Coming Soon to ALOUD: The Extraordinary Tracy K. Smith

Throughout the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s new memoir, Ordinary Light, radiant flashes of poetry permeate Tracy K. Smith’s narrative. With great empathy and attention to beauty, Smith recalls her childhood growing up in a sheltered Northern California town, and explores belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America. Set against the backdrop of her mother’s illness and death, Smith struggles to understand her mother’s faith until she finds peace and a prayer-like solace through poetry. Before she takes the ALOUD stage on Thursday, May 28 to discuss her moving account of a daughter’s journey, we caught up with Smith about the power of communing with language.

Both poetry and memoir are deeply personal types of writing. What sparked the need to write a memoir that poetry could not fulfill?
Smith:
I wanted to get out of familiar territory with this story. I wanted to let go of the tools with which I as a poet was most familiar in order to truly explore and interrogate this material. I’d been writing about my mother in poems for a long time, but prose required me to ask different questions, go after different kinds of insights, say things more directly and interrogate the thought process on the page before the reader’s eyes.

How did your daily writing practice change when you transitioned from poetry to prose?
Smith:
Well, I’d just become a mother when I started this book, so my writing practice had already undergone a major change. I had far less time to write, yet suddenly I had incentive to be far more productive, more efficient. It was great, because I had to push past any hesitation or fear rather quickly so that my writing windows wouldn’t be squandered. I also got over some of the fetishism I’d had the luxury of indulging: needing to be alone in order to write; needing to be in my comfortable, familiar writing space; needing a certain ritual in order to get started.

My revision process also changed radically when I switched to prose. I’ve always been one to revise poems, but working with an editor really taught me how prose is built one layer at a time. At least that’s how it happened for me. I’d write a chapter, and then go back and add another layer of concern, allowing the text to begin to converse with other chapters elsewhere in the book. And then I’d add another layer that allowed my adult self to interrogate the material a little bit, and another layer that did something else, and so on. It fostered a different degree of patience and a different, slower kind of dramatic arc.

Your memoir centers around the loss of your mother. What were the challenges and/or rewards of grappling with such a difficult subject?
Smith:
It was thrilling to recreate the feeling of being in my mother’s presence. It was a gift to go back and allow these very specific memories to emerge. And yes, it was difficult to confront and acknowledge some of the unresolved conflicts that also characterized our relationship. But thinking things through in language was powerful, as was working with a memory until an insight that was previously unrealized began to announce itself. That kind of retrospection helped me to discover for the first time some of the constant themes running through my own life. Writing helped me, quite literally, make sense of the major experiences I had lived.

What were some of the other stories from your past that echoed in your memory and you wanted to explore on the page?
Smith:
I wanted to talk about race. I wanted to record and examine what it felt like growing up black in California in the 1970s and 80s. I wanted to talk through some of my own religious preoccupations and clarify for myself what God has meant in my life.

In regards to exploring faith, you describe how the writing of poetry is a type of prayer. Many writers feel the opposite of being at peace while writing. How did poetry come to offer you a kind of inward serenity?
Smith:
I’m not saying that writing is easy, or that it’s an instant route to inner peace. But being able to reflect upon and to listen to experience in a way that is markedly quieter and more complex than what happens in real-time, during the hectic, noisy, distracting day-to-day, does to me feel purposeful and centering. I think that prayer might be, for many people, a manner of reaching out to something larger and more meaningful than oneself; I feel the same way about poetry, even if what I am seeking to listen to or commune with is simply another region of my own mind. My shorthand for what I’m after when I’m writing is access to the unconscious. But I also hope it might even be possible to draw from sources of meaning that sit beyond the self.

ALOUD takes place at the Los Angeles Public Library; we’re curious if you have any connections to public libraries?
Smith:
Oh of course! I spent afternoons after school all through my childhood wandering the aisles in the public library. And even as an adult, the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries have brought me right back to that feeling of being a single small person in the presence of innumerable vast worlds, all lined up on the shelves and within reach.

Click here to make your free reservation to the program!
Thursday, May 28, 7:15 PM
Ordinary Light: A Memoir
Tracy K. Smith

In conversation with Lynell George

Los Angeles Public Library Awarded Nation’s Highest Library Honor

On Monday, First Lady Michelle Obama presented the Los Angeles Public Library with this year’s National Medal for Museum and Library Service on behalf of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Celebrating extraordinary and innovating approaches to public service, this award is the nation’s highest honor given each year to five libraries and five museums for service to the community.

Pictured: City Librarian John F. Szabo, Los Angeles community member Sergio Sanchez, and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The Los Angeles Public Library was selected for its success in improving the lives of Angelenos every day by providing a level of social, educational, and cultural services unmatched by any other public institution in the city. The award recognizes the Library’s many programs that help people on their path to citizenship, earn their high school diploma, manage their personal finances, and access health and well-being services and resources, among others like specialized programs for veterans.

City Librarian John F. Szabo accepted the award during a White House ceremony, along with Board of Library Commisioners Member Mai Lassiter and Los Angeles community members Sergio and Francisca Sanchez, who were selected to represent the millions of Angelenos whose lives have been improved by the Library. After emigrating from Mexico 24 years ago, the Sanchezes used the library resources to improve their English, pursue their GEDs and become U.S. citizens.

Congressman Xavier Becerra (CA-34) said, “For over 140 years, the Los Angeles Public Library has served our diverse community of Angelenos with dedication and excellence. Under the superb leadership of City Librarian John F. Szabo, the Library has become a pioneer in delivering innovative and groundbreaking services to all members of the community.”

The Library Foundation would like to join Congressman Becerra in congratulating the Los Angeles Public Library for this well deserved recognition!

 

From the Archives: Mad Men

As we bid farewell to Mad Men and the series finale that AMC’s marketing team climatically promoted as “the end of an era,” we combed through the Los Angeles Public Library’s archives to look at some of the real ads of this era. Just like many of the cutting-edge campaigns that Don Draper and team masterminded, these advertisements from archived issues of Westways and Playboy magazines offer a snapshot of the social and cultural climates of their times through humor, sarcasm, lust and wanderlust, and the ever-timely dose of nostalgia.

From Playboy, 1961:

From Playboy, 1964:

From Playboy, 1968:

From Playboy, 1970:

From Westways, 1967:

To continue exploring other images from this inspirational era, browse the Los Angeles Public Library’s photo collection. If you are not up-to-date on the last season of Mad Men, you can check out previous seasons of Mad Men from your local library.

Untold Stories: Jennifer Clement at ALOUD

Based on a lifetime of living in Mexico and some 10 years of interviewing and listening to the stories of the female survivors and victims of Mexico’s gruesome drug culture, award-winning author Jennifer Clement delivers a deeply poignant novel about hope in the face of darkness.  Former ALOUD participant and author Francisco Goldman calls the work, “Beguiling, and even crazily enchanting…gives us words for what we haven’t had words for before.”

In today’s Mexico, truth tellers are murdered, journalists are disappeared. As a novelist, poet, human rights activist, and former President of PEN Mexico, Clement lives ever-so-close to that world, and decided to turn to fiction to tell this story, one that remains hauntingly close to real life, in her latest work, Prayers for the Stolen.

This visceral novel sheds light on the fate of young women in rural Guerrero who live in the shadows of the drug war. In the words of Clement, “Prayers for the Stolen is a novel about Ladydi Garcia Martínez. She is part of a community, like so many in rural Mexico, that has been decimated by drug traffickers, government agricultural policies and illegal immigration. Her home is a village near the once glamorous port of Acapulco. Her story, although inspired by truth, is fiction.”

Join us at ALOUD on Thursday, May 14, for an eye-opening conversation with Jennifer Clement moderated by writer Magdalena Edwards.  Simultaneous interpretation into Spanish will be provided by Antena Los Ángeles, as part of ALOUD’s collaboration with LéaLA, Feria del Libro en Español de Los Ángeles, in which Clement will also participate the weekend following ALOUD.  Read an excerpt below from Clement’s powerful book, and make your free reservation for the ALOUD program here.

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement- Excerpt

Start Your Summer at ALOUD

With all the sunshine and high temps this week, it certainly feels like summer is quickly approaching. What better way to ring in the new season than making plans for ALOUD? This summer, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ critically-acclaimed ALOUD series presents an exceptional slate of original programming celebrating great writers, epic poetry, and the history of food in Los Angeles.

Kicking off the season on Tuesday, June 9, ALOUD welcomes one of America’s most beloved storytellers, Judy Blume. In conversation with KPCC host Alex Cohen at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo, Blume will discuss her classic work, passionate advocacy for the freedom to read, and her newest novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event. Tickets can be purchased here and are on sale now.

As part of the Library Foundation’s upcoming project exploring the Los Angeles Public Library’s menu collection, ALOUD presents two exciting panel discussions: On Sunday, June 14, Josh Kun, professor and author of To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City, convenes local chefs Joachim Splichal (Patina Group), Cynthia Hawkins (Hawkins House of Burgers), and Ricardo Diaz (Colonia Publica) for a conversation on L.A. food past and present. And on Tuesday, July 14, Kun brings together urban gardener Ron Finley, the Healthy School Food Coalition’s Elizabeth Medrano, and Community Services Unlimited’s Neelam Sharma to discuss the struggles and triumphs of contemporary food activism – or, how we live and eat in L.A.

On Tuesday, June 30, three poets pose the question: “What is it about Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that so deeply resonates across different cultures?” Poet Christopher Merrill joins poets and translators Luis Albert Ambroggio and Sholeh Wolpé and musician Sabba Motellebi for an evening of music and poetry in English, Persian and Spanish.

Join journalist Lynell George and writer Marisela Norte as they debut a new collaboration on the ALOUD stage on Thursday, July 9. “Love, Los Angeles: A Conversation in Words and Images,” is an on-going project to navigate the quickly-changing landscape of contemporary Los Angeles through photographs and text. Frosty of dublab will also be throwing in a live DJ mix for the program.

Two of today’s most thought-provoking and intimately honest essayists, Meghan Daum (The Unspeakable) and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), meet on the ALOUD stage on Thursday, July 23 to share their work as they grapple with the modern complexities of being human.

And closing out the season on Wednesday, July 29, Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman with soprano Janai Brugger perform a special adaptation of Karpman’s vocal, orchestral, and visual performance of the Langston Hughes’ poem, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.”

View the full ALOUD summer 2015 calendar at lfla.org/aloud. Did you know that Library Foundation Members receive advance notice of ALOUD programs? Learn more about becoming a Member here.

New Short Videos from ALOUD

We hope you’ve spent many evenings with ALOUD at the Central Library, hearing from some of the most groundbreaking artists, authors, scientists, and thinkers of our time. Now, whenever and wherever you have a couple minutes to unwind, you can catch up on illuminating moments from the programs you missed or you want to experience again. Over the years, we’ve been archiving full programs through podcasts and videos, and now we are excited to share with you a new series of short videos highlighting a few favorite moments from some recent programs. Take a short break with ALOUD and enjoy!

“Even at the most dramatic, there’s still a sense of playfulness,” said moderator Elvis Mitchell of Scott McCloud’s graphic novels. Hear how McCloud has made humor his ally.

 

“It was March, a light snow was falling…” reads Bill T. Jones from his book Story/Time: The Life of an Idea. Watch as the dancers Talli Jackson and Erick Montes Chavero bring to life Jones’ memory of an evening 24 years ago in this beautiful performance at ALOUD.

 

“Over the next several days, I nearly lost my mind…” begins actor Reza Safai as he read from the deeply personal diary of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man still imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, but who has never been charged with a crime. This is part one of a three-part short video series, which includes a conversation with Slahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander, and activist and editor of Slahi’s book, Larry Siems.

Watch over 100 short clips and full programs on ALOUD’s Vimeo page.

 

Library Supporter T.C. Boyle Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

On Saturday, April 18, the annual L.A. Times Festival of Books kicks off on the USC campus, and as part of the festivities the winners of this year’s L.A. Times Book Prizes will be revealed on Saturday evening. But one big winner has already been announced: novelist and short story writer T.C. Boyle will receive the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement.

TC Boyle

Beyond his many writing accolades, including penning the critically acclaimed books Drop City, The Tortilla Curtain, East Is East, The Road to Wellville, and most recently The Harder They Come, Boyle has been a longtime supporter and friend of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. He’s also been a frequent participant and honorary chair of the annual Book Drop Bash, including this year’s, which will take place on Saturday following the awards ceremony.

The Book Drop Bash is the official after-party of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, exclusively for Library Foundation Members and Los Angeles Times Festival Books authors. If you are not already a Library Foundation Member, you can still attend by becoming a Member today and receive your invitation for two to the Book Drop Bash!! For more information, please contact Membership Director Megan Hamilton at 213.292.6242 or meganhamilton@lfla.org.

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Before we honor the work of T.C. Boyle this Saturday, listen to the podcast of his conversation at ALOUD from 2010 when he discussed his collection Wild Child as well as his novel The Women about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. You can also check out his work from the Los Angeles Public Library.

Join the Festivities at the Book Drop Bash!

Are you one of the thousands of Angelenos who look forward to coming out for the country’s largest book celebration? On Saturday, April 18th, the Los Angeles Times Festival Of Books takes over the USC campus, and the festivities don’t stop at the end of the day. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles will open the doors of downtown’s historic Central Library to Members and participating Festival authors for the fourth annual Book Drop Bash, an after-hours soiree celebrating the literary life of our city.

Rub shoulders with your favorite festival authors, including Book Drop Bash honorary hosts T.C. Boyle, LeVar Burton, Janet Fitch, Jonathan Gold. Attica Locke, Susan Orlean, Luis J. Rodriguez, Kenneth Turan, David Ulin, and many more.

Participate in the legendary book swap, take pictures in the photo booth, and enjoy music and drinks in downtown’s historic Central Library as we celebrate the literary life of our city!

If you are not already a Library Foundation Member, you can still attend by becoming a Member today and receive your invitation for two to the Book Drop Bash!! For more information, please contact Membership Director Megan Hamilton at 213.292.6242 or meganhamilton@lfla.org.

This event is made possible through the generosity of our sponsors.

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Changing Lives: L.A.’s New Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez

“L.A. is the most culturally rich of U.S. cities, expansive in size, but also in spirit and imagination,” says Luis J. Rodriguez, who was appointed last October by Mayor Eric Garcetti as the second poet laureate in L.A. history. Besides being an award-winning author of 15 books, the founder of Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center and Bookstore in Sylmar, and an honorary host of the Library Foundation’s upcoming Book Drop Bash, Rodriguez is a fierce community activist.

City Librarian John Szabo, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Danielle Brazell of the Department of Cultural Affairs welcome Rodriquez as L.A. Poet Laureate at the Central Library.

For forty years, Rodriquez has been active in gang peace and youth development, deeply rooted in the urban consciousness of many neighborhoods across Los Angeles. “We [Angelenos] have a complex history that includes diminishment, oppression, losses. But we also dream big and try to shape the world with big hands, big hearts, big minds.” Rodriquez is whole-heartedly embarking on his new poet laureate post with plans of collaborating with the Los Angeles Public Library, as well as schools, museums, community spaces, probation camps, juvenile halls, and more to make poetry “an everyday, every occasion thing” across every community. To kick of National Poetry Month this April, we asked how books changed his life, and here Rodriquez shares his personal story:

“In 1956 my family came to Los Angeles from the border area of Ciudad Juarez/El Paso. I didn’t speak English entering L.A. schools. In those days, they punished us for speaking Spanish. And they didn’t teach us English well. I began an intense street life—stealing at seven, breaking into schools at 10, joining a gang at 11, drug use at 12. My parents tried to keep a stable life, but my father worked as a custodian far away, leaving early, coming late. My mother had her hands full with four rambunctious children, and when she worked it was in the garment district or cleaning homes. Somebody fell through the cracks—it turned out to be me. I dropped out of school at 15 and my parents promptly kicked me out of the house. I was briefly homeless in downtown L.A., sleeping in abandoned cars, in all-night movie theaters, along the L.A. River. But one thing that saved me was books. I loved to read as I learned more English. At 10, a teacher read aloud “Charlotte’s Web” and I was hooked. Libraries became my refuge, in particular the Central Public Library, where I roamed the aisles during the day. I was the weird homie with books under my arms. Nobody else in my family or among my friends seemed to like books. Books never belittled me, beat me, or told me I’d “never amount to anything.” Despite nights in jail, drug use and violent acts, by age 19 I was done with “the crazy life.” I longed for another world, another person, one linked to deep social change and creative expression. By twenty, I had obtained a high school diploma, painted murals, took part in community protests—and my first son was born. I had transformed. Around five years later, I worked as a reporter and recited poems at cafes and cultural spaces. Books were there every step of the way.”

Stay tuned for more information about poetry programs with L.A.’s new poet laureate and check out his work at the Los Angeles Public Library!

 

Spring Break at the Library

It’s spring break for many students around Los Angeles this week and next. If you are looking to keep your young ones engaged outside of the classroom, head over to any branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. With a wide range of free programs for children and teens, there’s no break at the Library from learning, reading, playing, and some much needed relaxing. Here’s a few highlights from the Library’s full upcoming calendar of events.

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NoHo Teens Yoga Club
Tuesday, April 7
North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library
Practicing yoga helps teens develop the body-mind connection which not only improves body image but also promotes better posture and even alleviates stress. Join us at NoHo library to learn some breathing and relaxation exercises to get you through that stressful school day.

LA Youth Poet Laureate 5-Week Teen Poetry Workshop
Tuesday, April 7

Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library
Do you have what it takes to be Los Angeles’ next Teen Poet Laureate? This 5-week poetry workshop is your opportunity to workshop your poetry or hip hop with professional writers and prepare your portfolio for city-wide competition. Refreshments will be provided.

Magnetic Poetry for Teens
Tuesday, April 14
Washington Irving Branch Library
Come learn to make a magnetic poetry set! Supplies provided; space is limited. This program is presented in celebration of National Poetry Month.

STEAMIN’ SPRING BREAK SCRATCH Camp
Tuesday, March 31 thru Friday, April 3
Baldwin Hills Branch Library
Kids eight years and up are invited to spend spring break learning to create code for making games, animated apps, storytelling and more. This is a four day camp. Commitment to attend all sessions is required. Computers are provided or campers can bring their own laptops. Space is limited. Advance registration recommended. Call 323.733.1196 to enroll.

Camp Minecraft
Wednesday, April 8
Venice – Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library
LA Makerspace will teach us how to participate in an interconnected world, where skills in online collaboration and coding are more valuable than ever! Space limited to 15 people. Sign up at the Information Desk. Ages 8-14.

Make It Mondays: Building Bricks
Monday, April 6
Arroyo Seco Regional Library
Join us for a hands-on activity each Monday at 4:00 pm…it’s MAKE IT MONDAYS! On April 6 and 20 we will be creating masterpieces with (4 letter brand name) building bricks.

There’s so many other ways students can take part in the Library’s many activities, including volunteer programs for teens at their local branch. Learn more today!

Top Photo Credit: “Coronado school is in session” from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Archive.