Opening Community to Poetry

Building a sense of community in a city as fragmented and dispersed as Los Angeles is truly an accomplishment. Building it from a diverse background is amazing. Yet building it upon a form as often gentrified, obscured, and misunderstood as poetry is nothing short of a miracle.

Today I witnessed poets from around Southern California and people from the community of Highland Park connect with poetry in an honest and profound way. It made sense–after all, the Arroyo Arts Collective had been bringing poems into this neighborhood to display in shop windows for the past ten years. Not only that, but they encouraged and sponsored translation of each poem into another language spoken in the community–over 20 languages in total, from Vietnamese to Persian.

Today marked the celebration of the collective’s first anthology of poetry, selected from winners of the past ten years of the “Poetry In The Windows” competitions. I was honored to have my poem anthologized among the work of so many other talented poets in such an attractive, well-bound volume. I read my poem in English, and someone from the community volunteered to read the Spanish translation.

Later, that man came up to me during the book signing. It turns out he was a poet from Ecuador. I watched him glance back and forth from the English to Spanish translation of my poem, and several times smile and say, “This is a really good translation.” It turns out he has published two volumes of his own work in Ecuador, and was working with a colleague at UCLA to translate his next book into English. We talked about the challenges of cultural context, how a word comes to us with hundreds of years of meaning behind it in one culture that simply does not exist in the next. We talked about how hard it is to translate poetry, and again he remarked on how good the translation was of my poem. For this, I have my friend Ofelia Mancera to thank. My Spanish is basic, so I came to her pleadingly having learned I won the competition, and together we breathed the spirit of poetry back into the Spanish version of my poem. I could not have done it without her.

All in all, it was a wonderful occasion for me, looking out at so many faces–Latino, Chinese, Persian, Korean, Black, White–and feeling the power of the commonality between us, the power of poetry. I felt a great sense of community and purpose to what we were doing there. My poems are not political yet through simply expressing my love of poetry I knew I was also expressing my own unique cultural background and perspective. I used to think I didn’t have a culture, that growing up on the border I was somehow between cultures or some kind of cultureless default. My poetry of American cultures project at Berkeley brought home the reality that every individual is a unique blend of cultures and perspectives. And in that room today, hearing so many powerful and well-writ poems, seeing people that might otherwise say they don’t like poetry finally connect to the spirit of a poem–well, it seems that as one poet put it we were singing the same song in different voices–different languages, different backgrounds–but with an encompassing appreciation of the craft, accessible to veteran poets and neighborhood passers-by alike.

This anthology will be available at the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department booth at the LA Times Festival of Books. I highly recommend picking up a copy, and sharing in the beauty, power, poignancy, and great honesty of the voices I was privileged to listen to today. Many thanks to my mentor Suzanne Lummis for editing this excellent new book. Finally, I must say a special thanks to the Arroyo Arts Collective for their tireless work over the past ten years culminating in nothing short of a small miracle here in LA.