Luis Rodriguez: poet, journalist, and activist
There are very few artists who have accomplished as much as Luis Rodriguez. A poet (now nominated for California Poet Laureate), author, journalist, activist, publisher (Tia Chucha Press), and co-founder (along with his wife Trini and two other partners) of Tia Chucha Cafe & Centro Cultural; a bookstore, coffee house, art and workshop center in Sylmar. Luis took some time from his busy schedule to sit down and discuss his views on poetry, the art of writing, and the future of the L.A. poetry scene.
(Note: this inteview took place in February 2005, so some of the events mentioned herein have already taken place.)
ML: How did you get involved in the poetry scene?
LR: In L.A., I started about 25 years ago, in high school. I didn't know it yet, but I wrote little poetic vignettes. I started going to workshops in East LA, the LA Latino Writers Workshop. That is where I really learned what poetry is about. There were a lot of great writers there: Victor Valle, who became a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Susan Mena, who was also a journalist, Louisa Nortes, and Eric Gamboa. They had a group called the Barrio Writers Workshop. They held workshops in East L.A, Echo Park, and even in the prisons. We started doing poetry readings at Self-Help Graphics. I ended up becoming the director of the group in the early '80's. I then became the editor of the magazine, XismeArte.
When I got to Chicago, I already had that history, and I got there at the right time. The poetry slams had just barely gotten started. Then I really got into the poetry scene. I got active, and started a poetry press (Tia Chucha), and worked with the Chicago Poetry Festival.
ML: Why did you found Tia Chucha Press?
LR: In Chicago, art and poetry were coming out everywhere; in the bars, the cafes, the libraries. Every night there were two or three venues where people were doing poetry, and I went to all of them, and read.
There was no press in Chicago covering the scene. I started by publishing my book (Poems Across the Pavement) first, in '89. I got money from the University of Chicago to do that, and it got a lot of attention. People started buying the book. So over the next two years, I published mostly Chicago poets: Patricia Smith, who became the International Slam Champion several times over; Michael Warr; David Hernandez, who was the main Puerto Rican poet at the time. He had a street sound with music and poetry.
AUP: And Marc Smith?
We didn't publish Marc Smith. We worked with Marc, I knew him from early on.
Tia Chucha has published over 40 books and a CD. And it's not just Chicago poets, we publish from all over.
AUP: How much diversity is there in the authors you publish?
We started off with a lot of diversity. The poetry scene in Chicago is very "democratic" in that sense. I have the feeling the poetry scene in L.A. is very segregated. The Chicanos had East L.A., and there were a lot of white poeple at Beyond Baroque. There was stuff coming out of South Central and other places, but it was all seperated into where people met.
In Chicago, it was all mixed; Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and the rest, and so I started publishing right away. Michael Warr, Patricia Smith and Rohan Preston are African-American. David Hernandez is Puerto-Rican. Jean Howard is Anglo. Lisa Buscani is also Anglo. We publish the gamut of the best in the poetry scene. I've been doing it since I brought the press back to L.A.
ML: Why did you move back to Sylmar, and not East L.A.?
LR: I moved back in December 2000, to Pacoima, because my wife Trini grew up and still had family there. We lived in the house she grew up in. My family had scattered from the East L.A. area.
We realised the North East Valley is a neglected area. This is the Mexican side of the valley, 80% Mexican and Central American. There was nothing here culturally; no bookstores, no movie houses, no art galleries, there was nothing. 400,000 people live here, and there was nothing going on.
We thought this would be a good venue, even though I got friends in South Central and East L.A. who said, "Why don't you start something down here?"
In the future we might, but right here is where we are going to keep Tia Chucha going and growing."
ML: We'll you've done a great job. I like the space, it's very warm and welcoming.
You're a journalist and a poet. I heard you read at Los Angeles City College in 1993, at Beyond Baroque and The Midnight Special Bookstore. How does your role as a journalist affect you as a poet and novelist?
LR: These are two different writing streams. Contradictory streams, but I think I've been able to make them work.
In journalism, you have to have an eye for detail, and use concrete language. In poetry, you get a chance to tap into emotional resonance. You can use and play with the musicality of language. Somehow, in my writing, both happen. I have a journalistic eye, but I have a lot of musicality in my words. I have been able to put both of them together, especially in my creative writing, like non-fiction and short stories.
Sometimes, I think it hurts people who don't know which way to go when they are doing both, but it comes together for me.
ML: What circumstances led you to write the collection of short stories, The Republic of East L.A.? I've been online at Amazon and the book has gotten a lot of great reviews.
LR: All of my work is autobiographical. My poetry and even my children's books are autobiographical. I finally decided to imagine people.
Now the Republic of East L.A. is written like real stories but I imagined them, and I couldn't do that for the longest time. My memoir (Always Running), and my poetry were based on everything I had experienced.
On my own I started to write short stories. I had a whole number of them before I decided I was capable of doing it. The first short story was a little too stuck in reality, and I kept working at it. FInally I got to the point where the characters had a life of their own. You know, how a character develops in their own little story, and how they carry you through their lives. That began to happen with my short stories.
Now, I have a novel coming out in April, my first fiction novel.
AUP: What is the name of your novel?
LR: It's called The Music of the Mill. It's about three generations of a Chicano family in a steel mill in L.A.
I worked in a steel mill for a number of years, so it's kind of going back to that time, but re-imagining everything and characters coming alive and completing themselves...it's amazing when it happens.
AUP: There is nothing autobiographical in Republic of East L.A.?
LR: There is a lot. Some of the characters I know personally, as well of some of the incidents with some of the people. But, what happens - again - is I started off with something I saw, or felt, then it went completely off on its own.
In the first story "My Ride, My Revolution," there actually was a limo drive who brought a limo into the barrio of Boyle Heights. But that was the only bit that was true. That character was completely made up, and I then imagined what the limo driver was like, and where he was working. That's the beauty of it. You get something real, and then it goes beyond that.
ML: You're a poet, journalist, editor, publisher. You started Tia Chucha to support the art community in San Fernando Valley. When do you find the time to write?
LR: Well, I have a lot of help. People volunteer. Tia Chucha has volunteer editors. The non-profit center next door has volunteers and volunteer resident artists. There is even a volunteer board.
My wife Trini helps a lot to run things. It's not like I'm doing everything by myself. I have a vision, I have inititiative. I get the money, and try to get the outreach. But people embrace it and take it on, so I don't really have to make that happen. I do have to with my writing. Nobody can do that for me.
My writing is like a job, from 9-5. I have the luxury where I work at home.
I'm gone 80-100 days a year, traveling. When I'm at home, I work on the computer. I try to write 2-3 hours a day, enough to get something going. Right now, I'm working on some essays. I have a short story in the works, and some other book projects.
AUP: So, writing is your main vocation?
LR: That's what I do.
AUP: Not like the rest of us poets who have to work a job.
LR: No, I know. It took a me a long time, I used to work two or three jobs and write on the side. But now, it's what I do.
Actually, the side things for me are Tia Chucha, the non-profit center, the press, and my other book that is coming out this spring. My focus is the writing.
LR: I've got another poetry book coming out in the fall. It's called My Nature is Hunger
ML: Is it being published by Tia Chucha?
LR: No. It's being published by Curbstone Press. They've published three of my books.
AUP: Who are some of your influences?
LR: They run the gamut. Pablo Neruda is my favorite poet. I love John Steinbeck, and Theodore Dreiser. I also like the work of John Fante, T.C. Boyle, and Sherman Alexi.
AUP: Sherman Alexi is a great writer.
LR: Reading a lot of great writers is a very important part of writing.
ML: How do you feel about the poetry scene as a whole?
LR: I think as a whole, the scene has the same problem as L.A. in that it's fractured. But, I think it's a very vibrant scene. The poets I've seen here and on your website are very strong young people with a lot of wonderful ways of saying things, Ariel Robello being one of them. It's a vibrant scene, but scattered.
The beauty about Chicago is that it's a compact city. Everybody gets to know each other. You get to see everybody at all the venues. Here, it's not that way.
I think Beyond Baroque, especially since the early '80's, was what I felt oriented to the white community. I think it's a vital institution, and it's been the center for the poetry scene for so long. But, hopefully we are creating a vital scene here too.
We have an open-mic here. Some nights have been amazing, some nights only a few people show up. We've had some amazing young people get up and read.
We're a little corner of the scence, but it's fractured. Who's going to go out and get these people? It's just the nature of the city. I don't think it's bad or good, it's just the way it is.
In the early '80's, I thought it was more segregated. I think things have come together much better now.
ML: That's definitely true. And you've certainly done your part in making that happen. Angel told me almost a year ago that you had built this great place and were holding these readings, and I thought, "Wow, that is so cool." and I knew that it was going to be something good.
One of my goals for poeticdiversity is to try and get to those areas, those enclaves to come together more into the mainstream.
AUP: I call it "Uniting all the little Balkan States."
LR: Actually, that's what it is.
ML: What suggestions would you to further the involvement of bi-lingual poets, either in this area, or in other areas to become more a part of the L.A. poetry community?
LR: I think we need to have a strong L.A. poetry festival. I know there has been a poetry festival, but I think one that can really reach out, maybe more central to downtown L.A., not just the Westside, but to people all over.
There is a lot of poetry happening that people don't even know about, like in the Pico-Union area, South Central, and East L.A. There is a strong need to galvanize all the poets, put them together, and hear all the voices; Spanish, English, Korean, Armenian. You know, just really mix it up.
I don't know if anyone has the vision, the money, or even the interest, but that's what L.A. can do. It can have a vital, wonderful festival that can encompass all the things going on. Again, I don't want to put down the festival that does exist, I've never been to it. It's probably great, but more needs to happen.
ML: That's interesting. The L.A. Poetry Festival is a month-long event. They have a series of more established readings, but all kinds of venues get sponsered. I co-host a reading in Santa Monica, the Rapp Saloon, and when the L.A. poetry festival comes around, we get fifty readers who wouldn't typically show up. It's also the one time of year where you get to see any cross-section of L.A. poets.
LR: Then it would need to build on that, and I wouldn't want to say it's a bad thing. The festival is obviously important, but maybe more can be built up further.
AUP: They bring in a lot of names from out of town to get a bigger draw. My criticism is there are a lot of local writers who are established that are strong enough to make the festival happen on its own.
LR: And that is what I think helped the Chicago poetry festival, which no longer exists, by the way. When we did it, we brought in only Chicago poets. It was a day-long event, not a month-long one.At its height we had 3,000 people show up at the Navy Pier to hear poet, after poet, after poet. We had poets like Gwendolyn Brooks. She was like the Mother-Goddess of Chicago poetry for everybody.
ML: There's an environmental festival called Worldfest in April (2005). One part of Worldfest is an all-day poetry reading, and I'd like to ask you: Who would you reccomend to feature? I have a chance to fill four slots, and I got one left.
LR: Ariel Robello would be the one.
ML: I already asked her. She's on tour until June.
LR: I think a lot of the young people around here need more development. I did some poetry workshops, but I want to continue to get them to learn more about poetry performance.
I think that is what people need. To me, the Chicago poetry scene was like school. People didn't see it that way, but you got schooled in language, performance, and the music of words.It was a very hopeful kind of thing. we don't have that here yet?
AUP: Did you go to school in Chicago?
LR: No, I lived there for fifteen years. I worked there. I mean "school," in the sense of learning, by watching people.
I think one good thing L.A. has is the L.A. Times Festival of Books. I've been to so many book festivals, and that is one of the best.
AUP: They have a poetry pavillion.
ML: There's another; the DIY (Do It Yourself) Book Festival. I went last October (2004), and it's almost as big a draw as the L.A.Times Book Festival, and it's for small presses.
LR: Where is it?
ML: In West Hollywood, near the Pacific Design Center. I think this year it will take place in September.
LR: I've been there the last couple of years, on panels.
AUP: Have you ever been to the Shouting Coyote Festival?
AUP: They have two seperate stages for poets. Some poets perform on both, it's not organized by the same people, but I like it.
LR: No kidding, that's great. Where is it?
AUP: In Sunland-Tujunga.
AUP: The reason I asked if you went to school in Chicago - street poetry versus academic poetry. How do you balance it?
LR: I'm not an academic poet. There's just no way around it. I can't say that I am.
I think the battle of the so-called "us versus them" is totally contrived. Good poetry comes from many different places. There are great poets from the street, whereever that might be, performing and there's some great academic poets.
Somebody else had decided that there's two different worlds here. I don't know, because I'm not an academic poet, I don't come from there, but I do read so many poets, and some of them are academic. A lot of their stuff is amazing; I like it when the words happen in a way that only "this" person could have done it, and something magical begins to happen. It doesn't matter to me where it comes from.
Academic poets is have more time to analyze, deconstruct, and workshop their poetry. If you are a street poet, sometimes it happens when you make it happen, but I think it shows that anybody, academic or not, has poetry in them. That's the main thing, that there is poetry in everyone, and there are ways to tap into that poetry. I do it in juvenile facilities, homeless shelters, migrant camps, prisons, public schools, whereever.
And you know, all these people say,"These kids aren't poetic," and I have them doing things they wouldn't have thought they could do, and I have them writing amazing things.
So, there is kind of a false dichotomy in a certain sense.On the other hand, I always thought people who have money could go to school and learn. To me there is a class relationship to that. There's nothing wrong with them if they can do it, but there's no reason to look down on anyone else who doesn't have it. You know what I mean. Poetry should be for everybody.
AUP: That leads me to my next question.I've noticed Latino, Hispanic poetry in particular, gets more attention when it's socially conscious. What's wrong with just quality Hispanic poetry without including the aspect I just mentioned?
LR: It runs both ways. Like for example, my poetry does. When I came into the Chicano Movement, there was a lot of interest to speak to your reality, which prompted us, in many ways to become poets. We wanted to find a language to address the issues that we were facing. But the more you develop as a poet, pretty soon you are writing love songs or writing to your kid. So if you look at my poetry and at Chicano poetry, you'll see it runs the gamut. It's true a lot of the initial impulse of Chicano poetry was that movement, but I think it's also how people developed. I wouldn't be against anybody writing about the rain versus a cop beating up a kid in the street. They're both areas for poetry to come out of, but the movement created what we call Chicano poetry.
It's different for other Latinos. It all depends. Puerto Ricans ar very much like that, they came out of the same movement. I found a lot of Cuban-American writers didn't seem to have the same impetus, necessarily. So many of them developed quality poems about other subjects, you know, about their lives, except in relation to Castro.
Your environment gives you the pallate to write with.
***to be continued in poeticdiversity Issue #8, August 1, 2005.
Luis Rodriguez is convinced that a writer can change the world. Indeed it is through education and the power of words that Rodriguez saw his own way out of the barrio of East L.A. and successfully broke free from the years of violence and desperation he spent as an active gang member. Achieving success as an award-winning Chicano poet, he was sure the streets would haunt him no more — until his young son joined a gang himself. Rodriguez fought for his child by telling his own story in the bestseller Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., a vivid memoir that explores the motivation of gang life and cautions against the death and destruction that inevitably claim its participants.
Rodriguez is also known for helping start a number of prominent organizations — such as Chicago’s Guild Complex, one of the largest literary arts organizations in the Midwest, and the small poetry publishing house, Tia Chucha Press. He is also one of the founders of Youth Struggling for Survival, a Chicago-based not-for- profit community group working with gang and non-gang youth. Along with his wife, Trini, and brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez, Luis is co-founder of Tia Chucha's Café & Centro Cultural—a bookstore, coffee shop, art gallery, performance space, and workshop center in Los Angeles. Rodriguez conducts workshops, readings, and talks in juvenile detention facilities, migrant camps, universities, and public and private schools. Rodriguez addresses the complex but vital issues of race, class, gender, and personal rage through dialogue, story, poetry, and art.
An accomplished poet, Luis Rodriguez is the author of several collections of poetry, including Poems Across the Pavement, The Concrete River, and Trochemoche. His poetry has won a Poetry Center Book Award, a PEN/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and ForeWord magazine’s Silver Book Award, among others. His books for children,America Is Her Name and It Doesn't Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story, are published in both English and Spanish. Considered by the American Libraries Association as one of the nation’s 100 most censored books, his work Always Running earned a Carl Sandburg Literary Award and was designated a New York Times Notable Book. Luis Rodriguez is also author of Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times and a short story collection, The Republic of East LA : Stories. His first novel, Music of the Mill (Rayo Books/HarperCollins), was published in May 2005. His fourth poetry collection is My Nature is Hunger (Curbstone Press, fall 2005). Luis Rodriguez was one of 50 leaders worldwide selected as “Unsung Heroes of Compassion,” presented by the Dalai Lama.
& Angel Uriel Perales