Luis J. Rodríguez on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Luis J. Rodríguez by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


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Biographical Information—Luis J. Rodríguez

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti chose Luis J. Rodríguez as Poet Laureate of the city in 2014. Rodríguez is Scholar-in- Residence at California State University, Northridge, and the author of fifteen books of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction. For more than thirty-five years, he has been speaking and reading at schools, libraries, conferences, prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, migrant camps, and Native American reservations in the United States, as well as at festivals, book fairs, colleges, and universities throughout North, Central, and South America; the Caribbean; Europe; and Japan.

Rodríguez won a 2015 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achieve­ment for Poems across the Pavement: 25th Anniversary Edition. His awards also include a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Paterson Poetry Prize, a Carl Sandburg Literary Award, and fellowships from the Sundance Institute, the Lannan Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, the City of Chicago, the California Arts Council, and the Illinois Arts Council.

The 1993 memoir Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., with close to half a million copies sold, became one of L.A.’s most checked out in libraries—and one of the most stolen. His memoir It Calls You Back: An Odyssey through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

In Chicago, where he lived from 1985 to 2000, Rodríguez was active in the poetry slam movement born there. He was cofounder of the Guild Complex Literary Center, an organizer for the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival, and a writer for the city’s poetry magazine Letter eX. In 1993, Rodríguez took part in the first Slam Poetry tour of Europe. He also founded the crosscultural small press, Tía Chucha, now publishing for more than twenty-five years.

After moving back to Los Angeles, Rodríguez, his wife Trini, and other family and community members created Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley, offering workshops in the arts, writ­ing, dance, theater, photography, indigenous cosmology and language, and encompassing arts and literacy festivals, an art gallery, weekly open mics, performance space, and a bookstore.

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Love Poem to Los Angeles
(with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman)

1

To say I love Los Angeles is to say
I love its shadows and nightlights,
its meandering streets,
the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.
It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,
the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,
that within a half hour of L.A.’s center
you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.

This is a multi-layered city,
unceremoniously built on hills,
valleys, ravines.
Flying into Burbank airport in the day,
you observe gradations of trees and earth.
A “city” seems to be an afterthought,
skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,
guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.

2

Layers of history reach deep,
run red, scarring the soul of the city,
a land where Chinese were lynched,
Mexican resistance fighters hounded,
workers and immigrants exploited,
Japanese removed to concentration camps,
blacks forced from farmlands in the South,
then segregated, diminished.

Here also are blessed native lands,
where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva
bonded with nature’s gifts;
people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.
Yet for all my love
I also abhor the “poison” time,
starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,
where 80 percent of natives
who lived and worked in them died,
to the ruthless murder of Indians
during and after the Gold Rush,
the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.

From all manner of uprisings,
a city of acceptance began to emerge.
This is “riot city” after all—
more civil disturbances in Los Angeles
in the past hundred years
than any other city.

3

To truly love L.A. you have to see it
with different eyes,
askew perhaps,
beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.
“El Lay” is also known
for the most violent street gangs,
the largest Skid Row,
the greatest number of poor.

Yet I loved L.A.
even during heroin-induced nods
or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.
Even when I slept in abandoned cars,
alongside the “concrete” river,
and during all-night movie showings
in downtown art deco theaters.
The city beckoned as I tried to escape
the prison-like grip of its shallowness,
sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,
all disarming,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.

L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
graveyard shifts,
poetry readings,
murals,
lowriding culture,
skateboarding,
a sound that hybridized
black, Mexican, as well as Asian
and white migrant cultures.

You wouldn’t have musicians like
Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,
Los Lobos, Charles Wright &
the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,
Hiroshima, Motley Crue, N.W.A., or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.

4

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,
Zootsuit “riots,”
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, city of angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
water thievery,
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,
resilient.

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