Ex-gang member, author, publisher, organizer, activist, lifelong Angeleno and Green Party California gubernatorial candidate Luis J. Rodriguez can officially add yet another hefty title to his resume: Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, as appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti today at a ceremony at the Central Public Library. Rodriguez is only the second poet to earn the title, following Eloise Klein Healy, who resigned from the inaugural role last year to recover from an illness.
As L.A.'s poet laureate, Rodriguez will serve a two-year term in which he'll act as “the official ambassador of L.A.'s vibrant creative scene,” a sort of spokesman for the written word, according to a statement issued by the mayor's office. It's a natural fit for Rodriguez, who's already been filling that role on his own, as the founder of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, a nonprofit bookstore and cultural center that fosters art, literary and music workshops in the largely Latino community of Sylmar.
In his new position, the best-selling author of the memoirs Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. and It Calls You Back is expected to host a series of readings, workshops and classes at the L.A. Public Library, which sponsors the poet laureate program, along with the Department of Cultural Affairs. The program is aimed at educating inner-city kids with limited access to poetry.
Rodriguez himself would have likely been the target audience for a program like this when he was a teenager. Growing up in San Gabriel, he was recruited to the Lomas gang at the age of 11, and at the age of 18 faced a six-year prison sentence that was dropped after letters of support flooded in from the community. He eventually found his voice and wrote about his experiences through poems like “The Concrete River”: “I am a friend of books, prey of cops / lover of the barrio women / selling hamburgers and tacos / at the P&G Burger Stand.”
In our 2012 People issue, Rodriguez talked to us about battling addiction, violence and la vida loca in East L.A. In the same issue the following year, Rodriguez's predecessor, Eloise Klein Healy, divulged her aspirations to read poetry at Dodger Stadium. As far as we know, that plan was never realized, but Rodriguez's ambitions are perhaps far more attainable.
In a statement about his appointment as L.A. Poet Laureate, he said: “To me, poetry is deep soul-talk, a powerful means to enlarge one's presence in the world.” His goal? Making L.A. “a livable, welcome, and artistically alive city.”
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