May 8, 2021


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

5 Los Angeles poets on life beyond the pandemic

Poet and teacher Sesshu Foster stands in his Alhambra neighborhood.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The woman is coming to see me about some work-related papers. How to start again? How to wake up? Someone is knocking on the door. The kids are up, talking and laughing. I hurry up to put water on to boil. The phone is ringing again. I want one cup of tea. One.

From an untitled poem by Sesshu Fosger

IT’S BEEN 25 YEARS since “City Terrace Field Manual,” Sesshu Foster’s first poetry collection, was published. The book, in which the poet celebrates his childhood neighborhood, wouldn’t have been possible, he says, without his wife.

Back in the 1990s, Foster was spread thin. He worked full time at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights, where he headed the English department, ran the gifted program, co-facilitated an after-school poetry workshop and served as union chair — all while raising three children. Most nights, he was lucky if he got six hours of sleep.

“But my wife generously gave me Saturdays to write,” Foster says, “so that’s when I worked on the book, along with every other minute I could squeeze in.”

Poet Sesshu Foster stands against some foliage.

Sesshu Foster’s first poetry collection celebrates City Terrace, his childhood home.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“City Terrace Field Manual,” he says, “reflects that very busy, hectic life that I was leading.” As a result, the book is composed of many brusque narratives, including an untitled poem in which the speaker describes the type of “morning where people are knocking on your door, phoning you up, asking for help before you even get a cup of tea.” In it, the narrator longs for a bit of respite.

Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd poet laureate of the United States (from 2017-19) is a fan of the poem

“I like that it looks at the ways that people migrate from place to place as natural,” she says in her podcast, “The Slowdown,” in reference to the migrants using the speaker’s home as a rest stop before heading north to San Francisco.

“I like how it contemplates that our loved ones age and grow vulnerable,” Smith adds. “It acknowledges the ways we lose touch with the people we care about.

“It corrals the mundane and the serious into a single tight space, which is what life feels like. And it captures a blur of demands, memories and desires in a way that make me grateful to be alive.”

For readers still thawing from a year in isolation, two questions in the poem are especially prescient: “How to start again? How to wake up?”

Since Foster’s first poetry collection came out, he has published several other books, including “City of the Future,” which builds on his debut, and “World Ball Notebook,” which won the 2009 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry and an American Book Award in 2010. But that first book remains special, he says, in part because of the young poets who inspired it.

With the help of author Rubén Martínez, who at the time worked for LA Weekly, Foster ran an after-school poetry club called “Poets Beyond Madness.”

“It was one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences I’ve had as a teacher,” says Foster, who’s also taught at the University of Iowa, the California Institute of the Arts and UC Santa Cruz.

His students in Boyle Heights dealt with a lot, he says. “I had students who were shot. I had students who were jailed. I had students who were taken away by ICE.

“But there were beautiful things going on at the same time. Most of my students didn’t have too many options, but they were able to use poetry to secure scholarships to performing arts programs at Cal State L.A. and CalArts, internships at UCLA. Some of them went on to teach writing at the community arts center Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights. And one student wrote an essay that won her a trip to Spain. Young as they were, they used poetry to transform their lives.”

Today, Foster lives with his wife on a hill in Alhambra. When he steps out on his balcony, he overlooks El Sereno on one side and the San Gabriel Valley on the other. His three children are grown and live far away: in Canada, New York and Alaska. Because of the pandemic, he went months without seeing them.

Giant piles of books are found throughout Foster’s home, but he’s surviving the confinement by reading snippets from three he keeps on his nightstand: the anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song,” Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II” and Donald Peattie’s “A Natural History of Western Trees.”

“I’m trying to learn more about the trees that I see every day,” he says. “But this book is really fat, so I just read a bit here and there, about sycamores or white pines or oak trees or whatever it may be.”

He’s been asked to teach a poetry workshop this summer at Cal State L.A., which he’s excited about. That is, of course, except for the fact that it will take place on Zoom.

“I’m guessing it might not be as fun as if we were all in the classroom,” Foster says. “There’s just a loss of intimacy. When you’re together in person, you can communicate just by sharing a glance.”

He was glad to get vaccinated last month and is looking forward to community events like the annual son jarocho festival at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street. Mostly, though, Foster longs to “bump into people, talk to them about daily issues and just be with each other in an everyday way.”

Watch Sesshu Foster read his untitled poem.