Saturday, September 8, 2012

Poetry is Alive in Los Angeles: A Conversation with Mike the Poet

     If there's one thing we at the library pride ourselves on, it's sharing information . We have much respect for teachers, parents and community members who welcome the responsibility to prepare today's youth and guide them on their way to becoming tomorrow's leaders. Known to many in the City of Angels as "Mike The Poet", Mike Sonksen combines history and poetry to teach visitors and L.A. natives alike as he guides them through many of the secrets the City of Angels holds.

                                 Mike the Poet performing his poem, "I'm Alive in Los Angeles"

So tell us about your book, "I Am Alive in Los Angeles". What was the experience like from first idea to print and how can people can their hands on a copy?

"I Am Alive in Los Angeles!" started with a poem I wrote back in 2000. That poem was one of my first epic LA poems. Soon afterwards I wrote many more LA themed poems. The book is a mixture of poetry and prose. Its pretty close to 50-50. The book originally came out at the end of 2006. I toured a bunch of local colleges, high schools and independent bookstores at the time.
I am now finishing a 2nd edition of the book that is twice as long and I think much better than the first. I still like the first edition but there are several new poems and essays I am glad to include in the new version. The old version is still at a few stores like Stories and Skylight Books and on Amazon. The new version will be coming out on Writ LArge Press in MArch 2013. I am finishing the manuscript this month. In many ways the book is my autobiography but it is mostly about LA with some of my own life intertwined within.
The theme has always been about celebrating our city and trying to highlight what I think is the true soul of LA rather than what the media says.
Here is a short blurb on my book from an old write-up I just found:
'I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES!' tells hidden histories of the city of angels in a modern voice. Mike Sonksen shows us the real Los Angeles. Melrose and Hollywood are seen through the rear view mirror of a used car headed east on Sunset Blvd toward Silverlake and Downtown L.A. or south on the freeway toward Cerritos and Long Beach.The author is a former student of modern LA historian Mike Davis, and shares the same enthusiasm for research, pinpointing celebratory essays and poems about West Coast underground musicians, club promoters, graffiti artists, literary scenes, and political activists with primary sources. Like the writings of one of his heroes, Carey McWilliams, this is city history written from "a ring side seat at the circus." 

'I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES!' is a stunning debut with a clear and unique message. Using lists, visuals, and rhyme Mike liberates history from the restrictive language of academia. In a proud, relevant voice he proclaims 'I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES!' doing justice to the madcap artists and outcasts whose lives shape the sparkling,Pacific Coast city called Los Angeles.
Beautifully rendered, 'I AM ALIVE INLOS ANGELES!' features original artwork by world-renown graffiti artist Mear One. The book cover and 7 illustrations were created by Mear One, a world famous artist featured in galleries around the world, 100 + album covers and design work for firms like Disney & Warner Brothers. Mear One began as a graffiti writer in the Los Angeles underground, by the time he was 21 he had become one of the most famous graffiti artists in the world. They dubbed him the Michelangelo of Graffiti art. These days he's graduated. A great painter period. Mear One is one of the very few who know Los Angeles as well as Mike. His knowledge & their friendship make his artwork poignant. Together they show the real Los Angeles. The very concept and execution of this book is itself an example of the inspirational stories that it chronicles. 'I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES!' is a ground-breaking achievement. Fusing the social science approach of Howard Zinn with the personal experience style of Bill Bryson, Mike the Poet brings history to life. 
The book has already been widely used as an educational tool.

I'm sure those introduced to you through this interview want to know where they can catch one of your performances. Do you host or participate in any local "Open Mics"? 

I have been going to open mics for 15 years and I host a monthly open mic at the LAst Bookstore on 5th and Spring. Usually it is on the 3rd Sunday of the month. This month it will be on the 4th Sunday because I am doing a performance in New York City on the 3rd Sunday of the month.  There are many great open mics across LA hosted by good friends of mine. These two links have info on a bunch of poetry venues hosted by folks I know.

I've read that you've been known to pull out a microphone on a packed city bus and start reciting your poetry. I would think it'd take a lot to surprise L.A. natives but what is the general reaction of the other passengers? 

Back in the day my close friend Phillip Martin aka Phillharmonic and I would do guerilla poetry on a packed city bus. We would do poetry often on street corners. I still do poems on the bus tours I lead these days. Many people stare for a minute or two with their mouth open but after a few poems they get used to it. My tours are a mix of poetry and prose. I have an equal relationship with journalism and poetry, so my tours combine them both pretty evenly.

Tell us about the "Urban Hikes" you host.  You teach people so much history about their own city. How many locations and landmarks would you say you cover and is there favorite spot you like to visit? 

More than anything I like leading tours of more undercover LA neighborhoods like Leimert PArk, Boyle Heights or Highland PArk, but I have done plenty of Hollywood, Downtown & Beverly Hills too simply because that is what the public wants. I prefer the underground neighborhoods. For that matter I like to do literary, musical and architectural tours. Over the last 15 years of doing tours there is hardly a neighborhood that I haven't done a tour through at one time or another.  Most tours are about 2 to 3 hours but I have done all-day bus tours many times. The best tours usually hit about 3 to 4 spots and focus in on each site for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Less is often more and tours that are too long or boring are usually a disservice to the customer. I have found it is almost better to do a great 90 minute tour than 5 hours through LA traffic.  A 90 minute tour may only cover one neighborhood but you can really celebrate the area in greater detail that way.
Some of my favorite spots to take travelers to are the Central Library, the Bradbury Building, riding the Gold Line to Boyle Heights, the Hollywood Bowl, Broadway Downtown like the Eastern Columbia Building, Griffith Observatory, Leimert PArk, the LAst Bookstore, Spring Street, Little Tokyo and many other sites. I also like places like Alhambra, Torrance, Long Beach and Venice.

Would you consider a Cypress Park tour?

I would definitely consider a Cypress Park tour. I would include my very good old friend Miguel Guttierez aka DJ Rude One with me. He grew up off Cypress Avenue and went to Franklin High School. When I did my Highland PArk walking tour he joined me. I always make sure to give props to neighborhood locals. I consider myself a local in all of LA but I still make sure I am in tight with someone from the area. There are often people that try to come in somewhere and act like they know more than they do. I always do a lot of research and spend a lot of time somewhere before I lead a tour there. My Leimert PArk Walking Tour for example was supported by many visits to the area to perform poetry over the years and I also taught in the neighborhood for three years.

How can people like myself catch one of these tours?

I usually post info about most of the tours on my blog. I am building a new website and plan to list all my tours on the site. Sometimes I am doing so many tours and poetry performances that I am not able to promote them as well as I would like. I'm so busy doing them that I hardly have time to spread the word. I plan to have a more extensive listing plan in place now. Here is my blog link:
Cheers, Mike. Thank you for your time and bringing to light the treasure that is the City of Angels.  

Here's to our city & the Cypress Park Library!

You can also connect with Mike on Twitter at @MikeThePoetLA


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