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New Festival on the Block: Jasmine & Poetry

New Festival on the Block: Jasmine & Poetry

And what a festival it was! The Jasmine & Poetry Festival held by the Los Angeles Poet Society this April in celebration of poetry month was both sacred space, honoring our poetry ancestors with a celebration of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as holding new ground, for our current leaders in poetry like freshly named Los Angeles Poet Laureate Lynne Thompson. The festival was named in honor of Anthony J. Greene, whose birthday it would have been this day and who loved the scent of Jasmine.

This really was a celebration of many things, of Earth Day, Of Poetry Month, of dear friends, of beloved Beat poets, the old, the new, the sexy, and the tragic. After all, poetry is life. And festivals like this one provide us community, space to be together and honor the language we share.

Hosted by the phenom, Jessica M. Wilson, the night started out with a tribute of the late great Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose memory was returned to over the night as poets shared their personal encounters and memories of a man who marked many of us with his style and daring. A man who helped change the face of poetry from the academic to the everyday speaker. I love how much this space honors the Beat poets, as California’s most influential literary movement, they are often dismissed as being “too accessible,” which is a real absurdity to those that are continuously denied the acclaim of “scholastic English.” These are the poets you want to share a drink with—spirits, teas, and spring water.

A video of Juan Cardenas with his blues haiku and flute music eased us into the readings for the evening. And honestly, I could listen to five hours of just this. Juan is a gem, whose sound is full bodied and deeply rooted. I am so happy to have his book, The Beat of an Immigrant Chicano (Swan World Press, 2020), as his voice is one that always impresses and respects. Followed up by S.A. Griffin who shared stories of Lawrence, some of his own poetry, and a beautifully improvised blessing, which is how the whole night began, with a blessing. The love involved in this festival was clear from this very beginning and carried throughout the event.

Antonieta Villamil then shared her poetry journey and her connection to Lawrence. His welcome of her is clear to this day and even perhaps a crush that has not faded, with stories of kisses and the Revolutionary Poets Brigade through Caza de Poesía, to which Lawrence submitted his own poetry. This is the kind of history usually shared after the show, through the smoke, over the clink of glasses. We are lucky to have these days shared as we learn to create a poetry and community of our own as we grow ourselves, into wild and silvery beings.

Richard Modiano then held a workshop where he shared poems and stories as a kind of oral history of the California Beat movement. He quoted William Carlos Williams who wrote “It is difficult to get the news in poems, yet men die miserably every day, for lack of what is found there,” a sentiment that motivates many Beat poets. He also went into the earliest lineages of Beat poetry such as Bashō, Issa, and Buson, to Emily Dickinson, all the way through to the California movement. All this history interwoven with philosophies and methods to create poetry. I especially appreciated when he read a Diane di Prima poem as hers is the book I sat down with on the upstairs floor of City Lights Bookstore on my first trip, a poem that transported me right back. There were too many gems in this presentation to name, gems I hope you get a chance to discover for yourself.

Jessica M. Wilson was, as always, a gracious host; her energy and passion for these kinds of projects and events comes through as a strong love, a lighthouse for poetry community. A sentiment noted on by Briana Muñoz, who read a gorgeous set and whose newest book, Everything is Returned to the Soil, is being published by Flower Song Press this year. Briana closed out her set with a special request from the host, a poem never before read aloud, and wow, I don’t want to tease but this is one you GOT to hear/read/experience!

The night forged on with back to back sets of incredible voices. Gerda Govine Ituarte’s memorial poem for George Floyd about Darnella Fraziers’s role in his story gave me the chills, her voice steady right through my body. Gerda was followed by Judah1, the Inaugural Pomona Poet Laureate, whose poetry is rooted in community and place. These were poems that introduced us to the people that populate his life and his experience of being a Black leader in this community.

Alexis Rhone Fancher was next on deck, revealing just how hot this festival of poetry is. I say is, because through the magic of zoom and live streaming this is a collection alive, always ready for viewing. I say hot because well, I mean Alexis’s latest collection is stamped, EROTIC, in red ink followed by, New & Selected. Her voice is honey-seductive, her poems—posed nudes winking at you. Though when they want to, these poems also break your heart wide open. Not a moment of this evening will disappoint. Janette Valenzo brought her open energy to the Jasmines & Poetry Festival. Her poems understand the world through spirituality, (a fellow Aries soul sister), her words bring fire. These stories and images sing through her voice, a poet at the end of her twenties and what I can only imagine is the beginning of a decades long involvement in the poetry world. Lynne Thompson who currently wears the title of Los Angeles Poet Laureate is a voice I always turn up. Her flawless craft moves her from one narrative to the next in exquisite language and perfect images. Words that taste, and sound, and feel, and smell, producing visions as powerful as any time machine, as any known magic or science. It is the luxury of our time to be able to listen to her through space, each of us tucked away in our own little rooms. I won’t try to say more about her work, just this, please dear ones, listen.

Co-editor of Los Angeles Poets for Justice: A Document for the People, Karo Ska read from their chapbook, gathering grandma’s bones and their forthcoming full-length collection, Loving my Salt-Drenched Bones. These poems get into the raw materials that make up identity. Ethnicity, gender, heritage, symbolism, relationships, upbringing, creative expression are all themes woven with gentle care by this author, whose book I am eagerly awaiting. Teresa Mei Chuc, was the third Poet Laureate of the night, representing Altadena. I am indeed lucky to have had her book of poetry, Invisible Light, recently arrived by Many Voices Press. Teresa read poems based in her refugee experience. It was a powerful moment when I realized that once a refugee, always a refugee. It is a vast trauma we are still learning to explain. Through Teresa’s words we feel every heavy step in this journey, the tears held back till there is finally safety enough to cry. Her voice carries a stranded song, lost in a vast wind, every note beautifully offered. Reading from her new book, Uprising/Alzamiento (Fishing Line Press) Lisbeth Coiman twisted expertly from one subject to another, each world of poetry powerful. Her poem, “Why the Nightingale Sings,” highlighted the most recent acts of eugenics/genocide perpetrated against migrant women awaiting their right to have their asylum cases heard by US courts. It takes an expert voice, and perhaps I am biased, but a bilingual and immigrant voice, to navigate this fragile topic in a presentable and honest way. It must have been poetry that taught me trauma is survivable, and it must be multifaceted, kind voices like Lisbeth’s that keep me guided in this truth. The night culminated in performance videos by Julio Conga Poet. I so appreciate that this event was transitioned into and out of through dual performances of Beat poetry and music, as well as a blessing. These are the beats that carry us to and from the spiritual space of poetry. For me, this is a space of worship, a place to be human and appreciate our humanness, a place of community. This is something clearly understood by Julio. His performances of course, so charismatic that audience members and performers alike were soon dancing, giving each other this symbolic body-love even as we remain distanced in these harsh circumstances. Really any of these poets could have been a grand finale, and all a grand beginning. Something spectacular is happening in this space, this time-capsule-recording freely given for many years to come. I think of famous recording sent out into space, golden records strung together over generations and centuries sent off into the unknown. I think too, this festival is itself a perfect offering to any being trying to understand what it is to be human, here home on Earth. To those we have loved and lost, thank you for your gifts to the earth, air, water, and fire. We miss you. We count your memories and names always as blessings. With love, peace, unity, and respect, Kelsey Bryan-Zwick Author of the chapbook, Bone Water, (Blanket Sea Press, Oct. 2021), the book of poems, Here Go the Knives, (Moon Tide Press, Jan. 2022), and Lead Collaborating Fellow at The Poetry Lab.


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