When I received the call last September from Mayor Eric Garcetti that I’d been chosen as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, I had to keep this quiet until the official announcement in October. However, I did mention this to a few people, most of whom looked at me with a smile and confused expression.
“What’s a ‘poet laureate’?” one asked.
My so-called best friend wisecracked, “Did you say ‘poet illiterate’?”
I knew then I was in trouble.
Okay, I’m only the city’s second poet laureate, following the brief tenure of L.A.’s wonderful poet, Eloise Klein Healy. Still it’s about time this term became a household name. In fact, the U.S. now has more poet laureates than ever before, around 45 in cities big and small. There are poet laureates for states, communities, small towns, and Native American reservations (Luci Tapahonso is the first Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation). In the L.A. area, there are poet laureates in Sunland-Tujunga, Altadena, among other communities. And sponsored by New York City-based Urban Word, there is a Youth Poet Laureate, 16-year-old Amanda Gorman (we read together at Beyond Baroque on February 28).
California’s Poet Laureates have included my friends Al Young, Carol Muske-Dukes, and Juan Felipe Herrera. Also San Francisco has had a poetry mentor of mine, Jack Hirschman, as well as an old friend, Alejandro Murguia, as poet laureates.
And we can’t forget that Charles Wright is currently the U.S. Poet Laureate, a position held by a leading U.S. poet since 1937. The present title, however, wasn’t authorized until an Act of Congress in 1985—they were known as “Consultants in Poetry” before then.
The Poet Laureate tradition is long—poet laureates were first recognized in Italy during the 14th century. Ben Jonson became England’s first poet laureate in 1616, although the first “official” poet laureate, John Dryden, received his appointment in 1668. In ancient Greece, a laurel or crown was given to honor poets and heroes. Such honors were bestowed to the best poets of the time—and those who could best chronicle in verse their times.
Yet for me the tradition goes farther back to African griots, other oral storytellers from around the world, and to the massive cities and temples of the Mayans and Mexikas (the misnamed Aztecs), whose so-called rulers were known as Huey Tlatoani—Great Speaker.
With this grand legacy, Danielle Brazell, LA City’s Department of Cultural Affairs’ General Manager, and John Szabo, our City Librarian, also gave me license “to make this position what you want.”
For sure, I’ll be working closely with the vast Public Library system, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Mayor’s Office. I’ve already met with L.A. County’s Human Resources Department. I’ll be part of this year’s “Big Read” book events, celebrating the novel “Into the Beautiful North” by Chicano writer Luis Alberto Urrea with an inaugural push at City Hall on March 25. The annual “Celebrating Words” outdoor literacy & arts festival, to take place in Pacoima, will honor the Poet Laureate and the Big Read on June 6 (organized by Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs and California Arts Council, among others). We’ll also take part in LeaLA! (Read LA), the Spanish-language book fair from May 15 to 17.
Since January 1, I have already read a poem in Nahuatl (language of the Mexikas and spoken by more than 2 million indigenous people in Mexico and Central America) for the “Endangered Languages” event at the Hammer Museum; wrote two sonnets and a free verse poem for the People’s State of the Union presentation at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City; talked to students whose parents are in prison for POPS (Pain in the Prison System) at Venice High School; read at the Alivio Open Mic in Bell CA; submitted a “Love Poem to L.A.” to key publications; spoke at Claremont College of Theology; had media interviews with Los Angeles Magazine, LA Daily News, KCET-TV, Univision, Telemundo, MundoFox, TV Azteca, KPPC-FM…and more.
Where do we go from here?
I say everywhere. The schools. The various colorful and flavorful neighborhoods. Tapping into this city’s reservoir of rich languages and traditions. Working with youth poetry groups like Get Lit Players, Street Poets, and Say Word. Visiting and taking part in as many Open Mics as I can, including Tia Chucha’s Open Mic held every Friday night (www.tiachucha.org). Create poetry videos. Perhaps anthologies of youth and other writings.
I’m also inviting any of you to send me ideas. Write me at LuisPoetLaureate@gmail.com. Let’s make poetry a revolutionary and healing act. Let’s make poetry an everyday, every occasion, thing. Let’s sing our lives, our traumas and our triumphs, with the powerful means of words, images, voices, our hearts and minds.