Brian Sonia-Wallace, poet laureate of West Hollywood, California, is the author of The Poetry of Strangers (Harper Collins, 2020) and teaches creative writing through UCLA Writers’ Extension and Get Lit—Words Ignite. In 2021, Sonia-Wallace was awarded the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellowship to support the ongoing Pride Poets project from a small ensemble, which has created custom poems for the public at Pride celebrations for the past two years, to a year-round platform for the LGBTQIA+ literary community. Based in West Hollywood, Pride Poets will invite the community globally by treating poetry as the new gay bar—a community watering hole and space for connection and activism. This decentralized, virtual model places poetry at the center of community-building and includes a slate of digital-writing workshops, community events, advocacy and youth projects, conceptualized like nights at a gay bar to cater to different sub-communities and to foster connections within and between intersecting LGBTQIA+ identities. Using West Hollywood’s name recognition in the community, this project seeks to establish poetry as a way for the LGBTQIA+ community to connect virtually in quarantine and beyond.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in California, and what support do you hope future poets laureate have?
Brian Sonia-Wallace: I’ll start with the disclaimer that I’m the poet laureate only of a two-mile strip of California called West Hollywood, which is geographically tiny but, culturally, looms large. With this as my starting point, I dream that:
California is the American capital of technology and media, and a laboratory of progressive policy. Poetry in our state has the potential to be a beacon for the world by availing itself of these tools—by being activist and embedded, and by communicating itself globally. Why shouldn’t Poets.org work with the Kardashians? Have a poetry consultant for every film studio and tech company, exploring innovative ways in which poetry can make our social media less lonely, our movies more literary?
California has the fifth largest economy in the world, but American culture is singularly hostile to the arts. I grew up under Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” which gutted arts funding in schools. And, with COVID, we are just seeing the reinstatement of federal funding for individual artists, which was a casualty of the culture wars of the 1970s. We have the potential, at this moment, as artists, to re-enter the conversation and challenge what American culture at large looks like.
We cannot do this with the same values we went in with. We must create a poetry of kitsch, an art for and by the public. Poetry is unique in that it has the power to create a mythic history for us as a people—a story to unite us in the midst of so many great migrations, genocides, apartheids, and upheavals.
As for poets laureate? I dream of every neighborhood having its own laureate, every strip mall and shopping center, a community builder and storyteller who goes to where people are already living their lives and celebrates the humanity that’s already there. There is a critical and untapped role for poetry organizations in demonstrating the efficacy of poetry in bringing people together, and advocating for its support beyond the ivory tower and in corporate and community settings. In our secular society, I see a role for poets at every wedding, every funeral, every birth, and coming of age—helping people to find their rituals and know that their stories matter.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
BSW: I got my start as a poet writing for people on the street, and from that beginning started working as a poet at weddings and company parties, learning how poetry might be useful and desirable for folks beyond traditional literary communities. Poetry can build community, but it can also bridge communities and meet them where they’re at. Writing poetry for others, I’ve seen the power of the art form to help people with connection, romance, grieving, reconciliation, and letting go. Words are a way to actualize and externalize our interior lives. They are how we invite others into our interiority.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
BSW: At first, when I became a laureate, I was desperate to write about the place I was representing. It’s been a process during this time to give myself permission to write myself. To trust in my internal places. I became a poet through interactions with community; and, ironically, it’s only been through this title that I’ve started to write my own work, trusting that my experience may echo through others’.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
BSW: I’m most excited about the Fridays I’ve gotten to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with folks from my APLA Health Writers’ Workshop, and the days they turn up to the weekly open mic we started at Micky’s gay bar! Writing, at its best, can be a way to bring us together for living.
But living is also an act we do through writing. As someone who always felt out of place in the queer community, it’s been amazing to find my place through literature. This June, we’ll be back with Pride Poets, bringing LGBTQ+ poets to the streets during Pride to write poems for strangers celebrating their stories in person again for the first time since 2019. It’s been lonely. We’re always working against that.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when you started your project?
BSW: There was this little pandemic, you may have heard of it? Zoom fatigue and burn out, coupled with government (rightly) being a last adapter, has meant partnering with private industry, opening a poetry hotline, and graciously being extended a year on my term by the city to allow a transition back to in-person projects.
I’ve also experienced the sudden death of my father, which has highlighted for me the ways our personal and professional lives are invariably intertwined, however much capitalism shushes it up. When people ask me what the best part of this fellowship has been, I tell them that, as an independent artist, it has allowed me to go on vacation for the first time in eight years. The value of that, getting to be a complete human as well as an artist in our system, is incalculable.
Poets.org: In your poem “After the Music” you write:
Praise the long walk, with no end. The right now.
Our newly fragiled bodies.
That awkward, grateful way we hold each other
at any distance.
This is reminiscent of Pride Poets, which centers poetry within community-building, using virtual spaces. The project fosters connections between LGBTQIA+ identities during the pandemic and beyond. How has the program encouraged writers and readers to hold space for themselves, as well as others, during this time?
BSW: During COVID, we’ve made space for over one hundred LGBTQ+ poets to gather and share, as well as running a hotline that served over five hundred callers, with a mixture of pre-recorded and original poems written just for them. This year, I am excited to be working with our poet, Molly Thornton, to launch a podcast, entitled This Poem’s for You (look out for it in June 2022!), in which we follow up with people who’ve had a poem written by us in previous years to understand the transformative power of this practice in their lives.
We’ve had people use their poems as wedding vows, and get poems at the hospital during COVID from our hotline as their only celebration of Pride. Our poems are a document of connection, the shrapnel a moment of interaction leaves behind. My favorite thing is when people I don’t recognize tell me where the poem I wrote them years ago lives in their house, what it means to them when they read it again and again in passing. Let no one tell you poetry doesn’t matter.
Oh, and our poets went on a game show! We’ve turned out to support each others’ plays, book launches, and more, and in writing poems for people our poets have gained new friends and supporters. I started my career as a grant writer, where I learned that a grant application was a formality, and that strong personal relationships were the bedrock for anything getting done. The LGBTQ+ community is so often divided between our letters, and in writing for each other I see the potential to bridge our experiences and build solidarity as we prepare for the backlash we are now seeing at the national level against our rights and lives, from record numbers of anti-trans bills to “Don’t Say Gay” in Florida. Queer people are always isolated and always under threat. We need each other.
Poets.org: Speaking of community-building, you traveled cross-country with a typewriter, talking to strangers, and writing poems for them based on stories they shared with you and difficult moments in their lives. You write about your journey in The Poetry of Strangers (Harper Perennial, 2020) and how most of us long for connection. Could you share with us a little bit about what that experience taught you about the value of writing to, not only tell your stories, but the stories of perfect strangers. How did it change your relationship to the cities you went to?
BSW: The great irony of writing poems for strangers is how they all start to bleed into each other—everyone wants a poem for their love, or for their dog, or for their uncertainty about the future. In doing this practice, you really start to feel how much more we are alike than different. It becomes a personal challenge—how can I say something new and interesting in a poem about a dog I haven’t met?
There is something, I think, intrinsically queer about this practice and what it does to my relationship with the places I visit that has to do with intimacy. Much like having sex with strangers from the internet, writing poems for strangers in public places is a wild trust fall that opens up the possibility for relationships with people you might otherwise never meet. I’m thinking of Missy and Josh in Minneapolis, tribal members who gave me a tour of the Native history and mythology of their city after I wrote them a poem in the Mall of America, and for whom I traveled hours to visit when I returned last year. Or the real estate negotiator Jonathon Rios, whom I met while writing on the streets of Venice Beach, and who himself has started writing and teaching and sponsoring a literary journal. He became a dear friend and supporter after our encounter.
When you are generous to strangers, it always has a way of coming back. A city can eat you alive, but if you can feed yourself to it thoughtfully, perhaps you can learn to live together. Maybe it will even purr.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in California and on the road?
BSW: I’ll leave you with “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and let you know it hung above the sink in fellow typewriter poet Kevin Devaney’s converted van/home for years while he traveled around the country writing poems for strangers. This is how I first encountered it.