In Omicron, a Rough Reset for Poetry
Written by Brian Sonia-Wallace
Da Poetry Lounge (DPL) is the largest and longest running mic on the West Coast. For 23 of its 27 years it has been housed at the historic Greenway Court Theatre on Fairfax, but now, like so many arts communities in the pandemic, it is itinerant, existing virtually and at pop-ups while it searches for a new home.
Pre-pandemic, 300+ audience members would crowd the seats and stage of the Greenway, a 100-seat theatre. Between each poem, the hosts would have to remind the throngs not to block the aisles. The audience of mostly young, BIPOC artists payed $10 to watch, and get the chance to perform on the same stage, as the likes of Prince and Mac Miller. However, as pandemic restrictions eased, Greenway Court Theatre’s new COVID restrictions made it impossible for the show to return as it was. It had grown too large for the space to accommodate.
The mic opened briefly in-person again at the end of October, 2021, this time at ArtShareLA in Downtown, with the limited 150 tickets selling out within 15 minutes of going online. An audience that had been starved for the community of poetry bawled openly as poets, from professional emcees to shy teenaged readers, rose to tell their stories, punctuated by hip hop and top-40’s beats. Before the pandemic, this place was a weekly church and training ground. In the pandemic, it was another Instagram Live.
However, following the announcement of this triumphant return, DPL retreated again to a virtual-only mic, with a scaled-down inited live show to tape a Fox Soul Holiday Special. As of the time of writing, the community is still seeking a venue in Los Angeles that will allow not only for its continuation, but its growth.
Matthew “Cuban” Hernandez, one of the new hosts at DPL, describes the quest in epic terms borrowed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “Asgard has been destroyed — but Asgard is not a place, it’s the people.” He is optimistic about the next chapter, saying that the audience has grown past paying to sit on the floor, anyway.
With long-running host Shihan Van Clief stepping down, the mic has new hosts, a new Executive Director, Jasmine Williams, and a new direction, focusing more on the healing aspects of poetry rather than the competitive world of slam. “We want this to be a space where artists can grow,” Hernandez says. He explains that after the 2018 slam season, the space scaled back its investment in training a competitive team and started to open up classes to everyone through a partnership with S.L.A.M., an adult spoken word training organization Hernandez runs with his partner, Alyesha Wise.
“You have to be heard to be healed,” Hernandez offers, musing on why DPL is important to Los Angeles. However, for now at least, the quest for a physical space for these voices remains elusive.
Brian Sonia-Wallace is the author of The Poetry of Strangers (“full of optimism and wide-eyed wonder…he charms us” – The New York Times) and Poet Laureate of the City of West Hollywood, the latest in a string of unlikely poetic residencies ranging from Amtrak to the Mall of America. Brian has written poems for over 10,000 strangers based on their stories since 2012, and his custom poetry business RENT Poet was featured on NPR’s How I Built This. Its motto is, “everyone needs a poem.” More at briansoniawallace.com