On historic Central Avenue near East 45th Street, the Vernon Branch Public Library looks like a jail—tall fences surround the circa 1915 building and a fenced walkway leads up to the doorway. Like the surrounding neighborhood, the library appears worn, beaten down. It’s situated on the edge of the high-crime Central-Alameda reporting area of L.A.P.D.’s Newton District—in the six-month period ending November 22 there were 249 violent crimes with an average 145.7 crimes per 10,000 residents.
Yet, once inside its doors, the library is alive with children, parents, teachers, and some of the most engaged librarians you’ll ever meet. Inside is an oasis of books, computers, CDs, DVDs, and more books.
Last April, I conducted a writing workshop there with 30 mostly middle-school-aged Mexican, Salvadoran, and African American children. I displayed the culturally rich poetry collections from Tia Chucha Press, which I founded almost 27 years ago, and several of my own works. I read a poem. And I had the children put pencil to paper, including from a prompt about being in a forest, perhaps light-years away from their environment, yet even from their imagination, the children wrote strong, descriptive, and emotion-laden words.
Books. Poetry. Healing.
This workshop was a highlight of my first year as the city’s second Poet Laureate, chosen by Mayor Eric Garcetti in the fall of 2014. From January 1 to December 31, 2015, I’ve read poetry, lectured, and/or facilitated workshops in more than 100 venues in the Los Angeles area, to around 13,500 people, including libraries, schools, book fests, community festivals, graduations, and more. Millions more were reached through English and Spanish language media.
These amazing events included the Celebrating Words Festival in Pacoima; LeaLA! Spanish-language Book Festival downtown; the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC; a “Black Lives Matter” reading in Silver Lake; at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights; Little Tokyo’s and Encino-Tarzana’s library branches, among others; the Charles Bukowsky Festival in San Pedro; honoring the late great L.A. poet Wanda Coleman at Leimert Park; workshops and readings for Urban Word, including helping select the new Youth Poet Laureate; a Hip Hop educational conference at the Hammer Museum; Get Lit Players’s Poetic Convergence at the Skirball Museum; and reading poetry with my son Ramiro at the Watts Towers Jazz Festival (Ramiro and I were residents of Florence and Watts when he was a toddler).
This City of Angels is indeed a city of poets.
And these poets do more than just sing the city fantastic. Many draw attention to the social gaps, the poverty, the police killings, the deteriorating schools, mass incarceration, climate change, homelessness. They are bards of beauty and bounty, even when these are lacking. And they often point out viable ways out. Poetry is the essential soul talk we rarely find in this society, where most words are to inform, instruct, or to sell you something.
Last summer I began soliciting poetry from the L.A. area for what may be the largest, most comprehensive anthology of its kind, slated for March 2016, entitled “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles.” Three editors from Tia Chucha Press shifted through almost 400 submissions to feature 160 poets. I’ve written the introduction. The anthology is dedicated to the irrepressible Watts poet, Wanda Coleman, and Native American poet and activist, John Trudell, both who passed on, leaving a legacy of language, lunacy, and love.
Next year, I’ll continue doing events, of course, as well as write monthly blog posts for the L.A. Public Library website. But mostly I’ll be promoting the “Coiled Serpent” anthology, proof that in hard or good times, poetry is the “news” we don’t get on TV, that invites us to think, feel, and often act in the most meaningful and lasting manner, that can help liberate the creative and imaginative capacities for an equitable, just, and clean world for all.
Below is one of at least two poems to Los Angeles I’ll have written before my two-year tenure as Poet Laureate ends. My thanks to everyone who helped make 2015 a wonderful year for poetry.
Love Poem to Los Angeles
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,
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.
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 100 years
than any other city.
To truly love L.A. you have to see it
with different eyes,
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,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.
L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
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, NWA, or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.
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,
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,
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,