Luis Rodriguez: poet, journalist, and activist (part 2)
Luis Rodriguez is a poet (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 with Angel and me 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: Who are some of the poets you think will shape the future of the L.A. poetry scene? There's a couple we know of; you mentioned Ariel Robello, and there's Jorge Monterossa.
AUP: Have you heard him read?
LR: No, not yet.
The young people that I have heard read, and that are coming up amaze me. It's coming out of the youth. Their words, their interests. It combines the political and social with the personal. All these things are just an amazing amount of work. I think a lot of it has to do with hip-hop influencing youth. They're not doing hip-hop. You can tell a lot of it is poetry, so it's a good thing if you have poets growing out of language.
To me, the key is where the language is coming from, and what can it do. Right now language is trying to be like drumbeats or bullets, or anything that takes the shape in reality. Language is starting to connect with that same reality.
AUP: I just wrote down "hip-hop grows language." Would that be a fair statement?
LR: Hip-hop is a big thing. Everyone's been influenced by it. I think performance poetry is actually a cousin to hip-hop, it's related.
Hip-hop has had a very important impact on poets in general, not that a lot of poets like it, but the language is more staccato, more condensed. You can see twenty images in one line.
ML: What do you see happening with the L.A.poetry scene in the next five to ten years?
LR: I could see it definitely maturing. I don't mean that it's not mature. L.A. is one of those cities that's always had a poetry world. Again, it's fractured. The city is that way, and again, twenty to thirty years ago it was much more segregated. But, it's always been a strong poetry town.
Chicago wasn't even known as a poetry town until it exploded on the scene. But, L.A. has always had one. What needs to happen is that we need to be saying,"what can we do to bring in all these voices?"
Most of the poetry is on the Westside. That's not bad, that's great. As long as it's there, it's there, but what can we do to get poetry to other places? When I go to East L.A. or South Central and I do workshops with their kids, they're all into poetry but they don't know what to do with it, or where to go. Their venues are very limited. They don't have a place like Tia Chucha. This place is very unusual. Almost every neighborhood should have a place like this. That's what's going to help.
There's a lot of growth that could happen. Giving these young people that voice is powerful, because they are taking poetry to another level.
ML:I've been trying to get younger poets to submit their work to poeticdiversity, but I keep running up against more than the usual teenage angst. It's becomes a matter of taking them seriously, as they often think I am "putting them on," when I encourage them to submit work, but that is the last thing I would ever do. What would you suggest I do?
LR: To get them published?
AUP: For some strange reason in L.A., there's a lot of suspicion when you ask people to submit their work.
LR: This is not a big publishing town. That's part of what makes it hard. When I was in Chicago, people were dying to get published. But Chicago is not a big publishing town either. New York City is, and San Francisco to a certain extent.
I hope Tia Chucha Press will finally be able to help. I want to publish new, emerging voices.
There are two things happening. One; people who want to get published, and are leery. Two; people who send me stuff who aren't ready to be published. It's almost like people don't understand what publishing is, or what it could do. They don't quite see it as if you are doing stuff in the street, performing, you have to learn: the performance stage to the page. It's difficult.
I see poets making acrobatics on the page, as if they were performing. You don't have to do that. You can do that on stage, because nobody is going to give you away. But you have white space, and you have other dynamics on the page. Learn to use them.
I tell people,"just stay flush left." But they are so visual. I don't blame them, I just know in the world we're in, everything get's so big. They don't realize. Just let the words and the line stand by themselves. The words will get you in that space.
When you're reading, something else happens, but if all you're doing is putting all that fancy stuff, you take away from those lines. The words are no longer powerful. It doesn't work.
It's going on all over the country, but in L.A. it seems to be a big problem, the media battles we're having here. How do you get people to think about publishing? I don't know.
Hopefully, Tia Chucha Press can get people to think about publishing a point of your writing life; where you're at, or maybe you've gone through a number of other things, and "this" is where you're at.
Some people may not want to do performance poetry. All they want to do is publish. Fine. Get good at the dynamic of the page, and then I'll definetly be interested in publishing some of those young voices.
AUP: With some performance poets, some great ones, they'll have a little scrap of paper that they carry their poem on, and they don't want to hand it over, like they think somehow they lose it...their poem.
LR: Yes, it's a strange thing, but you know, I just don't get it. When I was into poetry, I wanted to get published. I thought,"What good is it to have all these words flying all over the place unless somebody could sit down and hang onto it again and again."
Those images are the kind of images where you want to sit down and stay with it. When you are reading poetry, you want to get the whole idea.
Poetry is so layered. You're supposed to get the whole thing. So let an image or detail grab you for that moment. Next time you hear that poem, maybe another image or detail will get you.
We don't even know how to get a readership. Readers say,"I don't understand what the book said." Nobody is helping them understand how to accept the poem.
We haven't really educated readers, and we haven't educated poets about what poetry can do. We have to condense language, images, how images carry meaning. Then we have to get people to understand.
ML: Do you think it might have something to do with thier level of education?
LR: Education is at a very low level. Again, I think the media is the main way these messages are being carried out. I mean radio, tv, movies and video games.
It's distorting and changing how we look at language and images on the page.
So, you're right. Some of these poets are really good. I've seen some of them; if you get their poetry that they didn't perform on the page...there's no poetry there.
There's movement, and words, but it doesn't seem to work. They don't know how to transcend that, or how to move up to a level where the poetry works on the page.
I always think if you are a good performance poet, that you're probably a good writer too. I also find good writers when they are performing. It's easy for them to move into the published page.
It's just a matter of letting them know what they have to do with the line and how to move into it.
ML: So, you work with them them through that transition?
LR: I try to. Ariel Robello is one of those. She's a powerful performance poet. She's also a great writer. Her writing stood up enough to where I could work with her.
There were a few changes we had to do, but basically she had enough good writing that was powerful enough. She was leery about getting published at first, but once she could see the possibilities, wow, she's there!
There are other poets like that who probably don't know how "there" they are.
AUP: How about the reverse of that? I got the book Poetry Speaks and I couldn't believe how "bad" T.S. Eliot performed his wonderful poems.
LR: That might be an academic issue too. I know some people complain about how the academic poets - not all of them - don't have that performance quality.
I don't know what you can do about that. I think they had an entrance level on the page that was overwhelming, so if you heard them orally, they weren't interesting or engaging you at a performance level.
They were asking you,"Follow my image. Let the image grab you. Hang onto that. You may not get everything I'm saying."
Dylan Thomas was another example, but he was actually very performance oriented. He was well known because he had that quality. He had well written poetry, and he had this voice. You were pulled into two different dynamics, you know what I mean?
A lot of people gave up the performance part, and stayed where they were. So you have these academics, not all of them, that were just published. You hear them read, and they are totally boring and monotonous. It's like they didn't even want to. It's almost like it's an affront for them to have a performance element to their poetry.
And I think it would be good, obviously, to have both.
I don't do poetry slams anymore. I judge them, and support the whole poetry scene, but I don't do it.
I don't think that's the best way for me to do poetry. When I read, and you've both heard me read, I try to have a level of some oral quality that can convey what I am trying to say in a powerful way.
AUP: I think you're very arresting, even on the stage.
LR: I learned not to try to memorize it, to just let the page carry me. You know what I mean, that's the name of performance; what you really are. It's performance.
I've said,"That's not really my best work. I can do better if I stay with what I've written, and let the images take me, and I can empathize."
So, it's a combination of oral and performance, but more staying with the page.
I realized I've done all that other stuff, but I'm better at it.
ML: Angel and I have gone through our slam phase.
AUP: I'll admit it, slam is what got me into poetry.
LR: I think there's people who get that. I love slam. I support it, I made stuff happen there. But then you have to figure out that maybe there are other areas you could go. Like I said, you're already at another level of poetry development, or maybe the page becomes more important to you, and you really start writing to the white space.
It's different when you write for the stage. Maybe you just let go of slam. Some people don't have to, but still there's a possibility you may move away from slam.
AUP: When a lot of slammers end slam, they say it eventually becomes stiffling to write in a three minute format.
LR: I find that to be true for me. I decided I didn't want to do it anymore.
It's very glib stuff. You have to be really glib and clever, because I work with people who pay attention to you, and they're judging you. So you wrack your brain for the next clever line. After awhile, I just want the poetry to do something, and to me you don't have to be clever.
Some of the poems I've read wouldn't go over that way. I learned a lot from being in that place and being able to be schooled in that experienced.
ML: I learned at the Midnight Special.
LR: Marc Smith is a good friend of mine, and I admire what he's done. He's one of these iconic American people that in spite of all the personal hassles people might have with him, I think he's developed an amazing thing, and he's got his heart in the right place.
& Angel Uriel Perales