"Speaking the Words of Los Angeles: Mike Sonksen" by Tricia Lopez
Tucked away behind theatres, shopping malls, and new apartments lies the small campus of Woodbury University in Burbank. While it may be best known for its degree programs in architecture, business, and film, there is a vibrant writing community emerging here, the evidence of which includes the relatively new programs that are MORIA Literary Magazine, the First Press Reading Series, the Speaker’s Corner events—including the “Verse Come, Verse Serve” open mics—the Wordshops hosted by visiting writers, the annual Page and Stage Conference for local publishers, Coffeehouse events—and new writing courses being developed in fiction and poetry. Professors such as Mike Sonksen, who teaches Interdisciplinary Studies, have made the effort to push students along creative paths during their time at Woodbury, including in the area of spoken-word poetry—his specialty.
In fact, Sonksen observes that “many of my students do not consider themselves writers originally because they are focused on their majors, like Architecture, Animation, Game Design, Graphic Design, etc., but all of these majors are very creative, and, when you write, you are constructing something. I hope to impart to them the joy of learning.”
Sonksen, also known locally as “Mike the Poet,” is a third-generation, Los Angeles native, acclaimed for his spoken-word performances, published essays, and legendary city tours. He first graduated from UCLA, then completed an Interdisciplinary M.A. in English and History from Cal State LA. Sonksen has lectured and had his book, I Am Alive in Los Angeles!, added to the curriculum at over 60 universities and high schools in the surrounding area. Recognized as a “voice of Los Angeles,” Sonksen says he strives to represent the city to the best of his ability, even the unfamiliar and often-overlooked parts: “There are so many fascinating details. I always bring it back to the countless neighborhoods. Tourists only know about what’s publicized, but it’s really specific pockets of the city that make it special.”
With years of success under his belt, Sonksen recalls a time when the opportunity to join a platform was still very difficult: “In the late 1990s, there were a lot fewer publications, and blogs had not emerged yet. This is part of why I used to go to dozens of open mics.” In the fall of 2018, the College of Liberal Arts here at Woodbury introduced “Verse Come, Verse Serve,” a series of open-mic events that allow students to express themselves through spoken-word poetry and practice their writing. As Sonksen comments, “I do my best to give them the space to find their voice. . . . I want them to feel free to experiment and stretch out. It’s from a place of daring and freedom that students grow and expand.” He was also one of our featured readers at the First Press Reading Series’ inaugural event on campus, which took place on November 27, 2017.
In his recent book, Letters to My City (Writ Large Press, 2019)—the sequel to his self-published debut, I Am Alive in Los Angeles! (2006)—Sonksen incorporates essays about literary Los Angeles alongside his poetry to present accessible writing that people can connect with, which—as one of his readers on Goodreads comments—are “poems for readers who don’t like poetry and history for readers who don’t like lists of facts.” In fact, he is known as a “poet of beats,” and his verse often uses the poetic device of anaphora—the repetition of phrases or words at the beginning of successive clauses—and follows the form of list poetry—a classic style that began as a memory device when poetry was an oral tradition. These days, the list poem helps poets to connect with audiences since it contains and organizes details. One example is Sonksen’s poem “I Grew Up in Los Angeles.” Note how he catalogs Los Angeles by repeating the phrase “a city of . . . “:
a city of love, a city of violence.
Suburban homes are seldom quiet
overworked parents, teenagers defiant.
I grew up in Los Angeles where latch key kids
handled their business, look over your shoulder
& don’t be a target,
a city of song, a city of sorrow
Sonksen repeats that phrase as a way to layer on various definitions of Los Angeles—the list mode serves his purpose. I, myself, grew up in Los Angeles, and I have witnessed the change in the youth here because of the change in neighborhoods. I grew up in Cypress Park, understanding the rivalry between the Avenues and Cypress gangs. I knew that “pushing” wasn’t only what you did on a swing set, and I also knew all the parents in the neighborhood called their kids to come inside at 8 p.m. Sonksen’s poetry encapsulates the different layers Los Angeles had then, and the change in young people. We all grew up wanting to be in a better position, and some of us did get swallowed by Los Angeles, and we did become those targets. Not a lot of people remember Los Angeles when a momentary decision could really change your opportunity. But Sonksen reminds all of us why people move to Los Angeles, so they have the freedom to make a choice.
Here at Woodbury University, Sonksen is helping to inspire the next generation of writers. He encourages his students to write with truth and passion, to believe in your own words, which will, in turn, help to create writing that will inspire. Sonksen recalls being inspired by his own elementary-school teacher, Mrs. Navarette. “She was incredible. She was an award-winning teacher. We wrote everyday in her class. We kept journals religiously, wrote many short essays, brainstormed, created clusters, and did free writes.” This early influence ultimately helped Sonksen create his “voice of Los Angeles” and has helped define this new voice for Woodbury.
Tricia Lopez was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She is currently a Professional Writing major at Woodbury University. Besides being an editor for MORIA Literary Magazine, she does freelance writing. She has written several articles in up-and-coming magazines and has also written lyrics and the concept for an R&B album.