That T.S. Eliot bit about April as the cruelest month? Forget it. Even though it’s one rare line of poetry that millions recognize, for American poets, at least, it’s their lucky spin on the calendar --National Poetry Month. Leading Los Angeles’ celebrations: Luis J. Rodriguez. He’s the city’s second poet laureate, and his was hardly a cushy artist’s life of tea and sonnets. But this up-from-the-streets guy has made the medium and his voice one and the same.
Now, December is a very busy month for Santa, but April is a busy month for poets.
It’s National Poetry Month, which keeps us pretty busy, because this is where we get to go out to schools, libraries, festivals -- anywhere where we can get poetry out there.
In moments of stress, people who don’t write anything more than a grocery list still try to write poetry. What’s that impulse about?
I think it’s very deep. It’s kind of like a bone memory thing. It’s like something that we’ve always done as human beings. Even when we didn’t have language, we were always trying to be creative, expressive. As you know, the first poets were the Griots of Africa and other places where people just spoke stories and gave lessons through story. And then poetry got mixed in because people realized language is musical, and then pretty soon you had this great tradition that continues to today. I don’t feel we really honor poetry like we should in this country. It’s kind of a marginalized art form that I think needs to be brought to the center of the culture again.
If Mayor Garcetti had run a want ad for the position of poet laureate in Los Angeles, how would it read?
I think it has to be for my opinion someone who is also community-minded, who has a vested interest in the betterment of our community and also has language, images to help carry the voices and stories of this great city.
And for you, your personal story is also a very compelling one to reach young people, people who have had troubled pasts themselves.
I grew up in a situation where I w as a troubled young man. I was a dropout, I was in and out of jails and juvenile hall, I was on drugs, I was in a gang, but people helped me. And so ever since then, I’ve been crime-free, gang-free, drug-free for more than 40 years. But ever since then I’ve tried to help others.
What is the appeal of poetry for you? A lot of people say, poetry, it sounds so sissy.
I love to read books and that’s what my saving grace was. I didn’t know English very well growing up, but books were like the one place where I could hide. And even when I was homeless and in the worst straits of drug abuse, I would go to the downtown library. That was beautiful, just to read books, book after book, so when I wanted to think about what I wanted to do, I was sitting in jail actually, and I started writing.
Somehow, those words came into me in such a way that I felt maybe I could write. It took me a while, but I learned how to write and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Were you writing first in Spanish?
I actually started writing in English because all the books I was reading were in English, even though Spanish is my first language. I really wanted to speak to America. I was born in this country, raised in this country, this is my country. I love Mexico of course, and I love all my family, but I thought that I needed to impact this country, my country, I thought, I could if I get the right words and stories out.
Why the Central Library? What got you in the doors of the library?
What happened was, I was downtown homeless, and in those days, it was a different time, but still there were a lot of places to sleep. There used to be abandoned cars everywhere, now they’re all gone -- abandoned warehouses, the concrete river, the LA River, there were all-night movie theaters. There was all these places I would sleep but during the day, I really loved that library. It was my refuge. Books never beat me up and never told me I wouldn’t amount to anything. Books were always open to me. And it really helped me, I think, get through all the troubles.
Do you remember some of the first books you pulled off the shelves?
Actually, I do. I loved Ray Bradbury.
Who also loved the Central Library.
Yeah! I didn’t really know that [then]. “The Martian Chronicles,” I think, was one of the first books I picked up. I loved African-American experience books at the time – I’m talking about Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” Perry Thomas – I ate ‘em up.
Because they were the only books I really could relate to. They might have been from Harlem or Chicago or other places, and they might have been African-American, but to me, they were telling my story from their viewpoint.
They were outsider stories.
They were outsider stories but also because they were troubled men who somehow found a way, and that was important for me.
When you talk to kids who feel like outsiders themselves, what do you tell them to maybe pull them into the fold, to let them know there’s a medium, an art form that might work for them?
You know, one of the things that’s been most effective is the idea of owning your life. Because one thing that happens when you’re on the streets, you think you own your life, you think you’re not dependent on anybody, but when you’re in a gang, you end up doing what the gang wants to do. When you’re on heroin or any drug, you do what the heroin wants you to do.
I keep telling them, we keep turning our lives over to others or other things. At a certain point, you gotta say, I want to own this life. I don’t want to have to answer to anybody other than myself.
Actually kids are very smart. And one thing you can’t do is BS them, as you know. So they look at me, I don’t look like a gangster, I look like a regular schmo to them. I look like somebody’s uncle, or I look like the janitor in the school. I look like a regular guy now. Once they see me talking, telling my story, then they get it, you know, and they see my tattoos, they know that I’ve been somewhere and then they open up.
Is Shakespeare a hard sell when you go to talk to kids?
It is in the beginning, but when they see me tell them, it’s cool, it changes things. Because I tell them my poetry has a tradition, has a thread, and I’m just bringing it back to the present. One of my favorite poems he ever did was “Venus and Adonis.” This is an amazing poem about Venus and Adonis and the beauty of their love and love, what it is, and Eros and everything. And he has one line that just knocks it all out. And that line is, “She murders with a kiss.” So to me, that’s the power of a great poem.
And yet he’s mocked as a dead white European male.
Well, he’s all that! But there’s no way you can take away what he’s done to the English language. I’m also very clear that there’s not enough voices of color and other voices, so all of it needs to be mixed in. But we’ve got to support and love Shakespeare, just like we’ve got to support and love Sonia Sanchez and any of these other writers who don’t get known but they’re out there doing this great work.
Ever since President Kennedy had Robert Frost reading at his inauguration, there have been – off and on – poems and poets at inaugurations. Has that been a significant influence?
I think it’s helpful a lot. And I know Elizabeth Alexander, who read for President Obama – is actually an old friend of mine. We published her when nobody knew her, and now she’s big and well-known and I mean big in the sense that she’s a big celebrity.
Because us poets – we are not celebrities. Nobody really knows us. But when they do know us, they love us. I’ve had people meet me in airports – “you’re Luis Rodriguez!” – and they want to take pictures of me. It’s a better situation than being kind of famous because you’re on TV or in movies or something.
You’ve been writing Shakespearean sonnets -- give us an example.
“Praise to shoes on a homeless winter night
Praise to mothers who nurture without men
Praise to the bottom in a drug-mad flight
Praise to the poet who shatters with a pen
Praise to vibrant children in a static world
Praise to dreamers in cash-only exchanges
Praise to the tattered flag of justice, unfurled
Praise to our nation’s depth, breadth, and ranges
Praise to a restoring earth with global warming
Praise to large spirits even in cages
Praise to the new alignments now forming
Praise to anger with eyes, not blind rages
There is much to praise, if we are to last
The big within the small, the small in the vast.”
There’s a discipline to poetry, from a haiku to a sonnet to an ode, that prose doesn’t have, and some people think, well why should I have to write in a format? Why do you enjoy some of the formats – the demanding formats – of poetry?
Because it’s an art form, that’s one thing; there’s got to be a love for the art, and how language can be part of that. But the other side of it is that it allows you to really get into what I call soul talk, a little deeper. Prose can do that too, but a lot of it is information, a lot of it is trying to sell you something, a lot of it is not very revealing.
To me, when you get into poetry, you have to reveal something. You can’t be just hiding it. You have to put it out there and you’ve got to find the right word with the right image with the right sounds to make it clear. All these forms force you to think about sound and language as something you can put in a bottle that can say so much more. So the idea is to put like hard, profound things in simpler, succinct forms, and that’s what I think is the art of it.
In school, I used to memorize poems – maybe you did, too – and that’s disappearing.
It’s disappearing, and I hate to say this, because I think it’s one of those things that should keep happening. But there is a resurgence. There’s groups in high schools like Get Lit Players that has young people learn the classics by memory and write their own works. There’s Say Word LA. There’s street poets. There’s a number of groups now in LA.
Do you have poems about Los Angeles? Maybe you could read one for us.
It’s actually the end of a long poem, but it’s my “Love Poem to Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles, you’d better be listening!
I’ll just read you the end of it, my love-hate poem. And it goes like this:
I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,
I love to make love in L.A.,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it,
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
a bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
with every industry possible
and still a “one-industry town,”
lined by those majestic palm trees
and like its people
with solid roots, supple trunks,
It’s not the tourist LA.
No. I think if you know a city, you know all of it, you know the bad and the good and you still love it.
Your early book, “Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA,” was on the list of the nation’s 100 most censored books, the list kept by the American Library Assn. Is it still on that list?
It still is. It’s also one of the most checked-out books in the libraries, and one of the most stolen.
That’s a compliment.
It is! It’s a book that happened with great timing. My book happened to come out and it’s very popular. It told the story from the viewpoint of a Chicano gang kid, which really wasn’t being done previous to that. I mean, there were books about Chicano gangs, but usually by social scientists, not from a former participant. It’s still used today, more than 20 years later; it’s still in the schools and in the libraries.
Do you have two or three favorites of other people’s poems?
One of the reasons I’m here is because we have this great anthology, “The Coiled Serpent,” the largest anthology of LA poets ever done. It’s 160 poets, we had close to 400 submissions, we picked 160 poems. It shows that LA is an amazing poetry town, if not the most important poetry town in the country. I like being able to say that.
Take that, New York!
I think so. I think in many ways we have a variety that other cities don’t have. Some of them have sensitivities from Iran or from Mexico or El Salvador or Japan, other countries or even just the South or even just what it is to be here in this country. I think LA has all of that, and when you get this anthology, people will see how powerful LA poetry is.
This country is probably one of the best poetic expressive countries in the world, and yet like I say it’s not at the center of the culture. It’s pushed to the side. And yet we have some of the best, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson all the way to the present. We have a great variety of verse in this country.