Writer Mike Davis once called writer Mike Sonksen the Walt Whitman of the City of Quartz, but when the Long Beach-born poet-journalist (his term) better known as Mike the Poet lists some of his own close-to-the-heart influences, they're much more local and contemporary: Bukowski and Fante, ex-gang member-turned-novelist Luis Rodríguez, poet Wanda Coleman and Lewis MacAdams.
"I was one of those guys who read a bunch of books at 5, 6, 7 years old," he says now, laughing as he remembers himself as an "unconscious poet." That's little Mike Sonksen at age 18, a fresh UCLA freshman away from home for the first time, keeping a journal the same way his mother kept hers, riding the buses all over the city just to find things to write down. His perfect nights would start with a slam-style poetry performance and then stretch out until dawn in after-hours clubs, he says, chasing a one-of-a-kind culture he calls "fried chicken and chopsticks."
A love for nuts-and-bolts urban planning and a hot spot for LA's hazy history—warmed up by his grandfather's stories of red cars and movie palaces—met his natural affection for fierce LA hip-hop culture, and now almost 15 years later, he's sharing a seat with veteran rapper Blackbird on the long car ride to Vegas to perform a show of his own. Mike is his own vision of LA, a poet who sometimes writes for this and other newspapers and recites his own pieces with an obvious hip-hop rhythm—someone who can take unconnected moments and bring them together under one new name.
He's a "participant observer," he explains: "There's no place with such a beautiful mix. I went to Cleveland and it was white and black; Tokyo was incredible but it was all Japanese. LA is a little bit of everything—it's the future! But it's a positive future—there's a line I say about interracial lovers and racist gangsters. It's paradoxes—there are opposites and it is love and war, sunshine and noir, but in the end I really love it!"
I Am Alive in Los Angeles—a declaration he makes with pledge-of-allegiance gravity—is his first "real Library of Congress copyright book," a mash note to the city in which he lists forgotten neighborhoods with Biblical reverence and separates his poems with reprinted articles that snapshot LA's most vital hip-hop and soul musicians. "These are brilliant moments," he says now. "I wanna take a lot of Polaroids!"
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MIKE THE POET WILL READ FROM I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES AT THE BLUE NILE CAFÉ, 438 E. BROADWAY, LONG BEACH, (562) 435-6453. SAT., 8 P.M. FREE.