Closing the Gap
Mike “The Poet” Sonksen brings ‘Three Generations’ of wordsmiths together in Venice
By Bliss Bowen
“Who’s rockin’ the populace
In the postmodern metropolis?”
Chances are better than good that you’ve heard at least a fragment of “LA Authors” over the past 10 years if you’ve attended a slam or spoken-word event in the area, or if you’ve taken one of Mike “The Poet” Sonksen’s guided tours through downtown L.A., or attended one of his workshops, or read one of his “LA Letters” columns for KCET.
The self-described “interdisciplinary artist” has been a ubiquitous, open-spirited presence in Greater L.A.’s literary community for at least 15 years, and “LA Authors” — which virtually explodes with names, images and hip-hop energy — is one of his best-known pieces.
Beyond Baroque honored Sonksen’s “distinguished service” to the Los Angeles poetry community in 2013. On Sunday afternoon he returns for “Three Generations.” The multi-artist, multigenerational event is an extension of the monthly shows he used to coordinate at the Last Bookstore in downtown L.A.
“I have my perspective, my point of view, my platform, the whole vision of what I’ve been doing,” he says. “I have poets who are 16 to 75 there. I like to mix the different styles — some of the more page poets or academic poets, then there’s the spoken word poet, there’s the kind of punk rock and political poet. There are so many genres of poetry you can’t even have them all in one place, but I try to have as many as I can. It’s kind of an old-fashioned jam session.”
As host, Sonksen strives for a democratic balance of thoughtful page poets and charismatic performance poets. He grew up in the hip-hop scene and consequently has a keen understanding of crowd dynamics; but he’s also learned the value of being literary and “knowing the canon.”
“The best thing about being well read is it prevents you from putting your foot in your mouth,” he observes. “The more I read of the Romantic poets, the more I realized I was just saying the same thing that Shelley and Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson were saying 200 years ago. The only thing new is if you put a different twist on it or modernize it a bit.”
He’ll be joined Sunday by prolific poet, playwright and essayist (and onetime Doors running mate) Michael C Ford, whom Sonksen refers to as “my literary uncle.” Also taking the podium will be brother-and-sister team Dante Mitchell and Monique Mitchell, former high school students of Sonksen’s.
“They’re really talented poets, really nice kids,” he says. “He’s 24 now and she’s 22.”
Sonksen is currently teaching 11th- and 12th-grade AP English, journalism and creative writing at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey, where he also oversees a poetry club.
“I can literally see the LAX runway from my classroom,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a smart school. They’re really amazing kids. They’re 16 or 17 and they’re all pretty hungry; I have them writing up a storm.”
“Kids are so up on language,” he adds, after an amusing exchange about slang phrase du jour “throw shade.” “We have a good time playing with language.”
Born in Long Beach, Sonksen graduated from UCLA in 1997, and got his master’s in English and history from Cal State L.A. in 2014. To him, poetry and history are flipsides of a cherished coin; he uses poetry to pique his students’ interest in L.A. history.
“I was telling my students I got my identity through both,” he explains. “I just love writing. And I like cataloguing history. Poetry was the first form that sort of came naturally when I was a teenager, but even then I liked writing essays. Above all I consider myself a writer, but I’m equally poet and journalist. … The poem is the outline, and the essay is the longer version.”
He recently did some readings in celebration of “Slices of Los Angeles,” an artful packaging of selected poems and essays with archival photos and maps that underscore his writing’s abundant imagery. He has subtly revised his thesis, “Poetics on Location,” which he describes as “kind of a new edge of poems about geography and history,” and expects it to be published soon by Writ Large Press. He’s also updating 2006’s “I Am Alive in Los Angeles,” his signature collection, for a new compilation, “Still Alive in Los Angeles,” and hopes to “get a whole bunch of books out” in the next few years.
That full schedule has compelled him to “work smarter” to allow more time with his wife, 6-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Two years ago, as a favor to his then-pregnant wife, he went on hiatus from performing while finishing his master’s. It was the first time he’d taken a break in 15 years. It was good to do, he says, but he “missed bringing people together” — and bringing people together from different segments of the community is central to his work, and arguably his identity. It seems as organic to him as walking or writing.
“Now I’m doing it maybe six or eight times a year versus monthly,” he says. “The perfect compromise is I host quarterly at Beyond Baroque, and then I occasionally host at Avenue 50 in Highland Park and occasionally at Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. I really love bringing people together. A lot of it is friendship and camaraderie, as well as the art. Afterward, we’ll all go out for a burger.”
Three Generations on a Stage: host Mike “The Poet” Sonksen, Michael C Ford, Dante Mitchell, Monique Mitchell and more perform at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. $5 to $10 suggested donation, but no one turned away for lack of funds. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit aliveinlosangeles.com and beyondbaroque.org.