We Are All Angels
Every horn honking
Every line for a club, restaurant, bar, taco joint
Korean spa, nail shop, Kogi truck, Grand Central Market, midnight movie,
Skylight Books reading, every line, I'll stand in it.
Every child's Frisbie-wild sand kicked
in my lap yell in Santa Monica beach-combing sleep,
I'll suffer it.
Every Beyond Baroque board meeting.
Every Beverly Hills Wilshire attitude or
South Central "I got you, cuz" embrace.
Every Leimert Park Sunday jazz-laced traffic crunch.
Every morning clamor of South Pasadena
parrots and peacocks left behind.
Every dtla gentrification
layered on top of my gritty haunted streets.
Every secret bridge, killer workout stairs,
Venice beach botox muscle monster.
Every parking lot chump who takes my space.
Every exhaust-filled freeway I wish away.
Every 405, 10, 110 accident I pray on as I inch past.
Every strip mall, every child star, every digital nomad.
Every unsheltered human.
Every millionaire in Trader Joe's.
Every red carpet neck-craning I Love You Denzel moment.
I will take it.
Give me your Jamaican roti, your Ethiopian doro wat
your Little Tokyo sushi.
Give me Greek Theater open sky kisses.
Give me dragqueen love.
LA, with your twilight Mulholland Drive
window steaming love song,
your San Gabriel Valley winds
struck up by Chumash & Tongva & Queen Califia ghosts
& those gang bangers we loved anyway
in fault lines under our feet in this place
we call home.
I miss your Olivero curanderas.
I miss your Boyle Heights Chiapas desert skin
your crooked Sunset Boulevard smile
your Hollywood hat-tip fingers
your county check arms around me.
I miss your desperation, your sweat,
your glossy lips on my forehead
your Skybar skyline eyes
your Friday Juma
your Sylmar sweatlodge sage smoke in my hair.
I miss your cowboy dust.
Your Pio Pico Black Mexican governor past.
Your migration future.
I miss you, LA
I long for you in my sleep.
Won't you come back to me?
I'm still single in this beautiful, mad,
iguana quiet, saddle blanket
earth tremoring night.
You, my love,
my favorite hiking trail
my morning wheatgrass shot
my prayer rug, my Yemanjah ocean
my Muhu Tesan bear dance
my Eso won bookstore solitude
my Angels Flight magazine
my writer's heaven.
I will not run.
I am a Sade song
playing long into a community
If you set me free,
I will not run.
I will be here
when you wake up.
The day I arrived in Los Angeles, I was the Mixed blood Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz with dreams of being a writer. I’d just graduated high school and before my country Kalamazoo dust, a soft, filmy sheen, was lost from my face, I was caught up in an act that transformed my identity: one of the biggest L.A. earthquakes hit. I write about this in my memoir, Black Indian, but that afternoon, October 17, 1987, I stood in the tremoring doorway of my Beverly Hills hotel thinking, “Welcome to L.A., kid.” But I wasn’t afraid.
I recognized the nature of things shifting.
I didn’t run.
And thereafter my L.A. unfolded like this at every step, in a series of clandestine encounters with the landscape, people, music, indigenous ceremonies, with poets, and of course, the Pacific Ocean, the place that became my touchstone over the years which I always returned to for her salty kiss.
Once overwhelming, I quickly adapted to L.A.’s rich plethora of races, ethnicities and nationalities: the Indigenous American Indians and Mexicans; African Americans with deep migration roots in South Central, Pasadena and the Inland Empire; hard-working White, African, West Indian and Asian immigrants who came for education, for survival, for love, for a better life or to make money to send to their families back home. As a writer for the LA Weekly, I met celebrities on red carpets. Living in Inglewood, I rode the bus with unsheltered people. I inadvertently hung out with gang bangers before I knew what that word meant because they played basketball at a park where I walked at night because I missed Kalamazoo. The gloss and grit of L.A., the crippling traffic, gunshots in the dark night, the poets, musicians and artists of The World Stage Performance Gallery in Leimert Park, the mountains and deserts, my West L.A. College Ethiopian and Caribbean friends, the service worker marches that shut down major intersections, the gala affairs and museums, the Rodney King insurrection that ripped a hole in our universe, and of course, most recently COVID, that decimated and simultaneously forced us to see each other, all created my emotional, spiritual, mental and artistic landscape.
My poem I transformed into a short film, We Are All Angels, written in isolation during the COVID shutdown, attempts to capture all of the above. It represents my transplant journey to Los Angeles, my growth and maturation, my choices and interactions, and how I came to not simply love but long for the things that make this place its flawed, gorgeous, egregious, liminal, haunted, authentic self.
The first song I sing (and end the video with) is a song I wrote with the intention of causing inquiry and curiosity within the listener regarding my race, my ethnicity, my origins and my experiences as a Black woman, and as a Mixed blood (or multiracial person) in America. It's also an expression of what it means to be a creative, to be a poet, someone who gets to define themselves and their own identity with song and language.
The second song I sing is a Grass Dance song, one of many, which was traditionally sung by the American Indian Plains tribes when it's the gathering season or Pow Wow season. Grass Dancers, usually only men, would dance to this song to “beat down” or "clear a path" in the high grass for a summer season of gatherings. To my understanding, it's not a word song that belongs to one nation or tribe, yet it's an intonation song using syllables or vocables. I learned this song on my first drum, Four Rivers, and as a woman with the drum, I was given permission to sing this song by the Drumkeeper, Bob Jondreau, an Anishinaabe/Ojibwe elder and chief. Our nations still sing this song at Pow Wows, and other songs that represent our cultural practices, to keep these kinds of traditions alive. I sang this song before my poem as a tribute to California Indians, to show our overarching culture and to metaphorically "clear a path" for the poem itself.
This is my L.A.—I formed friendships here: I formed community here. I learned cultural practices, traditions and songs and history that informed and influenced my life and my work. I’ve done ceremony here. I’ve grown up here. No matter how many earthquakes tilted the earth beneath my feet, I did not run and I’m writing a second memoir to capture more of these experiences because that’s what I do—write to understand the shifting of things. Like all writers with novels, collections of poetry and memoirs-in-progress, definitely like Dorothy, I am still spinning, still weaving my life’s tale in this place, in this incredible city I call home.
Daughter of Mixed bloods, USC Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow and a Department of Cultural Affairs City of Los Angeles (COLA) Master Artist Fellow, Shonda Buchanan is the author of five books, including the award-winning memoir, Black Indian.
An award-winning poet, fiction, nonfiction writer and educator, Buchanan is the recipient of the Brody Arts Fellowship from the California Community Foundation, a Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, several Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grants, the Denise L. Scott and Frank Sullivan Awards and an Eloise Klein-Healy Scholarship. She is also a Sundance Institute Writing Arts fellow, a PEN Center Emerging Voices fellow and a Jentel Artist Residency fellow. Finalist for the 2021 Mississippi Review poetry contest, her memoir, Black Indian, won the 2020 Indie New Generation Book Award and was chosen by PBS NewsHour as a "top 20 books to read" to learn about institutional racism. Black Indian begins the saga of her family’s migration stories of Free People of Color communities exploring identity, ethnicity, landscape and loss. Her first collection of poetry, Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? was nominated for the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the Library of Virginia Book Awards.
Curated by Luis J. Rodriguez
"Los Angeles is one of the most literary and poetic cities anywhere. I make that bold statement after being the city’s poet laureate from 2014 to 2016. During my tenure, I spoke to around 35,000 people in close to 300 venues and events—and millions more in mass media. If we have the most homeless, some of the worst violence, social inequities and injustices, we just haven’t imagined far enough. Poetry, as a beacon in the dark, can help illuminate our way. The poets featured here are the far-seeing and deep-feeling writers and activists I’ve had the privilege to know and work with. Shonda Buchanan, Chiwan Choi and Luivette Resto present poems and videos For The Love Of L.A. that swim in language and imagery, but also in generative ideas. I’m honored to present them here with their vital voices, stories and passions."