Book Club: Black poets share their writing struggles, and the Festival of Books returns

L.A. Times Book Club presents Black Poets in a Time of Unrest
Clockwise from top left: Douglas Kearney, Natalie J. Graham, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Ashaki M. Jackson, Khadijah Queen, Jay Dodd, Robin Coste Lewis, and Kima Jones.
(Ken Kwok/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

During Thursday’s book club meetup, Times arts writer Makeda Easter asked our guest poets how the collective turmoil of the past six months has affected their creativity.

They responded with honest, raw commentary about their struggles to write and focus.


Amaud Jamaul Johnson, the author of “Imperial Liquor” and two other collections, said he has stopped writing poetry altogether. Instead, “I’m writing a lot of essays, just screaming into my laptop. Really just kind of slapping nonstop at the keys and editing.”

Ashaki M. Jackson, whose day job is working at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said retreating to writing is her safe place right now. But her poetry has changed dramatically and she, too, finds herself yelling at the screen. “The writing practice is more honest,” she says. “It’s going toward unhinged, but it’s intentional.”

Natalie J. Graham said she’s relied on external deadlines to function at all. “For me, it’s been a lot of fear and being home and trying to take care of my family,” says Graham, chair of the African American Studies Department at Cal State Fullerton. “It’s hard to know what day and what time it is and what’s supposed to be done.

“It’s been hard to really know what I should be thinking about and focusing on, outside of just staying alive,” Graham says.

Jackson, Johnson and Graham were among the eight authors who read their work at the book club’s first poetry event, Black Poets in a Time of Unrest. The evening’s lineup also featured Robin Coste Lewis, Douglas Kearney, jayy dodd, Khadijah Queen and Kima Jones. If you missed it, you can watch now.

Amaud Johnson, Ashaki Jackson, Robin Coste Lewis, Khadijah Queen, jayy dodd, Natalie Graham, Kima Jones, Douglas Kearney
Top row, from left: Amaud Johnson, Ashaki M. Jackson, Robin Coste Lewis and Khadijah Queen. Bottom row, from left: jayy dodd, Natalie J. Graham, Kima Jones and Douglas Kearney.
(Victoria Smith / Jason Gutierrez /K. Miroire / Michael Teak / jayy dodd / Maya Washington / Kima Jones / Bao Phi)

L.A. Public Library report


In today’s paper, columnist Nita Lelyveld shares a must-read update on the Los Angeles Public Library system.

The buildings remain closed during the COVID-19 crisis, but you can use the Wi-Fi by sitting outside. And Nita discovered that the soaring creativity of librarians during the pandemic and new virtual doors have opened for readers.

“Through the library, I’ve joined in a book club, a writing class and a career day,” she writes. “I’ve seen children read aloud to a dog. I’ve learned from a master gardener how to turn the pages my columns are printed on into pots for seedlings. I’ve heard people grapple with systemic racism in a learning circle focused on the New York Times’ ‘1619 Project.’ I’ve watched volunteers helping people learn English explicate idioms: ‘dog-tired,’ ‘cloud nine,’ ‘kick my butt.’”

Are you using the library during the pandemic? Share your tips and experiences, and we’ll include them in a future newsletter.

P.S. Here’s a previous primer on how to use library apps to read for free.

The book festival is back

Postponed in April due to the pandemic, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Stories & Ideas is going virtual starting Oct. 18.

The festival turned 25 this year. To mark the anniversary, the event will feature 25 virtual panels and readings over 25 days.

Authors will include Marilynne Robinson, Ayad Akhtar, Maria Hinojosa, Laila Lalami, Marlon James, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kevin Kwan. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown and actress Natalie Portman also will be there. Browse the complete lineup.

“Organizing a festival during a pandemic has been quite interesting and different,” says programming organizer Ann Binney. “In many ways, not having to deal with travel budgets and strict schedule availability has made authors a lot more accessible. We’re less constrained by time and place. The time commitment we ask for, rather than a couple of days when you consider travel to/from L.A., is more like a couple of hours!”