Mike the Poet seeks out community-based public history in ‘Letters to My City’

By Bliss Bowen

Mike ‘the Poet’ Sonksen at Kuruvungna Springs, a sacred Native American heritage site on the University High School campus (Photo by Maria Martin)

“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 — my backbone that only
can be seen from an airplane. I see my friend
in every intersection — my destiny is
to uncover the stories — to incite others to the
other side of reality — the beauty in the city.”
—from “Sometimes,” dedicated to poet F. Douglas Brown and urban historian Mike Davis

Journalists talk about “working a beat,” digging into an area or subject the way cops patrol and learn a neighborhood. Mike Sonksen is a journalist; he is also (most famously) a poet, and a teacher, and an ethical tour guide of real-world L.A. — and, not tangentially, a devoted husband and father, and a third-generation L.A. native. Sonksen’s beat is very large.

That sprawling, pulsing, continually self-reinvented, beautiful mess of a beat is Los Angeles — the subject of his newly published book “Letters to My City,” a collection of essays and poems traversing the city, its history, its culture, its architecture, the ’92 uprising and the L.A. River. “The History of South Central Los Angeles” offers valuable history while chronicling the Sonksen family’s story, and neighborhoods from Alhambra to Cerritos and Little Tokyo are exalted with the familiarity of someone who’s shot hoops, skidded bikes and worn shoe leather on their sidewalks. Grateful homage is paid to writers who have opened Sonksen’s mind; Wanda Coleman, Chester Himes and Luis J. Rodriguez are each honored with individual pieces (as is grade school teacher Marguerite Felice Navarrete).

“Charles Bukowski in single room occupancies wrote
sublime poetry about the plight of modern man
with a beer can in his hands. 
Venice beats off Abbot Kinney and every time
I’m in Venice Jim Morrison speaks to me …
Behold the lore of L.A. Authors!”

“L.A. Authors,” previously published in his statement-making 2006 book “I Am Alive in Los Angeles!,” remains one of Sonksen’s best-known poems. It is slightly revised in “Letters to My City,” just as “Still Alive in Los Angeles!” builds on the earlier work’s themes.

“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”

“‘Letters to My City’ reflects that I’ve evolved and I’m a parent and a professor,” Sonksen says, explaining that “Still Alive in Los Angeles” was the original title for the book, but he and editor Chiwan Choi wanted something new that reflects his work’s current dimensions. “I’m still a poet, still a tour guide, still Mike, but I like writing poems and essays equally.”

Sometimes the people he teaches or guides school him, like the 24 blind teenagers he says “taught me how to read the city.” Early pages quote Henri Lefebvre’s philosophy about “the right to the city” and how public space should not be privatized. “Letters to My City” is Sonksen’s way of championing “community-based public history” and Lefebvre’s philosophy in an L.A. context.

“It’s a combination of the right to the city and this idea of sharing authority,” he explains. “The book is about living your values or living your ethics. For example, I see myself as partners with my students in the learning process … there’s more than one expert. … Everybody’s sharing the city together [and] everyone’s story matters. I’m really trying to celebrate all these people from these different areas and celebrate the city.”

Community is a constant theme. An elegy to the Root Down, Firecracker and the Chocolate Bar resurrects the synergistic late-’90s downtown club culture that exploded with hip-hop, funk, soul, spoken word, visionary artists, “people, music, vibes, beats, bass life.” Sonksen’s essay testifies with some of the book’s most vivid imagery, reclaiming a community of creative people finding each other and themselves on the dance floor, and their nightly ritual of creating themselves in ways specific to L.A.

“Admittedly we’d read a lot of Kerouac and the Beats and Black Arts and punk rock; we’d read about a lot of movements. But it was our own becoming,” he says. “It was hip-hop influenced but it was also literary, and our friends were artists and DJs. It was our own moment. It was a spirit that really defined me. I went out so much then that I barely have to go out anymore.”

Though several essays previously appeared in his “L.A. Letters” column for KCET, much of the material is new, in which Sonksen explores expanding towns and roadways — literally and metaphysically. “Los Angeles Street is the Berlin Wall” of “No Place for Kids.” “Driving Down the 105” evokes a crystallizing moment of “surreal science fiction” shortly after Sonksen graduated from UCLA in 1997, when he was driving 85 on the 105, feeling wind blow his hair and listening to electronic music on KCRW at 1 a.m. as he headed home to his Culver City apartment. “The landscape coalesced with the music,” he writes, as “speed demons” zipped past him on the freeway and lights twinkled distantly on the Rancho Palos Verdes peninsula and “Downtown L.A.’s small cluster of skyscrapers held court a dozen miles north.”

Sonksen’s writing traces his own map of connecting threads amid constant change. A sense of mission permeates his survey of “Garvey Avenue from Alhambra to El Monte” and the North Long Beach road from “Oklahoma to Samoa,” informed by his commitment to “debunking stereotypes” and witnessing heedless cultural and environmental losses incurred by gentrification. He illuminates a thesis concerning “impact vs. intention” with a reference to Venice of America developer Abbot Kinney escorting author Helen Hunt Jackson through Southern California Mission Indian villages after her 1881 nonfiction book “A Century of Dishonor” was roundly ignored.

“That was really influential. … She was brave and at the time telling the truth about injustices done to Native Americans in a far more insightful way than anyone else was writing at the moment,” Sonksen says. Just as John Steinbeck would later root his Depression-era classic “The Grapes of Wrath” in notes for his 1936 “Harvest Gypsies” news reports about migrant workers, Jackson conscientiously tried to
speak truth through her fictional 1884 novel “Ramona.” But businessmen exploited its tragic romance to promote a Southern California that was, and remains, fantasy.

Sonksen also writes about early 20th-century poet Vachel Lindsay, whose work prefigured modern-day performance poets, and whose “gospel of beauty” connects him to late KCET “California’s Gold” host Huell Howser — and Sonksen. All three men dedicated themselves to wonder rather than cynicism, and celebrating Los Angeles and Southern California.

“A poem of address, prose for what’s next …
the spark of creation, on location, a city drive with your mother, a hug from your brother, a song about your sister, music is the heartbeat, a field of great streets, night and the city, the gospel of beauty, pound the pavement, fight the good fight, bridge the divide, grow something, put people over profit, celebrate the present, we are the movement”
— from “Letters to My City”

Sonksen still holds his often-voiced belief that a key part of his work is bridging different segments of the community, although it’s no longer confined to L.A. literary circles, and he increasingly adopts a journalist’s big-picture perspective. Whether as writer, teacher or tour guide, “part of my job is being someone who helps extend the conversation,” he says. “There are many more answers and many more voices, but I’m at least contributing, and maybe I’m a catalyst. … I’m trying to bring people together.”

Mike Sonksen celebrates “Letters to My City” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (April 14) at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Admission is $6 to $10. Call (310) 821-0256 or visit mikethepoetla.tumblr.com.

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