I was walking in Venice with poet Tom Laichas when he showed me a hard-to-describe object protruding from the strip between sidewalk and street. It was about the size of a fire hydrant, made of cement and decorated with faded hippie hieroglyphs.
“If you unearth it, you get to some pre-Easter Island god,” Laichas imagined.
He was demonstrating one of the key ways to experience Los Angeles like a poet, which is to pay attention to things that look out of place. “You know there must be a story about how they got there,” Laichas explained, “but the story has been lost.”
Experimenting with this approach and other strategies I learned in conversations with several L.A. poets offers fresh perspectives on our often overwhelming city. They’ll make you feel more in tune and insightful — like a poet!
1. Go beyond yourself
One of my major takeaways is that contemporary L.A. poets don’t pen odes to their own personal melancholy. Laichas, author most recently of “Three Hundred Streets of Venice, California,” imagines the experience of his neighbors. For example, in “Venice Bl” he poignantly imagines the experiences of two elderly neighbors: “Neither says The pain is unbearable or I can’t live like this anymore.” He was inspired to invent these elders by contemplating the oddly textured cinder blocks of a dingbat apartment on 6th Avenue in Venice. He shared this with me while walking around the block — which I did with all the poets I spoke to so we could talk through how they absorb their surroundings in real time.
The first poet with whom I tried this was Viva Padilla, who owns the bookstore re/arte on Cesar Chavez Avenue. I first encountered her there, sitting behind the counter, with the regal bearing of an empress surrounded by her loyal subjects: books and one customer reading with the concentration of someone climbing a rope ladder.
Padilla and I talked about her poem “utilizing Google Maps to triangulate the course of my desmadre over the years.” Then we strolled along Cesar Chavez Avenue, where I noticed mannequin hands in a nail salon and a sign advertising an upcoming concert by Nicky Jam and Wisin & Yandel, whom I recognized as first-wave reggaeton student favorites from when I taught high school English in downtown L.A.
What Padilla noticed was completely different. “This block has always been a reminder to me that we’re closer to the border than they’d have us believe, that our cousins and families are right over there.”
To Padilla, her block of Boyle Heights is just like Tijuana with the tortillerias and panaderias and mom-and-pop shopkeepers street-vending brooms, cowboy boots and cactus. For her, East L.A. is a portal to family.
2. Feel language as music
I also asked Padilla about her use of slash marks inside of lines. Typically, slash marks inside of poetic lines mean a line break, but these lines weren’t breaking, they just had slash marks in them as in “a tree full of mockingbirds/ and a Camaro full of Swans,” which honestly was kind of freaking me out, because, how come she just didn’t use a line break?
She told me in her calm voice that sounds like an ancient oracle, “When I’m writing poetry, I try to write a song that will never be played but will be pleasant to the ear and not boring.”
It’s like what poet Teresa Mei Chuc told me about her process of generating what she called “poetic energy.”
“Poetry is connected to music,” Mei Chuc graciously explained at a picnic table under a tree at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia.
“The flow of it,” she elaborated. “Poetic energy is like jamming.”
3. Walk as opposed to drive
The enthusiasm these poets all showed for walking made me feel like I don’t need some kind of total personality transplant in order to experience L.A. like a poet. I can simply exercise already existing qualities, much as the Tin Man and Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion can all become their better selves simply by applying their certificates of approval from the Wizard of Oz.
For example, Mei Chuc and I were walking side by side at the Arboretum until she disappeared into the shade of a tree she climbed as a little girl when she used to visit with her family after they settled in Pasadena as refugees from Vietnam.
In the tree’s shade, she told me about climbing an avocado tree in front of her childhood home to sit at the top and escape her angry father, who rejoined the family after being imprisoned for nine years in a Vietnamese reeducation camp.
“Trees offer a safe place for us to go,” she said. “Many people have a tree they go to in times of need or when they need silence.” This put me in mind of the song “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack and also later the Fugees insofar as this is exactly how I think about trees and how did she know?
This walk with Mei Chuc made me feel tapped into a poetry-grade instinct. The thing that really got me about her poetry was this one poem, “In the City of Roses,” in which she observes that people with homes and people without homes sleep the same way:
their bones curl
in the same
She wrote this poem about people who are sleeping outside on New Year’s Eve to save their spot for the Rose Parade and people who are sleeping outside because they are unhoused. She asked me why this line stuck with me and I said I think about this poem when I am in bed at night curled on my side.
4. Expect transformation
I walked around the block with Hiram Sims, poet and publisher and founder of Sims Library of Poetry on Florence Avenue in Inglewood. The Sims Library could go volume-to-volume with the one other storefront poetry library I have ever visited, the Poetry Society of America in Brooklyn. Yet it started as a book-filled suitcase, lugged around by Sims when teaching community college students who otherwise lacked access to poetry. The suitcase is still on display, a reminder of how poetry and poets change and grow.
5. Think often about poetry and poets
Sims and I talked about how all the poets he knows spend significant time in libraries and that the major dream of virtually every poet he knows is to have their own poetry space. This really aligns with Padilla having her own literary magazine and bookstore. Mei Chuc has her own publishing company, which is coming out soon with a series called “Poetry of Place” that will feature poems describing neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles, from Alhambra to El Sereno to Westchester.
Having emerged from his poetry-dense storefront for our walk around the block, Sims and I paused in front of a yard that his neighbor had given over entirely to dandelion-looking flowers. I thought they might technically be cat’s ear but managed to tamp down my impulse to suddenly change this into a story about experiencing L.A. like a picky botanist. Instead, I listened to Sims extol the virtues of a poem titled “Dandelions” by Perre Shelton.
“I’ll play it for you on YouTube when we get back,” he promised, and did so in his office, where there was only one chair and he was sitting in it, which is how I knew our interview was nearing a conclusion.
But that was OK because by then I had a theory of how to experience L.A. like a poet. All I needed to do was road-test it, which I did in Leimert Park at the 15th-anniversary celebration for SWAAM — Spoken Word, Art and Music this summer.
The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center was standing-room only, and everybody in there was being heard and celebrated, as if it were everybody’s birthday.
The performers took the mic to speak their truths with verve and spark and flow. They had stage names like Unconscious, Martian the Creator, Complicated Passion and Wild Flower, who while introducing a manifesto about her right to dance invited everyone to get lit on her. She shared that there was a bottle of spiced pear brandy at the bar in the back.
Meanwhile, the live band let us feel language as music by accompanying the performances with right-on renditions of Sly and the Family Stone and Teddy Pendergrass. Folks thought my list of ways to experience L.A. like a poet was pretty good and they also had some ideas of their own.
Conney Williams said, “Be authentic.”
Paul Mabon said, “Be vulnerable.”
Ron Dowell told me this about how he experiences Los Angeles as a poet: “I take journeys on public transit so I can see people in their real natural state. They’re getting off of work and they’re tired, or they’re facing mental health challenges. I go to Skid Row and talk to people.”
That really piqued my interest. “Do you just walk up to them and say what’s up?”
“No,” he said, “I bring a blessing bag with me, a gallon-sized zip-lock bag of protein bars and containers of water and maybe an Oreo cookie plus a Slim Jim for more protein, to start a conversation or at least get a smile.”
And that is why, to experience Los Angeles like a poet, I now carry with me a blessing bag.