What’s your latest creative project?
My new book is titled, Letters to My City. It’s a mix of essays and poems about Los Angeles and beyond.
The UCLA PhD candidate in History, Peter Chesney offers this synopsis on the book: “A street poet and a tour guide, through L.A. places and L.A. letters, Mike Sonksen means it when he says he’s going to share authority with folks at the grassroots in this multicultural city. Mike delivers on his promise and more, amplifying voices I for one might never have heard without him. That and he taught me, a critic of car culture, that an ethical manner of reading space, even as you drive through it, is possible. Props to a man who does the hard work of listening to the sound of the city!”
What’s up with you being a tour guide?
I have been giving Los Angeles city tours since 1997. I have given tours in just about any part of Los Angeles though most often in Downtown LA and Hollywood. I have given an equal mix of walking tours and bus tours.
I no longer do it super often because I mostly teach now but tour guiding has been a significant part of my career and a place where I honed my poetry. There’s seldom a month that goes by where I do not give at least one or two tours. Two years ago I wrote about it for KCET.
Is it true you were born in Long Beach?
Yes I was born in Long Beach at St. Mary’s Hospital. My parents had attended Long Beach State in the 1960s and lived there following graduation. My mom ended up teaching elementary in Long Beach until she retired in the early 2000s. My poem THE 562 breaks down some of my experiences growing up there. This essay does also. I spent most of my childhood nearby in Cerritos.
How long have you been hosting Poetry events around Los Angeles?
I have been hosting poetry events around Southern California for 21 years. The first event I ever hosted was in Culver City/Mar Vista back in 1998 and it was called “Underwords.” We held it in the basement of one of our friends’ places and we had been hanging around Underground LA for years and years, so the name was perfect. We did it monthly for the next year or so on Thursday nights.
I had just graduated from UCLA where I started going to open mics and performing poetry at cafes, bookstores, galleries and anywhere else they would let me. In 1999, I started hosting a weekly event in West LA at Cafe Muse which was located at Olympic and Sawtelle.
I have hosted events all over So Cal from Long Beach to Echo Park, Koreatown, Venice, Highland Park, Leimert Park, Downtown LA, Boyle Heights and many one-offs in different locales like East LA, Burbank and Eagle Rock. I love the community aspect of an open mic and how democratic it is. I recently hosted an event for KPCC National Public Radio in Pasadena.
Before I hosted open mics, I went to dozens of them. First I just attended and then eventually I read my own work. Dating back to the mid-1990s I have been attending literary events and researching Los Angeles poetry.
As the years have gone on, I began to see that many of the figures with longevity were community-minded educators and writers such as Eloise Klein Healy, Kamau Daaood and Luis Rodriguez. During my graduate studies, I observed these qualities in my advisor and professor, Dr. Lauri Ramey. Dr. Ramey had me hosting events at Cal State LA.
I have hosted open mics at every place I have ever taught at including View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter High School, St. Bernard, Cal State LA, the Stella Adler Theater, Southwest College, 826LA and Woodbury University. I always tell young writers that open mics are a good place to start.
What’s the role of music in your poetry?
I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and the music of that time really influenced me from KROQ to KDAY and later KCRW. Early 90s hip hop got me into funk, jazz and soul. Especially artists like Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd. I wrote a lot of record reviews early on and was stoked when I had a piece in Wax Poetics. See this link for some of my favorite records.
You reference history and geography a lot in your poetry. Why?
History and geography are starting points for my work before I write about a subject. I consider the background story, the history, and any prevailing concepts or trends that help define a subject. Similarly, when considering the geography, I look for landmarks, defining characteristics of a place, whether it is a mountainous region, the desert, the coastline or an agricultural landscape.
These details ground me as a writer and offer a starting point for my poetry and prose. I love neighborhood history and a lot of my work spotlights the intricacies of specific districts.
History professor Susan Schulten highlights the connection between history and geography in her book Mapping the Nation. She writes, “Historical atlases and maps were related to the interdependence of geographical and historical knowledge. That is, to learn geography in the early nineteenth century was to learn history.” Geography grounds a poem in space and history grounds it in time.
How does your work use mapping as a poetic practice?
Historical geographer and author of The New Nature of Maps, J.B. Harley writes about the power of maps in recording history. The essence of his argument is that, “As an index to the location of things, processes, and events in the past maps are a unique form of documentation. Locating human actions in space remains the greatest intellectual achievement of the map as a form of knowledge.”
My poems are often indexes too, to various writers, musicians and thinkers that have inspired me.
Harley also notes that, “Maps become a source to reveal the philosophical, political, or religious outlook of a period, or what is sometimes called the spirit of the age.” The idea of a map-poem to me is perfect because a poem is the perfect form to celebrate the spirit of the age or a particular moment in time.
Why do you make so many references to other writers? Especially older scribes?
All of the allusions within my work are both a way to pay tribute to my influences and create a trail for readers to follow who want to read other connected writers. As I noted above, the names are being indexed within the poems as a reference point for those who want to research more. I have often found writers from footnotes or allusions within others’ work.
What’s your next project? Or projects?
My next book is a collection of essays about Literary Los Angeles. I am also finishing another book of Poetry and I will be making a presentation at the California Librarian’s Association at the end of October about public history and how to give a city tour. Thank you for reading this far and remember that the City is ours!!