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Does poetry matter? L.A.'s former poet-in-chief Luis J. Rodriguez explains why it’s life changing

Luis J. Rodriguez
Luis J. Rodriguez is former L.A. poet laureate and author of “From Our Land to Our Land.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times Book Club is reading “From Our Land to Our Land” by Luis J. Rodriguez. He shared the following excerpt, “Poet Laureate? Poet Illiterate? What?,” adapted from his new collection,"From Land to Our Land,” about his experience as Los Angeles’ poet laureate from 2014-16.

When I received the call in September 2013 from Mayor Eric Garcetti that I’d been chosen as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, I had to keep this information quiet until the official announcement the next month. However, I did mention it to a few people, most of whom looked at me with a smile and a confused expression.

“What’s a ‘poet laureate’?” more than one person asked.

My so-called best friend wisecracked, “Did you say ‘poet illit-erate’?”

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I knew then I was in trouble.

I was only the city’s second poet laureate, following the brief tenure of longtime poet extraordinaire Eloise Klein Healy, who had been appointed in December 2012. Regrettably, her health forced her to step down, leading to my appointment.

Confusion aside, I felt it was about time “poet laureate” became a household term. The United States now has more poet laureates than ever before. There are poet laureates for states, counties, cities, communities, small towns, and Native American reservations (Luci Tapahonso became the first poet laureate of the Diné Nation). Claudia Castro Luna, a Salvadoran American, served as Seattle’s poet laureate and later held the same post for Washington state. Two Xicanx poets, Laurie Ann Guerrero and Octavio Quintanilla, did the same for San Antonio. Sponsored by New York City–based Urban Word, there is also a Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate (I helped pick two of them) and the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate, eighteen-year-old Amanda Gorman.

California’s poet laureates have included my colleagues Al Young, Carol Muske-Dukes, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Dana Gioia. San Francisco has also had a mentor of mine, Jack Hirschman, as well as an old friend, Alejandro Murguía, as poet laureates. Award-winning African American poet Robin Coste Lewis took over after my tenure, a great choice for the post. And we can’t forget that Juan Felipe Herrera also served from 2015 to 2017 as U.S. Poet Laureate, followed by African American word- smith Tracy K. Smith, as well as the first Native American to hold this post, Joy Harjo.

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The poet laureate tradition is long. Poet laureates were first recognized in Italy during the fourteenth century. Ben Jonson became England’s first poet laureate in 1616, although the first “official” poet laureate, John Dryden, received his appointment in 1668. The present title in the United States, however, wasn’t authorized until an act of Congress in 1985 — prior to that they were known as “Consultants in Poetry.”

In ancient Greece, a laurel or crown was given to honor poets and heroes. Such honors were bestowed on the best poets of the time — and those who could best chronicle in verse their times. Yet for me the tradition goes farther back to oral storytellers from around the world who’ve been doing this for thousands of years.

The first year after my appointment I was to do a minimum of six events — I ended up doing 110. I did more events the next year, and was additionally given a list of forty libraries from which to choose two to read at. I read at all forty. I also had a blog every month at the LA Public Library’s website. I’ll venture to say that in two years I spoke directly to more than twenty-five thousand people, and millions more via TV, radio, the Internet, and print media.

I became part of LA’s Big Read book events, which during my tenure celebrated the novel Into the Beautiful North, by Xicanx writer Luis Alberto Urrea, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

I helped create the largest anthology of Los Angeles–area poets ever published, The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles, edited by Neelan-jana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez. This beautiful book presented 160 poets from ages eighteen to eighty; gay and straight; black, white, Asian, Native, and Mexican and Central American; Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist; migrants and citizens; women and men. I wanted to make poetry a radical and healing act for everyone, so the city could honor all voices, including those plagued by traumas and lifted by triumphs.

American poet E. E. Cummings once penned these words: “Well, write poetry, for God’s sake, it’s the only thing that matters.”

That statement, by a man known for highly stylized poems, whose own views moved from Unitarian to Republican, may appear odd, contrived, out of touch. I can’t say Cummings’s words are entirely true. How can poetry be all that matters? Most poets wouldn’t say that. Even good teachers can’t claim their students are “all that matter.” A master mechanic most likely wouldn’t say that of cars.

Yet, it’s a declaration we need to seriously consider, especially in our culture, where poetry is relegated to the margins, to the status of a “weird” art, a practice rarely compensated or honored outside of a small, and often quarrelsome, group of people. President Trump didn’t even consider having an inaugural poet, although Presidents Clinton and Obama both did. (President Reagan and both President Bushes had no inaugural poet either.) In fact, it took around two hundred years after George Washington’s inauguration for a poet to read at one (John Kennedy’s).

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Today, again, we ask the perennial question: Does poetry matter at all?

It’s hard to figure out poetry’s worth when there is a hierarchy of “values” hanging over our heads determined not by nature or skill but by powerful men in the publishing, media, and political industries — entities that are about making money. I’m not talking about family values or cool traits. I’m talking net worth, the bottom line: “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”

If that’s the case, poetry should perish.

Many of us are among a disparate group of “po” poets. Our main currency is the appreciative applause of the relatively small audiences who hear us. Yet the art of poetry persists in this country; like a genetically evolved organism, it adapts. Poetry is strong among the young and overlooked. It sprouts in movements like free verse, takes root among the imagists, the confessionals, the Beats, the 1960s Black Arts poets (and around the same time, the Puerto Rican, Chicano, Native American, and LGBTQ poets), the formalists, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, as well as practitioners of hip-hop, slam poetry, and more.

Once, during my first year as LA’s poet laureate, I took part with several poets of all colors in reading poems by black writers in response to Black Lives Matter. Similar readings were held around the country to speak out against the disproportionate number of unarmed black people killed by police.

Poetry is not easily monetized and exploited, hence its lack of “importance” in our modern culture. In addition, any upstanding poet would refuse the commercialization of their name and work. Nike once offered several Xicanx and Boricua poets to be photographed by fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz for ads. Martín Espada, Sandra Cisneros, and others, myself included, refused to take part.

Poetry’s appeal goes beyond the mundane or profit-oriented. Poetry is a powerful way to movingly and artfully convey ideas and emotions, which in turn is a way to impact and change this world. As long as the world needs changing, we’ll need poetry.

Book Club: If you go
The Los Angeles Times Book Club welcomes Luis J. Rodriguez in conversation with Times reporter Daniel Hernandez about “From Our Land to Our Land.”

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When: 4 p.m. Feb. 15. Doors open at 3 p.m.

Where: The Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank

Info: latimes.com/bookclub. Get tickets here.


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