LOS ANGELES — On my way to Drunken Masters earlier this month in downtown Los Angeles, I imagined the reading series would be a sort of scaled-down American Idol: several writers present their work to a group of sauced professionals in the same genre who provide instant feedback and critique. The relevance and quality of feedback depends, however, as much on each master’s wisdom as their capacity to hold liquor. And, unlike the talent show, Drunken Masters isn’t a tournament, so there’s no voting or elimination. The distinction creates an event that feels like an inclusive and informal (very informal) writing workshop, minus the school desks and bad lighting.
Comedians and screenwriters have presided over previous editions of Drunken Masters, but this time it was the poets’ turn to face accomplished poets Rocio Carlos, Joseph Rios, and Hari Alluri at Wolf & Crane, a Japanese whisky and craft-cocktail bar in Little Tokyo.
Drunken Masters is not a full-fledged reading series, or at least not yet. So far it’s an occasional mini-series within a larger series of events called 90x90LA. Produced by Writ Large Press with help from volunteers and friends, 90x90LA is a summer-long run of 90 free cultural discussions and literary events over 90 days, in and around LA, running from July through early October. This is the second time Writ Large has produced the event in Los Angeles; the first iteration was staged back in 2014, inside Traxx bar at Union Station. Anyone is welcome to submit to Drunken Masters, which has been taking place on “various Mondays” throughout the summer. Introducing the night, Writ Large publisher Chiwan Choi summed up Drunken Masters as “people at different stages of their career in one room, critiqued by a bunch of drunk writers.” With that, and a request to please feed the poets (whiskey), 90x90LA Night 48 began.
Josette Siqueiros asked listeners to close their eyes while she read her opening poem, “Molecules for Global Change.” The song “In the Mood for Love” played through the sound system underneath. The poem itself, which Siqueiros wrote for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, summoned the power of poetry to effect social change. After reading a second poem, she remained standing for about 20 minutes while the masters offered their feedback. Rocio Carlos focused on opportunities to boil a poem down to its essence and shared an insight: “Poetry should give that little wound of sorrow or joy,” she said, but noted that Josette’s second poem, “Hundreds of Frogs,” didn’t do this for her. Joseph Rios asked how the poem and the music and the film, In the Mood for Love, might be connected. He suggested tightening the associations to help the audience. Hari Alluri followed with comments that echoed what others had mentioned. When the masters had finished their discussion, as in a writing workshop, each of them handed their copies of Josette’s poems back to her, with apologies for sloppy handwriting.
Yes, someone has to go first at any Drunken Masters event, but going first seemed courageous to me, with the lingering sobriety affecting not just the seriousness but the duration of the criticism. Later, I asked Siqueiros, who is an English teacher, if she agreed with the masters. “It’s always good to have dialogue,” she said, noting that she understood why they would suggest condensing her poems, but that she writes for an audience of readers who might not find the type of compression the judges were recommending accessible.
As Siqueiros was collecting her work, I leaned over to Joyce Sun, who was up next. Are you nervous? “I’m too buzzed to be nervous,” she answered. When the recent UCSD graduate told us this was her first time ever reading in public, we screamed with joy. If we listeners already felt a little like members of a workshop, we became full classmates when Sun read the last line of her second poem — “… bird, blissfully unaware that the world has just turned itself upside down” — and looked up from her phone, smiling, proud.
After a short break, Judy Barrat took the floor. She’d told me she loved to write as a child, but had stopped when she was raising kids, and came back to it years later, entering (and winning) a poetry contest on a whim. Writing “straight from the gut, from the heart” but not formally trained, Barrat said she’d been to poetry readings but usually, “people are so friggin’ polite,” you never know what they’re thinking. “It’s good to get feedback, you can take a class but never really know.”
The tables in front of the masters were filled with empty glasses, and in critiquing Barrat’s work, one master tripped a few times over the word juxtaposition. In this context, it made sense when master Hari Alluri asked Barrat what kind of feedback she would like. As the whisky took effect, masters’ comments became digressive, and the poets became funnier. But Rocio stayed sharp in her critique, advising Judy to “think of the poem as a moving train, to which I do not have a ticket.”
Arminé Iknadossian was the fourth and final poet to face the masters, and she stood before them ready to learn. As they started discussing her work (one comment, suggesting the now-late hour: “story as fuck!”), Arminé pulled out paper and pen and took notes. She told me she participated in 2014’s 90×90, and that events like Drunken Masters help “create a new environment to enjoy poetry and build community.” It’s true. In fact, it’s the whole point.
There are a few good “writer cities” today. I don’t mean trendy neighborhoods — I mean places where talent and community and opportunities converge. There is a sense among Los Angeles writers of, “we’re not New York, but we’re not trying to be,” and they are also generous and inclusive in a way that is special.
At the first 90x90LA event on July 5, more than 50 events ago now, Chiwan Choi shared how the decision to stage another 90 events in 90 days came about. It came from the election, and from asking the question: What do we do now? That night he’d said: “In this city we find a way to carry each other. So we’ll do that.”
If literature is a form of resistance, then so is the act of building community around it.