We had the good fortune of connecting with Brian Sonia-Wallace and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Brian, what do you think makes you most happy? Why?
Long walks with a podcast or a friend in my ear. Setting aside time at the beginning of each day for coffee and a book (minimizing social media interruptions!). Preparing meals at the start of the week and keeping a workout regimine. Allowing myself to dream wild about projects. Imagining a better world. Setting detailed budgets and goals for projects (step 2!). The way the light slants through my window at 4pm in LA winter. The sound of trains. Taking care of the problems we bring up in the Zoom meeting during that same Zoom call. Collaborating with other poets and artists and musicians and across disciplines with public health and mental health and urban planning and corporate events folks. Remembering to water houseplants. Remembering to leave the house at least once before it gets dark in quarantine. Diet Pepsi. Jars of oysters. Ben & Jerry’s. Bagels. Discounted rotisserie chickens.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I describe myself as a social practice poet, and all of my work is about the intersection between poetry and community. Through my company RENT Poet, and Pride Poets, an initiative with the City of West Hollywood, I have written or hired poets to write custom poets based on the stories told by over 30,000 individual patrons. This work continues over quarantine with corporate and nonprofit Zoom poetry events. It started with me and a borrowed typewriter on the street in 2012. I started RENT Poet in 2014, and I thought it was just going to be a month-long performance art project, popping up all over the city with a typewriter and writing poems for anyone who approached on the topic of their choice. When I started, my sign said “pay me what you think it’s worth.” I didn’t even know! After that month, but companies and events kept calling and wanting a poet. I started working with more poets, and doing online commissions. Six years on, I’ve worked for everyone from Google to Dollar Shave Club. I have a book (The Poetry of Strangers: What I Learned Traveling America with a Typewriter) with Harper Collins. And I am starting a 2-year tenure as the 4th Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. I think I’ve built an audience because I approach my writing, and all my work, as collaborative. I was ensemble theatre kid, which makes a literary existence lonely. I am always pushing against people’s ideas of writing as a solitary act, always thinking about what it means to offer, and to receive, invitations into the stories of others, and how we as writers act as stewards and champions of those stories. My MA dissertation focused on Agosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, leading me to see artistic creation as collective and push back against individualization – COVID has made this more salient as technology appears both as something that makes people more lonely and something that fosters new forms of community. I am interested in the idea of an open literary practice, writing with people and for them while building a common project so that the work itself exists enmeshed with the world from the beginning. In addition to being a writer I am a passionate advocate for arts equity and access, serving on the advisory board for Arts for LA and as City Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, and I am committed to an interdisciplinary approach to preserving literature as a public good and expanding the place of reading and writing in civic society. Through my teaching, I get to help create the world I want to live in — a world of curiosity, of self- expression, and of literature both engaging and being engaged with. A poem written on an index card in five minutes can change someone’s trajectory. I have experienced this time and again, and am still in touch with folks who I wrote for 6 years ago, who have become storytellers and writers in their own rights. In my first book, I talked about my collaborative poetry practice as the shrapnel shards of interaction we leave in each other with each collision. The identity of a storyteller is inevitably changed by the act of telling a story, the medium in which they tell it, and the audience they create it for. How are we reaching each other with literature now, and how does that change what we write and who we are? The motto of my company, RENT Poet, is “everyone needs a poem.”
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
So quarantine, but like… CBS Seafood for Dim Sum take-out in Chinatown, eat at LA State Historic Park on the river or up the mountain at Elysian Park nextdoor. Grab some interesting wine or beer from the Lincoln Heights bottle shops before heading to… Spend the afternoon on bikes on the beach, or anywhere really. Maybe head to BookSoup in West Hollywood or Village Well in Culver City to get your books on – both are open with COVID precautions. End the day checking out the local poetry and literary scene at one of LA’s many mics which have gone virtual! (there’s a full list with links here: http://poetry.la/LIST_OF_17_VIRTUAL_READINGS.html) The City of West Hollywood also has a digital free concert series, which you can check out here: https://www.weho.org/community/arts-and-culture/music/weho-sounds
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Standing on the shoulders of giants! Do I have to chose one? Kelly Grace Thomas and Diane Luby Lane at Get Lit – Words Ignite for bringing me in and trusting me to join their work reaching young people with poetry. Ami Pascual Spear who taught me how to write grants and make budgets in my first job. Cheolseung Kim who introduced me to Kundrea and Kafka and Murakami and Wittgenstein and Butoh way back in High School. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Bill Bryson’s At Home and Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem are some of the texts I’m playing with right now.
Image #3 – Kurt T. Jones