Poetic Resurrection is honored to interview award-winning poet Luis J. Rodriquez, Los Angeles Poet Laureate 2014 to 2016, “Love Poem to Los Angeles“. His background and charitable contributions to the community have changed the lives of many underprivileged youths and is co-founder of the Tia Chucha’s Center. He’s been a speaker at many colleges, universities, and libraries throughout the country, discussing his books and most notably “Always Running“. His TEDx talk from “Trauma to Transformation” is an enlightening presentation on his transformation.
In this interview, we discussed his influences, motivation and the poem WORDS from his book Borrowed Bones.
The thing is I wanted to be a writer
even before I knew what writing was about.
I wanted to carve out the words
that swim in the bloodstream,
to press a stunted pencil onto paper
so lines break free like birds in flight
—to fashion words with hair,
lengths and lengths of it,
washed with dawn’s rusting drizzle.
I yearned for mortar-lined words,
speaking in their own boasting tongues,
not the diminished, frightened stammering of my childhood,
but to shape scorching syllables with midnight dust.
Words that stood up in bed,
danced merengues and cumbias,
that incinerated the belly like a shimmering habanera.
Words with a spoonful of tears, buckshot, traces of garlic,
cilantro, aerosol spray, and ocean froth.
Words that guffawed, tarnished smooth faces,
and wrung song out of silence.
Words as languid as a woman’s stride,
as severe as a convict’s gaze,
herniated like a bad plan,
soaked as in a summer downpour.
I aspired to walk inside these words,
to manipulate their internal organs,
surrounded by veins, gray matter, and caesuras;
to slam words down like the bones of a street domino game
—and to crack them in two like lovers’ hearts.
When did you start writing poetry?
I began writing my thoughts, ideas, feelings, and stories in my teens when I was homeless, during stints in juvenile hall and jail, and in my garage room where I ended up till 19. But they weren’t really poems. I had no idea what poems were. I didn’t have proper grammar, syntax, or spelling. The important thing was I wrote. Pen to paper, and later on an old beat-up Remington typewriter with keys that were often stuck, which my dad had discarded in the garage next to old boxes. I dipped into a vast imaginative well, which continues to this day, a major counter to the limitations of the violence and drugs around me, but also the poverty and social injustices that darkened my world.
What/who influenced you? I watched one of your videos where you stated you were 18 and saw 3 poets perform.
At first, the biggest influences were the books at the Central Public Library in downtown Los Angeles. This was my refuge when I was on the streets at 15, on heroin, mugging people. I read books like Charlotte’s Web and by Ray Bradbury. But the biggest influences were the Black Liberation books of the time—by Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Piri Thomas, and George Jackson. I also found poetry books by people such as Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), and Nikki Giovanni. These voices and stories spoke to my experiences, even if many were from Harlem or Southside Chicago. There were no Chicano books at the time in the libraries. Later I found the works of Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Latin American writers—Ricardo Sanchez, Raul Salinas, Miguel Pinero, Pablo Neruda, and others. Also immigrant writers of the Irish or Jewish diaspora like James Farrell, Theodore Dreiser, and Michael Gold. They planted deep seeds.
At 18, I won honorable mention in a Chicano literature contest based in Berkeley CA. This involved publication, a $250 award (lots of money in 1973), and a flight to the Bay Area. I had never been on a plane before. I didn’t mind The Crazy Life—shootings, beatings, drug overdoses, jails. But flying? That scared me to death. I was still on heroin. One night, I left my hotel room to find a connection in the street. But the group I was with was gathered in the lobby and invited me to a poetry reading. I didn’t want to go, but I decided I might as well—I thought I’d sneak out later and score. The reading turned out to be with Jose Montoya, considered the Godfather of Chicano poetry; David Henderson, a leading African American performance poet; and Pedro Pietri, a potent Puerto Rican poet from East Harlem.
I had never heard poetry spoken like this. I was riveted to the tones, the rhythms, the political underpinnings. Those three men woke me up, a deeply slumbered addict and a lost young man. I wanted more of this, to the point years later that I yearned to do what they did—write powerfully, with compelling imagery and inventive language. Then bring this to the world with a solid presence. As a relatively introverted and withdrawn youth, this poetry reading helped turned my life around.
Later that year I began my first heroin withdrawals in L.A.’s Men’s County Jail, expecting to do state prison time. I already had a number of jail stints since age 13, including for murder, attempted murder, and now for “assaulting police officers.” I never received convictions for previous arrests and detainments (the murder charges were never filed although I spent five days on murderer’s row). But this last time, I didn’t want to be owned by the prison system and the prison politics. I knew as long as I “fiended” for “carga” (Chicano slang for heroin), I’d never be free. Those three poets were integral to the grace I needed during my worst moments. They helped me believe that perhaps I can live another kind of life. When community members wrote letters on my behalf to the judge, and a few showed up in court, the judge said he’d never seen anyone have such support. He convicted me of lesser charges and gave me time served in the county jail. After that, I vowed never to return to jail, crime, or drugs, a vow I’ve kept for some 45 years. Poetry became a lifeline from drowning in the vortex of the madness I was in.
At the beginning of the TedX talk you performed a poem; what was it called and which of your books is it from? It was very moving.
I recited two poems during my first TEDx talk in the L.A. Downtown Library. One was “Piece by Piece,” about not accepting the labels of criminal, miscreant, delinquent, which I was always called when I was in a gang from ages 12 to 19, a label, unfortunately, I accepted proudly for a time. The other poem I recited is called “The Calling.” It’s about how I got called to writing, to poetic expression, when I was on murderer’s row in the old Hall of Justice jail at age 16. Others on that tier, including Charles Manson, turned to drawing or playing cards or just acting the fool. I did that, but I also wrote. This calling could have been unfound or just dismissed. In my case, despite years of struggling, including with alcohol after the drugs, work in industry and construction, including four years in a steel mill, I finally (at 25 years of age) made a destiny decision to let this all go and become a writer. I began as a journalist—weekly and daily newspapers, then in news radio as a writer/reporter (including for CNN, NBC, and Westinghouse). I also pursued poetry, fiction, essays, and screenwriting. Those two poems were in my first poetry collection, “Poems Across the Pavement” (Tia Chucha Press, 1989). They later appeared in my selected works called “My Nature is Hunger.” I followed the lines to poet, writer, speaker, and in many ways, healer.
Borrowed Bones – What inspired the title? Martin Espada wrote the forward. How did he get involved with Borrowed Bones?
The title came from an excerpt of a poem called “October Fullness” by Pablo Neruda:
I breathed the air of so many places
without keeping a sample of any.
In the end, everyone is aware of this:
nobody keeps any of what he has,
and life is only a borrowing of bones.
I felt this title covered what I wanted to say about my poems in this book, which came out when I served as L.A.’s official Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2016. Neruda’s poem is about the suffering of the world that intersects with personal suffering. My life has been intertwined that way. Martin Espada is one of this country’s great poets. We’ve known each other since my second poetry book, “The Concrete River,” came out in 1991. We’re both Curbstonistas (poets published by Curbstone Press, first of Connecticut, now with Northwestern University Press in Chicago). He graciously agreed to write the foreword. The Puerto Rican binds with the Chicano, two voices against oppression also woven with crafted dictums of heartbreaking beauty and truth.
I love the descriptiveness of this poem, going from a dream residing in the soul and the words dancing upon the page through your journey. What was your inspiration for WORDS?
Becoming a man of words, of letters, was not something I had envisioned as a child. As I say in the poem, I was a stammering, scared, and inward driven kid. Silent to my bones. But somehow words bolted out of me. Even before I had any notion of being a writer. Especially before I knew how to write. Language swam inside, mostly panicked splashing, but soon streaming from the ocean of tears and salt all of us come from. I had just to find the fevered energy to bring this out.
How long did it take you from concept to execution?
This poem came as a challenge—could I put down in words what I felt about writing. It was written fairly fast, maybe in a day or two, although my poems can take from 15 minutes to 15 years to complete. While “Words” started out as a poem, I ended up using most of it in a story from my short story collection, “The Republic of East Los Angeles.” The story was about a Chicano writer working for a weekly throwaway barrio newspaper and trying to write about the drama, trauma, and triumph of his people. It seemed perfect for the narrator. But when I began “Borrowed Bones,” I knew I had to resurrect this again as a poem. Ultimately, it was about my own trajectories with words.
“Carve out words that swim in the bloodstream”—As you spent time as a teenager at the library was this the desire you felt for writing, or was this something you felt once you started writing?
I think language was always struggling within me to be born, swimming in the bloodstream, as I say, perhaps mostly drowning, before it could reach the shore, to become realized and eventually published. When I started writing, I seemed to tap into an oil field, with a gush of stories and poems. I’ve surprised myself about how much I had to say. And that somehow I had a unique way of saying it.
“Mortar-lined words”—Did you yearn for hard-hitting words? Something you felt would make a difference in the community?
Writers who arose from the community, even if downtrodden and heavily stepped on, always felt compelling. Also to give back to that community as well as others, It was a necessary, maybe hobbled, first step to stop being a victim, forgotten, underestimated. It felt like the journey of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” the return from separation and ordeals to then becoming a boon to the community one felt originally exiled from. I didn’t want my words written in sand, to be removed with the tide. But to last, to be mortar-lined, properly constructed, to provide weight and clarity for many generations.
“Boasting tongues, not the diminished, frightened stammering of my childhood”—Can you elaborate of what point of your childhood might have felt frightening? At which age did you find safety in words?
I was born on the border—in El Paso, Texas, although my family lived on the other side in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. There was much turmoil. Poverty of the third world contrasted to the prosperity of the first world. Then at age two, the family moved to Los Angeles, to the Watts area. More instability, being evicted, getting our gas shut off, homeless for a spell, as my father went from job to job. We moved about eight times before I turned 13. Went to different schools. I fell into the traps of gangs and drugs. I do recall as a child, however, being terrorized by my older brother, three years older. Beatings, being thrown off a rooftop, pulled around by the neck with a rope. There were bullies who saw my sensitivity, my vulnerabilities and pounced on me. Joining a gang, I became a perpetrator instead of prey. Eventually, this stopped my brother as well as the bullies. But somehow, my sensitivities, my feminine side, never truly left, despite my best efforts at being “tough.” I loved to read—I was the weird homie bringing library books to the barrio. I loved to draw (culminating in painting eight murals at 17). I loved to do music (I tried saxophone and even managed to practice in a garage band until my brother, no longer able to beat me up, beat up my saxophone instead). But writing, now that became something nobody could take away. As a troubled teen, the words and lines saved me.
“Words that guffawed, tarnished smooth faces, and wrung song out of silence” Was there a time joy made way through the silence?
The power of words is that they can convey all the emotions. Yes, rage, yes, grief, but also joy (especially if one gets deep into the rage and grief). The silence was a black hole. But underneath this were all these furtive emotions.
“I aspired to walk inside these words, to manipulate their internal organs,” Would you consider syllable, vowels or consonants the internal organs or all of the above?
Yes, exactly, the internal structure and energy providers in the body of a poem, or story, or essay were the internal organs I manipulated. They included syllables, vowels, consonants, punctuation, and their preferred placement along a page. But also the emotions, thoughts, and images that appear to pull the writing along.
“to slam words down like the bones of a street domino game—and to crack them in two like lovers’ hearts “Dominoes were made of bones at one time? Is this reminiscent of street games? Is “crack them” the final destination of words?
Dominoes were also called “bones” in the street—whether people knew they were once actually bones. Words could be that slam of dominos on a table. They could also be the delicate painful cracking that comes with broken hearts. There’s nothing that words can’t touch, enhance, elevate, or reveal. Often we feel we have no words. But the artistry that a poet or writer of any genre has to contribute allows for the right word for the right feeling. It’s a struggle sometimes, but that’s the aim—to find words even for the inexpressible.
Thank you, Luis, for your insight, compassion and charitable contributions to the community. We’re blessed for your service.
Luis J. Rodriguez’s poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Rattle Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, Catamaran Literary Review, TriQuarterly, and Poets & Writers, among others. He has eight books of poetry, including his latest “Borrowed Bones” from Curbstone Books/Northwestern University Press. He is founding editor of Tia Chucha Press, which publishes cross-cultural poetry collections, anthologies, chapbooks, and CDs. From 2014 to 2016, Luis served as the official Poet Laureate of the City of Los Angeles.
You can find more on Luis J. Rodriguez, including how to buy his books, at www.luisjrodriguez.com