‘Along the Hyphen’ explores creativity fueled by overlapping identities

By Michael Aushenker

Irene Suico Soriano writes poetry in search of community

Irene Suico Soriano writes poetry in search of community

Los Angeles is nothing if not multicultural.

There are at least 224 identified languages spoken throughout L.A. County, according to UCLA languages professor Vyacheslav Ivanov (via Los Angeles Almanac). The City of Angels is home to the second-largest Korean population outside of Seoul and, at nearly 700,000, Los Angeles has the world’s fifth-largest Jewish population.

African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, Native-American — so many here have a hyphenated descriptor that to ignore this city’s demographic mix is to deny our city’s strengths and the inevitable ethnic overlap in art and culture.

One person paying attention to these dashes as cultural connectors: Aaron Paley, organizer of “Along the Hyphen,” a three-tier poetry event kicking off Sunday at Beyond Baroque.

A collaboration between Jewish-American musician Joseph DeRusha and various poets, the program sets to music the verse of African-American wordsmith Kamau Daáood, East Los Angeles-based performance artist Marisela Norte and Filipina-American Irene Suico Soriano, with Korean-American Doc Whisper emceeing the event.

The universal themes of these works, illuminated through rich culture-specific detail, range from social justice to relationships.

“I was looking to combine spoken word artists of different generations, communities and styles,” Paley said. “On top of that, I wanted to weave in a musical voice that was expressively Jewish, so that the Jewish voice in this particular collaboration comes through the music.”

“Along the Hyphen” is part of a larger citywide series of cross-cultural collaborations sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The program continues on Aug. 17 at Breed Street Shul — a synagogue representing the remnants of Boyle Heights’ original Jewish population that has been overhauled into a state-of-the-art destination for the neighborhood’s current Latino community — and culminates on Sept. 14 with a festival at the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown.

Soriano, 45, hails from East Hollywood, near one of Southern California’s thriving Filipino districts.

“A lot of my work reflects the community I come from,” she said, commenting, for example, on relationships between the rich and their caretakers, with the nursing industry a major gateway globally for immigrants from the Philippines.

It was while attending Loyola Marymount University in Westchester that Soriano discovered her artistic direction. The creative writing major credits her professor, Gail Ronsky, for encouraging her poetry.

“She took me seriously. She was always very supportive. I kind of blossomed,” Soriano said.

“After college, I wanted to find community,” she said of a personal and cultural writing quest that intensified following her father’s 2001 death.

Soriano got involved in “Hyphen” thanks to her longtime mentor figure Norte, with whom she has never shared a stage before. And there’s another full-circle moment coming Sunday: returning to Beyond Baroque, “the first public venue I went to [after college]. So it’s a very nice coming back,” she said.

Soriano, whose work appears in such poetry collections as “Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry,” describes herself as a poet who is “more on the page, to be read — I don’t really have experience setting it to music.”

Comfortable in her own skin, Soriano, who drops the term “person of color” often in conversation, does not bristle from the risk of being pigeonholed.

“It’s a choice. I’m proud to be a woman of color,” she said.

What she finds mortifying is “performing” her poetry, including works such as “Frederick,” a portrait in text of a lonely San Fernando Valley soul drowning in alcohol and memories of the Philippines of his youth.

Proud of her writings, Soriano believes the unprecedented collaborative performance component of her appearance is a gamble worth exploring.

“When people hear me read, they say I’m a really good storyteller,” Soriano said, adding point blank, “ultimately, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

As for any autobiographical aspects to her art, yes and no: “It’s really about everything I know and the stories told to me. Nothing is pure,” she said.

Paley identifies another challenge for Soriano and her fellow “Hyphen” poets: defying expectations that come with stereotypes. With an African-American poet, for example, “there’s a certain idea of what they should say and what they represent. What I’m hoping to do is challenge people’s assumptions of stereotypes and each other.”

“Along the Hyphen” runs from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice. Free. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.