Chiwan Choi calls people out like the punk outsider who’s used to being ignored. Despite LA Weekly hailing Choi as the “Jay Z of poetry” last year (for retiring: he’s since un-retired), he knows independent—non-white—voices like his are often overlooked, and this summer he wanted to do something about it.
For a while after “quitting poetry” Chiwan restricted his writing to nonsequiturs he “published” as social-media status updates. But he’s also a publisher, photographer and teacher whose passion for experimentation and connection through language drove him to create small press Writ Large with his wife Judeth, passion that also inspires them to create social/community experiments such as this summer’s #90for90 in downtown Los Angeles.
With Writ Large (Chiwan, Judeth and two partners), Chiwan has been booking and curating 90 consecutive free events all summer. The group sought to create sustainable, people-sized structures in their neighborhood. Despite drawing big-name talent and a loyal, growing audience, the project has received little media attention. These 90 unfunded events for and with neighbors could not contrast more sharply to Jay Z’s Live Nation-produced, Budweiser-sponsored Made in America festival, held Labor Day weekend with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti as lead cheerleader. The mayor wants to showcase the regentrified downtown as an accessible center of LA’s culture. But to Chiwan and others, a pricy A-list festival that restricts local access to the “people’s park” has nothing to do with downtown LA. Which begs the question that every gentrifiying neighborhood inevitably asks: Who defines culture?
I spoke with Chiwan throughout #90for90, and the following is excerpted from our conversations (on days 33, 55 and 71).
What has surprised you?
A few people had the same story, which goes, “I moved to LA a year or two years ago and I have been looking for people I could connect with, that I could be part of, and I haven’t found anything until this.” They will come once or twice a week. That’s the story. Like, we are all just wandering. And we find connections online, but physically we’re just still wandering alone. Someone says, hey, you can come in here every single night. They’re like, wow, this is what we’ve been looking for. That’s been the eye-opening thing in a positive way. Another has been just the support we’ve gotten. Even when we were getting kicked out of places and moving locations, people didn’t say, “Hey, you guys are wack, this is so unprofessional.” It’s been, “Let us know where to go. We’re with you.” These are people who not only are colleagues but people that I borderline idolize. In a negative way, it’s been eye opening to see how many artists still don’t understand that it’s really not just about them.
In trying to book people?
Yeah yeah yeah. It’s like, dude, all these things we’re doing, it’s not about just you. It’s really not about you. Stop acting like a prima donna. It’s fascinating how people are so much in marketing mode that they almost can’t see outside of that.
You’re looking at the project in terms of strengthening a kind of fellowship, and they’re looking at it like, I want exposure?
Yes. And they come thinking they’re the star, that they’re doing everybody a favor by being there.
Tell me about the opening?
The first weekend was really wild. We’re really dealing with the personal, using the personal to build community, even community spaces, and using the personal to create art. Our need to be around other people who are willing to open up their internal life to us also, and how much that drives us.
You wrote earlier this year that in rich neighborhoods there’s only room for commerce. Does that describe LA’s Downtown Arts District?
Yes. Downtown Arts District is a very specific area, one of the earliest developed areas of downtown. It originally had housing for artists and stuff like that, and Al’s Bar, but it’s already on, like, its fifth gentrification. So it’s a marketing name now for developers.
Is showcasing that specific area why the Jay Z festival was in Grand Park?
Grand Park is a bit off the Arts District, by City Hall. I have no idea what that Jay Z thing is about. Nobody here wants it. It’s a park that is supposed to be only for local artists. It’s a park that is not supposed to have alcohol. But now they’re bringing Jay Z, and Budweiser is sponsoring it.
Why is the city promoting the arts district now?
The Arts District way back when was a lot of empty buildings and they rented out buildings super cheap to artists. It literally was the arts district. But over the years, this is what you and I have talked about a lot, artists become the first line in gentrification.
They’re used like fertilizer for developers.
Yes, so they make it cool and things happen, people start moving in. It’s like, oh, there’s all these big spaces there I can get for cheap, and people start going in, white folk start going in, and then at some point the rent pops. Then everybody’s out. If we had done this project in a place where developers were [still] trying to gentrify, this would totally be written up as, Look at all these writers going to this town that needs reviving and that needs this and that, so that the neighborhood could just blow up.
Right, like The New York Times was covering art-gallery openings in Bushwick in 2007, but these days the galleries are being evicted. If developers come in and all the prices go up, why not leave?
People do leave, then they go to other places where it will go through the same cycle. That’s what developers want. For the artists to go out and do the work. The fertilizing.
Since gentrification tends to disperse established communities, #90for90 feels like an act of defiance against that.
It’s been fascinating that just by being somewhere night after night, we’re disrupting pretty much everything.
Where are we culturally, when gathering people becomes an act of disruption?
Ha. Yes. Once people come, it’s like, wow, this is something so radical. It shouldn’t be. But it’s so radical that, they can’t quite grasp what’s going on. So they come again. And it’s like, holy shit, this is unlike the other night, it’s a totally different type of writer or performance or whatever it is. Then it becomes a thing of, wow, now I can incorporate this into the schedule of my life, or at least a short amount of time. I don’t have to sell anything, I don’t have to buy anything, I just have to show up. It’s a weird thing.
This is not just readings, what are the events?
One night, some of the most incredible bands in LA set up inside the bar and just jammed for a few hours. We’ve had panelists that included people from the City Council office and architects and other people just talking about public space. We’ve had readings, we’ve had this series called Drunken Masters, where we bring in a couple of established writers in different fields. Hopefully they get drunk and then we have random people sign up to present their works-in-progress and get feedback from the writers. We’ve had Super Fan nights where we ask people to come and present the night about something they’re big fans of. We had a reading where everybody read stuff they wrote about the World Cup. The other night we had a Jose Saramago Super Fan Night, where two poets just sat down in the middle of the bar and started reading from Saramago’s books to all these people who were just sitting at the bar drinking, waiting for the train.
Why not get sponsors or corporations to give you money: what’s the power of independence?
The experiment is about partnering with whoever owns the space. In this case, Tara Thomas, the owner of Traxx bar in Union Station. Whatever we work out, we’re two downtown residents saying, hey, this is what we love, how can we work together to create this kind of an environment? Once you bring in outside forces, what you’re saying is, let’s promote it outside of where we are, and try to bring in all these people who have no investment in whatever area we’re in. So, with the Jay Z thing, it’s like, what the fuck are you bringing in? You’re bringing in leeches who come into a community, make themselves money, enjoy themselves, and get the fuck out. How does that benefit a community at all? Don’t get me wrong, at the end of 90 days, if someone was to say, that was amazing, here’s $10 million, a million a year for 10 years, then we’ll take it and change the entire city. But that wasn’t the experiment.
If Budweiser called you and offered you guys beer, would you take it?
We’re at a bar, we can’t. But this freedom of not owing anybody anything has been everything. We have no problem scheduling a big event with name people tonight, and then self-published authors tomorrow. We feel completely free to do all those things.
Why not get big-name authors every night? Why put in the little people if you can get all big people?
Big people are boring as hell. The other night, we had 2 first-time novelists. One was a self-published author and one was just published through one of the big NY houses. Once you enter here, we’re all equal. It’s all equal. I don’t give a fuck about your credentials and I don’t care who published your book and how many copies you’ve sold. We care about what kind of dialogue it could start, what you could contribute overall. It’s been really inspiring because I feel like everybody who’s taken part feels a little bit of equal ownership of the entire project.
I’m not trying to conduct this interview in 1994, but we have access to people all over the world via the Internet if we want to form communities. Why do we need communities in person?
We just need a home. We need a home. That’s what it comes down to. When we were planning this, people kept telling us, why don’t you go to this neighborhood, why don’t you go do it in this neighborhood? Things are cheaper, there’s a lot of space. That’s not the point. We wanted to create space where something isn’t. Because this is where we live, we have a stake in it. For people physically to come to a place and see each other and hear each other and hug each other and all those things, it became, holy shit, we are physically not alone. We are not alone. I feel like I have a home here. When we are connecting online, we are seeking something we don’t have. Whereas connecting physically in a space has been like, oh, we do have — this. We’re not here searching for something we don’t have. This weird ownership kicks in that gives people a comfort level, a confidence level to say, I can present this, because this is my home, which is really important.
Social media creates a way to share information but a lot of us are sitting on our computers all the time lonely and disconnected.
Right. So then we start losing the sense of protecting physical space, we are losing the sense of obligation to other people who actually live next to us. Every day that we could just touch base with that, it just magnifies how important that is.
Is this also about visibility, especially for the literary community? Is Los Angeles not a literary city?
It is a literary city, very much so. There’s a lot of indy publishers, an incredible number of great writers. There’s a lot of readers. The LA Times wants to be The New York Times. It becomes a thing of, we need to be a serious literary city, therefore we will just cover serious literary things, or what they deem serious.
You don’t take what you’re doing seriously?
We don’t. We don’t take it seriously at all, but at the same time, we take it seriously enough that we’re committing a quarter of a year to this project.
The LA Times hired journalist Carolina Miranda (whose writing I like) to start a blog called, “Culture: High and Low.” What do you think the LA Times means when it assigns her to cover “high and low culture”?
I have no idea. I was watching Basquiat again this morning, and there’s a scene where he has his debut show and all these journalists are coming and saying, “here’s a true representation of the gutter.” So I imagine “high” is everything established or white, and “low” is everything else that’s not those two things. The lack of media attention for #90for90 has been frustrating but also fascinating. There have been times where we feel like, if we were a couple of white boys in Brooklyn doing this shit, it would be all over the fucking news. But then we bring ourselves back and go, that’s not the point. We’ve started saying, the project is the project. Which means, it’s just about showing up. It’s just about showing up day after day to say, hey look, we are willing to commit our entire life to this, for the next 90 days. We’re doing it because this is what we love and what we feel we want to create in this town we live in. If you want to join us, join us. If not, that’s okay, too. It’s been probably the toughest time of our collective lives, but at the same time it’s been pretty amazing.
What does media tend to focus on?
I read this NPR thing about how publishing needs diversity. I’m like, publishing doesn’t need diversity. There’s plenty of diverse books out there. It’s you motherfuckers who don’t want to cover anything other than mainstream stuff. People have said, I don’t understand why no one wants to write about this. I’m like, what is there to understand?
Despite a lack of media support, #90for90 is growing?
On a recent weekend, we had over 600 RSVPs, early in the week. One Saturday we had 150 people in the bar. One night there was a reading called Dirty Laundry Lit. The host, Natashia Deon, went through the PEN USA Emerging Voices program. She wanted me to work with her starting about 2 years ago, to help her with diversity of the audiences. She books super diverse and even unknown writers, but it’s still always white folks showing up to the events. We’ve been working with them.
Do you feel like you’ve found your tribe? Given this was an experiment, are you getting the results you wanted/expected?
Yes-ish. In a lot of ways we’ve strengthened the community, a lot of writers we featured have felt like, wow, I feel so included in this world now. But the other part, where it’s, -ish, is that a lot of the problems have been exposed. Looking at all the people we’ve featured, it seems like about 70 percent of the writers have been women, probably around that many have been writers of color, and that’s all good. But an audience of color is still afraid to go to events where there are not people like them on stage. I was joking the other day, like, where are all the Asians in the crowd?
You’re saying they might be afraid to come?
Yeah. They’re so used to a certain thing of like, we’re only allowed to be at events, like events that are socially “Asian events,” whatever that means? So with white authors they feel, maybe I’m not allowed there, I shouldn’t go.
A group of people might come to readings to support fellow people of color, but they aren’t coming back to support a mixed group?
Yes, as audience members. It’s been a fascinating thing to see. Like, I’ll go support my own kind but I feel uncomfortable going to something that’s not that.
Looking at LA media I found all the institutional events, but I couldn’t get a sense of what was happening at a neighborhood level. LA calls itself world-class, the mayor calls LA the creative capital, but what does that mean?
You sent me the link about the alleyway entrance for a building for the poor in New York. Here, developers want to just build bridges from building to building so their tenants don’t have to deal with the skid row people. That will make downtown world-class, in their opinion. People who have been born here or grown up here, we really don’t care about the reputation. But there is definitely a wave of trying to turn it into Paris, New York, San Francisco, whatever it is, in a way that mimics the neutered version of Times Square.
What was the goal in the beginning, why you thought you were doing #90for90?
It was a site-specific plan and the space fell through the day before we started. By then we had already scheduled 50 events, so it’s not like we could cancel 50 events. We had to move to a space that wasn’t ideal but got us going. When we got kicked out of there, after day 15 or something, we found our 3rd space, Traxx bar, which is owned by a downtown resident. She’s owned it for 20 years. She’s an artist herself who has been downtown for a long time. She really understands what we’re trying to do. Since we moved into this new space, we have found comfort and peace, but it’s still not the original vision we had.
So the events were planned with the idea that there would be an ability to fund yourselves, in a joint venture?
Yes. We were gonna pay bartenders and the restaurant was gonna get his take and all that stuff. It just fell through. What we are allowed or not allowed to do as independent artists is totally different than the rules of what Jay Z is allowed to do.
What would happen to your project if you charged a $5 cover?
People without $5 can’t come. We have so many friends who don’t have $1.50 to get on the bus on any given night. $5 may not seem much to some, but for a lot of us, if I spend $5 today, I won’t see you for the next 3 weeks, you know what I mean? Being in the train station, it’s allowing people to ride the train in, ride the bus in, which has helped.
You’re inside Union Station?
Yes, inside a bar, at the entrance of Union Station. It’s a private space inside a public space.
Does being in a nontraditional space create problems?
Last night was hard. Right across from the bar, inside the train station, a huge-ass wedding reception was going on. The wedding DJ was just blasting all night. And also, a few of the writers have felt unsafe. They’re so used to reading to their own kind, and all of a sudden there could be the Other sitting at the bar. Not only not their kind, but someone who doesn’t give a shit about what they do, who’s just there to have a beer. It’s kind of terrified a lot of people.
Can you tell or do they let you know?
I had a chat with a writer last week after an event. He took off right after he read, he didn’t even stay for the other writer. He sent me a long email about how, he didn’t mean any disrespect but he just didn’t understand the context and he wasn’t a fit. I was like, you’re basically saying you didn’t like being there with people who are not like you. Last night, too, there were three readers. Each one left right after they read. I could say that’s just dick moves, but it was beyond that. It was, I don’t feel comfortable reading here, there’s something about this that as a writer this is not safe for me.
Is there an incentive to just keep going? Maybe regroup, go get a budget and just continue?
We probably won’t do the exact same thing again, but we’re meeting in a couple of days to sit down and figure out what it is our next project is.
Yes, because if we don’t start planning, we’re all just gonna exhale and not want to do anything for a while. So we have to start planning something when it’s in our minds. We are in this contest (LA2050) that we’re trying to win $100,000 through, for a year-long community publishing project to fight gentrification in Highland Park. We start planning for Grand Park Downtown BookFest #3. I want to open our own bookstore/bar. A few people want to talk to us, they see how many people we can bring to a bar every night without turning the bar into a douche fest.
So then, #365for365?
Certain things have come up that it would be interesting to explore and tackle, like the whole thing with the audience and stuff. Doing all these events, even as we’re trying to balance everybody, certain writers feel superior, certain writers feel inferior, just because of who published them or who didn’t publish them. Stuff like that, it’s just silly.
Part of the project was sort of claiming a little bit of downtown?
Yeah. For a lot of people #90for90 has really galvanized for them the idea that we can make a difference. I think they didn’t quite get it in the beginning. But before each night’s event, we’re like, this is night 30, 40, 50. By the time we’re like, this is night number 70, they’re like, holy shit. It becomes, we are doing something ridiculous. When we say things like, man, I wish we had our own stage, now they hear it differently, because they’re like, yeah, you guys could totally make a space work. They could see themselves in the space, you know what I mean? It’s been strange in a sense that, people always gravitate towards identifying a star, instead of thinking of it as a social, communal thing. That part I get still really uncomfortable with. Like, oh, these are the stars of this thing, instead of, wow, thousands of people have come here this summer. They can’t quite grasp that.
What is the plan for the finale?
We’re gonna do our second LAB•FEST, which was the opening day-long festival we did last year when we opened DTLAB inside The Last Bookstore. It was a 12-hour festival of writers, panelists, artists, musicians. The 90 days ends on the last weekend of September, we’re gonna just have a big old blowout.
We have no idea. We were joking that at the end of 90 days, some magic box opens up and sparkles fly out. On Day 91, I’m probably gonna have a breakdown. Seriously, I think it’s coming. Emotionally, physically, everything. I really have no idea. That’s sort of the thing where we just sit around sometimes, we’re completely excited about it. Other times we’re like, why are we doing this?
There is no why! I am going to bring up the emails we exchanged earlier this year. I told you I wanted to write some dumb story from my past, but I didn’t understand the point, why bother. You said, “The point is the ridiculousness of life and how perfect it is.” I said, well, this thing happened, but how is that a story?, and maybe it didn’t really mean anything? You wrote:
NOTHING means anything! That’s the point. The only thing that means anything was that in some moment in the history of the universe, you existed, and this thing happened.
I was thinking about the audience instead of just telling the story, which is backwards. I think what #90for90 is “about” is that: Nothing means anything. Just create the thing. Keep creating the thing.
Yeah. Thanks for reminding me of all that. True. Yeah. It’s true. Some days we’re just so physically tired, we’re just, I can’t, it makes no sense.
#90for90 is a series of free events featuring writers, readers, fans, musicians, artists and others produced by Writ Large Press as part of its DTLAB project series. It takes place every night through September 26 at Traxx Bar, in Los Angeles’s Union Station. Writ Large Press is Chiwan Choi, Judeth Oden Choi, Jessica Ceballos and Peter Woods.
This is the first interview in a series called 5 tags. Each subject selects their own tags to accompany the text.
Photo credit for Chiwan Choi: Jason Gutierrez.
Photo credits for #90for90: Chiwan Choi.