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Mike Sonksen

Equally a scholar and performer, Mike Sonksen, also …known as, Mike the Poet, is a 3rd-generation L.A. native acclaimed for poetry performances, published articles and mentoring teen writers. Following his graduation from U.C.L.A. in 1997, he has published over 500 essays and poems. Mike has an Interdisciplinary Master of Arts in English and History and his prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series, Grand Park, the Music Center and the Friends of the Los Angeles River. Mike has taught at Cal State L.A., Southwest College and Woodbury University. In June of 2018 one of his KCET essays was awarded by the LA Press Club.

Blurbs

"Letters to My City rescues Los Angeles from history–rescues those who are Los Angeles and were Los Angeles. Not only the heroes and founders, activists and neighborhoods (or those city promoters would have you remember), but those unnamed witness-participants who faced the heartbreak and triumphs that shaped Los Angeles, only now to be forgotten in a present-minded world. Sonksen resusitates them with his words, a poetic celebration of the city that raised him, raised his father and grandfather, and it pays respect and honor to those living and dead. Add this book to your quintessential Los Angeles reading list."

– Natashia Deón, author of Grace, a novel

"Los Angeles has many false lovers, especially the condescending jet set of New York and British writers who for decades have regularly prowled the Hollywood Hills looking for a quick book or new cliché. Mike Sonksen, working-class son of the flatlands, is their nemesis. A genuine people’s poet and historian, as well as tour guide nonpareil, he focuses our attention on the grassroots experiences that keep the un-embalmed arts militantly alive in the city’s diverse neighborhoods. In innumerable essays and performances, frequently in public schools, he has opened a new generation’s eyes to LA’s extraordinary history of underground and underdog cultures. What Whitman was to Brooklyn, Poet Mike is to contemporary LA."

– Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz

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Letters To My City

Los Ángeles at Ground Level: Letters To My City by Mike Sonksen

06/20/19

The poet Mike Sonksen knows more about Los Ángeles than almost anyone. It began when he was a kid, his father and both grandfathers introducing him to the sprawling city by taking him on destination drives. Due to his father’s love of architecture, having, “taught me about…Frank Lloyd Write from an early age,” Sonksen “had a natural interest in maps and geography.” Those drives fostered that interest, dipping in and out of distinctly planned and inhabited neighborhoods that made up the patchwork quilt of, not only the city, but Los Ángeles County.

In Sonksen’s new book Letters To My City (The Accomplices/Writ Large Press, 2019), he explores the city’s geography and architecture from the ground up, from his perspective as a third-generation Angeleño. The book is a collection of his poems and articles that span his 20+ years of exploring, not only the landscapes of Los Ángeles, but the people and cultures and histories of communities like Little Tokyo, The Eastside, Leimert Park and even Cambodia Town in Long Beach.

Early in Letters, Sonksen includes his remembrance of local human interest reporter Huell Howser in, “Huell Howser and the Gospel of Beauty.” Howser hosted “California’s Gold,” on local PBS, highlighting landmarks, small towns, places of interest or events in California that were not well known, including countless in L.A. and Southern California. In each episode Howser conducted impromptu and informal interviews with locals involved with the sites he visited. When the show debuted in 1991, Los Ángeles and California were beginning to take a serious interest in and find significance in its own history. Howser, according to Sonksen, “provided the common ground for people to relate and meet on,” especially in Southern California, where Howser lived, “like he did for my dad, grandmother and me.” Plus, “‘California’s Gold’ reinforced my own burgeoning interest in this history; I saw Huell as a messenger to stick to my own California dream.”

Along with the article, “Community, not a Commodity: The Ethics of Giving a City Tour,” the opening 35 pages or so of Letters To My City act as explanation of Sonksen’s aesthetics and why he tells the stories he does: Get the History Right, Sharing Authority and Debunking Stereotypes and the unofficial, The Right to the City.

The concepts of Mike Sonksen’s aesthetics are apparent throughout Letters To My City. He shares his authority by quoting long time Cambodian residents of Long Beach’s Cambodia Town in “Driving Down the 105,” as a way for them to tell their neighborhood’s history. When he profiles a person, such as the late dynamic Chicana writer from Oxnard, California, Michele Serros, he lets those who knew her personally, speak to who she really was.

When Sonksen entered UCLA in 1992, when native Angeleños like Lynell George, Ruben Martinez and Luis J. Rodriguez were publishing their journalism and narratives about L.A., and he was being taught by urban theorist and native Mike Davis, they helped reinforce his “interest in all things Los Angeles.” He learned about letting a place speak for itself.

However, Sonksen’s articles can leave readers of Letters’ wanting more specific, from-the-ground-up, portrayals of L.A. Too many lack depth in the content he’s exploring, where he ends up repeating himself instead of expanding on his idea(s). A good example is “The Cascades.” Here, language is used more as a summary, and where he needs to expand his ideas, Sonksen repeats information. “We notice on our left side a park with a well-lit hillside waterfall fountain. Quickly I turn left heading towards what looks to be a park.” As the centerpiece of the article, in sentence two, I want to know how this waterfall fountain ads to the neighborhood’s atmosphere.

Another example is when Sonksen says at various times throughout his articles, “as noted/said earlier,” and proceeds to only restate that same sentence as above, before immediately moving on to a new paragraph or point.

Yet, there are many engaging and rich articles that portray L.A. from the lived-in, ground-up perspective Sonksen’s acquired from a lifetime of personally engaging in L.A. Enough for Letters to join the narrative of correction written by native Angeleños, illustrating that Angeleños actually do care about their city, that there is a deep, rich history and [literary] culture there, that there are beautiful neighborhoods—in all definitions of the term—most having nothing to do with Hollywood, some with predominately “humble working-class people.” Sonken quotes Lynell George at one point in Letters, saying, “we know much more, it seems, about ancient cities and dead civilizations…than we do about day-to-day life in ‘South Central Los Angeles’…beyond the trope.”

Sonksen too, goes beyond the tropes, to portray the suburbs in “Something in the Water: Hip-Hop History in Cerrritos.” He quotes DJ Rhettmatic, remembering his childhood in Cerritos in the ‘80s, saying , “…their [his father’s employment’s] old building is actually on Valley…right next to the old Don Juan Mexican restaurant that used to be there on the corner…” His DJ crew, “…used to DJ parties at Don Juan during the early stages before the crew even manifested.” These are details about how culture was created in Cerritos and what kind of culture it was, that is now preserved.

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Letters To My City is most powerful when Sonksen explores what Los Ángeles is and reminds the reader what L.A. has. That’s where he’s at his best, inhabiting the same boundless enthusiasm for his subjects that he saw Huell Howser inhabit for his.

Sonksen writes many list and ode poems, full of local history and culture. In the poem “Ode to L.A. Women Writers,” he reminds readers “L.A. women writers are the masters of this ecology.” He then lists as many as he can, from Wanda Coleman to Octavia E. Butler, to Irene Soriano and Helena Maria Viramontes. In “Homage to Little Tokyo” Sonksen repeats throughout, “Little Tokyo is…” That device creates the sense of community pride that builds throughout the poem as he proceeds to describe the heartbeat of one of L.A.’s most iconic neighborhoods. “Little Tokyo is legacy businesses/Nisei witnesses.” he writes, tightly weaving in the community’s history as context for his sustained focus on the individuals who’ve shaped Little Tokyo.

Although his poems celebrate L.A., Sonksen casts a critical eye on the city’s faults and issues. “I Am Still Alive in Los Angeles!” an update to his most iconic poem “I Am Alive in Los Angeles!” opens Letters and sets the context for how the rest of the book is understood. The poem steeps the city in three of its pressing issues: affordability, traffic and environment. The opening dives right in: “I am alive in Los Angeles/even as the price of rent rises/and gridlock strangles central arteries…” But through it all, Sonksen says, “The community is a poem/in progress called Los Angeles.”

Los Ángeles, and cities in general, are by their very nature imperfect, always in transition to becoming something else, especially at the community level. It’s a city’s communities, Sonksen reminds us, that shape what a city is. And those communities are shaped by the people that live there. Those, he says in the title poem, who “pound the pavement, fight the good fight,” are civically engaged.

Though a fuller portrayal of L.A. would have included more communities in other parts of L.A. (e.g. the Persian community on the Westside or any specific community in the San Fernando Valley), as Letters primarily explores downtown to the east (the Eastside, SGV) and South Central to South L.A. County (Cerritos, Long Beach), it’s the ground-up perspective from which Sonksen portrays each community and tells their history, that creates the mostly intimate portrayal(s) of this often written about and vastly misunderstood city. By the end of Letters To My City it becomes apparent that this perspective is the only authentic way to truly understand Los Ángeles—or any city.

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