We are pleased to present to you this review of the fabulous new anthology X LA Poets that highlights Los Angeles area poets. The review is written by one of Cultural Daily’s staff reviewers, Alexandra Umlas. Sadly, this will be Alexandra’s last review for Cultural Daily as staff reviewer–we wish her all the best in her future endeavors!
Review of X LA Poets, edited by Linda Ravenswood
In her introduction to X LA Poets, editor Linda Ravenswood writes, “What all of us have in common is the book. One could argue it’s not our gender, our Latinidad, our refugee status, our Q/BIPOC affiliations, or even the city itself that compels us here. But – the book” (19). The book contains an illuminating foreword written by Yago S. Cura. In the foreword, Cura discusses some of the origins of the book and inspirations for the book, including Los Angeles based group Project 1521; Miriam Matthews, the first credentialed African American librarian; and the punk bank, X, “whose album Los Angeles (1980) is indelibly etched into the genetic code of this collection” (10). From Los Angeles based Hinchas Press, X LA Poets should have a place among the very best LA inspired poetry books out there.
The poetry of Los Angeles, like Los Angeles itself, is incredibly diverse and refuses to be pinned down. Many editors have grappled with how to contain the city within the covers of a book. Some of the most successful Los Angeles poetry books, in the order they were published, include Stand Up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Charles Harper Webb and Suzanne Lummis; Bill Mohr’s Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992; Laurence Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City; Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Suzanne Lummis; and Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles, edited by Neelanjane Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez.
X LA Poets is a sampling of Los Angeles poets, who are connected not only by place, but by an intangible quality that can perhaps best be described as “bad-ass.”
In “Poetry is a Shapeshifter,” Linda Ravenswood, poet and editor of the collection, writes,
Poetry must be a singer.
To remain relevant, Poetry must be liquid.
Must penetrate many crevices of society
must present itself in many genres, and on many platforms
must raise its head from traditional ideas, modes, and venues
must cling to the souls of the artists
but race to merge with the souls of the People;
Poetry must be unafraid,
bold, Poetry must sing
Los Angeles is also a shapeshifter. Ravenswood’s book doesn’t set out to be a collection of “essential” poems, but ends up being one anyway, since the book brings together ten diverse Los Angeles-identifying poets, some of whom are also editors, art-makers, poet laureates, immigrants, teachers, activists, founders, visionaries, and who are all incredibly talented and well worth spending time reading. There is a reason that one of the quintessential poems about Los Angeles, Luis J. Rodriguez’s “Love Poem to Los Angeles,” which first appeared in Rattle, is largely a list – there are a multitude of components – of people, places, landscapes, sounds, feelings, layers, landmarks, etc., that make up Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. In the poem, Rodriguez writes,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it.
It’s this concept of a handle-less Los Angeles that requires more books like X LA Poets. Los Angeles is impossible to get a grip on, and is, perhaps, only definable in its never-ending dynamism, in its shifting landscapes, in its layered places, and in its various voices. The voices that make up this collection are multifaceted, female, and powerful. In one of my personal favorite poems in the collection, (or anywhere) “For Olives,” Arminé Iknadossian blends history, memory, mothering, and family with the landscape of olives:
Turkish green, Kalamata, Mission. A clutch of green onions
next to the mint, a small dish for the pits. A pit in the stomach
grows a tree. A tree is a home. Rain fed, dirt fed, sun fed.
A woman feeds her family with what she gathers in her arms.
My family ate them after ever meal, crushed them into paste,
made whole meals out of them when meat was scarce. Olives keep well.
In the trunk of my mother’s car, you will always find:
a jar of olives, a change of clothes, and running shoes.
There is an enigmatic sense to the olives – a sense that they are both foundation and future, both comfort and danger. They root the mother to tradition, while also giving her sustenance that would allow the energy for running if need be.
Rachel Kahn’s poem “Kindness / The Murmuration of Starlings” also embodies this sense of movement when she writes,
Let us take flight
toward our final destination
of wild and untamable
It’s one of those lines that makes you nod and pulls you out of your seat, transporting you, through words, to that inexorable connection that links poet and reader. And when Lynne Thompson, current poet laureate of Los Angeles, writes in “Delusion, An Urban Romance”: “We live in a city ringed with false teeth. / We don’t know we are living” (48).
We, as readers, become part of that “our,” and part of that “we,” which is always a new “we,” a shifting, changing, more inclusive, more interesting We. The We that makes up this book adds much to the “cannon” that is LA poetry. Each voice adding, layering, expanding, and at the same time setting down what it is to be alive, here and now, and sometimes what it was like to be alive in Los Angeles in the past. Allison Hedge Coke explores specific places and times in the book, with poems like “La Brea & Melrose,” or “Coliseum,” where she remembers,
Car was always washed por nada when we rounded
back to catch her. We’d tip what concessions left us,
take leave, hope we’d save enough to do it all again. (59)
Olives, kindness, we, the Coliseum – words are the material by which poems are made. If Los Angeles has helped to shape this collection, this collection is also working to shape Los Angeles. Luivette Resto illustrates how words sometimes come to us from unexpected places in her poem “How Days of Our Lives Taught Me English”:
Every day at 1pm I watched the sand fall through the
For one hour, Salem was my escape from this new home
where firetrucks and police sirens interrupted my sleep
Salem, where all things could happen at a pub or a hospital.
Comas, amnesia, women forgetting they gave birth,
Stefano DiMera never ran out of money, Roman and Marlena
and the Bradys were the tragic family
Shakespeare could only dream about.
Salem is where I learned English. (69)
Each of these women creates a kind of mini-revolution in her group of poems, so that the reader journeys in a circle that both propels and returns us. These are poems that remember where they are from while simultaneously creating the future. These are poems made from words that in turn create and hold forces that fortify us. In “Poem of Hope 1,” Shonda Buchanan asks,
Who else feels like
you are hurtling
in your own spaceship,
ripping an unlooped halo
through muffled black night? (74)
In her question, we become less alone— in the poem, we are still solo in our spaceship, but we are all hurdling through space together, traveling toward some better understanding of each other, some better understanding of our time and place. “You will get through this. / We will get through this,” she continues, and I whole-heartedly believe her. In “Survival of all Things,” Buchanan concentrates on the light:
I want to be wet shafts of light stolen by a thirsty bear
I want to be fireflies light in a field.
Light of a hundred shields
Light of a thousand river rocks at dawn
Light between the lips of lovers before the first kiss
Light. light. Light. (80)
The light living in this poem of abundance is also a light that is vital to Los Angeles. On the cover of X LA Poets, two beams of light cross into an X. In the foreword to the book, Cura explains, “the intersecting search lights on the cover also allude to the idea of Los Angeles as a landscape of widespread spectacle, full of danger and artifice (and production value)” (10).
However, artifice isn’t always synonymous to untruth… in fact, one synonym for “artifice” is “artfulness.” The light of “spectacle” is one that makes us see – that illuminates and creates viewable spaces that lead to vulnerable places. These poems of spectacle allow us into the experiences of these poets. Their experiences strengthen us. We become, paradoxically, fortified by vulnerability.
Teresa Mei Chuc expands this light in her resonant poem, “Photosynthesis,” when she asks,
How can I convince you
that you do have chlorophyll,
that you can take the sun’s
And then continues,
Why do you say that this metaphor
doesn’t work, that you don’t have
the powers of a plant, that nature
didn’t intend you that way?
Look, how you twist and turn
towards the light. (91)
There is a sense that these poets have not come to write these poems easily but have twisted and turned to come to these poems. Many of the poems involve generational trauma and a renewed or revised sense of what something might be. In Viva Padilla’s powerful poem, “american dream, whatever –” (translated by poet and editor Linda Ravenswood), Padilla speaks of her father, writing,
You carried your bones
like iron suitcases.
Over sand and blood
the darkness hid you
and the heat,
Ah…yes…you came back
And this time they made you land
They took that essence out
And left you the cry of the sun
And they left you
The discarded tomb
but more American
I’m going to Coquimatlán
to your ranch
to return that damn dream
and forget it (101)
Ravenswood has edited a collection that remakes this returned American dream. The questions X LA Poets implores us to explore are transformative ones. Chelsea Rector’s “Ars Poetica” asks us to consider the poem – what it is – what it is supposed to be –
from the same place as prayer
Before anything is a poem
it is just high entropy
listens to everything. (111)
That is exactly what Ravenswood’s collection accomplishes – a deep, honest listening to “everything,” in the words of ten Los Angeles poets and the incredibly rich, aware voices each brings. Together, the voices form a community, the kind of community that reaches through the pages again and again and brings us into it. The kind of community that makes the world a better place.
If, as Ravenswood has said, poetry must
race to merge with the souls of the People;
Poetry must be unafraid,
bold, Poetry must sing…
then this is certainly poetry.
Los Angeles, with your olives and your kindness, with your teeth, concessions, and words, with your spaceships, light and more light, and with your dreams returned, Los Angeles, this collection sings of you and for you.
Los Angeles, with all your complexities, you should be proud.
Photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher