Guzman-Lopez. Published by Yago Cura’s Hinchas Press, these poems, as Cura says, “brim with allusions, namesakes and tributes.” The anthology’s name is a nod to L.A. punk band X.
The book features several poems, loaded with quotable lines, by each selected poet; the themes overlap and diverge into a poignant kaleidoscope. Lynne Thompson’s opening line from “Delusion, An Urban Romance,” proclaims, “We live in a city ringed with false teeth.” Luivette Resto states in “No More Poems” that “I will no longer write poems for you / I will only write them for me.”
Teresa Mei Chuc celebrates “Quan Am, bodhisattva of compassion,” in “Quan Am on a Dragon.” The mythical bodhisattva is deeply revered in Buddhist tradition and Mei Chuc captures this perfectly: “Mother says that the goddess was there to guide and save us / from the strong waves of the South China Sea. I should know / better than to believe her though she swears it’s true. / I ask again and she nods, says really, I saw Quan Am in the clouds / as we were escaping. I should know better than to believe her. / But a part of me wants to believe in a bodhisattva, in compassion / riding on a mythical creature, to believe that somehow something / more than just our mere human selves wanted us to live.”
This sort of supernatural, mystical optimism is a central thread. Shonda Buchanan’s “Poem of Hope 1” declares: “But don’t forget to dream… / Get back in your spaceship, / set a course for Jupiter. / Keep your eyes / on the naked stars.” Rachel Kann’s “Kindness / The Murmuration of Starlings” states: “let that voice / within you speak. / and this time, listen, / give yourself the gift of presence.”
Viva Padilla maps her omnipresence across L.A. in the poem “utilizing google maps to triangulate the course of my desmadre over the years.” She begins: “First start at some hospital run by nuns in East Los / Move me over to South Central / To a house built in 1910 with an 80-year-old avocado tree.” Padilla’s poem mirrors her life. The founder of Dryland, a new indie poetry journal based in South Central Los Angeles, Padilla also recently opened Re/Arte, a performance space and bookstore on Avenida Cesar Chavez in Boyle Heights.
The poets and poems in X LA Poets cover all corners of the city and offer a poetic mosaic as diverse as Los Angeles itself.
You Are Poetry by Mike Johnston
Mike Johnston is an award-winning educator and poetry slam champion. His new book, You Are Poetry, is equally a manifesto and step-by-step curriculum explaining that “Poetry is a beautiful way to give students (and everyone else, honestly) the means to become language artists and excel at their ability to communicate.” The book’s premise centers on the idea that we are all poets, whether we know it or not–and that students who are encouraged to write poetry show increases in their emotional intelligence and communication skills. He makes a great case by offering a lot of personal stories to illustrate his points.
For poets, Johnston’s message is a given, but for the uninitiated, he offers page after page of lesson plans and testimony that show how using poetry in the classroom liberates young people. Johnston generously offers so many creative ideas and writing prompts that even experienced teachers who have been teaching poetry for years will find new approaches to inspire their students.
Johnston writes about the importance of giving students the space to speak from their heart. His book is student-centered and he implores teachers and others to listen to students more. He shares the idea that as each student becomes more courageous in their writing, it inspires the rest of the class to drop their guard, too. He writes that this process helps young writers see they can lift others up.
In some regards, Johnston’s You Are Poetry is a 21st century remix of Paulo Freire with a dash of Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. For many years I have been using similar activities in my own classroom and Johnston’s manifesto echoes many of the ideas I subscribe to when it comes to using poetry to teach. You Are Poetry presents a path for teachers to build community in their class and promote students’ emotional mindfulness. During the pandemic, I have doubled down on Johnston’s curriculum as it has been needed more than ever.
The Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit by Risa Williams
Risa Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, life coach and professor who specializes in anxiety and stress reduction tools. Her new book, The Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit, offers 25 tools to worry less, relax more and boost self-esteem. As much as Williams writes about neuroscience, she brings it down to earth. Much of her book focuses on journaling and using writing prompts to free your mind. Many of the ideas she posits are kindred to Mike Johnston’s, such as her emphasis on storytelling as a method to empower oneself and overcome anxiety.
Williams packages exercises into simple steps she calls “neuroscience nuggets.” She takes complicated cognitive concepts and breaks them down into easy exercises that only take a few minutes. Blending narrative therapy, positive psychology and mindfulness, her book provides ways to support our mental health, so needed in the Covid-19 era.
Ultimately, Williams promotes self-awareness and her book is filled with simple reminders to help reduce stress and increase mindfulness to enjoy each moment. I have used some of her writing prompts in my class as warm-ups.
Lights at the End of the Tunnel
Before closing, I wanted to salute a few legends who passed away due to Covid:
Gift of Gab, the hip hop MC from Blackalicious, was among the most lyrical and versatile voices to pick up a mic. The Sacramento-born rapper’s “Alphabet Aerobics” is a song that uses alliteration to go A to Z through the alphabet. I have used it in my class many times to inspire students.
Baba Zumbi aka Stephen Gaines, the lead rapper from Zion, was an equally prolific MC. The Oakland-born rapper made a lot of classic music. One of the last songs he recorded in 2015, “Tech $,” is a powerful treatise on gentrification in the Bay Area.
Two San Francisco Poet Laureates died within a few weeks of each other. Janice Mirikitani was the second San Francisco Poet Laureate from 2000 to 2002. As a pioneering Japanese American poet, Mirikitani was also an influential activist for over 50 years. Since the 1960s, she worked closely with her husband, Cecil Williams, at the Glide Church in San Francisco, where they fed homeless, rehabilitated addicts and built low-income housing as a part of their ministry. Mirikitani also collaborated closely with June Jordan and Maya Angelou. In her poem “Poetry for the People,” Mirikitani wrote, “In circles of poetry, we meet ourselves, tied together by the details of our lives.” By all accounts, Mirikitani served her city selflessly and left behind a poignant body of work.
Just a few weeks after Mirikitani passed away, Jack Hirschman did, too. Hirschman was San Francisco’s fourth Poet Laureate. I heard Hirschman read a poem at the Mirikitani Memorial over Zoom about a week before he passed away. Hirschman published over 100 volumes of poetry and essays. He also mentored former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez, and it was in Hirschman’s poetry class at UCLA in 1964, that Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore met and began the conversations that led them to found The Doors. Hirschman was fired from UCLA shortly after that because he told students to burn their draft cards. (Beloved Los Angeles poet Michael C. Ford has told me a lot of stories about that time and class because he was in there himself.) Hirschman never worked in academia again, and from that time on, he became one of the most prolific activist poets of the last six decades.
There’s more to say, but I have to help my son finish his homework. In closing my “Letter to L.A.,” I want to circle back to the point about literature serving as a source of strength and solace. Each of the five books that I mentioned above hold powerful mojo. As Cassandra Lane reminds us: We can be bridges in our own lives. Through poetry and public art, we can see ourselves and push toward the truth. Deep respect to the legends who have passed, and let’s cherish everyone still here. We need you, and each other, more than ever.
Feature image: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel – Heart of Los Angeles“ art installation at the 3rd Street Tunnel in Downtown Los Angeles by neon artist Tory DiPietro, as photographed by Gary Leonard, with permission from the artist and photographer.
The community is invited to join the Candle Light Vigil for Recent Victims of Gun Violence & Silent Protest Against Gun Violence at the installation site on Saturday, June 4, at 7:45 p.m. Candle lighting will begin at 8 p.m.
Mike Sonksen aka Mike the PoeT is a 3rd-generation Southern Californian poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide. His latest book, LETTERS TO MY CITY, was published by Writ Large Press. A Los Angeles Press Club award-winning writer, he has been published by KCET, Poets & Writers, Wax Poetics, PBS SoCal, LA Taco, Los Angeles Review of Books, LAist, Boom California and the Academy of American Poets. His poetry has been featured on public radio stations KCRW, KPCC and KPFK and on Spectrum News. Sonksen is the Coordinator of the First Year Experience Program at Woodbury University and is a former high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @mikethepoetLA.