LA Poets & Prophets: On ‘Voices From Leimert Park Redux’

Ben Grenrock takes a look at a new book of poetry, 'Voices From Leimert Park Redux.'
By    October 12, 2017

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Ben Grenrock has never walked on the moon.

There’s a line in the 2015 Busdriver song “Worlds To Run” in which the L.A. rapper compares Leimert Park to Winterfell. Having already read and reread George R.R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels Game of Thrones when I first heard “Worlds To Run,” I could have told you a lot about the fictional castle complex of Winterfell—enough to qualify me as a capital-N Nerd even to the most hardcore viewers of the series’ ubiquitous HBO adaptation. As for Leimert Park, a nonfictional neighborhood in Los Angeles, I would have been able to tell you next to nothing. In fact, the only times I think I’d even heard the words “Leimert Park,” were when they leapt out at me from Busdriver’s verses as a mostly empty proper noun.

I grew up less than ten miles from Leimert Park. And while as an L.A. native my ignorance of the neighborhood is embarrassing, it’s doubly so as a listener of hip-hop. There’s a good chance the songs in which I’d first heard it mentioned would never have existed without the multidisciplinary infusion of African American culture radiating from Leimert outward, through the city, the country, the world.

Busdriver honed his craft there as a regular attendee of an indomitable lineage of weekly rap shows that have served as both a proving grounds for L.A. rhymers, and as sites of pilgrimage for MCs from Biz Markie to Kendrick Lamar. These shows were my frame of reference for Leimert; I’d heard their names—The Good Life, Project Blowed, Bananas—shouted out over beats and thus had a vague idea of their import, if not the context from which they took shape.

If in my mind Project Blowed et al were central but underdeveloped characters in Leimert’s story, the jazz that flowed out of 5th Street Dick’s Coffee Company and the poetry workshopped and read at the community performance space know as The World Stage, were concepts cut from the script. But the influence of these artistic mediums has been every bit as important in shaping L.A. hip-hop and in some ways even more so, as The World Stage—founded in 1989 by Billy Higgins and Kamau Daáood—was a seminal force in making Leimert the sort of artistic hub in which open mics and rap shows would blossom.

In an interview with Ampersand, Busdriver said of Leimert Park and its local artists: “When I hear anybody doing anything in music in Los Angeles and I think of this area, I can’t discount its value. So how do we maintain it? I think we celebrate it. I think we make sure these artists have a voice.”

Like it’s 2006 predecessor, editor Shonda Buchanan’s poetry anthology Voices From Leimert Park Redux, has done precisely this. Individually, the poems it contains range from the very good to the transcendent, but taken as a whole, Voices is nothing less than the essence of a vibrant neighborhood committed to paper. The works it contains construct Leimert piece by piece, block by block, cataloging its triumphs and tragedies. Odes to local landmarks and to community elders populate the picture of Leimert Park the collection paints with multidimensional places and faces.

Perhaps Buchanan’s greatest contribution to Voices is in what she doesn’t do as an editor rather than what she does. Instead of choosing the specific poems to be included, she asked denizens of The World Stage to self-select their work. The result is an anthology built by a community, one that not only gives these poets a voice, but allows them to unite their voices in a natural harmony, forming a candid map of Leimert Park’s current internal and external topography.

Further negating editorial influence is the anthology’s structure. The poems are organized alphabetically by author’s last name and thus the flow of Voices is arbitrary, even haphazard. Cries for justice, powerful declarations of identity, and chilling bouts of grief rub up directly against intimate blooms of vivid mundanity and snapshots of the neighborhood’s physical environment. While it may seem jarring, this effect might be the book’s most valuable mode for providing a holistic and immersive journey through Leimert Park.

Sandwiched between two poems of massive scope—Thea Monyee’s “Gethsemane” which opens with the line, “Once again, the unjust murder of a young black male ignites a revolution.,” (p. 92) and Alice Nicholas’ affirmation of black identity, “Story #8,112,016 from 10 Million Stories/Obsidian” (“We write our living across the onyx canvas of the cosmos/ and are the Black backdrop on which shiny celestial imaginings shimmer” (p. 98))—lay the furtively jotted thoughts of Merilene M. Murphy, in a piece titled “News and poems from her journals as she moves through her cancer discoveries. Transcribed by her sister, Diane Murphy.” Starkly different from the resolute lines before and after, Murphy writes:

“COUNTY: ER
*FAILED VISON
*ABDO. MASS
*BLOOD IN COUGH SPIT
[…]

For crying out loud. There’s a 12cm mass on my left lung. Been taking a lot of tests. Biopsy tomorrow—lost for a while. How the heck did I get myself into this mess? My eyes today, everything is paris, imprecise grey, speckled rivulets, rising falling waves.

[…]
SHERYL, LETICIA, DR. A. PATEL
BRONCH BIOPSY
NOT THE TYPE WHOSE FACE GOES FLAT THE MOMENT OUT OF IMAGE OF YOUR SMILE
[…]
I CANNOT NAME IT, THE PLACE,
JUST THAT I KNEW I HAD BEEN THERE
AND IT IS HERE I RETURN TO TOUVH GOD’S OWN FACE.
BIRDS INTERPRET MORNINGS GRACE
AND ENRAPT IN DECIPHERING WHAT THEIS ALL MAY MEAN,
I AM ONLY REMINDED OF THE HAPPINESS VIRED WHERE I’VE BEEN” (p. 95-97)

Even if it weren’t bookended by two poems that speak of and for large groups with carefully crafted eloquence and fire, this glimpse at Murphy’s personal writings would be breathtakingly intimate. Situated between the works of Moynee and Nicholas, reading the three poems in succession feels like an aperture dilated to its widest reach slamming shut to form a pinhole and then being wrenched wide again.

Broken up in this way, the intensity of the social outcries found in Voices is never sustained for long enough that the reader grows numb to their urgency, and the more personal slice-of-life pieces are imbued with a brutal vestigial weight. Murphy’s poise in coping with her personal struggle against cancer by transmuting fear and pain into art is echoed in the response to the community-wide struggle against racism and oppression modeled by Moynee and Nicholas.

Even when two poems aren’t directly adjacent, this same effect can occur. Reading Art Nixon’s “For Nia At Three (On Her B’Day)”—a simple and artfully rendered musing on the unfathomable possibilities that rest before a young child—it’s difficult not to feel V. Kali’s “Nine”, of several pages prior, haunting Nixon’s optimism. “Nine” relates the swells of grief Kali feels when hearing the voice of a street vendor hawking tamales—a food her late daughter loved—and is forced to remember, “When [her] daughter/   got ‘shot’.” Kali’s poem does double-duty in rendering the sights and sounds of Leimert while at the same time exploring the issues that plague it, forcing us to see the fate of V. Kali’s daughter as one of the myriad possibilities that lie before the three-year-old Nia of Nixon’s piece.

Moving through the anthology, this constant zooming in and out from macro to micro, local to global, resolves into one of the rhythms of Leimert Park. The dark umbra of the topics on which Moynee, Nicholas, Kali, and many others write looms over the joyful and intimate pieces about love or family. In turn, those more personal pieces set their counterparts into a lived context, giving the socially conscious poems stakes that are rooted in universal human experiences. Thus Voices depicts Leimert as a place where daily life is not just adjacent to the cauldron of societal conflict out of which art is forged, it is mixed right in creating a stronger alloy for its presence. That this occurs by the sheer happenstance of alphabetical order makes it feel all the more real.

Complexities such as these require the intricate discourse that only poetry can provide. Again and again the poets of Voices rise to the occasion, using their art to weave the many facets of their experience into the fabric of their neighborhood. Billy Burgos’ “Sunday Boogie Down Beat Down” describes Leimert Park’s weekly drum circle in such a way that the word “beat” becomes it’s own polyrhythm of meanings, layered and twined until they are impossible to extricate from their counterparts.

The perspectives on change D Hideo Maruyama wrestles with in his brilliant “Quartz City Prisms” and the way in which he ties them to physical locations have a similarly dizzying complexity. Maruyama’s four-page epic dances between magical realism, conversational dialog, and eyewitness observation as it traces the exploitation wrought on Los Angeles’ marginalized communities at the hands of the powerful, the wealthy, the white.

“Chavez Ravine/Once was a neighborhood;” muses a Chicano gazing at Dodger Stadium. “You know/Before it was leveled/In order to bate the Brooklyn boys/The team that broke segregation,/Killed my barrio.” (p. 81) The poem flits through time and space on a Krylon rainbow from the 110, to Silverlake, to Chinatown, before stopping on a now-familiar (the poem is listed under “M” for Murayama, and so half-way through Voices) street in Leimert Park:

“The jazz flows out of the doors:
a waterfall of cool and hot notes onto the street walk
[…]
Young black men drink coffee in front of 5th Street Dick’s
To play chess, to discuss the state of the nation
Things really have not changed.
It’s all the same.
Did you hear about the CIA funded Crack trade?
Sounds like the time after ‘Nam right?
Heroin traffic. Remember that one.
Yeah,
All the same Brother.
All the same.
Check mate fool!
I got you last time with dat.
Ain’t you paying’ attention?
Through the silence,
a faded image of Langston Hughes on the wall.”

It’s no secret that, in terms of popularity, hip-hop has long since eclipsed its source text: poetry. Be it a book of poems or a series of dragon-riddled fantasy novels, most art committed to something as archaic as tree pulp will never be as wide reaching as what its influence creates once processed by a recording studio or the gold-plated gauntlet of television production. Things get cut. Quotas of entertainment value must be satisfied. Yet though doomed to decreased visibility, a source text will always provide more depth, complexity, and context than almost any series, song, or album it spawns. Its lack of formal constraint or polished presentation—the very things that make music and television so accessible—insures this.

My encyclopedic knowledge of the Game of Thrones books has done little more than cause me to compulsively nit-pick D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s T.V. show, favoring instead the more complete world that lives on paper and in my head. But reading the source text publisher Harriet Tubman Press, Shonda Buchanan, and the poets of The World Stage have created with Voices From Leimert Park Redux has ramifications of unquantifiably greater import. It allows Leimert’s local artists to lead readers back, retracing the shockwaves of the hip-hop songs in which I first heard of Leimert Park to the neighborhood itself and to The World Stage—which Peter J. Harris describes in the anthology’s forward as “an epicenter within the epicenter,” of African American culture (xiii).

In this way, the book offers something even a stroll down Degnan Boulevard couldn’t. Through its pages, the voices that make the neighborhood an artistic mecca represent their community with a nuance only a local can provide. If you listen to hip-hop, you’ve heard the echoes of these voices. To read Voices From Leimert Park Redux is to experience them directly from their source.

Page numbers are taken from Voices From Leimert Park Redux, 2017, Harriet Tubman Press. That was the edition reviewed.

Purchase Voices From Leimert Park Redux from TSEHAI Press—of which Harriet Tubman Press is the newest imprint—on October 14, 2017.