VILLAGE WELL PRESENTS PERIPATETIC POET BRIAN SONIA-WALLACE
October 15, 2020
Ever wonder what it would be like to be a young poet roaming the country with your manual typewriter, hiring yourself out in malls and wherever you could set up a little work area so you could have strangers pour out their thoughts to you in exchange for a personalized poem?
Wonder no more.
Village Well Books & Coffee, a new independent general interest bookstore and café near City Hall and presently under construction at 9900 Culver Blvd. on the southwest corner of Culver Blvd. and Duquesne Ave., is holding an inaugural author event (part virtual, part live) on Saturday, October 17th featuring Culver City High School graduate Brian Sonia-Wallace (RENTpoet.com), who has a new book out called "The Poetry of Strangers," subtitled "What I Learned Traveling America with a Typewriter."
Its cover bears an impressive accolade from Juan Felipe Herrera, poet laureate emeritus of the United States: "Full of heart, of quest and compassion, 'The Poetry of Strangers' is a book like no other. A text we have been dreaming of – the act of empowering invisibilized peoples, literature, and human beings in danger."
The online event is from 10:30 a.m. – 12 noon, with Sonia-Wallace at the store for a curbside signing from 12:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
The following link to sign up for the free Zoom event also enables registrants to purchase the book: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/culver-citys-own-brian-sonia-wallace-discusses-the-poetry-of-strangers-tickets-113571623784?ref=eios
The Zoom program includes the following:
• Introduction by Councilmember Thomas Small
• Cameo appearance by AVPA (Academy of Visual and Performing Arts) Culver City High School Marching Band
• A virtual tour of the bookstore by owner Jennifer Caspar
• A reading by Sonia-Wallace from "The Poetry of Strangers"
• Panel discussion that includes Dr. Janet Hoult ( Culver City's Honorary Artist Laureate for Poetry Emerita) and Alexey Steele (Culver City's Honorary Artist Laureate)
• An "in the moment" writing session, with Sonia-Wallace providing a prompt
• Encouraging those who have written to share their poems
• "Word Painting" poem read by Hoult
• Unveiling of portrait of Hoult by Steele
The book signing (with masks and social distancing) will be in front of Village Well. Parking is available in the lot behind the store, which can be accessed off Duquesne. Caspar requests that "if you would like Brian to personalize your book after the online event, email us at email@example.com and we will give you a time slot between 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. when he will be outside the shop."
Sonia-Wallace's poetic inspirations track back to high school, where "I was really into Robert Frost and T.S. Elliot and Korean poet Sang Lee. In college I met contemporary spoken word via YouTube: Buddy Wakefield (who I just got to work with in LA!) and Anis Mojgani. My latest abiding poetry crush is Mary Oliver – her writing is so simple and plain-spoken and profound."
Asked what sparked his interest in becoming a professional poet, he shared that "I was part of the AVPA at Culver High and we did these really out there, lyrical productions of Shakespeare and Kafka and Korean poetry with Korean director Cheolseung Kim, who'd just done an MFA at UCLA and worked with us before going back to his home country. It was philosophy and poetry and performance –working with him is the reason I'm an artist today.
"In college, since I was a performer, some friends asked me to emcee a poetry slam they were putting together. I was hooked right away, though it took me a year of scribbling in secret before I shared anything."
In 2014 Sonia-Wallace was fundraising for The Actors' Gang and got laid off due to budget cuts.
"After six months of interviews I decided to challenge myself to pay my rent for a month by writing poems on the street with my typewriter," he said. "I'd done this before and made good tips, but didn't really know what to expect. That month turned into six years and a brilliant and bizarre patchwork of travel. I haven't looked back since!"
Those experiences on the road resulted in many memorable anecdotes.
"One of my favorite stories in the book is a woman at the Mall of America who came up to my typewriter and told me she had just come from a week-long Vipassana silent meditation retreat, and that I was the first person she was speaking to," he said. "Taken aback, I asked her, 'What are you doing at the mall?' 'I came to get Dippin' Dots as a reward for myself!' she said.
"This story says so much to me about the underlying message of the book. We are all on these deep, metaphysical searches in the context of a consumerist, kinda cheesy society, but just because something is commercialized doesn't it mean it can't also be sincere. As Americans, this is our context! And I want to believe that profound revelations are possible anywhere we are, even at the mall."
His experiences ran the gamut.
Sonia-Wallace "got to read poetry in bed to people at a secret backstage of a music festival. I got to write poetry as part of a progressive political candidate's run for state congress in Tennessee back in 2018. I got to spend a month on Amtrak traveling across the country and writing for seniors and Amish folks on the observation deck. It's been quite a ride!"
His message about the value of poetry is particularly significant in these times.
"The idea that poetry is this unintelligible and rarefied academic art form is relatively new – poets were our storytellers, our historians, our newscasters!" he exclaimed. "A journalist friend of mine was just sharing that her newspaper wanted to run a story about the anniversary of the first deaths of educators from COVID, and they went back and forth on what they could say because there was so much emotion but not really any new news, per se. She ended up writing a poem, and they're publishing that – it's the first time her paper has published poetry. Poetry is a way of saying the unsayable. For so much of what we're experiencing right now, it feels like language can't come close to expressing what we need to express. The tools of poetry help us fix that."
And he is constantly wielding those tools.
"The week after Village Well I'm doing a first experiment in drive-in poetry transmitted via short-wave FM radio at Beyond Baroque in Venice," he said. "I'm also teaching personal essay at UCLA Writers' Extension and hosting regular roundtables for typewriter poets around the world via Zoom. Our next one is Nov 22nd."
Sonia-Wallace, who can be reached at (310) 906-8345 and RENTpoet@gmail.com, is definitely living his motto: "Everyone needs a poem."
Village Well, which is now open for orders at villagewell.com and is aiming to open physically by Thanksgiving, is certainly presenting a fascinating inaugural author event.
"We plan to do many events over the years," said Caspar. "We will develop a series of author and community-focused conversations around books – local authors whenever possible, but not only locals – as well as local nonprofit organizations and the causes they champion. When COVID is behind us and we can do in-person events we will switch to that, and in the meantime we will be trying different things online to engage the community."
This is a business she has wanted to start for a long time.
"My whole career I focused on community building," she said. "After a brief stint in journalism, I studied urban planning in grad school and then went to work with nonprofit community developers on affordable housing finance and development, among other things. All this time I've wanted to create my own place, to offer hospitality in a pretty, comfortable, welcoming environment to people who need a 'third place' away from home and work to hang out or meet up with other people for work or pleasure.
"My undergraduate degree is in English and I've always loved books and browsing bookstores, so organizing the place as a bookstore café finally crystallized a couple years ago. I did my research, created a business plan and finally found the perfect space last November, before COVID had even hit China."
Accordingly, Caspar signed the lease in January and got started on her plans, and "when the shutdown happened and business expectations got shaken up, I just kept going and my landlord has been reasonable and expressed that he's interested in working with me so I can open and have the business be successful for the long term."
Changing times require flexibility and innovative thinking, and Caspar is up for the challenge.
"I believe this is a business concept that people need now more than ever- a place to gather and connect, and a place to browse and buy interesting books that you can only find in independent bookstores," she said. "COVID is going to end and we will get to the full vision, and in the meantime we are on the cutting edge of independent bookstores having a strong online presence. We have a really great website and social media presence – we launched that earlier and with more oomph than we would have had it not been for COVID, and I suspect after we have a vaccine and business is not as restricted as it is now, that these things will remain important aspects of our business."
Caspar described some of the bookstore's special features.
"There are so many ways that our business will be different from the big online algorithm-led bookstores as well as other brick-and-mortar stores because it will be run by local people," she said. "The books will be selected by local humans tuned in to the interests of the folks near it. Culver City is a tight-knit town and we will seek to be a gathering place for locals. We have already begun supporting the schools by creating wish lists for teachers and librarians so parents can purchase them, offering 20% discount for books purchased for classroom use. We're continually talking to these folks to find out the best ways we can support the schools."
Social consciousness powerfully permeates Caspar's motivations.
"I want to bring my background working on solutions to housing and other community development issues by supporting local nonprofits and helping our community better understand the causes they champion," she said. "We are starting with family homelessness, creating booklists to understand the issue better, and promoting the work of Upward Bound House."
In addition to being an intellectually and socially stimulating environment serving different ages with a variety of genres, Village Well will also contain an esthetically impressive feature.
"For several years, I served on the board of directors of Piece By Piece, which provides free mosaic education in Skid Row and South LA to people who have experienced homelessness, as a way to give them skills and opportunities to connect in a supportive community environment." Caspar explained. "The program has incredible success helping people stabilize their lives and also creates really beautiful art. I've commissioned a 20-foot long mosaic for the front of the café counter that is a skyline with familiar Culver City scenes. We asked students at Culver City schools to participate by making hearts and flowers that will be incorporated into the scene. We had such a great response, and I can't wait to see the finished work."
Same here. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, "Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading," so make room on your shelves, brush off your bookmarks, upgrade your reading glasses if needed, and give a warm welcome to Culver City's exciting new literary rendezvous.