This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.
“I never think of Los Angeles when I write. It just happens to seep because that’s where I’m from,” Jeremy Radin told a group of three dozen people at Skylight Books on a Thursday night. Los Angeles, he said, is “the American city of desire”.
Radin was in conversation with his friend Rhiannon McGavin to celebrate the release of the updated edition of his “Dear Sal” collection. Reading it, Radin transported his Los Feliz audience to another fantastical dimension, capturing the transient and diasporic spirit of Los Angeles.
McGavin and Radin are born and raised Angeleno Jewish poets, both familiar with the densely woven fabric of the immigrant neighborhoods that make up their hometown. McGavin may be joking that she’s a “rootless cosmopolitan” (referring to an old anti-Semitic euphemism), but that place has also taken root in her poetry. The pair were joined by poets Aman K. Batra and Keayva Mitchell for post-event dessert at the nearby House of Pies, where they pondered the city, from its trees to its traffic, even as its wailing sirens forced weary pauses in the conversation. .
“Los Angeles is the frayed edge of American consciousness, and I think that’s a very useful number,” McGavin said. “Tech industries, media industries, a lot of things started here or were catalyzed here.”
Radin said the pandemic has forced him to slow down and look around the city — to contemplate, for example, its vegetation. “I think we have the greatest variety of trees in the country,” he said. “Our climate can handle it. So this city is like a huge arboretum.
As for the trees, so do the poets, some native and some uprooted from other climes, each with their own relationship to Los Angeles. Batra’s immigrant background left her uprooted, she said: ‘I feel so out of place – in Los Angeles and Long Beach and Artesia where I come from and Punjab when I went to visit family from my mother.”
Instead, she found solace in writing about the light fixtures around her home. “It’s just the kitchen. It’s the gasping breath of the refrigerator and the apple donut and the microwave and the orange peel and the garbage can.
Poets have found themselves over the years attending the same readings and parties, regularly forging a tight-knit circle in a sprawling metropolis. Mitchell, who lives in Long Beach, said she’s not done putting down roots. “There are so many poets,” she said, “and I want to know them all.”
As if to drive home the point, friends strolling through northern Vermont after the reading would greet Radin, the guest of honor, and he would regularly pause to greet them and recommend places to eat nearby. Discussions turned to traffic trauma and other aspects of a city coming crashing back to life after the pandemic — including, again, the possibility of pulling stakes.
McGavin will move to Ireland to study poetry in the fall; Mitchell will spend the summer in Spain. And Radin was thinking about how we find home wherever we go.
“[I am] very wary of a place-based membership,” Radin said. “It just seems really strange to me, the idea that no matter what this place, what the people of this place decide to do, I accept it.”
McGavin’s love for the city made her fiercely protective. At the dawn of a new municipal election season, she rises up against the elected officials who have made life here difficult.
“The part I like the least [of L.A. is] the city government,” McGavin said. “[And] the mayor’s real estate billionaires we have to deal with.
“When I’m a dictator,” Batra added with a laugh, “everyone has a parking space.”
Deng is a Taiwanese/Hong Kong queer American poet and journalist born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley.