L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez heads to Venice to talk about the power of language and community

By Bliss Bowen

Luis Rodriguez, the city’s poet laureate, speaks and reads in Venice on Saturday Photo by Arlene Mejorado

Luis Rodriguez, the city’s poet laureate, speaks and reads in Venice on Saturday
Photo by Arlene Mejorado

“I ended up back in the streets. Somehow, though, it wasn’t the same as before. A power pulsed in those books I learned to savor, in the magical hours I spent in the library — and it called me back to them.”

So wrote Luis J. Rodriguez in his gripping 1993 memoir “Always Running — La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.,” which details his grindingly poor, violence-scarred youth and how he found salvation in art and language.

A celebrated memoirist, novelist and author of short stories and children’s books, the East L.A.-raised Rodriguez has participated in poetry festivals around the world and was recently named poet laureate of Los Angeles — only the second poet so honored in the city’s history.

When not writing or reaching out to at-risk youth, the hard-working 60-year-old runs Tía Chucha Press, which he founded in 1989 and which is part of the cultural center and bookstore in Sylmar that he and wife Trini co-founded in 2001.

The power of language and community are recurring themes in Rodriguez’s work, and guiding principles as he shapes the position of poet laureate to fit his vision. He’s working on a “possible anthology of local poets that maybe haven’t been heard,” he said, and is giving readings at the L.A. River, in East L.A., South Central, Watts, the harbor cities, the Valley and elsewhere across the L.A. basin, including Beyond Baroque in Venice this Saturday.

“Poetry is very marginalized in this country,” Rodriquez says. “That’s changing, but even now it’s highly peripheral to the culture. Poetry was how I started. My first book was poetry [1989’s “Poems Across the Pavement”], and my first love, as far as language, is poetry.”

In your blog for the L.A. Public Library, you wrote that the United States “now has more poet laureates than ever before, around 45 in cities big and small.” Why do you think that is, and why is it important for a city to designate a poet laureate?

About ’85 or so, when the poetry slam movement started happening, open mics were popular, there was “Def Poetry Jam” on TV, you had advanced poet performances. I think it was bound to happen that people would try to honor singular poets, just to keep their cities and communities in touch with the honesty of poetry, which is different than almost any other kind of writing in that sense. There’s no way you can do anything but tell the truth in poetry. It’s like a soul talk, as I call it — people talking more on a soul level — when you do poetry.

So how do you define poetry? What’s required for a piece to be called poetry instead of prose or a journal entry?

That’s a good question, because people think it’s just line breaks and things like that. But I think there has to be imagery, compelling language —not dead metaphors but real interesting, powerful metaphors. It also has to have music. I don’t mean it has to rhyme or be in iambic pentameter; I just mean that somehow music has to be [present]. So that when you’re reading it, even if you don’t hear it you can still get some of that; and if you hear it, you can definitely get the cadence of the rhythms.

Do musicians ever accompany you at readings?

Yeah, I have a CD [2003’s “My Name’s Not Rodriguez”] of me and a band called Seven Rabbit. We actually played about two gigs. My plan was that we’d go around, but it costs a lot to carry a band [laughs], you know … I pretty much had to let it go and all the musicians went off on their own way. I might want to do it again, maybe make the instruments less complex and still have poetry and music.
I think that’s a very powerful way of doing it.

Poetry had been taught as a written form of art that rhymed and flowed on the page, but since the emergence of poetry slams in the 1980s there’s more emphasis on poetry as a spoken form — one that doesn’t necessarily rhyme and often resembles dramatic monologues. Do you think that makes poetry more accessible for youth?

I do. Because rap came out earlier than that, and it intersects with rap somewhat. What’s happening is that young people have found their poetic voice. There was a period where I didn’t think they had any elders; most teachers — not all of them, but most — didn’t really know how to teach poetry. It became stale and not engaging. So I think young people found their own voice through rap and poetry slams and poetry performance. It’s a powerful way for young people to be engaged. I also like to encourage young people to consider other [forms] of poetry, such as writing. But I definitely think the performance end has expanded the breadth of poetry.

In “Always Running,” you wrote about how libraries and language helped you tap into your creative spirit, and how that opened an avenue out of gang life. What do you see happening with at-risk kids now? There have been many reports about students getting “social promotions” despite subpar reading and writing skills; how can they be empowered by language if their communication skills aren’t being developed in school?

I think it’s an issue that has to do with power and voice, and I think it’s purposely set up so that poor people of all races aren’t given the tools. If you do come out of a poor community and you make it, you’re special, you’re different; you’re not like the others. But I think everybody has the capacity to be powerful in language, in voice and poetry. It’s just not provided in the same way. I’ve been to poor schools in this country and I’ve been to schools in the middle and I’ve been to the rich schools. I will tell you, when people want their kids to be properly educated, they give them a lot of language. They give them a lot of powerful literature. But if they want to keep them not knowing where to go — ignorant, maybe — and not even knowing how to traverse this world, they lower the language they provide them. So I think language is power, and I’m convinced that, if it weren’t for libraries, some of us wouldn’t have that. Libraries are one of the great democratic institutions of this country, and I totally believe in them.

When you spoke with Venice-area high school students whose parents are in prison, what did they connect with most about your story?

I think they knew that even though I’m older now, I went through some of the same struggles they went through as a teenager, and I still remember that. Sometimes you get older and you forget that you were ever a teenager. It’s a shame, because then we don’t always empathize with what teenagers are going through. The other thing is I talk to them about my situation with my son in prison. … I went to jail, went to two adult institutions and juvenile facilities and a number of jails, but I never did state prison time. So my story is that, here I am trying to get out of that life, and my own son ends up doing hard-core prison time. He got a total of 15 years in prison. So they related to all that; now it’s another end of that story, how if we aren’t careful our own kids fall into those traps. Because most of these kids probably will not be in prison. They’re sad that their dads or mothers might be in prison. They don’t have a relationship with them, and I told them how my own son has three kids and for
the most part they don’t relate to him very well. I think that’s what they related to. We had kind of an emotional connection there.

What are your thoughts about the explosion of tech and digital media companies that have been accused of gentrifying Westside neighborhoods? Do you think they have a role to play in providing creative outlets and opportunities for Westside youth?

Gentrifying … They end up bringing in artists, which is fine, to poor communities, and [those artists] end up getting jobs and doing galleries and that’s all good and sometimes they connect with communities. But as soon as the prices go up, they can’t afford it. Then you get people coming in who don’t care about the arts. I think arts have to be part of every community. There have to be cultural spaces, there have to be independent bookstores; there have to be festivals and murals. It brings life to poor communities, but it also keeps other communities intact. What happens when you bring in big money is you start seeing some of that stuff go away. They don’t want the murals anymore; they want a pristine neighborhood, which to me is not a real neighborhood. You know what I’m saying. Keep neighborhoods intact. I don’t mind people coming in here. If they have money, they should be able to work with the community and help make it better, not get rid of people.

If you were speaking before an assembly of L.A. residents, what’s the foremost message you would strive to impart as poet laureate?

Cultures that have poetry in their center are much more resilient, vital. I think we’ve lost some of that in our culture; as much as we have so much technology and money, I think we’ve lost a lot of our soul talk. I’m trying to bring it back. I’m hoping we can get as many people into that movement as we can, because I do believe we need to get poetry back into the center of our culture.

L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, L.A. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and others are reading at 8 p.m. Saturday at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets: $10, or $6 for students and seniors. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit luisjrodriguez.com.