Dec 19 2009

Steve Abee & Sesshu Foster

The article below appears in the new issue of

BROOKLYN & BOYLE.. Much respect to Publisher AbeL Salas!



Two powerful Los Angeles poets on par with other Angelino luminaries like Kamau Daaood, Luis Rodriguez & Lewis MacAdams are Steve Abee & Sesshu Foster. Both of these authors released new books recently. Over the course of one week in September 2009, I was able to see both poets read live. Though they are both very individual and stylized they share an urgency and raw truth seldom seen or spoken of in celluloid city.  This article will review their new books and break down the background story for each of these two great poets. Both reside on Los Angeles’ eastside, Abee in El Sereno and Foster in Alhambra. 


Back in 1999 Lewis MacAdams, the founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River and prominent Los Angeles poet told me to check the work of the LA native Steve Abee. I bought Abee’s first book KING PLANET, a collection of poems & short stories.  A year or so later Abee’s next book THE BUS dropped and it was equally enthralling. The subtitle captures the gist, “Cosmic ejaculations of the daily mind in transit.”  The BUS is a journey on a public bus starting from Abee’s former house in Echo Park to Santa Monica.  The crosstown journey gives Abee ample room for tangents, anecdotes & poetic prose. Abee waxes past Echo Park, Alvarado, Vermont, Vine, Highland, La Cienega, Rodeo Drive, Westwood all the way to Santa Monica where he picks up his car from his mechanic. 

“I take it out to Santa Monica,” Abee writes. “Cause that’s where I bought it, from Hari Pal, the Sri Lankan Hindu Volvo mechanic on Southside of Santa Monica, a mechanic that I’ve know forever. He cuts me good deals on major problems, like this one, a broken head, cracked, 700 dollars from the regular guy, but Hari put it together for 400. So I take the bus for the discount and truth be told, I like going all the way across town on the bus, getting with the stinky and seeing where the head of time is…” 

Abee’s latest book GREAT BALLS OF FLOWERS is on Write Bloody Publishing. It is a collection of poems honoring his wife, daughters & deceased father.  My favorite poem in the book is, “You Must Love This.” The poem is long, at least by today’s standards. 11 pages, somewhere close to 1500 words. Abee is one of the few writers with the skill to pull it off. The poem is a diatribe about love, compassion, faith and for that matter humor. I recently saw him read it live and he held the audience’s attention the whole time. It’s an epic poem, one of the best I’ve read or heard in a long time. Check these selected lines..

“Love it all, man. Love your sorrow, love your sadness. Love your anger, hatred, sorrow, again. Love it. Love it all, man.”

“Love the planets that spin their storms through your

Cosmic battlements, the storms of becoming,

The storms of being, the storms of end. Love the storms.”
“Love the people fighting at the next table.

Love when you are the people fighting at the next table.”

Another great poem in the new book is titled SOME RULES. The closing lines epitomize his humanity..

“Last thing—-Become as big as the ocean

When you kiss your kids

Goodnight, They will feel safe.”  

One of Abee’s favorite poets is Ted Berrigan, a leading figure of the New York school during the 60’s & 70’s. Berrigan was known for cut-up collage poems, stream of consciousness, everyday life verse & even lists.  Lewis MacAdams says, “Ted was probably my most important poetry mentor when I was in my twenties - a model for me in the way he honored the calling and the craft. He used to type out copies of all his favorite poems by his favorite poets through history and memorize them, just as a way to truly understand the standards and the tradition.” 

Abee’s verse is direct like Berrigan’s down to Earth verse.  Abee is grounded and yet he still makes everyday life extraordinary in his poems. MacAdams says, “I love Steve’s work. I think it’s local without being parochial, plain-spoken without being dumb, generous-spirited, inclusive and open to the nuances of the street - plus he’s a fine word-slinger.” Abee’s methods of making fun of himself and finding the universality of our common mistakes makes his poems endearing and easily digested. Abee also has a novel set to be released in December 2009. 


Another man in the same category of elite writers is Sesshu Foster. Foster is a writer equally influenced by his childhood in the hills of East Los Angeles and the summers he spent fighting fires in the Forest Service land of the Colorado Rockies. His latest book WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK is published by City Lights. It follows the format of his breakout book CITY TERRACE FIELD MANUAL; only its a decade later and the standpoint oscillates around a father watching his daughter play soccer on fields in Northeast Los Angeles.  Divided into Games, each short piece is labeled Game 1, Game 2, etc. Foster mixes extracts from travel notebooks, email poems, postcards, letters & blog posts into “a hybrid genre mixed text.” Call it postmodern poetics, Foster is one of the most innovative writers I’ve ever read.

In his first book, ANGRY DAYS he writes a short essay titled A NOTE ON FORM. The essay speaks of his summers fighting fires in the Rockies and how the breathtaking boulders flanked with golden eagles and treacherous conditions of putting out fires in narrow whitewater gorges inform his poetry. Foster believes in what’s immediate. Whether it’s a descriptive riff on landscape or the candid conversation of two old friends, he shares a similar spirit to William Carlos Williams. His poetry and prose deal with the here & now. “In terms of a poetic tradition,” Foster writes, “what workers say in lunchrooms or over coffee first thing in the morning may not be formally recognized as such, but I grew up with it, with what people say over a cold beer on the porch. I operate with it, I relate to it, like most of us do, working our way through. I hope my work is some tribute to the people who struggle on.” 

Foster’s own career shares currents with the workers he admires. He teaches English in East Los Angeles and has been for over 20 years. He’s also spent several summers in the Rockies fighting fires. Foster is a Hapa writer with an Alcoholic White father and Japanese born mother. He grew up in City Terrace, the hilly district of East LA. He’s spent his half century living straddling the line between East Los Latin culture and the Japanese culture of Little Tokyo. He represents both cultures equally well.

His breakout book CITY TERRACE FIELD MANUAL published in 1996 paints a descriptive portrait of his childhood landscape. Written as a series of prose poems, CITY TERRACE FIELD MANUAL is one of the best books ever written about East LA. Esoteric, fantastic, fast, fierce. Foster knows his subject and writes with the authority that comes from hard living. He writes mature words substantiated by life experience. There’s a story behind every line. He’s earned every inch. Bleeding songs of Eastside Los Angeles like only one from the depths could sing: “I witness Pan-African colors of night, Mexican tricolor streetlights, Vietnamese yellow dawns. Guileless colors for normal eyes, regular babies, City Terrace Elementary, Hammel Street Elementary, dead-end streets, Ramona Gardens illuminated from within by irregular shapes of life & death.”

Foster is the author of 5 books. His first book with City Lights ATOMIC AZTEX from 2006 is also highly lauded. After reading 3 of Foster’s books ANGRY DAYS, CITY TERRACE FIELD MANUAL & WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK, I recently had the opportunity to watch him read live. On a warm September night, Foster read several selections from WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK and his reading brought the work to life even more.  Foster is one of the few scribes that can make words come alive on the page or the stage.  

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