Friday, November 21, 2014

Interview with L.A. Poet Laureate: Luis J. Rodriguez

Melinda Palacio

Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez

Bringing poetry to an entire city is a tough job. Mayor Garcetti chose the right man. Welcome Los Angeles Poet Laureate, Luis J. Rodriguez. His generous interview answers show a man who can take on tremendous responsibilities, especially those of elder and poet to the city of angels. As a Tia Chucha Press Poet, I'm a little biased but very humble and grateful for this interview with the 2014-2016 Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, Luis J. Rodriguez. Luis offers his personal website and email as venues to receive suggestions for bringing poetry to the center of our culture. 

Melinda Palacio: What are some of your expectations as poet laureate?

Luis J. Rodriguez: First to magnify what I do already—speak to students; conduct workshops in as many schools, libraries and communities as possible; to attend and help establish poetry events and festivals in our vast terrain of a city; to represent with dignity the city’s myriad voices, flavors and tongues, including reaching out to the forgotten or pushed out—such as those behind bars, undocumented, LGBT, or homeless. And, of course, I’ll write poems.

MAP: How do you plan on making Los Angeles a more creative space and what can the city expect during your tenure?

LJR: My plan is to help poetry, and all the arts, explode.  Poetry should be an everyday and every occasion thing.  I want to help bring poetry to the center of our culture, where it needs to be.  Presently, poetry in our city, state and country is highly marginalized, concentrated in a few hands, un-promoted and mostly unused.  People are much more engaged in popular culture, sports teams, video games, reality shows, celebrity gossip—which is all entertaining, but very much pushed on the rest of us.  There’s big money in this.  Poetry is not that easily appropriated.  You don’t need an industry to do poetry.  Anyone is capable.  Poetry like most art is internal.  Provide skills, mentoring, cultural spaces, and poetry can come alive for anyone.  Poetry is deep soul talk, truth derived, and therefore immanently scary.  It’s a prophetic act, not in the sense that poetry or art “predicts” the future, but that it pulls from the threads of the past, the dynamics of the present, to imagine and point to a possible future free of the limitations, uncertainties, inequalities, and angsts we face.  I plan during my two-year assignment as Poet Laureate to bring out the healing and revolutionary qualities of poetry to a city hungry for this energy and power.

MAP: This position is sponsored by the LA Public Library, will there be some coordination between the LA Public Library and Tia Chucha's?

LJR: The cultural space and bookstore I helped establish in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, will continue doing what it does during my time as poet laureate.  This includes reaching out to libraries and schools.  I want Tia Chucha’s to be key to my position—it’s a positive example of how art, including poetry, transforms lives.  As for literature, we have writing circles, an outdoor annual literacy festival, weekly open mics, and a renowned poetry press.  I will definitely work with the vast L.A. Public Library system to reach out and broaden our reach.  Tia Chucha’s will be honored to assist and collaborate in any way possible.

MAP: Is there also a role that Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and/or Tia Chucha Press will play in the near future?

LJR: Most Angelinos do not know about Tia Chucha’s and its small press, Tia Chucha Press. In fact, L.A. has amazing small presses, including Kaya Press, Writ Large, the well-known Red Hen Press, and others.  The area also has amazing independent bookstores like Eso Won, Book Soup, Skylights, Vroman’s, Seite Books, Libros Smibros, and Tia Chucha’s.  We plan to cooperate in a number of events within the next two years, including in 2016 when the largest writers (and teachers of writing) conference in the U.S. is held here—the Associated Writing Programs conference that has had up to 12,000 participants from all over the country.  We may have an anthology of youth work.  Many ideas have already come my way. Yes, definitely, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and its press will play a big role.  Anyone can go to to find out more.

MAP: Can you share any immediate activities slated in the near future in either your roles as LA Poet Laureate or Tia Chucha Publisher and Founder of the Centro? Any dates or events you'd like La Bloga to list?

LJR: Presently, the L.A. Public Library and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs have not sat down with me to work on all the plans I have.  But I’ll make sure they will be publicized.  I do have a “Love Poem to Los Angeles” that I wrote just before the Poet Laureate position was announced by Mayor Eric Garcetti in early October.  I’d like to get this published soon—in a major publication first, and then elsewhere.  We plan another “Celebrating Words” festival in Pacoima next spring.  I will make sure to inform La Bloga and its readers about our final decisions.

MAP: What can the public do to assist in your vision for the city and what can Tia Chucha Press Poets do for you?

LJR: I’d like to hear from local libraries, schools, or community organizations about possible readings, workshops, and events in which children, youth, and families can be invited and engaged.  In more than just English as well.  I’d like to see more Open Mics—where people feel free to express themselves in words, songs, performances, and such.  I will accept proposals at my website at  People can also reach me at  Obviously, not all ideas can be done.  But what I’m thinking can happen with inspiration, a seed planted, a flower of creativity watered.  It can happen with or without me.  My job is to help push or create social energy toward healing and authority through poetry and the arts.

The Wedding of Margarita Lopez and Silverio Pelayo at Tia Chucha's
Officiated by Trini and Luis Rodriguez

MAP: Recently, you and Trini officiated a wedding at Tia Chucha's. This must say so much about how Tia Chucha's is truly a cultural center. Was this the first wedding at the center? Your energy seems boundless. How do you find time to fit in all of your roles? Do you have plans to seek public office in the near future?

LJR: In the thirteen years we’ve been in the Northeast Valley, we’ve seen young people grow up.  Some get married, have babies, continue to develop into wonderful and whole human beings.  Many learned guitar, Son Jarocho musical traditions, Mexican Danza (so-called Aztec dance), photography, mural painting, keyboards, drumming, puppetry, theater, and more at Tia Chucha’s.  Many read books, often for the first time, there.  We’ve had two weddings at our space where Trini and I were asked to officiate—and I have officiated three other weddings outside the space.  We’re honored to do this.  This is recognition of our eldership, our connection to new generations.  Trini and I are both in our early 60s; this is one way we can give back in a meaningful and respectful way.  How do I make time?  Community, including the poor, the exploited and oppressed, energizes me.  I’m energized by the possibilities of full justice and equity for all.  Ideas and actions together; learning, teaching and realizing—where there are no unreachable gulfs between these.  I’ve also been sober for 21 years—this helps tremendously.  I no longer live hidden lives, drinking, carousing, squandering time and relationships.  I’m more integral than I’ve ever been, and what an ordeal it has been to get here.  I’m revolutionary to the core, and this helps.  I won’t get “settled in,” complacent or satisfied with achievements.  But I also know—this is not about me.  It’s class, community, a new world. I may seek public office in the future—I don’t think we can turn over any political or cultural ground to the one percent, the wealthy or powerful that aim to control all this.  But for now, for the next two years, I’m concentrating on being Poet Laureate—to extend the important conversation about deep, systemic and healthy change, and how poetry can help.

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