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Mike Sonksen: California Poets Part 4, Five Poems

Mike Sonksen

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Mike Sonksen

Five Poems


Social formation


Sociological imagination

Intersecting biography

personal history

Artistic forms

Marry the popular

with the scholarly

History making

Human agency

Social relations

Organize reality

Social locations

Share authority


Think dialectically

Geographic literacy

Self determination

Public history


Neuro-Linguistic programming

I see it, I feel it, I know it, I got it

I was born in Long Beach

lived all my life in LA county

though I’ve stayed local

I grew up jumping geography

running around the city

working in every corner

I found my community

performing poetry &

writing neighborhood stories

I learned what it means

To be accountable

teaching high school &

raising my kids

we are all interconnected


Layers of identity

The daily practice:

Types of practicality

the present history

future of responsibility

so we sing about society

This is Sociology

Transformative solidarity

Problems, methods,


All of this sociology

Really just comes

Back to you & me

Architectonic City Architectonic City Broadacre City City Center Central City Celestial City Carceral City Digital City Edge City Forbidden City Future City Garden City Golden City Gotham City Iron City Invisible City Imperial City Infinite City Imaginary City International City October City Radiant City Titan City City Beautiful City as Shopping Mall City as Dining Hall City as Museum City as Monument City as classroom City as Wilderness City as Postcard City as Landmark City of Towers City of Fire City of Lights City of Night

City of Vision

City of Ambition City of Insiders City of Love City of Violence City of Music City of Silence.

Sonic Architecture

City Architecture

Architectonic City

Joy of Architecture

Seven Lamps of Architecture

Poetics of Architecture

Storybook Architecture

Fortress Architecture

Handcrafted Architecture

Craftsman Architecture

Baroque Architecture

Audio Architecture

Ada Louise Huxtable on Architecture

Churrigueresque Architecture

Southern California Institute of Architecture

Louis Sullivan on Architecture

Information Architecture

Programmatic Architecture

Greco-Roman Architecture

Architecture of Humanism

Atlantic Architecture

Victorian Architecture

Vernacular Architecture

Vancouver Architecture

Romanesque Architecture

Romance of Architecture

Architecture of Happiness

Modernist Architecture

Postmodern Architecture

Hostile Architecture

Brutalist Architecture

Future of Architecture

Respect Architecture

Traces, Places, Faces Traces, places, faces Connecting spaces Cultural, historical, personal 3 realms of interpretation channels for communication A Way to Rainy Mountain We slow down the conversation writing morning pages positions of contemplation bridging liminal spaces Interdisciplinary relations Intersecting history & biography Tracing the lineage through Journeys, Natures, Conflicts, Knowledges, LA Stories, print, sound, light fight the good fight My students write about personal artifacts like the ring gifted to them by their grandfather after the Armenian Genocide We put the heart in liberal arts Traces Uncovering, a series of marks, an outline, a passage, a record or physical indication of something that vanished, an etching, a great turning of pages, take time to see the traces Observations in an essay, a litany of lyrics, Critical cartography Public history, Cultural geography Ecofeminism & deep ecology My students & I took a walk along the Concrete River talking about Man versus nature Places I met my wife in a piano bar downstairs from the hip hop room A circle of friends singing on the dancefloor everyday is your birthday! Social locations navigation A locale, locus, location, a station, a designated area of meaningful activity, a center of memory, a region, a facility, a landmark, a natural site, a waterfall, an architectural marvel, connected to experience, an open mic, a Socratic dialogue, two feral cats in my backyard Faces Back in the 1980s I was picking mint leaves with my Grandmother in Long Beach People are a beacon, family, women & men in the city, friends, colleagues, associates, long lost cohorts from childhood, aces of the neighborhood, uniting heart & mind together spending time lets bring it back to the work that reconnects building community draw your history a reframing Intergenerational exchanging Historiography Sharing authority Autoethnography It comes back to you & me sharing space traces, places, faces

Who’s To Say What Architecture Is? Who’s to say what Architecture is? Citizens, historians or the critics? See it for yourself or read the theorists. Drive a truck like Mike Davis. Fortress architecture is geopolitics. Who’s to say what Architecture is? Sci-Arc or Architectural Digest? Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier? See it for yourself or read the theorists. Frank Gehry is a Deconstructivist The Bilbao Effect attracts tourists. Who’s to say what Architecture is? Louis Sullivan’s Function of Ornament, Jewel Box Banks & steel skyscrapers. See it for yourself or read the theorists. City knowledge comes from reconnaissance. Walk the streets like Jane Jacobs. Who’s to say what Architecture is? See it for yourself or read the theorists.


November 21st, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Mike Sonksen, Poet, Performer, Journalist, and LA Tour Guide

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Your given name is Mike Sonksen, but in the context of your creative life, you’re known as Mike the PoeT. Some establishments like write the final letter with a lowercase, while others like Cultural Daily have it as “Mike the PoeT.” Your own Twitter handle is @MikethePoeTLA. Can you, at last, set the record straight and what significance does the uppercase have?

MS: The uppercase T dates back to the early 2000s, when I was hanging out with a lot of visual artists and even graphic designers who were experimenting with typography. I liked how small changes in punctuation and with capitalization could add emphasis and style on both how you said a word and how it looked. Some of it was also just having fun with the visual element of how it appeared on the page. As I have gotten older it no longer really mattered, but I had fun with it early on.

DG: Your poem “I Am Alive in Los Angeles!” has become quite the talking point over the years. It was my great fortune to experience this work for the first time neither in print nor recorded, but through your performance of it in 2010 at the LA Public Library Newer Poets XV reading. Compared to this video from 2008, for example, it seems that there’s always a slight variation in how you read/perform the poem. In this respect, would it be more correct to say that these differences arise out of improvisation, highlighting the impromptu changes the city is given to, or do the contrasts arise consciously, emphasizing human intervention and the degrees to which planning ultimately shape the city’s evolution?

MS: I love this question and improvisation has always been a big part of my poetry performances. The differences are quite often directly connected to the place and space where the poem is being performed. Early on I did a lot of poems out in the street while doing city tours, or even at a backyard party, or some after-hours jam session, so the poem would inevitably mirror the location in some way. The event at the Central Library was a milestone for me because I grew up going there and have always loved that space. That night I was definitely doing my tribute to LA’s literary history and I was also feeling deep gratitude to be able to read a poem in that building.

I had already done poems hundreds of times outside in front of the building along 5th Street across from the US Bank Building and in the rotunda room in the library below the Dean Cornwell murals on the ceiling, but I had never been invited to read in the main auditorium until that night.

I like what you said about human intervention, and I believe Poetry is a living, breathing entity that should reflect where it is being shared. I always like to look around and consider where I am before I start sharing a poem. The poem does change a bit as the city changes—you are definitely right about this.

DG: For years, you’ve been a Los Angeles tour guide, showing visitors the real LA—places they probably won’t find listed in Lonely Planet and stuff. Two questions: How does showing the city to others ultimately affect the way in which you perceive its culture and landscape, and would you say this leads to a different understanding of it than everyday locals might have, for better or worse?

MS: Tour guiding had a lot to do with many of my first LA poems. I was doing tours all over the city and there were many times I would write a poem as a summary of a specific tour. There were also times where I had already written the poem about a certain area and then ended up giving a tour there down the line sometime. It’s definitely one of those “what came first, the chicken or the egg scenarios.”

I have really enjoyed giving tours and I still do tours from time to time, though lately mostly virtual due to the pandemic. I started doing it professionally in 1997 right out of UCLA. It was accidental and very serendipitous, but it’s ended up being a major blessing for my writing career. It taught me a lot about public speaking and performance. It also helped me see what the public really connected with. I saw how people loved stories about the people who made history happen. The person behind the building, the monument, the sculpture, the architecture. As much as I love design, public art, and historic architecture, what’s often even more fascinating is why the architect or the artist decided to create the building, the mural, or the sculpture the way they did. I learned about how the public loves these background stories.

The more I learned about different pockets of the city, the more I wanted to share the information. Originally, I was asked to do mostly Downtown LA and Hollywood, but as time went on, I ended up doing many more neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Leimert Park, the LA River, Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, Long Beach, Venice, and quite a few other spots.

Tour guiding taught me that the more concrete and specific you are in your descriptions, the better it is for your audience, whether it be in a city tour, a poem, an essay or even in conversation. I wrote an essay that’s in my book and also published on KCET where I really go into the Ethics of Giving A City Tour.

DG: You’re now an instructor at Woodbury University, where you teach classes to architecture and other artistically inclined students. How do these activities ultimately inform your own creative endeavors, and, conversely, do you find that students also inherit a bit of the “poetry gene” in the end, even if only in small amounts?

MS: I am the Program Coordinator of Woodbury’s First Year Experience Program and I teach in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department. I have really creative students who major in not only Architecture, but Game Design, Game Art, Animation, Film, Graphic Design, Fashion and Marketing among other majors. I do a lot of project-based learning so I have them turn in a portfolio of their writing at the end of the semester. The assignments are mostly short prose and quick poems and I do my best to connect the assignments to their own life. We have published quite a few of my students’ short pieces too.

I recently had students make a map of their lives that uses 7 turning points in their life, or 7 key locations like their childhood home, an eatery they went to often with their parents, a park, a church, a museum, their high school, their grandma’s house. Any location that has been meaningful to them.

The map is accompanied by either a short one-page poetic explanation, or some even write haiku or short poems about each site. Many of them do not know they like poetry until they take my class. I have them write a lot about their own lives, but in a poetic and creative way. Another recent assignment was “the circumstances of your birth.” Students wrote about the day they were born after talking with their parents to get the story from that day. It’s part oral history, but there’s also some nostalgia, and of course this even adds romantic or tragic elements to their piece.

We do a lot of short poems like the acrostic poem or even some forms like sonnets and villanelles. They see that poetry is the arrangement of language. Like architecture, it’s about how words are arranged on the page. I also host open mics at the end of class and they enjoy hearing one another’s work. I have had quite a few students tell me that they did not realize how fun poetry could be until they heard one another.

I emphasize that it’s about experimenting and even the idea of “play.” So much schooling and academic writing can be so serious that when they see how fun writing can be, it is often a revelation. We have a symbiotic relationship and they keep me young. I enjoy hearing their work and from time to time I share my own poems with them.

DG: Many of your recent projects have dealt with bringing exposure to the marginalized voices in the city. An article published in May of this year was about the group Vigilant Love and its attempt to “dismantle systemic Islamophobia,” as you write. Another piece, published in December of last year, talks about Hiram Sims, a poet, professor, and longtime resident of LA, whose project concerns opening a library of poetry, so far the only one in Southern California. In this respect, politicians and lawmakers would say poetry needs to become more popular/marketable to justify the funding of such libraries; however, is it not more correct to say that we need precisely such places to give poetry greater exposure so it can help alleviate the ethnic and cultural tensions—which often exist in a void begging to be filled with something more productive? In other words, are we speaking too idealistically here, or can greater community cohesion also be “profitable” and in what ways might this “surplus” manifest itself?

MS: You are right about this as far as these community spaces. The Sims Library is an incredible place and they exist because of a variety of reasons. They have a program called the Community Literature Initiative (CLI) and they have a weekly poetry class. CLI has become so popular that they not only have multiple weekly classes, they have become more popular during the Pandemic.

The classes are a lot less expensive than graduate school but still enough that between the funding CLI gets from the students, some donations to the library and a few grants, the library is able to sustain itself. They have classes over Zoom and poets from across the country are enrolled. It’s a great program.

Besides being a thoughtful poet and teacher, Hiram Sims is a community-minded man and also has a great pragmatic perspective and astute practical intelligence. The students in CLI are of all ages and very diverse demographically. The program definitely eases cultural tensions and builds bridges across Los Angeles and beyond.

The same is to be said of the Vigilant Love coalition. These organizations heal the scars of society and connect people through the healing power of the arts, poetry in particular. Your comment regarding community cohesion being profitable too is also relevant because there are ways to help these arts organizations make enough money to be sustainable. In Downtown LA, the Last Bookstore exists where it is at 5th and Spring because the building owner knows it’s a tourist attraction and a major boon to the community. I do not know the specifics of their rental agreement to the bookstore, but I do know they have worked out a situation where everyone wins.

We need more business owners, real estate developers, and other philanthropists and benefactors who not only support these arts organizations but understand that our society needs a lot more libraries, bookstores, art galleries and organizations that promote creative pursuits such as poetry, which give us the healing juju that the arts offer—better than any other alternative.

DG: Your 2019 collection Letters to My City was received very well. One of the poems, “Still Alive in Los Angeles!” harkens back to your well-known piece, written over eleven years ago. Naturally, the city has changed a great deal, for good and bad, depending on who you ask. But I wonder: What remains the same for you, both on a personal and creative level, and what are you doing differently these days? Are there any discoveries, experiments—either failures or successes—you’ve made or embarked on and would like to share?

MS: “Still Alive” is definitely the sequel to “I Am Alive,” in the sense that it’s the version I wrote after having two kids and teaching for a dozen years. It’s the remix of the original poem with my older eyes. I have learned a lot about how responsibility deepens your understanding of the world at large. I am much more seasoned now and I see a bigger picture. Parenting and teaching have both taught me so much and these experiences have made me a better writer.

I still love the city as much as when I first wrote “I Am Alive in Los Angeles!”, but this version is also the one that sees the price of rent rising and the gridlock strangling central arteries. It’s a mix of both innocence and experience and it still manages to keep the joy in the balance.

I reflect on the fact that long before I read Wanda Coleman and Bukowski, my first LA poets were Chick Hearn and Vin Scully. I also remember driving around with my grandfather, but these days, it’s my two kids and I cruising the streets. The city as a teacher but also as the only constant in a rapidly changing world.

I lament how the wetlands are gone and we now have endless condos and Trader Joe’s and makeshift dog parks across Southern California instead of orange groves or wheat fields. We have a dog, so I like the dog parks and Trader Joe’s is cool, but the condos are rampant and the landscape has definitely become more monotonous. I love parks and open space within the city. We need to figure out ways to better preserve nature and the legacy businesses that give the city so much life. My poem touches on all of this.

DG: What are some places in LA that a first-time visitor must absolutely see, even at the expense of missing one or two touristy sites, and why?

MS: I am really big on murals and public art. Sites like the Great Wall of Los Angeles in North Hollywood. Baca’s mural is a 10,000-year history of California and it offers a deeper insight into the city than Hollywood Boulevard. I recently wrote this for KCET about public art across LA: Inclusive Public Art.

Many of my own favorite sites include Indie bookstores like Skylight in Los Feliz, Vroman’s in Pasadena or Eso Won in Leimert, family eateries in Little Tokyo like Suehiro, hikes at Lake Hollywood or Culver City Park. There are also day trips to Elysian Park, the Museum of Latin American Art and Signal Hill in Long Beach, the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, the Watts Towers, Leimert Park, Lake Balboa in Van Nuys, Mural Mile in Pacoima. I like the San Gabriel Valley a lot too, especially the Cascades Park in Monterey Park and Downtown Alhambra.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

MS: I am reading a lot of books as always. My two beats more than anything have always been Los Angeles and Poetry, but in between that I read a lot of Nonfiction on Urbanism, Cultural Studies, Music, Architecture, Sociology and Philosophy. I read some selected fiction too, especially when it’s about LA.

The most recent was The Perishing by Natashia Deon. I have also recently read The System by Ryan Gattis and I am about to read The Death of My Father the Pope by Obed Silva.

I am finishing an essay on the muralist Fabian Debora, who just completed two giant murals featuring the poets Felicia Montes and Alyesha Wise at 69th and Main in South Los Angeles. Debora is the founder of Somos La Arte aka the Homeboy Art Academy. He is an alchemist that uses his art to paint the reality he wants to see, and he’s worked closely with Father Greg Boyle for many years.

Recently I appeared in a just-finished documentary about a poetry venue that ran from 2003 to 2015 called the Venice MoZaic. There was an incredible group of poets, singer-songwriters, DJs and artists that gathered every third Thursday of the month in Venice. The host Nickie Black had grown up in the shadow of the Venice Beats and he liked to bring artists together. Quite a few of my longtime co-conspirators are in the film including Phillip Martin Aka PhillHarmonic.

I am also finishing my next two books. One is a book of essays and the other a collection of poems.

Thank you for your time, these great questions and all the work you are doing to promote California literature and poetry.

Author Bio:

Mike Sonksen aka Mike the PoeT is a 3rd-generation Southern Californian. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his latest book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. He’s written for KCET, Poets & Writers, Wax Poetics, PBS SoCal, LA Taco, LA Review of Books, LAist, Boom and the Academy of American Poets. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK & Spectrum News. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University and taught high school before that. Follow him on Twitter & IG @mikethepoetLA


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