DOWNTOWN LONG BEACH POETRY READING BLURS THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN LITERATURE AND LIFE
As I entered The Greenhouse, a quaint coffee house in downtown Long Beach, and found my way to the hall set up for the reading, I had no idea what to expect. I only knew one of the names on the roster—Gerald Locklin, Long Beach poetry legend with more than 3,000 poems and over 125 chapbooks, books, and poetry broadsides to his name—and even him, I’d never seen in person. The other two names on the flyer—Griselda Suarez, Lambda Literary Fellow and nominee for the California Book Prize and Distinguished Alumni Award at Pitzer College, and Christopher Soto, the man whose first poetry chapbook was honored at the event—were mysteries to me.
I’m glad they were. Not knowing what was coming, I was blown away.
When I think poetry reading, I think someone standing behind a podium and reading in a weighty tone, pausing after every line for good measure. Not so Soto, Suarez, and Locklin. Griselda Suarez read first, and though she did stay still for most of the reading, her voice certainly didn’t, ranging between tones and tempos as easily and rapidly as the emotions in her poetry. Suarez drew heavily on her Chicana heritage in her poetry—which was fitting, since she is a professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at CSULB— and she shifted between Spanish and English seamlessly, drawing on elements of the languages, cultures, and locales she calls her own to create a varied, motley picture where blue and green paper burros and Chevy’s straw sombreros are contrasted with glimpsed images of la ruca and la veteran sharing a kiss and the streets of East L.A. to form an image of stunning complexity. Suarez’s poetry cast a spell of acceptance and isolation, belonging and rejection, love and hate—a snippet of her life as a lesbian, Chicana poet from Los Angeles.
Christopher Soto next took the stage, picking up where Suarez left off by explaining how, since he’s Puerto Rican and Salvadorian in Southern California, he’s Mexican in the local vernacular. Soto, too, shifted between Spanish and English in his poetry, but he mixed other languages into the swirl, combining the language of the day-to-day with the language of poetry, the language of emotion with the language of the city, and the language of motion with everything else to create an experience which absolutely cannot be trapped between the pages of his chapbook, no matter how many grammatical rules he breaks. Soto, more than either of the other two poets, became the speakers of his poems, trembling and stuttering brokenly when his poems described terror and seeming on the verge of tears in some of his sadder works. Although he periodically broke character and looked up to laugh with the audience, such as after the first line of the poem “Marriage”: “I want to marry a lesbian,” when Soto was reciting, he was feeling, and so the audience felt, too.
Finally, after Soto finished reading enough of his poetry to guarantee the chapbook would sell phenomenally, Gerald Locklin came up to top the evening off with laughter. Locklin’s writing takes the day-to-day and makes it poetry, mixing jokes with family, love, and life, and, as he jumped between poetry and opera, Don McLean’s “Miss American Pie,” and Sinatra’s “Chicago” as flawlessly as Suarez and Soto had mixed English and Spanish, I decided not all legends are exaggerated. Locklin’s performances truly are extraordinary—and as the end to a night of extraordinary performances, his was truly fitting.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Christopher Soto for a few minutes after the reading and pick his brain; the conversation is below.
Union Weekly: Is there anything you do specifically to get ready for a reading like this? You have a lot of stage presence.
Soto: I try to nap. [Laughs.] I mean, a lot of the times I’m absolutely, positively overworked with setting everything up, calling people, making sure everything’s ready, and I have to make sure to get literally eight hours of sleep the night before the event, because I need all of my energy out there. I don’t want to get up there and bore everyone. So many boring poets are already out there.
UW: You’re definitely not one of them. So, do you try to write every day, or just when the muse calls?
S: For me, it has to explode out of me. If it’s not burning, raging out of me, it’s not going to be a good poem. I mean, to form these little 24 pages I probably threw away two to three hundred pages’ worth of work. And that’s just because I am my biggest critic. It has to be good.
UW: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets, especially for getting into the Long Beach literary scene?
S: Just be active within the community. Anytime anyone asks for anything, help them. Before I started reading, I hosted 50 million other events for other people. I also started Long Beach Poetry, an umbrella organization for all the other literary organizations in Long Beach. And through that, I got to meet everyone. It was through there that I met Mario Ayala, who did the cover art, and Grant Gutierrez, who did the photography in the chapbook, and got involved with Still Life Press and the Lost Bros. Crew, which put out the chapbook. You just never know who people know, and it’s only because I was in support of the community that they were in support of me.
UW: What comes next?
S: I’ve mostly stayed with poetry, but I also have a shit ton of short stories that I’ve written, and I plan on putting those out within the next two months. [Laughs.] Sorry, I have no filter, none. Anyway, when people are first coming out, there has to be a lot of work all at once, two or three chapbooks to start getting the name out there. Even with this chapbook, 60 copies doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s $100, and we just want to earn that back, do a reprinting, and ship them across the country, just get the name out there. That’s when you start getting some recognition.
UW: And where can readers find you and your work?
S: My website is sotowrites.com, but the chapbook will also be directly available through Still Life Press—that’s where people can go if they want to buy the book directly.