SoCal’s Poetry Festival is back after COVID-19 hiatus

In the dim light of a small theater in Venice’s former city hall, the poet Sesshu Foster took the spotlight, framed by a velvet stage, as he read aloud to an audience of 50 people. Beyond Baroque, the literary organization that now operates the building, regularly hosts weekly readings and events. But November 18th was not just any Friday night; It marked the opening of the fifth Southern California Poetry Festival — the post-COVID-19 revival of a weekend of free workshops and small-press readings after a four-year hiatus, an attempt to restructure a thriving scene into a poetry coachella of sorts.

A white building with a staircase leading to the front door.

Beyond Baroque, active in Venice since 1968, now hosts the Southern California Poetry Festival.

(Jireh Deng / For the Times)

The sheer diversity of the region’s poetry added to the festival atmosphere – the feeling of a weekend where everyone could feel at home but also found something unknown and unexpected. But it was fitting that the weekend opened with a reading honoring Foster. An East Los Angeles writer and teacher, he pays homage to working-class and immigrant communities in books like City Terrace Field Manual. Foster was joined by fellow Caribbean poet Fragoza and Kaya Press Editor-in-Chief Neelanjana Banerjee to discuss the importance of place and history in the making of poetry.

“If you really care about a place that you’re going to live in, you have to understand what that place is and who lives there and the history,” Fragoza said. As gentrification creeps further east, Fragoza hopes to restate how we might tell stories about property and land: “It’s a different relationship, belonging [to a place]’ she said, ‘as opposed to owning it.’

A man and two women share a table and talk at microphones.

From left: Sesshu Foster, Carribean Fragoza and Neelanjana Banerjee discuss East LA and Foster’s work.

(Jireh Deng / For the Times)

But as poetry transcends the confines of place, the festival expanded its reach well beyond LA. Other panels challenged audiences to think broadly about belonging in the context of borders and nation states. A session entitled Without Borders featured the work of poets and photographers as frontier mappers, mapping genealogy and family history across frontier areas spanning from the US-Mexico border to the Pakistan-India border. In panel Indigenous Poets Across AmericaNative poets described the difficulties of settling on lands affected by both past colonialism and present and future climate crises.

Kinsale Drake, a Diné poet who read during the panel, spent her youth migrating between Southern California and the Navajo Nation. Although this was her first visit to Beyond Baroque, she said she immediately found it to be a welcoming environment for aspiring writers of color, particularly the Indigenous peoples of Los Angeles, who had not always felt recognized by literary gatherings.

A woman stands on a podium in the spotlight.

Kinsale Drake, Diné poet, performs her work in Beyond Baroque during the Southern California Poetry Festival.

(Jireh Deng / For the Times)

“Community is a life force” for marginalized artists and writers, Drake said. “Personally, I wouldn’t have become a writer if I didn’t have places like this where I could go and be with other local artists, especially poets.”

While the festival honored big names like Foster, it was more a place for communication than naming. Although the Simon & Schuster anthology The Best American Poetry 2022 was on display, independent publishers had pride of place. Nightboat Books was one of half a dozen small publishers represented; its co-founder, Kazim Ali, said small publishers are better positioned to take risks in publishing unconventional, innovative verse than prominent publishers, who can prioritize their bottom line.

“The small press will always publish fresh, new and cutting-edge voices,” Ali said. “I think it’s the job of a small press to highlight those writers who may not yet have an audience or may have a smaller audience than they should.”

The festival’s focus on diversity and connection — rather than privatized networking events — aligns with Beyond Baroque’s mission, according to executive director Quentin Ring. That mission: to expand the concept of what people think of poetry and to reach the widest possible population of readers and storytellers in Southern California.

A man stands on the stage.

Kazim Ali introduces the readers of his small publishing house, Nightboat Books.

(Jireh Deng / For the Times)

This means, according to Ring, that while a similar event in New York dominated by publishing conglomerates might reinforce vertical hierarchies and competition, the spirit here is more horizontal, with equal access to opportunity. Less pressure, more sprawl – just like LA

To further expand this access, the festival, co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Antioch University’s MFA writing program, was also recorded YouTube Live for those unable to attend in person.

“We’ve had free programming here for a long time,” Ring said. He acknowledged that it’s not the best business model, but it has proven sustainable even in the face of a pandemic. “To truly celebrate poetry, you have to make it accessible. It can’t be something exclusive or [presents] Barriers to entry for people.”

South LA poet Bridgette Bianca has been a regular on Beyond Baroque since 2016; She is proud to see how attendance has evolved over the years to reflect the range of poets contributing to the area’s scene. She previously attended the Southern California Poetry Festival in 2018 and 2019, and this year she experienced it from the stage – as a reader at the closing event.

Two women in high spirits.

Bridgette Bianca (right) and Los Angeles honoree Lynne Thompson chat after her closing reading at the Southern California Poetry Festival.

(Jireh Deng / For Time)

“We trust [Beyond Baroque] to bring us this work,” Bianca said. “Because look who [they] brought together: people who probably wouldn’t see each other all the time because we’re everywhere. And now we can call the same place home.”

Not all have traveled so far. Ingrid Mueller, a retired screenplay writer and translator, stopped by just a few blocks away. She’s seen Venice radically change in the 35 years she’s lived here, and seen her own neighbors evicted from Oakwood’s historically black neighborhood. But Beyond Baroque, founded in 1968, has stood the test of time over the decades.

“Places like Venice are something of a beacon because they have been extremely active for so long,” said Müller. “A lot of artistic, wonderful things happen here.” It’s a place she’s still proud to call home.

Deng is a queer Angeleno and multimedia journalist. SoCal’s Poetry Festival is back after COVID-19 hiatus

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