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For Mike the Poet, Los Angeles is his sprawling muse

He sees diversity as the city's strength and finds inspiration in every part of the metropolis.

January 30, 2009|Kate Linthicum

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."

'Colorblind'

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."

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