Below is the introduction by Luis J. Rodriguez to the newly released L.A.-area poetry anthology Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles, featuring 160 poets and published by Tia Chucha Press, where Luis, the city’s Poet Laureate, has been founding editor for 27 years. The book is now available through Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley and other book outlets. This anthology is a great testament to the diverse voices and variety of verse of this great city. The book release is set for March 30, 2016, Ace Hotel, Sepulveda Room, 2nd Floor, 929 South Broadway, downtown, 90015.
…Fire in the village
An energy storm in gathering light
Fire in the village
Changing night a cloud’s going to lift
Fire in the village
Liberty is shining in a new world’s soul
Fire in the village
The little people listen with a fancy step
Fire in the village
The little people can’t help but dance
Fire in the village…
For me, Los Angeles is smoldering, deeply poetic, expansively settled, with rebellion beneath the normalcy, which has un chingo to do with our collective and personal spiritual awakenings, creative birthings, political schooling—why our lives are in flames.
This city/village has been rumbling for decades, waking up the world every few years with revolutionary ardor—consider the 1965 Watts Rebellion (now 50 years later), the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War (the so-called East L.A. riots), and the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising after the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating—and numerous civil disturbances in between. Close to 100 people killed in these battles and a billion dollars in damage in the 1992 riots alone (with millions more in other conflagrations).
This city has had more civil unrests than any other U.S. city in the past 100 years. L.A. is “shaky town” after all, but this has more to do with social and economic tremors and movements than earthquakes.
Why the title? The coiled serpent is connected to the earth, but also ready to spring, to strike, to defend or to protect. This image appears in various forms in mythologies and walls throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, India, and America. In pre-conquest times, Quetzalcoatl—the Precious Serpent—served as a personification of earth-bound wisdom, the arts and eldership in so-called Meso-America, one of seven “cradles of civilization” that also includes China, Nigeria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and Peru.
As I write this, mostly black and brown people in L.A. are being driven off older urban areas. Witness the gentrification of Echo Park, Highland Park, Pico-Union, Venice, sections of South Central. There’s a big 1930 Art Deco building on Broadway downtown where in the early 1980s I rented a space for $60 a month. Today this building has million dollar lofts.
Gentrification, anti-gang injunctions, police violence directed at the poor and working class residents, pushing out the homeless—they are all linked to whether this city, like the state and country, will only benefit the relatively few well-off and powerful rather than those in need.
These social conflicts have an objective foundation: Los Angeles is one of the richest cities in the United States and one of the poorest. What lies beneath all the seething are the social and economic gaps. This is also expressed as gaps in the collective imagination.
This poetry collection addresses the natural and unnatural condition of our city in the first 15 years of the new century: Inequalities of income and race, how peace can blossom in a time of perpetual war, the escalation of police killings, and climate peril. These poems are “flower and song”— in xochitl in cuicatl—as the Mexica natives of Mexico would say, stanzas that point the way out of social and personal dilemma by simply being, persisting, even in the in-between spaces, the undefined areas, in the complexities of poetic and mournful pondering of squandered possibilities.
Still we celebrate the native and the immigrant (and so-called immigrants who are actually natives), the queer and straight, women and men, young and old, humanity in all its colors, voices, and fluidity. This book could have been hundreds of pages. The limitations of publishing forced us to select one to two poems per poet. We want to publish the best of the poems submitted, not so much for literary acrobatics, but for any wonderment and twists a verse may spring upon a reader.
The backdrop to this collection is a society rent with class, racial, gender, and sexual discord; the foreground is imaginative renderings without limits, without fear. In skilled hands, such poems re-shape the idiom and push our minds to enlarge so they can hold the images. All contribute to the beauty, good, and truth that arise from the ruins, the rages, the desperation beneath every breath. This is about the poet’s veracity in challenging “sacred cows”: capitalism; the immense powers that control wealth, production, the media; even God and other “precious” things.
How in crisis poems are dreamt, born, fashioned. The world can judge how far these poets have taken this. There is art in the trying.
Currently, I’m Poet Laureate of this contentious, vital, and imaginative city. Over the decades I’ve read poetry at hundreds of schools, libraries, colleges, universities, graduations, festivals, book fests, juvenile lockups, prisons, bookstores, housing projects, and homeless shelters. I’ve heard a 14-year-old youth at the Nidorf Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile lockup in North America) read poetry during a behind-barbed-wire poetry event—at the time he faced 135 years in prison. I’ve read poetry with the Homeless Writers Coalition at the El Paso Bar on Main Street (now gone as gentrification encroaches on Skid Row, the largest homeless enclave in the U.S.). I’ve recited a Nahuatl (a key indigenous tongue of Mexico and Central America) poem at the Hammer Museum to draw attention to the world’s “Endangered Languages.” I read poems at the Watts Jazz Festival under the shadow of the Watts Towers with my formerly incarcerated son Ramiro (we lived in Florence and Watts when Ramiro was a baby). I’ve done months of writing workshops at a Maximum Security yard in Lancaster Prison, the only state prison in L.A. County (although L.A.-area prisoners are 60 percent of the state prison system). I’ve taken part in a Charles Bukowski Festival in San Pedro and in honor of Wanda Coleman at Leimert Park. Read with John Densmore of the Doors at Hollywood’s Montalban Theater and did a one-man poetry-play at the John Anson Ford Theater, directed by the renowned “Funkahuatl,” Rubén Guevara. I’ve read at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA and USC to “Celebrating Words” festivals in the barrios of Sylmar and Pacoima; from the Spanish-language “LeaLA!” book fair in downtown to the “Farce of July” festivals by Xicano Records & Films in Boyle Heights and East L.A. I’ve even recited love poems with my wife Trini at the Malibu Poetry Series… so many events, too numerous to recall.
From the embattlements, I can see generative ideas, strategies, forms of organization, and meaningful expression toward a fuller, cooperative and creatively active society. We can now envision healthy, thriving, and culturally alive communities for all. And we should embolden ourselves for the long haul struggles until this becomes reality. So here we go, poetry that captures a city, a dreamscape, the shape of land and culture… from its underbelly and from among the unseen and unheard. These are artistic weapons in the social battles upturning what America is today and what it can be—toward a grander sense of belonging and inheritance.
This book is dedicated to the irrepressible African American poet Wanda Coleman, a fiery soul who also embraced and guided many young poets, myself included, a rather raw and hungry writer when we first met some 35 years ago. To John Trudell, the Native American warrior-poet and personal teacher, with whom I spent many hours talking, learning, sharing at his Santa Monica abode soon after I returned from Chicago in 2000. And to my friend and fellow Chicano wordsmith and activist, the much-beloved Francisco X. Alarcon, whose poetry drew from deep in the earth and the bones. All three have passed on, but not their dreams for our humanity, their words, their indelible imprints on countless lives.
The aim again for all of us is to be truly alive, blood flowing, consciously awake, despite death everywhere and our culture stuck in a dying time of archaic ideas, moribund infrastructures, and spirit-crushing forms of control. Poetry takes this challenging time and intertwines it with the relentlessly new, the promise that is yet to be, the impossible become possible.