Poet honors all people in the City of Angels

By Bridgette M. Redman

Los Angeles has always had more to it than meets the eye. Beyond Tinseltown, beyond the celebrities, beyond the traffic gridlock, is a place that is home to people from all heritages, from all walks of life.

That’s what Shonda Buchanan fell in love with and to which she plays tribute in her latest poem and the film it spawned — part of “For The Love of LA,” a digital series created by The Music Center.

Buchanan is an award-winning poet, author, lecturer at Loyola Marymount University (her alma mater) and trustee of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice. PBS NewsHour named her memoir, “Black Indian,” one of the “top 20 books to read” to learn about institutional racism and it won the 2020 Indie New Generation Book Award.
Rodriguez’s project resonated with Buchanan on many levels.

“I feel as if I am the quintessential LA artist,” Buchanan said. “I have such a deep love of everything LA, but not the glossy, celebrity Beverly Hills. That’s not my focus, though it is nice to go to Rodeo Drive.”

Instead, it is the diverse LA that calls to her, the communities ranging from Native Americans to Latino to Ethiopians. Buchanan has immersed herself in as much culture as she possible, drawing upon Southern California’s diversity of people, landscapes and culture. Those are the things she captures in her poem, “We Are All Angels.”

“I wanted to represent LA in the way I know it and the way I have experienced it as an artist,” Buchanan said. “My first real poetic family came out of the world stage in LA — the Anansi writer’s workshop was my shaping ground, that was the place where I learned to be a good poet. Then I had all these other communities of people who encouraged me.”

LA in film format

For this project, Buchanan made the poem into a film, one that travels through LA and spotlights the many communities that make the city what it is.

The film begins with two musical pieces, the first a Native American Grass Song, something typically sung and danced by male Native Americans who perform it in the spring as part of a celebration. They dance down the high plain grasses so everyone else could follow them to hold their ceremonies. Buchanan received permission to perform it.

The second song preceding the poem is one that Buchanan wrote. It addresses what it is like to be a Black person in America and a Black Indian, specifically.

“I am an African American who honors and researches my indigenous past,” Buchanan said. “I know who my nations are. Unless you are looking into the history, unless you are intentional about creating diversity in all of our spaces, then you don’t know my true name.”

The song’s lyrics echo that: “If you knew my true name, would you take me there?”

Buchanan then recites her poem that expresses a love of LA the way she’s experienced it, widely embracing the multiplicity of communities. She is convinced that if people really knew what makes LA, they would want to be here.

“It’s not just sunshine. It’s not just gangs,” Buchanan said. “There is such a mixture of communities here and I love all of them.”

Rodriguez, who is also including works by Chiwan Choi and Luivette Resto in his project, said all of their works swim in language and imagery — that they are passionate and vital voices with important stories to tell.

“LA is one of the most literary and poetic cities anywhere,” Rodriguez said. “Poetry, as a beacon in the dark, can help illuminate our way. The poets featured here are the far-seeing and deep-feeling writers and activists I’ve had the privilege to know and work with.”

COVID-19 isolation

Buchanan’s poem, “We Are All Angels,” is what she calls a COVID-19 poem. It came from a feeling of isolation that was challenging for her.

She describes herself as an artist who thrives on being in spaces with other artists and was suddenly forced into a solitary place.

She spent that time writing and exercising and doing everything she could to maintain her life, but at the same time, she missed being in line, bumping up against other people, experiencing the clamor of what makes up LA.

During isolation, Buchanan wrote poems of hope for her grandson and for herself, exploring the questions of where the world was going to go after the pandemic, were people going to be able to again breathe each other’s air?

“I believe language can change things,” Buchanan said. “I believe language is transformative, language is healing. I, like everyone else, was grieving the multiple deaths in the African American community and on the reservations…we lost multiple elders. In Montana, the people I do ceremony with lost many elders, they’re still losing people.”

Buchanan’s poem, “We Are All Angels,” became her anthem. It’s one where in the end, she comes back with hope, that she is still here and after this long night, she’ll greet her city again.

She said it was important to her to represent diverse communities of LA. When she prepared for its first public reading at The Broad, she realized that she had forgotten to put in some of the communities that were important to her. So, the poem grew. She made sure she mentioned Ethiopian food, that she had a prayer rug for the Muslim communities and that the ocean made an appearance.

“It came to represent the fabric of LA in the way that I experience it,” Buchanan said. “I wanted to show that with language. All of the experiences in this poem are things I have encountered or written about or love about LA.”

Buchanan was inspired by a film she saw at the Sundance Film Festival to turn the poem into a short film. She started listing all the places that made LA home to her and figured out how to include them in the film.

“I wanted the film to show the beauty and the ugly, the rich and the impoverished, the unsheltered,” Buchanan said.

“I wanted to show the beauty and the grittiness that makes up this amazing community. I wanted that sense of permanent impermanence. In the film, there is a sense of change and the sense of transformation, and the sense that who we are makes up LA.”

Slowly falling in love

It was a fluke that Buchanan first came to LA and she confesses that at first, she didn’t like it. She’d grown up as a country girl from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and had been working as a nanny for a journalist. She followed the family first to Arlington, Virginia, and then to LA.

“I got to LA and it was sprawling, and literally you can take one street and drive for miles and the community just changes,” Buchanan said.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t me. It’s too big.’ Then I started as an artist feeling the temperature of places. I started writing more, making friends. When I went to college in west LA, I met a group of Caribbean people who opened my eyes as to what life looked like in other countries.”

She stayed a little longer and then, after the birth of her daughter, she put down roots. She said that could be her title, “She Stayed.” She joined a cadre of African American writers, musicians, singers and dancers. She joined communities of young mothers who raised their children together.

“It really felt like I existed in an African village in LA,” Buchanan said. “We had our own community within the community and so that’s why I stayed.”

She acknowledged that there are many people in LA who never leave their communities. They hunker down in Los Central, the Westside or Pasadena.

“I have had the privilege and honor of being in all these communities from Watts to Beverly Hills, from Pomona to San Fernando Valley,” Buchanan said.

“I think it is because I’m a traveler as well. I travel in my poetry for sure, but I’m someone who goes up to the national forest to do ceremony up there. I drive the coast and I camp on the coast. I go horseback riding at different places. I go to wine country.”

Buchanan never grows tired of the places to explore and visit, the ways that she can immerse herself in all the cultures that make up her adopted city. It’s what she hopes resonates in “We Are All Angels” and invites others to look at their city through a new lens.