Sprawling L.A. is poet Mike’s muse
One warm night last fall, a man in baggy jeans and a long T-shirt hustled onto a bus that was ferrying gallery hoppers around downtown’s monthly Art Walk.
With an intent look in his bright blue eyes, he grabbed a microphone and began spitting out rhymes. “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation / kicking glorious incantations,” he intoned as the bus lurched up Main Street. “I make the consonants crack / like Jack Kerouac.”
The bus was packed, the air was thick with marijuana smoke and most riders seemed more interested in shouting absurdities out the window than listening to poetry.
But the man with the mike continued, valiantly unfurling verses until he got off near a friend’s gallery, where he would deliver two more poems.
Mike the Poet might well be the hardest-working bard in Los Angeles. The 34-year-old Long Beach native and resident (whose real name is Mike Sonksen) gives more than 200 spoken-word performances each year and hosts regular open-mike nights. He teach- es creative writing part time and gives professional tours of the city’s architectural landmarks -- laced with poetry, of course.
He doesn’t do it for riches or for the ego boost. He is driven instead by the simple belief that in the “postmodern metropolis” of L.A., the city is what the people make it. His poems, which often read like little histories, celebrate the city and its countercultural movements.
“There are little worlds, little villages, little pockets all over the city, and there are all of these different scenes and movements throughout the years,” he said. “What I’m doing is cataloging it.”
In the process, Mike the Poet is also trying to build an art movement of his own -- something he refers to as the New Beautiful. Centered on the Eastside spoken-word and urban music scenes, it is more positive, he says, than the often-competitive slam poetry community, which he avoids and decries as “too Hollywood.”
The New Beautiful, he says, is grass roots. And, like his poetry, it is upbeat and multicultural. “I love our city’s diversity and the new generation of youth that is starting to rise. We call ourselves the colorblind generation.”
In his 2006 self-published book, “I Am Alive in Los Angeles,” he pays tribute to the “parallel webs of existence” that make up L.A. -- such as graffiti culture and the literary scene -- with dense, fact-filled poems and prose.
Some verses acknowledge the battle lines that divide the city (“People want to settle the score / Between the haves and the have-nots / Country clubs and crooked cops / Range Rovers and bus stops”), but most read like love letters to Los Angeles (“I walk across stained concrete / I cry tears of joy on Flower Street”).
He occasionally writes about other things, like music, but the city remains his muse. In celebrating “the universal, soulful, multicultural emerging worldwide tribe people!” here, Mike defies those who say the city’s fragmented culture is inherently divisive, according to Mike Davis, the urban planner and writer who taught the poet at UCLA.
“Mike is a wonderful young guy with a utopian vision of L.A.’s possibility,” said Davis. “He’s the hipster antidote to my glum books.”
Playing tour guide
On another night, in another part of town, Mike the Poet was gliding through the city. He was cruising on Wilshire in his white Trans Am, zooming through Koreatown and around South L.A. As usual, he was unfurling a breathless flow of commentary.
“See the little zigzags sketched into the concrete? That’s how you know it’s Art Deco,” he said as he drove past the old Bullocks Wilshire Building.
There are few things that Mike loves more than driving around with the windows down while regaling his passenger with tales of the city. He often takes friends on excursions around South L.A., usually with some local music blaring (this night it was an old David Axelrod jazz record).
Earnest, articulate and eager to put people at ease, he sometimes gives tours for the Architecture + Design Museum and the Museum of Neon Art. The tours offer him another chance to recite his poems, which are packed with facts and figures about the city.
He fell in love with poetry at UCLA, where he studied urban planning and architecture. He says he turned to verse to help him understand the city and himself.
On days when he needed a break from campus, he would hop on a bus and ride around the city for hours, scribbling furiously in his notebook about what he was seeing. “As I was trying to put the city together, I was putting myself together,” he said.
He made friends all over, and when they introduced him to their neighborhoods, he became what he calls a “poet participant-observer.” “If you’re going to write about a neighborhood, you’re going to have to immerse yourself in it, you have to get in deep. But I try to keep enough distance so that I can observe and record it.”
His poems, he says, are snapshots from all over the city, “little poetic postcards” of neighborhoods and the miles of asphalt in between. “Poetry is everywhere,” he says. “Our eyes just have to be open enough to see it.”
More and more, he devotes his time to sharing his love of language and the city with young people. He works as a part-time creative writing teacher at View Park Preparatory High School in South L.A., and he is a mentor to many young poets.
One of them is Trevon Kelly, 19, who met Mike two years ago when he came to perform for his high school English class.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘I’ve got to talk to this guy,’ ” said Kelly, who is from Inglewood. The poet turned the teenager on to good books and talked to him about the writing process. And he introduced him to the poetry scene, which he knows inside out. “Pretty much everywhere I’ve been with Mike everybody knows him,” Kelly said.
‘The city is ours’
Several weeks later, Mike the Poet stepped onto a makeshift stage at Juanitas Restaurant in Eagle Rock and kicked off his regular open-mike night with a rallying cry.
“The city is ours,” he chanted in a strong, clear voice. The crowd quickly joined in. “The city is ours!”
One by one, poets walked up, took the mike and did their thing. If someone stumbled, the audience shouted encouragement.
It was a far cry from slam poetry, in which poets often trade barbs like boxers. “Sometimes the slam scene creates this ego thing, but we’re more inclusive,” Mike the Poet said. “We want to uplift everybody. I used to get accused of being an idealistic white boy, but there’s always a place for optimism.”
The crowd was made up of people of all ages, races and ethnicities. The performances were similarly diverse.
This, Mike the Poet says, is Los Angeles. “What unifies the city is diversity,” he says.
He often cites Davis’ 1990 book, “City of Quartz,” which he says gives two possibilities of the way forward for Los Angeles.
“Will the boundaries between different groups become fault lines of conflict or high-voltage generators of an alternative urban culture led by poly-ethnic vanguards?” Davis asks.
For Mike the Poet, the answer is clear. “The movement is defined by melting genres,” he said. “There’s no one style. It’s like bringing colors together -- eventually you have a new color.”
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