Monday, March 02, 2015

The La Bloga interview with Luis J. Rodriguez, the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and founding editor of Tia Chucha Press

Luis J. Rodriguez

Luis J. Rodriguez was born in El Paso, Texas in 1954, though his family lived in Ciudad Juarez. At the age two, Rodriguez’s family moved to Los Angeles where he grew up. As an adult, he moved around California and eventually lived in Chicago for 15 years, the same number of years he’s been back living in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez is an award-winning author of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He is perhaps best known for his 1993 memoir, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Rodriguez has noted that this book has sold almost half-a-million copies, and in some places is the most checked out—and the most stolen—book.

Rodriguez now has 15 books in poetry, children’s literature, the novel, short stories, and non-fiction. His last poetry book, My Nature is Hunger, won the 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Award. And his last memoir, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing, became a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

On October 9, 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodriguez as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles for a two-year term. In making the appointment, Mayor Garcetti observed, “Luis Rodriguez is an example of how powerful an impact literature can have on young lives, and as Poet Laureate, he will impact youth across Los Angeles. I have no doubt that Luis will run with this new role and take it to new heights.”

Rodriguez’s present wife, Trini, is his third and they have been together some 30 years. He has four children, five grandchildren, and a great-grandchild, with another one on the way.

Q: What do you want to accomplish as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles?

A: I’m for poetry to become an everyday, every occasion thing. To me poetry is deep soul talk that utilizes sounds, images and words to powerfully express and impact our world. Most social language appears dishonest or exploitative, giving you news, advertisement, information, but largely inauthentic and unrevealing. Over the past thirty years, there has been an explosion of rap, slam poetry, open mics, and independent publishing that has brought blood and vitality to the periphery of our culture. The center of culture—with multi-billion industries in publishing, film, TV, and radio—appears hollow in comparison. Poet Laureates not only celebrate their cities, communities or countries, but also write poems that are timely as well as representative of our times—good, bad, and in-between.

I currently have plans to do readings and workshops in libraries, schools, festivals, conferences, and other venues throughout the vast and colorful Los Angeles metropolitan area. I also believe in the art of poetry, the rigorous discipline and practice to make language, story and ideas as compelling as possible. Here’s a recent sonnet I wrote that I hope maintains an adequate measure of gravitas, claritas and integritas (gravity, clarity and integrity) that all art should strive for:

A shadow hangs where my country should glow.
Despite glories shaped as skyscrapers or sound.
More wars, more prisons, less safe, still low.
Massive cities teeter on shifting ground.
Glittering lights, music tracks hide the craven.
TV, movies, books so we can forget.
Countless worn out, debt-laden & slaving;
Their soul-derived destinies unmet.

Give me NASCAR, lowriders, Hip Hop, the Blues.
Give me Crooklyn, cowboys, cool jazz, cholos.
Give me libraries, gardens of the muse.
Give me songs over sidewalks, mad solos.
            Big America improperly sized.
            Give me your true value, realized.

Q: Aside from being a poet yourself, you are also the founding editor of Tia Chucha Press, not in its 25th year, and co-founder/president of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley. What is the interplay among these different roles?

A: I created Tia Chucha Press in 1989 to publish my first collection, Poems Across the Pavement. This was when I lived in Chicago, which at the time was the birthplace of poetry slams. The book became a hit, which I sold out of the trunk of my car and while doing readings in bars, cafes, libraries, street corners, homeless shelters, prisons, Hip Hop and lowrider shows … you name it. Soon other Chicago poets wanted me to do their books. Why not? I had a great designer in Jane Brunette, of Menominee-German-French descent, who has designed our close to 60 books (of other poets, mind you) since then. In a couple of years, we obtained interest from poets across this great land.

I’ve published anyone whose manuscripts knocked me off my feet: African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Native Americans, Japanese Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Korean Americans, LGBT, and more. I moved back to Los Angeles in 2000, and a year later my wife Trini and I helped create a cultural café, bookstore, performance space, workshop center, and art gallery called Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural. Now we are a non-profit renamed Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, serving 15,000 people a year, and teaching writing, theater, music, dance, murals, and Mexica/Mayan cosmologies, among other arts. We also have the only bookstore for 500,000 people in my section of the City of Angels. By the way, I named both the press and center for my late “Tia Chucha” Maria De Jesus Rodriguez who was the creative (often called “crazy”) member of my family.

Q: How has poetry affected your life?

A: There are many ways to obtain knowledge, and I can vouch for most of them—study, stories, paying attention, being inventive, making mistakes, trying again. Poetry is a path to knowledge as well as of the imagination. In my case, when I was a teenage drug addict and gang member, books became my saving grace. Once I was briefly homeless, sleeping in abandoned cars, all-night movie theaters, vacant lots, along the Los Angeles River. My refuge then was the downtown L.A. public library. I loved the African American experience books of the 1960s—Malcolm X, Claude Brown, George Jackson. But also later of Puerto Ricans and Chicanos like Piri Thomas, Miguel Pinero, Ricardo Sanchez, Sandra Cisneros, and Victor Villasenor. I went back and studied classical American poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but also more contemporary poets like Haki Madubuti, Juan Felipe Herrera, Joy Harjo, William Stafford, Philip Levine, and many more. When my imagination grew to encompass the idea that I may be a poet, with books on the shelves, then this became the seed of an immense possibility. I let go of drugs and gangs by age 20; I went through 20 years of drinking after that, but I’ve now been clean and sober for almost 22 years. My writing, my poetry, proved to be medicine—a healing stone, a destiny. I’m blessed to have achieved what I’ve achieved. I’m a child born on the border, in El Paso, and for most of my life living in L.A., the San Francisco Bay Area, the “Inland Empire,” or Chicago I felt put down, dismissed, invisible. None of this stopped me in the end. I realized that my life like everyone else in my circumstances has value, meaning, direction. Poetry woke me up, and I’ve never let this go. 

Trini and Luis Rodriguez

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