Let us dare haunting verse of the oppressed,
poems with hoodies, finger-tapping, ambling.
I mean pissed off and ardently expressed,
poems delirious as midnight rambling.
Bebop, Hip Hop, a decima or slam,
metered lyrics, free shaped texts… no matter,
bring out the fire, the punch, a resounding jam.
Let it ring far, a magnificent chatter.
Naming the nameless, voicing the unheard,
questioning the questions, swimming, splashing.
No expert strokes but damn if not expert word;
every line bleeding, grieving, pleading, slashing.
The power of poetry is its stance,
page or stage, electrifying or trance.
Los Angeles’s creative life appears driven by the vast dream factories established in this city—Hollywood, fashion, murals, car culture, architecture, skateboarding, tattoos, museums, music.
All that glitters. All that blings. All that sings.
Cool. I enjoy a good movie, TV drama, and wonderful museum like anyone else. But glaring to me are the gaps, the unequal economic, political, and cultural rifts, the Paris of the Pacific versus the Beirut by the Beach. This is also our city: Some 40 gang injunctions “arresting” around 70 communities; Los Angeles residents making up 60 percent or so of the state’s massive prison system; L.A. County with more poor than any other U.S. county; the country’s largest homeless population; more police killings than any other city; and violence rates in parts of this city that rival or exceed the world’s most violent places.
For example, from a Los Angeles Times report a few years ago, in South L.A. the homicide rate for Latino males ages 16 to 24 was 70 per 100,000 people; for African American males in the same age range, it was 120 murders per 100,000. The countries with excessive murder rates—Honduras, El Salvador, sections of Mexico, South Africa—go from 70 to 90 per 100,000.
Still, with a creative economy that provides one in seven jobs in the Los Angeles region, close to 730,000, with a combined income of $50.6 billion (from the 2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy), there are whole neighborhoods, for miles and miles, that have no bookstores, no cultural spaces, no museums, no movies houses—and this in the “Entertainment Capital” of the world.”
Nonetheless, there is much to love and celebrate in Los Angeles.
So I ask, can we imagine a new L.A.—free of poverty; social injustices; toxic air, ground, and water; as well as domestic and street violence? A Los Angeles that’s healthy and thriving, including neighborhoods exploding with public art, festivals, music, dance, theater, spoken word, and more—with a cultural life that incorporates children, teens, adults, elders, not just concentrated for a privileged few.
Perhaps we should listen to poets.
In 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed me as the city’s official poet laureate. The Mayor made the pronouncement in October of that year at the Central Public Library downtown. I told the story that at 15 I was briefly homeless in downtown’s streets, on drugs, sleeping along the “Concrete River,” in abandoned cars, at all-night movie theaters, on church pews, behind dumpsters. That very library became my refuge. I walked those aisles hungry for ideas, stories, compelling language. I read for hours. These books were my saving grace.
By 20, I became gang-free, drug-free, and crime-free.
Today, 40 years later, I’m all about books. I have published award-winning works in all genres. I also help oversee the bookstore/cultural center co-founded with my wife Trini, Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center. And I’m founding editor of one of L.A.’s premier small presses, Tia Chucha Press.
The point is literacy and arts among the poor, dispossessed, and pushed out is vital in these times when the “bottom line” reigns.
This year, Tia Chucha Press released a new anthology of L.A.-area poets, “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles,” edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez. Beautifully designed by Jane Brunette, who’s been designing our books for 27 years, with cover art by Alfonso Aceves, “Coiled Serpent” is a testament to the powerful poetry undergirding all the ugliness and splendor, scarcity and abundance, of our lives.
Why don’t we hear more from poets? Why don’t we have more poetry at graduations, celebrations, rallies, commemorations… as an every day, every occasion thing? Today, poetry is removed from the mainstream culture—we’re one country that marginalizes poetry while poetry is written, memorized, and recited all over the world, even in the most deprived areas.
In the United States, when a poetry book sells 1,000 copies, it’s considered a good seller; in Japan, poetry books can sell 3 million copies or more. Throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries, children learn to declamar, recite from memory classic verses. Poets in the Mideast, Russia, Europe, Iran, China, and India are revered. In Africa, griots—storytellers and verse purveyors—held entranced audiences for centuries. When the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, arguably the best poet of the 20th century, read at Santiago’s soccer stadium, the audience of 90,000 people would shout back his every word.
Poetry, like all art, needs to be at the center of our reality, for greater depth, enhanced dialogue, striking revelations. Our country is deprived for lack of enriched expression, performance, and blessings.
As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote in “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Just the same, in Los Angeles I’ve seen the best with conviction, with passion, with images. They include high school students writing in worn journals outside of class assignments. They are at the prolific number of open mics throughout the L.A. area, including every Friday night at Tia Chucha’s Bookstore. They are with organizations like Get Lit Players, Say Word, WriteGirl, Urban Word, Street Poets, Inside Out Writers, L.A. Poet Society, Writ Large Press, and others, bringing classic and new poems to our schools, playgrounds, juvenile lockups, and community spaces.
Poetry won’t solve L.A.’s immense problems. But with images, vision, ideas, we can delve deeper into what can. We can find a commonality beyond the divides.
As I finish my two-year tenure as L.A.’s Poet Laureate, I will remember always my visits to hundreds of schools, festivals, graduations, bookstores, universities, colleges, and more. I spoke, read or facilitated workshops in over 40 libraries as far flung as Sylmar, Sherman Oaks, Woodland Hills, Westwood, Pico-Union, Boyle Heights, Watts, Little Tokyo, and Wilmington. I addressed audiences at one of L.A. County’s juvenile halls, Los Padrinos; at Grand Performances of the California Plaza; at the Mark Taper Auditorium with storyteller Michael Meade and John Densmore of The Doors; at City Hall’s Council Chambers; during the Watts Jazz Festival; at Sirens Café in San Pedro; as speaker for the Poetry Convergence at the Skirball Museum; to support Endangered Languages at the Hammer Museum; and with the Poetry Circus at Griffith Park… to name a few.
Other area highlights include serving as Latino Heritage Grand Marshal in Pasadena; a panelist at the Southern California Poetry Festival in Long Beach; and in conversation with writer Ruben Martinez at Loyola Marymount University in Santa Monica;
During this time, I won awards and certificates from Beyond Baroque, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Con Tinta Literary Association, Leadership L.A.—and I received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. I also taught a wonderful class on so-called marginalized literature at California State University, Northridge for spring 2016.
Now, I’m teaching writing in two maximum-security yards at Lancaster State Prison for 30 weeks. And I’ll spend a month in Honduras later this year to facilitate poetry with orphaned teens from violence and poverty.
To punctuate this amazing journey, I invite you all to come to a culmination event on November 1 at the Taper Auditorium of the Central Library, from 3 pm to 5 pm, sponsored by Get Lit Players, Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Los Angeles Public Library. I will read with current Youth Poet Laureate, Rhiannon McGavin.
Even in these times of growing racial, class and political discord, and increased uncertainty, there are many bards of beauty, bards of bounty. Please, open your ears, your souls, your minds and hearts, and listen. They are revolutionary. They are healing. They are Los Angeles.