ALL IT takes is a listen to “WattstoLeimertPark” to tell that Mike Sonksen, often known by the moniker Mike The Poet, is an artist who knows and loves his city. Perhaps what makes this catchy track most compelling is that Mike acts not only as a poet, but also a Los Angeles historian. The lyricism of his spoken word coupled with driving instrumental accompaniment is enough to satisfy any listener, but a deeper investigation leads to something much more culturally rich within the track.
Chicago-native Kevin Coval’s new book L-Vis Lives, is braver than any poetry book I’ve read recently. Coval tackles head-on the intersection of race, music and appropriation of hip-hop culture by using a central figure named “L-vis” to represent a collage of artists who have used and misused Black Music.
I learned early that Los Angeles is a city of binary oppositions — the neighborhoods blend like a DJ mixing records. The tension between the differences is addressed in “L.A. Love & War.”
This recording is another collaboration between Phillip Martin aka PhiLLHarmonic, David Wittman aka DJ Dave and me. The three of us were freshmen at UCLA in the fall of 1992. The spirit of the Riots hung over the city heavy that fall.
As April enters its final third, there are still ample opportunities to enjoy National Poetry Month. As noted in Part One, the City of Angels and beyond is a landscape of poets, galleries and bookstores. Though the list is extensive, this column will salute as many of these figures and locations as space allows. I also want to pay respect to organizations and professors mentoring young poets throughout the city as well.
Leaving Los Angeles takes too long, especially when traveling with friends or family. External factors like traffic, forgetfulness and appetite are built in deterrents that always boomerang you back into the basin when you’re doing your damnedest to leave town. How many more bathroom breaks or trips to Trader Joes can you make? On a balmy Saturday three dudes meet up to go camping in Death Valley. There’s nothing like sand dunes and technicolor rock formations to cure the city blues.
We take the 2 North to the 134 East, in order to avoid congested Interstate 10. The 134 bisects the crest of the foothills and the view is exceptional. We marvel at the skyscrapers of downtown LA peering behind the hills of the Arroyo Seco. The 134 becomes the 210 into Pasadena, passing Colorado Blvd, Cal Tech, Crown City, and craftsman cottages. The coast is clear! We zoom past Monrovia, Azusa, and Glendora, all the way to Rancho Cucamonga. The San Gabriel Mountain Range frames the northern horizon along the 210. Mt. Baldy is the tallest peak in the San Gabriel Range. Its’ actual name is Mt. San Antonio, but most know it by the colloquial name. Old Baldy looks especially pristine after a winter storm.
Death Valley here we come! In Fontana we catch the 15 North. Besides being the road to Vegas; it also follows the path of the Old Mormon Trail from San Bernardino to Salt Lake City. Ironically the halfway point of the Mormon Trail is Sin City. It’s easy to spot city slickers on the highway. Heading up into the Cajon Pass, Volvos, Lexuses and Audis pass in the fast lane. Big-Rig Trucks keep trucking in the right lane. DJ I-Pod is playing Roy Ayers and “Everybody loves the Sunshine.” Bob Marley says, “Emancipate yourself from Mental Slavery,” and the shackles of LA break away.
Sun rays break over the mountains and we gradually emerge in the Mojave Desert. Joshua trees appear before Hesperia and Victorville. Joshua trees were named “Joshua,” by the Mormons, in the 19th Century because the boughs reach up towards God. They grow in the high desert around areas where the elevation is close to 4,000 feet. Another fork in the road puts us on the 395 North. Mirages are common on high desert roads. We cross the edge of Edwards Air Force Base, known for the Space Shuttle landing.
Kramer Junction is where the 395 meets Highway 58. The high desert landscape begins to merge with a series of foothills. We’ve been on the road for two hours. Snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada begin appearing to the northwest. Snowboarders and skiers know the 395 as the road to Mammoth. It slices through the backside of the Sierras and the westside of Death Valley. California’s rich ecology is impossible to ignore.
Finally we reach the 190 East to enter Death Valley National Park. The stretch of the 190 lying west of the Valley is the Owens Lake Bed. Dry now because most of its’ water flows on a pipeline down to Los Angeles. Arriving in Death Valley we immediately head for the “Artists Drive.” Deep canyon cuts through the Black Mountains have created red, pink and purple hues in the rock formations. Death Valley was once filled with a giant freshwater lake. It got its name from dehydrated prospectors that crossed the Valley looking for gold.
Mountains on all sides frame the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Several scenes in Star Wars were filmed here. Dante’s View sits at 5,500 feet of elevation, offering a vantage point for miles on end. We see Mt. Whitney to the west, the tallest peak in the Continental US and it’s only 82 miles from the nation’s lowest point — the Badwater Basin in Death Valley.
Close to Badwater is the Devil’s Golf Course, a vast field of salt crystals consisting of minerals dissolved in the ancient lake’s water. “Mushroom Rock,” also known as the “Devil’s Throne,” is a basalt rock formation that looks like it sounds. The Racetrack Playa is a dry lake known for its’ “sailing stones.” The sailing stones leave racetrack imprints in the cracking clay. We camp at Furnace Creek, the site of the hottest temperature ever recorded in North America. Originally home to the Timbisha Tribe of Native Americans, a few of their families still live here. Death Valley offers dimensions of landscapes and more ecological diversity than just about anywhere. And every spring, wildflowers only found here blanket the basin, showing us that life continues to flourish, even in the midst of death. A welcomed reminder as you head back to the city.
Students will examine what makes words perform and what we can do to harness our personal histories, identities, and voices. The workshop will culminate with a mini spoken-word slam. Led by Mike Sonksen, aka Mike the PoeT, a third-generation L.A. native who specializes in empowering youth to find and use their voice.
SUNDAY AFTERNOONS FOR KIDS The Hammer’s free collaborative workshops, presented with 826LA, are designed for groups of up to 20 students. Reservations are encouraged.
We are celebrating the release of Rachelle Cruz’s book,
Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood
(Dancing Girl Press, 2012)
at the Last Bookstore
in Downtown Los Angeles
on Sunday, April 22nd at 12:30 pm.
There will be food, readings, and visual art. … Featured readers/artists include: *Dan Lau *David Campos *Angel Garcia *Michael C. Ford *Gail Wronsky *Andrea Gutierrez *Kamala Puligandla *Janice Sapiago *Erika Ayon *Cristina Victor *Sara Borjas