SoCal’s big ‘poetry Coachella’ is back — and more sprawling and diverse than ever

A man standing at a podium in a dim room.
Sesshu Foster reads aloud for the opening event honoring him at the Southern California Poetry Festival.
(Jireh Deng / For The Times)
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In the dimness of a small theater inside Venice’s former City Hall, poet Sesshu Foster was in the spotlight, haloed against a velvet stage as he read aloud to an audience of 50. Beyond Baroque, the literary organization that now runs the building, hosts regular weekly readings and events. But Nov. 18 wasn’t just any Friday night; it was the opening of the fifth Southern California Poetry Festival — the post-COVID-19 revival of a weekend of free workshops and small-press readings after a four-year hiatus, an effort to reorganize a thriving scene into a sort of poetry Coachella.

A white building with stairs leading to the front door.
Beyond Baroque, which has operated in Venice since 1968, now hosts the Southern California Poetry Festival.
(Jireh Deng / For The Times)

The sheer diversity of the region’s poetry contributed to the festival atmosphere — the sense of a weekend where everyone could feel at home yet also find something unfamiliar and unexpected. But it was fitting that the weekend opened with a reading honoring Foster. A writer and teacher from East Los Angeles, he pays homage, in books such as “City Terrace Field Manual,” to working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. Foster was joined in conversation by fellow poet Carribean Fragoza and Neelanjana Banerjee, managing editor of Kaya Press, to discuss the importance of place and history in the creation of poetry.

“If you really care about a place that you’re going to live in, you have to understand what this place is and who lives there and the history,” said Fragoza. As gentrification continues to creep eastward, Fragoza hopes to reframe how we might tell stories about ownership of property and land: “It’s a different relationship, belonging [to a place],” she said, “versus having it belong to you.”

A man and two women share a table while speaking at mics.
From left: Sesshu Foster, Carribean Fragoza and Neelanjana Banerjee discuss East L.A. and the body of Foster’s work.
(Jireh Deng / For The Times)


But just as poetry slips the boundaries of place, so the festival extended its reach far beyond L.A. Other panels challenged their audiences to think expansively about belonging in the context of borders and nation-states. One session titled With(out) Borders featured the work of poets and photographers as borderland cartographers, mapping genealogy and family history across liminal spaces ranging from the U.S.-Mexico border to the frontier between Pakistan and India. In the panel Indigenous Poets Across the Americas, Native poets described the difficulties of inhabiting land marred by both the colonialism of the past and the climate crisis of the present and future.

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Kinsale Drake, a Diné poet who read during the panel, spent her youth moving itinerantly between Southern California and the Navajo Nation. Although this was her first visit to Beyond Baroque, she said she immediately found it a welcoming environment for emerging writers of color, particularly those Indigenous peoples of Los Angeles who hadn’t always felt acknowledged by literary gatherings.

A woman stands at a podium in the spotlight.
Kinsale Drake, Diné poet, performs her work at Beyond Baroque during the Southern California Poetry Festival.
(Jireh Deng / For The Times)

“Community is a life force” for marginalized artists and writers, said Drake. “Personally, I would not have been a writer if I didn’t have spaces like this where I could go and be with other Native artists, specifically poets.”

While honoring bigger names like Foster, the festival was more of a place to commune than name-drop. Though Simon & Schuster’s “The Best American Poetry 2022” anthology was on display, independent publishers had pride of place. Nightboat Books was one of half a dozen small presses represented; its co-founder, Kazim Ali, said small presses are better positioned to take risks on publishing unconventional, innovative verse than prominent publishers who might prioritize their bottom line.

“The small press is always going to publish voices that are fresh and new and cutting-edge,” said Ali. “I think it is the job of a small press to highlight those writers that maybe don’t have audiences yet, or have smaller audiences than they should have.”

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The focus of the festival on diversity and intimate connection — rather than privatized networking events — aligns with the mission of Beyond Baroque, according to its executive director, Quentin Ring. That mission: to expand the idea of what people think of as poetry and to reach as large a population of Southern California’s readers and storytellers as possible.

A man stands onstage.
Kazim Ali introduces the readers from his small press, Nightboat Books.
(Jireh Deng / For The Times)

This means, Ring said, that while a similar event in New York, dominated by publishing conglomerates, might reinforce vertical hierarchies and competition, the spirit here was more horizontal, with equal access to opportunities. Less pressure, more sprawl — just like L.A.

Further expanding that access, the festival, co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Antioch University’s MFA writing program, was also recorded on YouTube Live for those unable to attend in person.

“We have a long history of offering free programming here,” Ring said. He admitted it’s not the best business model, but it’s proved to be sustainable even in the face of a pandemic. “To really celebrate poetry, you have to make it accessible. It can’t be something that’s exclusive or [presents] barriers of access for folks.”

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Bridgette Bianca, a South L.A. poet, has been a regular at Beyond Baroque since 2016; she is proud to see how attendance has evolved over the years to reflect the range of poets that contribute to the region’s scene. She attended the Southern California Poetry Festival back in 2018 and 2019, and this year she experienced it from the stage — as a reader at the closing event.

Two women in high spirits.
Bridgette Bianca, left, and Lynne Thompson, Los Angeles’ poet laureate, chat after their closing reading of the Southern California Poetry Festival.
(Jireh Deng / For The Times)

“We trust [Beyond Baroque] to bring us this work,” said Bianca. “Because look at who [they] brought together: people who would not likely see each other all the time because we’re all over the place. And now we can call the same place home.”


Not everyone traveled quite so far. Ingrid Mueller, a retired writer and translator of screenplays, came over from just a few blocks away. She has seen Venice change radically over the 35 years she’s lived here and witnessed her own neighbors pushed out of Oakwood’s historically Black neighborhood. But Beyond Baroque, founded in 1968, has persisted through the decades.

“Places like Venice, because they have been extremely active for such a long time, they are kind of like a beacon,” said Mueller. “There’s a lot of artistic, wonderful things happening here.” It’s a place she’s still proud to call home.

Deng is a queer Angeleno and multimedia journalist.