The Pride Poets

A collaborative work of the 2019-2020 WeHo Pride Poets

Conceived and Co-curated by Brian Sonia Wallace

Published by The Los Angeles Press, Linda Ravenswood, Editor

Los Angeles, California 2020

From our Arts Partner Foreword by Mike Che

Barely audible over the music and noise from all the LA Pride festival booths around us, she whispered “I have a secret.” I leaned in. “Nobody knows I’m here. I left my house at 9 am today and took 3 buses to get here. It’s my first pride.” I was covering the typewriters while the #PridePoets were on break. I felt the immense pressure of writing a poem that was a worthy match to the secret she had told me. I thought back to my own first pride many, many years ago, trying to recall the heady mix of emotions I had that day. Clack, clack, clack. I hand her the poem and watch her face as she read it. She starts to cry and whispers thank you and gives me a hug. 

This was far from the only time that someone cried when interacting with the #PridePoets project. I witnessed dozens of people break into tears when receiving poems from the various #PridePoets. 

#PridePoets is a project created by Brian Sonia-Wallace for the City of West Hollywood’s One City One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival (weho.org/pride) which in 2019 had the theme “Love is Love.” Brian had applied for our City Poet Laureate position and had just narrowly been missed being picked in favor of someone who had done more projects in West Hollywood. As we chatted, I encouraged him to apply for a One City One Pride grant; he could adapt a project he was already doing, writing short poems for people on antique typewriters and write love poems instead. He created a wonderful project from this, assembling a troupe of diverse queer poets from very different walks of life, ranging from age 19-70. Through this project, they formed a community, found additional paid gigs, got training on how to write poetry on the spot and present it, and created a huge emotional impact on the people of West Hollywood. All in all it was a massive success on many fronts. In this volume, you will find some of the poems written by the #PridePoets during One City One Pride.

Mike Che, Arts Coordinator City of West Hollywood 2020

From our Concept Designer and Co-Curator, head of Pride Poets, and incoming Poet Laureate of West Hollywood 2020 

Introduction 

by Brian Sonia Wallace 

I was going to introduce this project but Mike has already done that so beautifully that I think I’ll just waffle on about poetry in pursuit of a “why” instead. Sound good?

Something strange happens when people hear that you write commissioned poems for anyone who asks. They tell you, “I want one!” Now, mind you, people (as a whole) do not read poetry. They have not read poetry since high school. They do not LIKE poetry. They do not have time for poetry.

And yet, confronted with someone who will write a poem about anything they ask, they say, “I want one!”

In this book, a small sample of the work 11 poets wrote for over 600 patrons during the month of June, 2019, I hope to keep better understanding, “why?”

When I first wrote the grant for this project, I said that it was a “radical urban intervention.” Yes, that’s how you have to talk to get funding. I said that, “By bringing both queerness and art-making visibly to the streets, and inviting the public to engage, the project seeks to reconceptualize public space for everyone as a site of play, of engagement across communities, and of safety and welcome for all.”

That’s all true, but that’s just the academic speak. To get funding for a project, you have to show your work, but you also have to dream a little bit, to imagine the world you want to create and help someone else see it on paper. Way back before the project started, thinking about the “why,” here’s what I said:

Nothing says “love” quite like a poem, and nothing embodies the theme “Love is Love” quite like poets on the street, writing love poems for Russian grandmothers and barely-clothed GoGo boys alike, for little girls in pigtails and trans youth building new families — poems for everyone who loves, which is to say, for everyone.

This was a personal project for me. For the year before it, I’d been saying to Linda (this book’s editor at the LA Press) that I wanted to write gay-er poems. I’d been writing on the street and for strangers for years, at that point, shapeshifting between voices in a way that I think is very queer in its chameleon quality, but ultimately erases vast parts of you in search of common ground. To write from someone else’s point of you, you must invariably erase parts of your perspective, and imagine parts of theirs. The part of myself I found most often got erased was my gay-ness.

What would it look like to reclaim that part of my story? Part of what’s enabled me to do this work in the wider world is that I pass so well. I can get the invite to write at weddings in Orange County where everyone is an evangelical or an alcoholic. I can be a mirror for that and not have it expel me, a privilege I am always aware of in queer community. But, as awkward as I often feel in it, queer community is my community, the mess and noise and tenderness and hurt are MY mess — and noise, and tenderness, and hurt.

Pride Poets gave me the opportunity to sink into writing queer stories, having queer conversations. After the project, I asked my cohort, “did you feel like the stories had anything that made them distinctly queer?” And, even though we were advertising love poems for gay loves, the answer I got was, “no,” the stories were universal. As much as I believe that and champion that for others, something I think I am skeptical of, for myself, is that my story can be universal. That every part of myself has another half.

Pride Poets reflected many different corners of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, in many moments in our journeys through life. We were a cohort of mostly strangers from the internet who came together to write poems for strangers on the street. I had the best time getting to meet other writers with so many different perspectives, and getting to share with them the practice that has given me so much meaning over the years. Pride Poet Natalie, talking after the project about how when she knew when she had enough information from a patron to start writing, said, “I just talk to them until I find myself. Then, I write that.”

That’s the why, for me.

Brian Sonia-Wallace, Pride Poets organizer 2020

From our Publisher and Co-Curator

Welcome by Linda Ravenswood 

Thank you so much for reading and supporting this collection of artists and writers. This is been a labor of love, and care, assembling the beautiful images and reflections from our poets in community. We hope you enjoy, find comfort, inspiration and resonance with the words and ingenuity of our artists.

About us — The Los Angeles Press publishes the best in emerging art, literature, and political discourse from Southern California, the West, and beyond. The Los Angeles Press is committed to uplifting and centering Voices Yet Heard, including Women, POC, LGBTQ+, and traditionally under-represented and marginalized artists and writers.

The Los Angeles Press is a Print and Online Publishing House & Imprint, introduced by The Los Angeles Review of Books and the LARB/USC Publishing Cohort. We are devoted to community engagement, and to the pursuit of social, economic, and environmental justice.

Consider a donation to one of our projects — info at thelosangelespress.com/donors

Linda Ravenswood, Poet and Publisher

The Pride Poets 

Catherine 

The experience of writing poems for people are still resonating in my heart, many days later. I think of each face, each person, who approached me, and the risk they took with their willingness to share pieces of themselves that I could make into a poem. This chance you gave me, to connect with strangers, to offer them something meaningful, feels very precious to me.

I’ve attached six poems, and one photo that goes with one of the poems. I hope you find them interesting and/or meaningful. I realize you wanted us to sign them by hand; I forgot and typed my name. Sorry!

1) Richard. He was the first person to approach me at our first event, outside City Hall on May 22. I’ve seen him around LGBTQ events. He’s an older man, usually wearing a baseball cap covered in memorabilia pins from various political events. He came to the table, and, without a greeting, started telling me what an impressive life he’s led as an advocate for LGBTQ causes, particularly the fight against HIV. He told me that he should be dead by now… that he wants to step down, step out, because he’s tired. But he keeps getting calls from Washington, he said… and he can’t seem to stop being involved. He didn’t answer when I asked what kind of poem he’d like. So I said, “well, Richard, maybe you need a poem about your journey.” And this is what I wrote. When I read it to him, his face changed; his loud, braggadocio voice stopped. He choked up, and his eyes misted over. And he hugged me.

2) Arisce. Tall, glittery and gorgeous,  Arisce (pronounced “Arise”) approached me at the May 22 event outside City Hall. She told me that her journey as a trans woman hasn’t always been easy. But her self confidence — her vanity, as she put it — felt like the source of her strength. This is the poem I wrote for her. She gave me a huge hug after I read it to her. And she was happy to pose for a photo with her poem as well.

3) Ursula. This young woman was working the rentpoets booth at Pride on May 8. But she also wanted a poem. She said that her dear friend, Tessa, was turning 24, and she wanted a poem to help her friend find “home,” find a center, because Ursula felt she was unsure of her path in life. Tessa has been traveling the world, and Ursula had the feeling she was seeking… something… but she wanted to send her friend a message of hope and of finding. When i read it to her, she said, “I couldn’t have said it any better. Thank you soooo much. I’m going to frame this and give it to her as a birthday gift.”

4) Cesar. This lovely man came to the Pride booth on May 8. He had a hard time articulating what he needed in a poem… but eventually said he needed his parents to accept him. He said he is still coming to terms with being a gay man. And his parents, devout Catholics, are struggling to accept him. I asked Cesar to tell me a bit more about his life with his parents, when he was younger, and I wrote this poem. I choked up as I read it to him, and his eyes filled with tears, and he hugged me.

5) Michaela. This beautiful, reserved woman came to the Pride booth on May 8. She said her wife had just given birth to their second child, and she wanted a poem to celebrate that. I asked a bit about their life… learned they already had a son. And I asked a bit more about the future she sees for their now-four-member family. She smiled when I read the poem to her, and looked away for a moment. Then she looked back at me, smiled again, and touched my shoulder. Then she walked away.

6) Martin. This nice man came to the Pride booth on May 8. He wanted a poem to uplift him.

Reg 

Like how my lungs need oxygen, my everything else needs queer people. One young lesbian was trying to explain this to me. She’s from Alaska and she started crying gently about how important the Dyke March and PRIDE is, this sense of family, of belonging. And I told her I get it and said, “It never goes away.” 

Since moving to LA from the Bay Area 7 years ago, for the first time ever (as an adult) I found myself in a primarily straight world. Doing shows several times a week in the comedy scene, I bent over backwards to try to blend into the straightness, floating in an ambiguous identity. I wanted my (mostly straight) audiences to get me and relate to the stories I was telling. I hadn’t actually noticed it happening; the erasure of my queer experience slowly calcified over 3 or 4 years. Like a long game of hide and seek, waiting forever in the best hiding place any kid has ever scored, never to be found. 

Seated at the RENT Poet table, hands on the keys, opposite a person who feels like they have already told me enough, I sometimes feel not ready. The time is not right; it’s not perfect in every way yet. My teacher and friend, Bill Berkson, used to talk about how the term poetic is thrown around to mean “sweet and flowery”. But the poems most of us go back to are just human, not sweet. More deeply than any other writing, poetry taps into imagery, the sensual data we collect and the flawed logic we construct. It is about the human experience, boring, messy, disturbing and beautiful. Ars poetica parallels painting, this greasy tangle of what it’s like in our heads, in our feelings and in these bodies. But when I’m about to write a poem I want to wait for human me to hide so a perfect object can be typed up.

Typing a poem on the spot for another person is an intimate exchange. Each person is a surprise. This one woman at the Dyke March approached me with a cagey coolness, a lesbian Humphrey Bogart. I’ll call her Lezgart. She wanted me to write a poem for her friend who was sad because she was going through a divorce after 35 years of marriage. Lezgart was like, “She likes butterflies so maybe you can make her something about metamorphosis.” I asked how she knows her friend. She said, “She’s my lover and she’s leaving her husband for me.” That was unexpected!

People who ask for a poem don’t really want something sweet, perfect, witty or god forbid “relatable”. They want something as warm, irregular and alive as they are. Seated at the RENT Poet table, hands on the keys, I am only able to give an unguarded, un-ironic response. I feel not smart enough, like a toddler trying to draw horses right. Poems are not always sweet and flowery, but when you don’t know any better, they just might be. I did not make a poem about metamorphosis for Lezgart’s “friend”. The first line : “Butterflies have long tongues to lick out the sweet nectar.” 

Writing for queer people in this format, with nowhere to hide, has helped me just say what comes first, stumble over my words and realize those words are just right. It feels good to just “be” with no needing to relate, translate or hide. 

 The LGBTQ+ community really is family! It struck me how clearly I recognized myself (and old friends) in the younger kids just coming out and finding their community after being the “only gay in their village”. It was a total flashback. The older gays and lesbians filled me in on how things came to be. When one senior dyke told me how they had to fight to get “the L in the name at the Center”, I knew she meant the LGBT Center that I go to every week. This experience was a homecoming for me.

This tall 19-year-old kid wearing a star wars t-shirt. Fan of Arthur Ashe and the Marvel franchise. Didn’t want to do the poem at first. Eventually we talked about how he had immigrated from Mexico at age 9 (and had to stay at different strangers houses for over a year) and how being illegal in the US is the hardest thing in his life right now. He opened up in the most tender way. 

2. He said he had car problems, lost his job and 3 people close to him had just died. It was 
a country song, basically. I decided to do the poem as a memorial for his loved ones. 
He fanned me the entire time. A JEEP Wrangler is his dream car.

3. This was a couple of beefcakes who had miraculously been together for almost a year. They described partying all the time but needing to also be better about being more stable. When asked what they do to unwind, it was a long list of types of alcohol. They were a real hoot!

4. We talked about what his child self would say to him now. His inner kid wanted him to show himself more, make a mess and express without editing. His favorite smell is the smell of closets.

5. This queer kid who had moved to LA from Alaska. When asked about love, she thought about this one straight friend from home who just spent time, quietly being with her when she was grieving the loss of her dad (who died while she was in high school). This friend was also the first person she came out to, and an important support while she was dealing with the loneliness of being a queer kid in a straight town.

Carla 

I have a memoir coming out next month, my first book ever published! As a result, I am feeling excited, nervous and distracted at times. Most of the year I’ve focused on editing and then book promotion and I haven’t felt like there was much left over for creating brand new work. This project came over me like dropping in on another planet: Planet Poetry! It was so freeing to be able to offer the gift of creating a poem for strangers who were mostly all grateful and gracious. (With a possible exception of one or two people who may have had too much to drink along the parade route, and even they still seemed to appreciate the poem I wrote for them.)

I tend to write dark when it comes to poetry especially so our focus for our Pride Poems on love was a giddy escape to a different energy/part of my brain. Some people still asked for dark though…and I delivered. Overall, being a Pride Poet was a joyous and at times exhausting and exhilarating experience that I’ll always cherish.  I wrote more than 60 poems total and actually like some of them on the second read!

My typing was probably the worst of the group, even though I was the oldest and maybe people thought I’d remember typewriters more. However, I think that I began typing on an electric typewriter. I like to think that all those mess-ups just gave the poems more character, and they took on a life of their own, the physical flaws becoming part of the poem’s character.

She is traveling and will email this pic soon

1)   Briana talked about going into darkness, looking for light. She read this and cried, hugged me, first poem of the day. (6/9)

5)   Sheila: Love poem for friend of 30 years; they met in an insurance office.

6)   Maggie, recovering from a deep lost love.

7)   Jayzman on way to New Orleans, love poem for this city. The word small in this poem should be smell.

2)    Bob wanted a poem for his leading man who he always wrote plays for and loved deeply. He wished that he was an actor (rather than playwright) so that he could play the love scenes opposite his true love. (5/22) He sent me a picture of the person the poem was about.

3)   RJ: looking for progress of some kind, wanting to see movement, acknowledge that he was going somewhere even where it felt slow.

4)   Kat: At this point homeless, but still optimistic, in transitional housing (on someone’s couch) but still seeing hope, it’s Pride and a beautiful day.

8)   Corey (5/22) on wanting change, poem turned into the healing power of a “Mother’s Love.” This poem may need rewriting for legibility (she told me she got the ”book” book is a bit illegible.

9)   My attempt at an erotic poem by request from Christian. Turned out he actually had some connection to Brazil…but he didn’t tell me when I wrote this. 

J. Daniel 

Kate had been going through a rough patch, one of her pets died, she was evicted, and her boyfriend was sent to jail. She wanted a poem about not giving up and being strong

Shawn is in love with his boyfriend, but circumstances are taking them down different paths in life. He wanted a poem for him to let him know that no matter what he’d still love him

Tammy and Kristina met while on a hike. Their shared interest for adventure brought them close and made them fall in love and move in together. They wanted a poem about that.

Elias wanted a poem about his long-distance relationship with his boyfriend who moved to Washington and how they keep their love afloat.

Angela had just ended a toxic relationship with her girlfriend, and she wanted a poem about self-love and moving forward.

Elio wanted a poem about ace romance, and the closeness that comes from it, set aside from the sexual attraction to someone 

Mateo wanted a poem about waiting for the right person to be in a relationship with, while at the same time not being in a rush to do so and enjoying the now

Hank

I work in an office & report to a VP.  We work with Obamacare & clients who provide it to their employees.  I’m newish to the job and it’s stressful & energy consuming.  I don’t write as much as I’d like, actually hadn’t written anything for months.  It’s like the Lambda Lit Writer’s Retreat stopped me cold last fall.  But suddenly I’m exploding with things to do – I did submissions for you, Lambda Lit Fest, and an anthology all in the same week.  I was asked to be a part of a book launch event at the Hotel Fig.  I have the glendaleOUT homo-centric event in June (and regular homo-centric as well).  Thing is, I wrote 2 poems Monday and 9 poems Wednesday.  That’s 10 more than I’ve written in the last 4 months.  Even though they’re on the spot, they’re not bad.  Not bad at all.  I’m pumped about writing again.  Wednesday was so good for me.  I’m really looking forward to more through June.  I’ve attached a few of the poems I wrote Wednesday. I want to share them with you.

1. Bryan, the chaperone of the kids that came from Studio City, wanted something about being grounded & fulfillment. I gave him a poem about the mini-tribe he was with that night.  2nd poem of the night, 1st tears.

2. Chris & his boyfriend John met at Tom of Finland house, both were in frats, laugh a lot, and John is an actor.  Chris tracked me down on instagram to say thanks.

3. Chris 2 is newly sober and wanted something about self-love.  He loved it. I nailed it.

4. Sheri met a girl on Okay Cupid and is excited & nervous about her. They like theater, hiking, and Sheri has a rescue chihuahua named Buddy.

5. Sil was in town on vacation from Chicago. Very low key & didn’t say much. Was going to drag con with a friend.  She broke her cool when I read her poem to her. 

Amy

I’d been stuck in a personal and creative rut for months (thanks, unemployment!) before Pride Poets came along and gave me a shot in the arm. I was totally unused to creating in public, in front of other people, FOR other people, and the experience stretched me in ways I couldn’t have expected. While soldiering forward through poem after poem was difficult at times, it resulted in some work I’m very proud of and some memories I’ll never forget.

1. The very first poem I wrote at the opening ceremony. I don’t remember the man’s name but, when asked what he wanted a love poem about, he said he wanted one for his dog Olympia, who he adopted off the street. So I decided to try to write him a real tearjerker and he actually cried! It was an emotional moment for both of us–I had no idea my work could impact someone so viscerally.

2. Another poem I wrote the same night for Andy Sacher of the Lavender Project. His loves are the elders in the community that he interviews for posterity, so I decided to write a poem from him, to them. He gave me an enormous hug afterwards and eventually scanned the piece with a lovely lavender background for social media. 

3. My favorite and first poem from Pride itself (except for a poem called “To The Girl Who Shaved a Heart Into My Pubes,” which was sadly lost to a dead cell phone battery and now exists only in my memory), written to a woman named Natalie who recently helped a friend of hers come out. 

4. I wrote this next one during the closing ceremonies. I don’t remember too much about the person I wrote it for, but they wanted a poem about self-love and liked to garden, so I took it and ran with it. This is probably the best poem I wrote, judged on its own merits.

5. A poem for Gwen, who works for WeHo arts and asked for a piece about moving forward despite difficulties. This resonated with me personally and it was a joy to write for her.

Natalie 

I am an actress and writer. This year, a play that I wrote was a Eugene O’Neill National Playwright Conference Finalist! But actually first brush with writing was when I was plucked from 7th Grade obscurity to host the famed “Reading Rocks Cafe” Poetry club twice a month during BOTH LUNCH PERIODS, thank you very much. Poetry, it turned out, had it’s perks. I read poems aloud and wrote them like mad every spare minute, until I got fired from my job cleaning the meat saw at a liquor store/deer processing place in Muskegon, MI (shout out), for writing too many poems while I was supposed to be working. As you can see, I take poetry SERIOUSLY. Brian’s brand of IMPROV/WRITING/POETRY/PERFORMANCE is EXACTLY in my wheelhouse and I am pleased as punch that I was able to attend my first ever Pride this year by writing on the spot love poems for people! Some people marveled at our ability to write poems so fast and asked me how I did it. I told them this: I just talk to people until I find “me.” Then I just write around that. Usually, things overlap. We are, none of us, all that different.

1. Love Poem for a Skeptical Journalist. Pretty self explanatory. I was confused about why he was so skeptical about love until he told me his profession. Then it made sense.

2. Noodles from Boxes. This is a couple that have been together for a long time and were SO HAPPY together. They love to get Chinese food and watch Netflix.

3. A Bit of Quiet. This poem was a call for self love and understanding. The news is hard and the atmosphere feels hateful nowadays, so it’s nice to have a reminder of the innate humanness of all of us. How much we are all the same.

4. Rocketman. This was for an 2 absolutely adorable men who were deeply in Love and had Just been to see the Elton John movie Rocketman and enjoyed the heck out of it.

5. Someone Needed To. This was a hard one. A very sweet woman had just lost her love not even a year ago. I’ve been there and had some things I could draw from. We definitely cried and hugged. 

Sybilla

 I was in a place of transition when I submitted to Pride Poets. For the first time in a long time, I would be living alone because my only child was going off to college. I was also graduating with my MFA in Writing. I needed to figure out my next steps now that I no longer had the structure of a program to ensure that I was writing. I found the thought of being a Pride Poet exhilarating and intimidating. For me, the act of writing is solitary and involves an inordinate amount of time staring off into space, lost in my thoughts, eventually landing some words on a page. Typing a poem on the spot for someone while they are standing in front of you, anticipating your words…there’s some pressure there. But, it was an amazing experience. In a city of more than 11 million people where most of the time we’re tucked away in our cars, insulated from stranger, it was thrilling to be able to connect with people and have meaningful conversations. I typically write fiction (and non-fiction). Being able to exercise my poetic muscles helped me to think about my work differently. And just hearing the other poems that were being created around me, man, talk inspiration! My poems got better as I went along, (sorry early first-comers!) as with everything, we’re all a work in progress.

1.    I wrote this poem for Brandy who was a massage therapist and just wanted a poem to celebrate herself, I loved her confidence and wanted to write something fun that captured her spirit.

2.     Melissa wanted a poem for her mom and I’m always all in for any type mom/daughter poem and stories because like life, our relationships can be complicated and messy.

3.     A couple came by the booth at Pride parade with their furbaby, Tito, and wanted poem to celebrate their lives together.