At dozens of cafes, libraries and bookstores — even a garage in Bell — Southern California teemed with poetry readings and open mike nights before COVID-19 took hold of the world.
Some of these events managed to survive by migrating online. Others we’ve lost for good.
Now, as the vaccination rollout continues and an end to the pandemic appears in sight, we’ve asked five poets at very different points in their careers to reflect on the confinement and share their hopes for what lies ahead.
Though disparate in background, style and subject matter, these poets share an unwavering — though not romanticized — love for the place we call home.
I dribbled down a concrete river. It was there where I merged with my water relatives: ‘Akwaaken and melted Ywaat / Snow.
From “Papaavetam/Water People” by Megan Dorame
THE TONGVA, WHOSE villages once dotted the flood plain of Los Angeles and Orange counties, lived on this land long before it began to be labeled in Spanish and English. For some, this is still Tovaangar.
Through her poetry, Megan Dorame works to reclaim and revitalize the language of the region’s original inhabitants. The poet, who was raised in Huntington Beach, comes from a family of cultural resource monitors. Growing up, she’d watch her father head out to construction sites throughout Southern California. There, he’d crouch beside archaeologists and work to protect any indicators of past human activity, including objects of importance to local Indigenous communities.
Whenever they came across their ancestors’ remains, her father would ensure that they were properly reburied. Dorame often accompanied him to the ceremonies.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “our ancestors are found more often than you’d think.”
Today, the poet makes her home in Santa Ana, where she’s been isolated during the pandemic, working on a series of poems about abalone. In California, these endangered sea snails once numbered in the millions. The Tongva used them for adornment, ceremony and nourishment.
“It’s also that these animals are our relatives,” says Dorame, “so it’s very sad for us that they’re disappearing.”
The poet did not grow up speaking Tongva. After what Dorame describes as “three waves of colonization,” the language was nearly wiped out.
She went away to college in Oklahoma. There, her coursework in linguistic anthropology ignited her interest in language revitalization. When she moved back to California about five years ago, she scoured the internet until she found a Tongva class on Facebook.
“I was, like, ‘Hey, can I come?’”
The way Dorame tells, it, she was transformed as soon as she started learning the language. “It almost sounds like magical thinking,” she says, “but the world just opened up for me in terms of expressing myself and understanding the world.”
In June 2019, she published “Papaavetam / Water People” in The Offing, an online literary magazine. In the poem, inspired by her ancestors’ creation stories, Dorame pays homage to the L.A. basin, which she describes as her “concrete homeland.” Life in the poem springs forth from water.
Though she wrote most of the poem in English, Dorame weaves in Tongva words to animate plants, animals and stones. “I use Tongva words because so many Tongva folks don’t have access to the language,” she says. In doing so, she aims to make the language a bit more familiar “so that they could maybe expand their vocabulary.”
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As for readers who are not part of the Tongva community, Dorame wants her words to challenge the “nation of immigrants” narrative. “I counter our loss and erasure by approaching the page as a space where I’m able to take back what was stolen from us,” she adds. Moreover, by compelling readers to recognize life in those that aren’t human, she hopes to encourage “a more reciprocal relationship” to the land.
Her abalone poems, meanwhile, have enabled her to confront her qualms about motherhood. She is expecting her first child, and it was hard “to find the courage,” she says, “to finally be a mother despite everything that’s going on in the world.”
Watch Megan Dorame read “Papaavetam / Water People.”
1. all the bus routes that take you in and out of Downtown Los Angeles 2. the names of every street between Silverlake and Echo Park 3. what each store was before the gentrification 4. the corner we found my father on after a diabetic shock 5. the alley Mami had us walk through the night Papi hit her 6. the clinic where I saw my first therapist when I was 12.
From “What I Know, by Yesika Salgado
THE LATE JANUARY rains leaked through the cracks of Yesika Salgado’s home in Silver Lake. “I spent the last hour trying to fix it,” she says during an interview. “We’re not equipped for rain here. Cuando llueve [when it rains] everything goes haywire.”
“What I know,” a poem that centers the neighborhood where she’s lived all her life, was penned at Café Tropical on Sunset Boulevard. Salgado wrote it for “Corazón,” her first poetry collection, which was published in 2017. Then, gentrification had already transformed the place she calls home. Her work, she says, is an effort to preserve “what will always be true.”
She quit her job at CVS shortly before landing her first book deal. When “Corazón” was released, Salgado was 33. And she, like Silver Lake, has changed a lot since then.
“I was someone who was still trying to prove a lot to the world,” she says, “that I deserved to be published, that I deserved a career, that I deserved to be listened to.” Those doubts are now gone. Salgado, who has 136,000 followers on Instagram, lovingly refers to her fans as “mangos.” Before the pandemic, they crowded into cafés and shops to hear her recite her work. On one occasion at Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, readers who didn’t manage to squeeze inside watched through the shop’s windows.
At her readings, Salgado would seamlessly interweave her English with Salvadoran Spanish, peppered with a dose of the Southern Californian “like.” Her mangos would laugh and cry as she shared anecdotes about the experiences that inspired her poetry. Afterward, they’d stand in line, sometimes for hours, to get her autograph, a selfie and a hug.
“I’m not on some celebrity s—,” Salgado says, but meeting her mangos in person is one of the things she misses most.
“That’s when I get to meet all the people who come with their sister, their mom, their homegirl or their man, who you know got dragged to the show,” she says, giggling. “I get to see how my poetry lives in their lives, and that’s such a special connection, ‘cause writing is so lonely, you know?”
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Aside from CVS, Salgado spent nine years working as a cashier at a parking garage before her writing career took off. She also sold knives door-to-door for a while and had a short stint at a Subway. She didn’t graduate from high school and was unable to go back and get her GED. Today, she’s living a life she once thought was out of her reach. “Corazón” is required reading at campuses like Pasadena City College, and Salgado now has three books to her name, along with several zines.
“I wouldn’t be who I am or have what I have without all the other brown girls in Los Ángeles who show up, excited and full of love,” she says.
Her take on love, a constant theme in her work, has also evolved since her early 30s. “I used to think that love was this thing that you had to wrestle with, right? I used to think that if I love you, we have to be together. And we have to be happy. And if that’s not happening, then we’ve failed,” she says. “I don’t think love is black and white anymore. I can love someone profoundly and also understand that we don’t work together. And it’s OK. It’s still a love story.”
While writing her forthcoming book, “Mentirosa,” which “tells the story of the years when I used to catfish on the internet,” Salgado said she realized that the greatest loves in her life had not been the romantic ones.
“It’s been my homegirls,” she says. “My sisters. My niece and my nephew. My mom. My mangos. My city.”
Watch Yesika Salgado read “What I Know.”
I always wanted to truck Coca-Cola bottles to villages made of dirt, bottle necks caught between my knuckles ... At night, I always wanted to join day laborers, drink seriously, blow out a clatter of laughs. Instead my hair is dusted in chalk, my throat dried from shouting all day into the air.
From “The Gift” by William Archila
“WE CROSSED THE BORDER when John Lennon got shot,” says poet William Archila, who was 12 the day the Beatles icon was killed in New York City.
Maybe this is one reason Archila doesn’t use the “American Dream” cliché when he talks about migrating from El Salvador in December 1980. His family, he says, came to the U.S. in search of “the same things everybody wants anywhere”: safety, living wages, healthcare, education — a chance at life.
Archila and his family were fleeing an armed conflict that would take the lives of 75,000 people and push millions more abroad. “People always say that the civil war started in 1980,” Archila says, “but we started seeing the beginnings of what was to come long before that.”
He was a young boy when he began to see protests in the late 1970s. His mother owned a convenience shop in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second-largest city, and he’d often hang around, eavesdropping and chatting with the adults. He’d hear that “so-and-so disappeared,” or that a teacher had been forcibly taken from his house. He’d see “FMLN ” — the Spanish-language acronym of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front — splattered on church walls. “And then,” he says, “we started finding bodies in the streets.”
“The Art of Exile,” Archila’s first book of poetry, published in 2009, documents the rift left by the war, both in El Salvador and within his family. He wrote the book in a 1930s bungalow in Los Angeles’ Echo Park. “The Gift,” one of the poems in the collection, describes the life he might have had if he’d stayed in his native country. It also speaks to a quintessentially Angeleno form of escapism: hopping in the car and driving to the shore.
“Sometimes, when I can’t stand it,” he writes, “I drive along the Pacific, / think about the man I wanted to be, highway stretching / across the state, crops unrolling along the side.”
As a kid in El Salvador, Archila would watch with deep admiration the men who delivered glass bottles of Coca-Cola to local shops. They were jovial and strong, he noticed, and they could carry up to six bottles in each hand.
“I was just mesmerized by these guys,” says the poet. “There was definitely a craft and a talent there. Plus, they’d get to ride on the back of a truck and see the whole country.” When he thought about his future, that’s what he envisioned.
Two of those men were twins, no more than 25. As the narrator in “The Gift” points out, they were shot right in front of him.
“Their presence in my memory was very strong,” Archila says, and it remains so. In his upcoming memoir, he’ll delve further into their story.
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Instead of becoming a Coca-Cola distributor, Archila came to Los Angeles, fell in love with the English language and then the city. He became an educator and a poet. He published two books. He fell in love with his wife and moved to the San Fernando Valley to raise a family.
The poem about the twins is titled “The Gift,” Archila says, “because I know I got lucky. It’s a gift, I realize, to be able to write about the fallen bodies, because I’m alive and they’re not.”
Archila’s been teaching English at Los Angeles’ Belmont High School for decades, a campus where nearly 1 in 4 students hails from Central America. His students, he says, have rejuvenated his ties to El Salvador. He marvels at their stories. They walk to the U.S., often alone. Here, they start all over, learn a new language. After school, they take a bus to the Westside, where they work “up until 2 in the morning, washing dishes or busing tables.” They send money back home. “And they’re just kids,” he says.
Archila, who teaches the students who take AP classes as well as the newcomers, loves nothing more than for a high-schooler to ask him for a letter of recommendation.
“To see those students graduate and then go on to a university,” he says, “that’s worth more than any paycheck.”
Watch William Archila read “The Gift.”
The woman is coming to see me about some work-related papers. How to start again? How to wake up? Someone is knocking on the door. The kids are up, talking and laughing. I hurry up to put water on to boil. The phone is ringing again. I want one cup of tea. One.
From an untitled poem by Sesshu Fosger
IT’S BEEN 25 YEARS since “City Terrace Field Manual,” Sesshu Foster’s first poetry collection, was published. The book, in which the poet celebrates his childhood neighborhood, wouldn’t have been possible, he says, without his wife.
Back in the 1990s, Foster was spread thin. He worked full time at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights, where he headed the English department, ran the gifted program, co-facilitated an after-school poetry workshop and served as union chair — all while raising three children. Most nights, he was lucky if he got six hours of sleep.
“But my wife generously gave me Saturdays to write,” Foster says, “so that’s when I worked on the book, along with every other minute I could squeeze in.”
“City Terrace Field Manual,” he says, “reflects that very busy, hectic life that I was leading.” As a result, the book is composed of many brusque narratives, including an untitled poem in which the speaker describes the type of “morning where people are knocking on your door, phoning you up, asking for help before you even get a cup of tea.” In it, the narrator longs for a bit of respite.
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“I like that it looks at the ways that people migrate from place to place as natural,” she says in her podcast, “The Slowdown,” in reference to the migrants using the speaker’s home as a rest stop before heading north to San Francisco.
“I like how it contemplates that our loved ones age and grow vulnerable,” Smith adds. “It acknowledges the ways we lose touch with the people we care about.
“It corrals the mundane and the serious into a single tight space, which is what life feels like. And it captures a blur of demands, memories and desires in a way that make me grateful to be alive.”
For readers still thawing from a year in isolation, two questions in the poem are especially prescient: “How to start again? How to wake up?”
Since Foster’s first poetry collection came out, he has published several other books, including “City of the Future,” which builds on his debut, and “World Ball Notebook,” which won the 2009 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry and an American Book Award in 2010. But that first book remains special, he says, in part because of the young poets who inspired it.
With the help of author Rubén Martínez, who at the time worked for LA Weekly, Foster ran an after-school poetry club called “Poets Beyond Madness.”
“It was one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences I’ve had as a teacher,” says Foster, who’s also taught at the University of Iowa, the California Institute of the Arts and UC Santa Cruz.
His students in Boyle Heights dealt with a lot, he says. “I had students who were shot. I had students who were jailed. I had students who were taken away by ICE.
“But there were beautiful things going on at the same time. Most of my students didn’t have too many options, but they were able to use poetry to secure scholarships to performing arts programs at Cal State L.A. and CalArts, internships at UCLA. Some of them went on to teach writing at the community arts center Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights. And one student wrote an essay that won her a trip to Spain. Young as they were, they used poetry to transform their lives.”
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Today, Foster lives with his wife on a hill in Alhambra. When he steps out on his balcony, he overlooks El Sereno on one side and the San Gabriel Valley on the other. His three children are grown and live far away: in Canada, New York and Alaska. Because of the pandemic, he went months without seeing them.
Giant piles of books are found throughout Foster’s home, but he’s surviving the confinement by reading snippets from three he keeps on his nightstand: the anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song,” Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II” and Donald Peattie’s “A Natural History of Western Trees.”
“I’m trying to learn more about the trees that I see every day,” he says. “But this book is really fat, so I just read a bit here and there, about sycamores or white pines or oak trees or whatever it may be.”
He’s been asked to teach a poetry workshop this summer at Cal State L.A., which he’s excited about. That is, of course, except for the fact that it will take place on Zoom.
“I’m guessing it might not be as fun as if we were all in the classroom,” Foster says. “There’s just a loss of intimacy. When you’re together in person, you can communicate just by sharing a glance.”
He was glad to get vaccinated last month and is looking forward to community events like the annual son jarocho festival at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street. Mostly, though, Foster longs to “bump into people, talk to them about daily issues and just be with each other in an everyday way.”
Watch Sesshu Foster read his untitled poem.
Let tears surrender to the fumes of chopped onions. Let soaked peas and rinsed rice steam in the semi- covered pot. Let pan-fried chicken simmer slow in tomato sauce. Let plátano sizzle in hot oil in the cast iron.
From “On Saturdays,” by Jenise Miller
“ONE THING I CAN SAY is that to get through times like these, my mother gave me music,” Jenise Miller says.
The poet, an urban planner by trade, is the daughter of Black Panamanian immigrants. She grew up among Watts, northern Long Beach and Compton. “The Blvd,” her first book of poetry, was published a few months before the world shut down. With titles like “On Myrtle,” “On Wardlow,” “On Harding” and “On Euclid,” Miller’s work pays tribute to those who helped her feel safe and seen each time her family moved to a new apartment.
“On Saturdays,” an homage to her late mother, describes the slow process through which she would transform those spaces into homes, using incense, prayer, bleach and curry.
There was also music. On any given Saturday, Miller says, her mother would blast her favorites — “everything from salsa, merengue and cumbia to punta, calypso, soca and konpa.”
Sometimes her mother played songs by La Lupe, the Afro-Cuban chanteuse exiled by Fidel Castro, known to cackle and shout while she performed.
When she did, Miller says, the mood in her home was different. To her young ears, La Lupe’s voice “was about feelin’ yourself, just pure empowerment.”
After her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Miller quit her job to care for her. She was also caring for her own new baby. Miller sought refuge from the toll of constant worry at free writing workshops provided by DSTL Arts, an arts nonprofit for underserved parts of Los Angeles.
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Miller wrote her first draft of “On Saturdays” after visiting her mother at the ICU. She’d just suffered a stroke.
Miller refined the poem as an artist-in-residence at Patria Coffee Roasters in Compton, where she was part of a pilot program through DSTL Arts. Her poem makes two references to the indomitable Afro-Cuban artist she’d grown up hearing.
“Let La Lupe belly-shout in stereo what you cannot,” it reads. “Let La Lupe sing fui yo quien salió ganando” (It was I who came out winning).
In addition to completing her manuscript, Miller was required to lead writing workshops for the community during her residency. The poet, who is also an avid researcher of local history, would have participants walk over to a nearby mural by Elliott Pinkney, a Compton-based muralist, sculptor and printmaker who was part of the Communicative Arts Academy during the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and ’70s. There, Miller would guide participants through writing poems of their own.
Working closely with Geoffrey Martinez, the coffee shop’s coowner, Miller also organized a talk with Charles Dickson, another member of the arts movement, and curated a display of photographer Willie Ford Jr.’s work in partnership with Cal State L.A.'s special collections library, which has a huge archive of his work.
Miller’s mother, Maria Dolores Bernard, died in March 2020. Her funeral took place the day after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the first stay-at-home orders related to the pandemic.
“I’m still grieving, of course,” she says. “But I think we’re all trying to rebuild after what has been such a trying year.”
The poet commissioned Mel Depaz, who also grew up in Compton, to create the cover art for “The Blvd.” The beige apartments, flanked by palm trees, are based on an actual place on Long Beach Boulevard.
“We would play around the stairs and the moms would come out and talk to each other,” Miller recalls. It was a special place, she adds, made up of Panamanian immigrants and their children, along with Black American families from states like Mississippi and Tennessee.
When Miller was growing up, many of her neighbors moved to Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga and Rialto. Her family didn’t have the means to do the same.
“But I think it was a blessing,” says Miller, who lives in Compton with her husband and two daughters. “The city is not without its problems, but there’s no place like it for me.”
Watch Jenise Miller read “On Saturdays.”
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