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Poetry as Social Practice: The Luis Rodriguez Poetry Locomotive

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Luis Rodriguez campaigning in Fresno | Photo: Luis Rodriguez for California Facebook

Best selling poet, journalist, fiction writer, children's book author, publisher, and bookstore proprietor Luis Rodriguez is running for governor in California in 2014. Considering Rodriguez's groundbreaking literary career over the last 30 years, he's undoubtedly already proven himself as a community leader. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Rodriguez's distinguished career and also highlights the larger community of writers from Boyle Heights to Pacoima and Sylmar that count him as their mentor.

Rodriguez is making an extra big push for his campaign in mid-February, and one of the events includes Rodriguez and a cadre of the city's stalwart Chicano and Chicana poets reading at four different Metro stops along the Gold Line, from East L.A. to Union Station. Dubbed "The Luis Rodriguez Poetry Locomotive," this event has generated a great buzz in the poetry scene. Before discussing more about the poetry locomotive, an idea from the great poet Adrienne Rich puts Rodriguez's work in proper context.

Before she passed last year, Adrienne Rich authored over 20 books, won countless awards, and even turned down the National Medal of the Arts in 1997. Rich declined an invitation to the White House, and wrote a public letter with an explanation for President Bill Clinton. In her book, "What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics," Rich not only includes this essay, but several pieces in which she discusses the intersection between poetry and politics. The opening essay in the book introduces the idea of "poetry as social practice" and names Luis Rodriguez, and a few others across America, as poets that epitomize this process. Rich describes it in this way: "Poetry is neither an end in itself, nor a means to some external end. It's a human activity enmeshed with human existence; as James Scully names it, a social practice."

Rich explicates Scully's concept further, and essentially advocates poetry for the public sphere. Besides Rodriguez she mentions June Jordan, Janice Mirikitani, Michael Warr, and Quincy Troupe as similar poets that fulfill this vision of poetry as social practice. Rich writes, "Poetry can't give us the laws and institutions and representatives, the antidotes we need: only public activism by massive citizens can do that." Nonetheless, she promotes the idea of poetry being a part of one's daily life in order to engage others and "wrestle with contradictions." Writing about Luis Rodriguez, Rich says "he draws on long experiences as a battle-scarred cultural worker and leaves no doubt that poetry as one readily available form of artistic production, as expressive language, can change young lives through giving words and form to chaos and desperation."

Among Rodriguez's many awards perhaps the biggest was in 2001, when he was honored by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, as an "Unsung Hero of Compassion." Rodriguez's years teaching workshops in prisons and community centers, along with his several books, role as publisher/editor at Tia Chucha Press, and co-owner of the Tia Chucha's Bookstore/Gallery space, all culminate into his uber-role as one of the greats who truly embodies the spirit of poetry as social practice. As much as the term may be self-explanatory, it fits for multifaceted poets like Rodriguez who wear many hats and serve as community figures. The term is also correct for poets like Adrienne Rich, Wanda Coleman, Amiri Baraka, Leimert Park patriarch Kamau Daaood, and Founder of the Friends of the L.A. River, Lewis MacAdams, among many others.

Rodriguez was originally born in El Paso, Texas and spent his childhood growing up in Watts and East Los Angeles. For several years in his youth Rodriguez was involved with gangs, before eventually finding his identity through poetry and writing. In 1989, Curbstone Press published his first book, "Poems Across the Pavement."

Though he grew up in L.A. until his mid-20s, Rodriguez lived in Chicago for much of the 1980s and 1990s. There he made a name for himself as a poet and journalist, working with fellow poet-activists like Michael Warr and Patricia Smith at the Guild Complex. His years in Chicago paved the way for the work he does now across Southern California. "The Concrete River," published in 1991, is one of his best known book of poems. Pieces like "Bethlehem No More" and "the Blast Furnace" share his experiences of working in factories in Southeast L.A. "The News You Don't Get At Home" is a poem that in many ways expresses why he's thrown his hat in the gubernatorial ring. The last stanza begins:

     The news you don't get at home
     is in the withered eye sockets
     of emaciated faces, seeking food,
     seeking redress, seeking emancipation---

Rodriguez's entire career is motivated by his many life experiences, and they are why he has so much empathy and compassion. When his son began to experiment with gangs in Chicago in the early 1990s, Rodriguez was inspired to write about his own gang days in L.A. as a method to discourage his son from pursuing that activity. The trials and tribulations he experienced along the path to redemption are described in his best-selling 1993 memoir, "Always Running." Published just after the 1992 L.A. uprising, the book was a roaring success and Rodriguez found himself touring bookstores, universities, and even appearing on a few network television shows, like "Oprah." Rodriguez, along with Father Greg Boyle, are lauded as two leaders that have the power to reach at risk youth.

Following the success of "Always Running," Rodriguez continued to write and produce more work. He has been travelling internationally to share his ideas on working with youth and reforming education for the better part of the last 20 years. When he moved back to L.A., he and his wife Trini decided to open Tia Chucha's Café Cultural, a bookstore and performance gallery in the Northeastern San Fernando Valley. This act of establishing Tia Chuchas out in this part of the Valley was a conscious decision to try and bring culture to an area with very few bookstores or galleries.


Rodriguez sees his run for governor as an extension of his lifelong activism. He hopes to connect real people to the political process and to "imagine a different way of doing things." The following six lines are core ideas of his platform:

  • No more poverty.
  • The end of the California prison system, as we know it.
  • A clean and green environment for all Californians.
  • A full quality and resourced educational system.
  • Free and quality health care for everyone from the cradle to the grave.
  • Arts, culture, and a creative economy accessible to everyone.

Rodriguez has been delivering his message up and down the West Coast over the last few months. He's been in San Francisco and Oakland fighting housing evictions, and at schools all over the state, from Watts to Sonoma. After achieving such literary success, he wants to take his work even further. He also knows that the political process in this country leaves a lot to be desired. By running, he hopes to make the democratic process real. His candidacy is his attempt "to create the world we want to be in." He also does not believe that the prison system works.
In many ways his very life mission could be described as the "Luis Rodriguez Poetry Locomotive," because he has always moved briskly and used poetry as a vehicle for change. He hopes to help raise political awareness and to inspire the next generation. Rodriguez has mentored hundreds, if not thousands of youth during his workshops and many events over the years. In addition to the last decade at Tia Chuchas, Rodriguez has spent a lot of time sharing his work in spaces like San Francisco's Mission District, Barrio Logan in San Diego, and he has played a central role cultivating the vibrant Boyle Heights Poetry scene centered on East First Street.

Though Rodriguez knows the odds are stacked against his campaign, hundreds of volunteers across the state are collecting signatures and campaigning for him as we speak now in mid-February. The Luis Rodriguez Poetry Locomotive is being organized locally by a group of poets from Boyle Heights. Abel Salas, a poet, journalist and founder of the Eastside publication, Brooklyn & Boyle, along with Iris De Anda, created the Poetry Locomotive idea so they could do their part to help spread the word. Rodriguez has been a major influence on Salas and the many poets in Boyle Heights. Salas notes, "He was there when I started Brooklyn & Boyle in 2008. He actually wrote an original piece for the very first issue. It was a memoir based on his experiences in Boyle Heights." Salas sees events like the Poetry Locomotive as a vehicle to share the wisdom of Rodriguez and this healing spirit.

The Luis Rodriguez Poetry Locomotive takes place this Sunday February 16, at 1 p.m. Beginning at the East L.A. Civic Center station, Rodriguez and the group of poets will be stopping at four different Metro stops to share their poetry and meet supporters. He will also be joined by veteran poets like Gloria Alvarez, Francisco Alarcon, Peter J. Harris, Busstop Prophet, and Jessica Ceballos. Following his many campaign activities this week, Rodriguez hopes to have enough signatures to run for California Governor as a candidate for the Green Party.

Considering his long track record as a poet of social practice, Rodriguez is qualified for this. He is rightfully recognized as a leader and as a man of great integrity. He also knows that the odds of winning are tough, but if his campaign can bring unspoken issues to the forefront, he knows he's helping raise awareness and political consciousness. Salute to Luis Rodriguez, his campaign for governor and the writers involved with his poetry locomotive, they are groundbreaking agents of change in the landscape of L.A. Letters.


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