“A poem of address, a poem for what’s next, generations of poets, generations of musicians. A city of artists, a freestyle fellowship, an academy of architects…”
New from Writ Large Press (the Los Angeles wing of the Accomplices literary collective) comes poet and professor Mike Sonksen’s long-awaited follow-up to his landmark instant-classic song of the city, I Am Alive in Los Angeles! — Letters to My City.
The Accomplices is a newly launched partnership between Civil Coping Mechanisms, Entropy and Writ Large Press, working collectively out of New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and Pittsburgh to publish books, produce workshops and events, and operate a community-minded literary website. The idea behind the Accomplices is that there is strength in working together, power in numbers, curious audiences who only need a place to look, and plenty of poetry to go around.
And in Letters to My City Mike Sonksen gives us poetry, yes. Soaring interludes such as “Sometimes (A Golden Shovel for F. Douglas Brown and Mike Davis)” which begins, “The warm winds blow sometimes / making me feel like I / am one with the city. I feel / connected to the landscape like / the Santa Monica Mountains are my / spinal cord —” refresh the studying mind, as do the more abstracted list-style works in which streets and places are arranged to form a flow not unlike the city itself as it moves past outside your window. Do try to read the poems out loud if you can; the voice really unleashes their full energy.
For tone, there are optimistic odes like the opening stanza of the poem titled “L.A. Authors,” which starts: “Is it the sunshine or catastrophe? / Flash floods or the traffic? / Something about Los Angeles / makes music, makes magic. / The muse of Los Angeles / makes artists get active.” Poetic praise for “The 626” and “The 562” shines along with more pensive works like “The Riots Were the Week Before My Prom” and a poignant meditation on the humanitarian crisis of Skid Row called “No Place for Kids.”
But what’s different about this book is that these staccato epiphanies are nestled between pieces of expansive, generous, empathetic prose, in the form of essays both reprinted from, for example, Sonksen's award-winning “L.A. Letters” column on KCET, dedicated to his writing on Los Angeles scribes from Luis Rodriguez to Wanda Coleman, and a deeply personal tribute to his KCET compatriot Huell Howser, who once upon a time inspired it all.
“My dad and grandmother liked Huell because it triggered the nostalgia of their own childhoods and experiences growing up in Southern California while it was still being built. For me,” Sonksen writes, “California Gold reinforced my own burgeoning interest in this history. I saw Huell as a messenger to stick to my own California dream.”
He subsequently studied with iconic biographers of the metropolis like Mike Davis, but remember, Sonksen is a poet. It is his special gift for melodious weaving of a literary voice with lively oral histories from three generations of his family, who have lived and worked here and imparted their love of city to Sonksen times a million. These, together with his own decades of academic and foot-beat research and attentive observation paid in millions of miles of walking, driving and riding the Metro, have earned him a reputation as the most evocative and engaging tour guide in town.
In fact, one of the freshest pieces of writing in the collection is a detailed, witty and earnest set of advice for would-be guides, those who want to appreciate and impart what L.A.’s neighborhoods have to offer on their own terms, from North Long Beach to Little Tokyo, City Terrace to Florence-Firestone, the Cascades to the San Gabriel Valley. In “Community, Not a Commodity: The Ethics of Giving a City Tour,” Sonksen writes, “I have a deep respect for the longtime residents, their culture and their willingness to share their stories with me. This reverence is critical for giving a city tour or accurate historical account.”
His warm, professorial but exceptionally accessible long-form writing is built for teaching, but even in academic garb the accentuations of his rhythmic thinking still encapsulate the indomitable literary-slam spirit of Sonksen’s alter ego, Mike the Poet. So while a poem like “I Am Still Alive in Los Angeles!” begs to be read aloud, preferably standing up even if only for your own joy, it’s the more patient essays such as “Something in the Water: Hip-Hop History in Cerritos,” “The Legacy of the Woman’s Building and How It Lives on” and “Otomisan: The Last Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights” where readers are properly introduced to the true names their city calls itself.
Order Letters to My City at the Accomplices website.