An adjunct Professor at Southwest College and Woodbury University Mike Sonksen is acclaimed for mentoring young poets and writers.
B.Seed : Thanks for being on bright seed blog Mike (shown here at the Beyond Baroque Awards Dinner), poet, teacher, author, tour guide, KCET columnist. As a journalist you have been featured in New York Times, LA Weekly, OC Weekly and The Los Angeles Times. You are known as Mike The Poet, not a bad name for a poet-I see you as that, but what’s also interesting is how you have positioned yourself. Your education, work and activities are interrelated so that they support/provide each other with opportunites. The columnist can write. The author can teach. As a tour guide you can speak on authors and the best places to hear poetry and so on. When was it in your mind to be a tour guide, in journalism, a poet, and the rest of the things you do?
Mike : The tour guiding happened on accident but ended being quite a blessing over the years. When I first graduated from UCLA in 1997, I wanted to get a job in writing but it was very difficult. There was a tour guiding job available and I ended up doing that because I loved geography and history. I did it for a few years and then stopped around 2000. Then in 2005 I started tour guiding again and it really picked up from there. I worked first at Red Line Tour in Hollywood. Then I did tours for the Museum of Neon Art and the Museum of Architecture and Design. After doing a lot of school groups and doing my poems on the tours, several schools invited me to visit their campus to do a reading or short lecture on Los Angeles history. Here’s an article that is a bit of a literary tour:
B.Seed : “I review books, sometimes as many as three to four a week. Sometimes I cover relevant work, from the Bay Area, New York, San Diego, Chicago, or wherever — because it’s a global world and the perspective is relevant” So what makes perspective or work relevant? Can you look back to the time when you took a serious interest in writing?
Mike : Though I wrote poems in high school, my interest in writing really took off in my freshmen year at UCLA. It was right after the 1992 Uprisings and I had just moved away from home for the first time. And though I only moved 30 miles away, it was enough distance to awaken my spirit and make me feel compelled to write it all down. As for what makes work relevant, for me it’s always about work that appeals to the broader community.
B.Seed : You’re a UCLA graduate – the sociology dept. Lucid Moose Lit editor Nancy Lynée Woo also a sociology major says she wanted to combine her two loves: social activism and poetry. Any special reason you chose this major? You were very interested in poetry then. Do you recall who first stuck out in your mind as a poetry performer? How about your first Poetry reading, how did it go?
Mike : I am with Nancy Lynée Woo on that idea of combining social activism and poetry. I enjoyed Sociology because it gave me the vocabulary to describe processes I comprehended but did not yet have the language to express. I was always reading various nonfiction books on social theory and cultural studies on my own, so the major helped me focus in on that more. My first poetry performance was sometime during the UCLA period but it was in the summer after graduation when I really dove into it. I have to give lots of credit to my great friend Phillip Martin from UCLA. He believed in me before I really even believed in myself. At first Phillip and I would just read our journal entries to each other and our girlfriends in the dorm in college, but we got braver and braver. We also went to lots of hip hop events, so we would always freestyle and have fun improvising poetry. By the time we were 23-24, we really started hitting the open mics around town. I also had a friend named Henry Wilson from high school. He was performing poetry a year or two before I did. I was writing it but not showing it to anyone. Henry was brave and had an excellent voice. He also inspired me to share mine. He encouraged me. We went to open mics for a while around LA and gradually got in the mix. By 1997-98 I saw Saul Williams for the first time and I loved his presentation. I also liked Amiri Baraka, Rollins, Ellyn Maybe and of course Allen Ginsberg. My first poetic heroes were the Beats and Langston Hughes. I was always interested in social justice and most of my poetry had some connection to that. At first I was more of a self-taught poet, but as the years went on, I studied the craft both on my own and later in classes.
B.Seed : A “third generation” L.A. guy. Your grandparents (shown here with his grandfather Frank Sibley) lived in Inglewood their whole life, i believe, and you wrote an article about the city in your KECT column LA Letters. Can you tell us about the neighborhood you lived in, the place you remember as a kid? Your high school English teachers at Artesia HS and their influence on your writing skill?
Mike : My high school English teachers at Artesia were excellent. I am still in touch with two of them and they were both outstanding. Joy Husband and Steve Cizmar. I had Cizmar twice, both my freshmen year and my senior year. I had Ms. Husband in my 10th grade year. I always loved reading. I wrote some poems in high school, but I think my essays were better first. Both Ms. Husband and Mr. Cizmar had us writing lots of essays. By the time I got to UCLA, I had a lot of practice. In my undergrad days I had a few great writing professors. They were Mike Davis, Jeff Smith and Brian Taylor. I also would speak a lot with the great novelist Carolyn See, though I never had a class with her. I would talk with her at UCLA campus readings. She has a great book about writing called, “Making A Literary Life.” In my graduate school work, I had an excellent professor Lauri Ramey. She is both a literary scholar and poet. She was my graduate advisor and very inspirational.
B.Seed : Interdisciplinary MAsters: English and History from Cal State Los Angeles, Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, editor of Statement Magazine. “He especially prized the multi-generational literary events, writing workshops, opportunities to mentor both undergraduate writers and youth from partner schools…” Were you mentoring and conducting workshops before CCPP or was this the beginning for you?
Mike : I have been mentoring poets and conducting workshops since about 2000, but it really picked up after 2005. I taught at View Park Charter High School from January 2008 to June 2010 and that really kicked it into high gear. It first started with school visits, mostly high schools and colleges. At first I would just share my work, but then I started teaching workshops and working closer with youth on their writing. One thing led to another and in 2011 I went to grad school. I graduated from UCLA in 1997 and started freelancing then.
B.Seed : Poetry reading/performances, lectures, Writing workshops are a big part of your résumé. Colleges, Museum, high school, youth center, and at least one elementary school. What was the subject/lecture like for grade schoolers?
Mike : I have some very easy Intro to poetry exercises. Exercises like the alliteration poem or writing an acrostic poem using their name. I talk to them a bit about why I love poetry, but mostly I try to get them writing a few poems and then have fun by reading them out loud to one another. I did one with 4th graders last year with the Craft and Folk Art Museum. They came to the museum and looked at the art of Timothy Washington. I told them to make 14 observations and then they put all of them together into a sonnet or 14 line poem. It did not have to rhyme necessarily. I just wanted them to see how everyday observations are a backbone of poetry. Washington’s assemblage art had so many found objects and interesting features for the students to notice, that it made the project easy. Items like bottle caps, buttons and stained glass. The kids loved his work and it was easy to write observation poems about it. I am currently enjoying teaching on the college level and I am still in touch with many of my former students from View Park High School where I taught for three years. Here’s a recent column written by Chris Siders, now at Cal State Monterey Bay. He was in my Journalism class in 2010. He is writing journalism in college now.
B.Seed : Vromans book Store is a place that I know you like, especially the Pasadena store. I volunteer for a non-profit organization that gets a discount there — very nice place with a nice coffee bar attached. Across the street and down a block or so was a small book store called Cliff’s, a place i have stayed till closing more than once. They went out of business last year. Do you think the remaining small book stores in California will be around in the next 10 years? Is there a small place you go to say once a week?
Mike : I have several favorite spots. Vroman’s is certainly one of them. Skylight Books has also been a place I have been going to for almost two decades now. I am a bookstore trooper just like you that also likes to stay until closing. I also go to places like Eso Won in Leimert Park and Book Alley in Pasadena about once a month. I go to the Last Bookstore when I can, around once a month or so. I also hit the small library bookstores in places like the East L.A. County Library, Alhambra and Monterey Park. These small library bookstores have amazing deals and you can sometimes pick up a classic for $1 or some ridiculously low price. I think there will always be a few small used bookstores, but the economy has made it much harder for them to survive.
B.Seed : La Letters has focused on L.A. Poets and writers. One such article talks about a “pop-up book” store called “Read on Till Morning,” located in a permanent craft fair called Crafted, on 22nd and Harbor just south of Ports O’ Call. You’ve done readings there (shown in the photo here ), I see. How important is it to have a place like this that, in the words of owner Christian Lozada, “is meant to be representative of the voices of the Southern California area”?
Mike : Christian Lozada is one of the most generous bookstore owners and poetry hosts I have ever met. He is all-inclusive and welcomes poets and writers from all neighborhoods. I appreciate his vision and the spirit he runs his reading with — is the same vibe I always hosted my shows with. For 15 years I hosted poetry events at a variety of spaces. I have temporarily stopped hosting because we have two small kids at home, but I plan to host some occasional readings a few times a year soon enough. The most frequent venues I hosted at were 33 1/3rd Books in Echo Park (no longer open), Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood, the Blue Nile Cafe in Long Beach, Blue Chips in Highland Park and the Last Bookstore in Downtown L.A. I always made it a point to not only have an ethnically diverse group of poets, but different styles as well. Different genres of poets whether they are formalists, avant-garde, spoken word, hip-hop, punk rock, LGBT or any other literary aesthetic.
B.Seed : Lozada also says “We are consciously multi-racial and ethnic..”Many LA poets/writers do incorporate social themes in their work and others even share political views. In La Letters you make reference, now and then, to Jewish American Writer Gertrude Stein whose work was, at least in her day, relevant to so many. In an interview with New York Times correspondent Lansing Warren at her home in Paris in May of 1934 Stein Says “Doing what other people tell you and being protected from this and from that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face life and struggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are not supposed to be good for one. That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition. There is no reason why we should not select our immigrants with greater care, nor why we should not bar certain peoples and preserve the color line for instance. But if we shut down on immigration completely we shall become stagnant” While Stein may not be too conservative on immigration she clearly had race opinions. I’m not telling anyone what to do or say but should writers/poets of today speak on these issues, especially in their work, even if they are not multi-ethnic or socially inclusive?
Mike : I think we should speak on these issues. I know that many of the Modernist poets tried to avoid politics and stay away from racial issues, but most of my favorite poets are also activists. The first movements I got into were the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat generation and the Black Arts Movement. Gertrude Stein can be a polarizing figure and some of her work was better than other aspects of it. I do not agree with her views on race at all. I have been a long time promoter of multiculturalism and I have always loved hosting really diverse events.
I am participating in this reading on February 7th. They also have a Tumblr page linked to poets from across the country.
B.Seed : “Endless Planets for Austin Peralta”, “DETROIT VS. LOS ANGELES”, a couple works you uploaded to Soundcloud. We have a few things there (The Bright Seed). Are these the types of things one would hear at a poetry performance? with background music?
Mike : Those are two pieces I have performed many times over the years. I have performed with background music many times, but most events I am just voice only. Over the years, there have been many events with jazz bands and DJ’s but most of the bookstore and gallery events were voice only. I grew up in the hip hop scene and there is a big influence there, but I have also done lots of events in libraries and other more traditional spaces.
B.Seed : In 2012 Echo Park resident Eloise Klein Healy was chosen by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as the first poet laureate in Los Angeles history. She has, as I am sure you know, resigned the post due to illness. Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center held its annual Awards Dinner i believe on July 14 2013 and she was given the George Drury Smith Award (shown here being accepted on her behalf by author Judy Grahn), which “honors an outstanding achievement in poetry by a poet. At that same dinner you were given the Distinguished Service Award, which honors “a local poet who has made long-term contributions to the poetry community in Los Angeles”. How did it feel to receive this honor?
Mike : I was surprised, thankful and honored. I have always liked to give back to the community and the intention has always been to contribute to mentoring younger writers and to encourage others. I later heard that one of the biggest reasons I received the award was that I have written reviews of many poets from around Southern California and that I had helped promote poetry well through my weekly column and the many events I hosted.
B.Seed : You have a book out called “I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES”. Can you tell us a little something about this work?
Mike : It’s a mix of poems and articles about Los Angeles. I have been writing poems about LA since the early-90s, it’s a collection of my best known LA poems. In particular pieces like “LA Authors,” “LA Love & War,” “the 562” and a number of others. I will be doing a 2nd edition that’s twice as long in the next year. I like the 2nd edition a lot better but the first one is the starting point, so it will always be close to my heart.
B.Seed : 2015 is basically here. Do you have any special plans for the new year? goals?
Mike : This is going to be a good year. A big mix of family and career goals. My daughter just started kindergarten and we have been having a lot of fun reading a bunch of books together. We have also been visiting dozens of parks all over Southern California. Sometimes we write poems together about the places we visit. I am also starting a new teaching job at Woodbury University and I began in the fall at Southwest College. My goals are to keep the balance with family and work up as I teach and to continue writing as many new poems and articles as I can. I have a lot of fun writing my KCET column as well, so that is a big part of the next year. I am finishing a few book projects also. 2015 is a big year. Essentially, I am keeping my hard hat on and staying in the lab.
B.Seed : Thanks for being here. Anything you would like to say to our viewers?
Mike : Thank you for reading. Much respect to B Seed. And thank you for your dedication to poetry, social justice and community history. I am deeply appreciative of the writing and poetry community. I’d like to send warm regards out to all reading this and I’d also like to encourage everyone to stay focused and keep pushing hard towards their goals and dreams. Day by day and brick by brick, diligence manifests into a bright future. Thank you so much for your energy and thoughtfulness.