Brian Sonia-Wallace has been named West Hollywood’s 4th City Poet Laureate making him the youngest person to occupy the role.
Making his start, Sonia-Wallace took to the streets with his typewriter, leading to unlikely residencies from Amtrak to the Mall of America and eventually to his debut memoir, The Poetry of Strangers (Available on Amazon) about traveling the country writing poems for thousands of strangers based on their stories. His LGBTQ+ poetry group, Pride Poets, has written poems for over 800 custom love poems for people over the last two Prides.
Inspired by his mother to get into poetry at an early age, Sonia-Wallace explains how he struggled with ten-finger typing so she made him type a page a day. He quickly realized that, with poetry, the pages fill up faster because of the use of line breaks. Later in life, while still in the closet, he describes having to write “everything in a layer of metaphor” in his journal after suspecting his mother of going through it.
In 2014 Sonia-Wallace set a goal for himself to pay rent with his poetry and from then on started writing professionally.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, his writing has had to adjust just like the rest of the world. Writing about Zoom, distance and community while taking inspiration from long walks.
Pre-pandemic 90% of his work was events. Everything from weddings to corporate parties, while also traveling a couple of months out of the year around the country.
When asked what he’s working on during the pandemic Sonia-Wallace said,
“I’ve been teaching over Zoom, sitting with teenagers and their poetry and adults with their life stories, helping them craft the emotion of this time into words. I’ve also been taking a ton of classes! I was a travelpunk kid who didn’t want anyone to tell him what to write about, and in quarantine prompts and support have been a comfort.”
Applying for the WeHo poet laureate position as soon as it started, building a relationship with the city and starting his own LGBTQ+ poetry group Brian wanted to clarify what that position meant to him saying would like “to build pathways for artistic sustainability, for new voices to be able to enter our cultural discourse, and for every WeHo resident and visitor to be able to engage with this sort of naughtiness with words.”
Sonia-Wallace hopes to connect existing poets and poetry communities to be able to support each other and grow together. Encouraging others to go to open mics based in LA (which are now operating online due to the pandemic) where poets can go to read their work and hear their work read.
Sonia-Wallace also gave us a sneak peek inside his writing process,
“I have two writing practices, a public and private one. In public practice, writing custom poems on the typewriter, I get in an improv flow, a trance state of saying yes to whatever comes, yes to my mistakes, yes to everything the person commissioning the poem tells me and my own observations of them. These poems are born all at once, though every now and then I’ll harvest lines from them for my private writing and vice versa.
The private poems are the ones *I* need to write, work through my own thoughts and stories, either therapy or play. Some of these I’ll polish and labor over until they’re ready to share, some sit for ages. Lots of the ideas for these come while stuck in traffic, something about that state of lazy attention. In The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, the main character divines truth using the titular device by entering a space of open curiosity, not reaching for answers but letting her brain be empty in order to receive them. I think that state accurately describes the mindset I try to enter to write poems, allowing images and language in my subconscious to bubble through and surprise me.”
To those who say poetry isn’t for them Brian says, “Poems are like music — you have to find your genre. But to say ‘I don’t like poetry’ is as absurd as saying ‘I don’t like music.’ You just have to find the poem that gets you.”
Read Brian’s latest stay-at-home-holiday poem for West Hollywood, and watch the video: https://youtu.be/IVwN5HflB3c
Sonia-Wallace will be curating a new column sharing uplifting poems by LGBTQ+ poets.
He will also be hosting a number of events which he will announce in future columns, starting with a roundtable for folks hosting LGBTQ+ literary spaces, or LGBTQ+ spaces that would like to host literary components, on Jan.10th, 2021. RSVP here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/lgbtq-literary-spacemakers-in-quarantine-roundtable-tickets-131966462241