On Monday, May 18th Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez joined Westwind, UCLA’s literary journal, at the Powell Rotunda for a reading of his work. Joining him on stage was his wife Trini, a poet, and his son Ruben, a fouth-year at UCLA and co-prose editor of Westwind.
Although Rodriguez began his writing career as a poet, he has written in many other genres, including journalism, memoir, fiction, and literary criticism to name a few. He is recognized as a major figure in contemporary Chicano literature. Rodriguez’s best-known work is Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which received much literary recognition, including the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.
Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodriguez as the poet laureate of Los Angeles in October of 2014; Rodriguez will serve a two-year term as official ambassador of L.A.’s vibrant culture, promoting the city’s rich literary community and celebrating the written word.
Since his appointment, Rodriguez has been traversing the city to conduct readings at venues like the Hammer Museum, where he read a poem in Nahuatl (the Aztec language,), the Grand Park Book Fest, the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and The Big Read. He has also read poems in front of the Los Angeles City Council twice, conducted writing workshops with youth for Urban Word, read a poem by Henry Dumas in acknowledgement of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and in Leimert Park commemorated the legacy of the unofficial poet laureate Wanda Coleman, who recently passed away.
Right now, Rodriguez is calling out to Los Angeles poets to submit to an anthology that he is publishing through Tia Chucha Press next year. The deadline is July 2015. Ten poems are requested from each poet, from which Rodriguez will pick one or two for publication. The submission email is TCPress@tiachuha.org
To complement the reading hosted at UCLA, we at Westwind asked Rodriguez to answer some questions about his work as a poet, journalist, social activist, and publisher.
W: Thank you very much for joining Westwind for a reading of your work. It’s even more special because your wife Trini Rodriguez and your son Ruben will be reading their work as well. Have you read your work together as a family before?
R: This is special. Of course, we’ve done similar things as a family—for example, I did a keynote talk at Ruben’s high school graduation where he also played guitar. My son Ramiro and I have read in Chicago, San Francisco, and L.A. And Trini and I have read together before, in particular a couples’ Valentine’s Day reading at the Malibu Poetry Reading Series. But this is a first for us three—I’m moved by this opportunity to share with my wife and son. Everyone in my immediate family are powerful writers. This may seem odd, but they learn being around me how vital it is to have language, to know one’s story, to express powerfully with pen and heart.
W: Talk about your background. How did your experiences shape your outlook on the world? How did it shape your writing?
R: My best-selling memoir, Always Running, covers a period in my teen life when I was in gangs, on heavy drugs, including heroin, and in and out of jails. A circle was completed when Mayor Garcetti presented me as poet laureate in the Central Library. This was the very library I used as a refuge when I was briefly homeless in downtown LA at 15. I finally left the “Crazy Life” by age twenty, holding my first son in my arms, helped by mentors, teachers, and a cause.
All these experiences—including getting politically active; working in a steel mill, foundry, paper mill, chemical refinery, and in construction; having kids; becoming a journalist and poet; working with gang and other troubled youth in the U.S. and other countries; the healing work I do with Native American spiritual practices—informs all my writing.
W: Can you please talk about your work as a journalist?
R: I became a journalist at age 25, first as a writer/photographer for weekly newspapers in East LA, covering murders, mudslides, and car accidents (although I also had a boxing column). I then worked as a daily crime-and-disaster reporter for the San Bernardino Sun when that city had the second-highest murder rate in the country. As a freelancer, I covered uprisings in Mexico, the Contra War in Nicaragua and Honduras, labor battles, as well as the trials and tribulations of Mexican and other Latino immigrants. One piece I did on the plight of the undocumented for the LA Weekly won a Western State’s Journalism award in the early 1980s.
I’ve also written extensively about gang life and solutions, including from all over the U.S, Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In Chicago, I also worked as editor of a weekly political newspaper—which took me around the country covering many fronts of struggle for social justice, against poverty, immigrant rights.
W: You’ve also done extensive activism around literacy awareness in prisons. Did you conduct writing classes, workshops? What were those experiences like?
R: I began doing prison workshops in Chino Prison in 1980, mentored by the leading Chicano poet doing this work at the time, Manuel “Manazar” Gamboa (who was also an ex-prisoner and ex-heroin addict). I’ve been doing these ever since, speaking and reading in San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom, Lancaster, as well as prisons, homeless shelters, migrant camps, Native American reservations, and juvenile facilities around the country. In addition, I’ve visited prisons in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, and England. I generally tell my story, read poetry, and talk about going from trauma to transformation. My workshops are healing circles mostly, but include writing as healing and renewal. Almost always, the prisoners and wards are attentive, respectful and full of poetry.
The only time things got rough was at an Arizona youth facility that rioted soon after my talk (although this had nothing to do with me—tensions had been shimmering for a long time among the Chicano and Native youth wards). I was pepper sprayed that time as guards tried to subdue the inmates and bring back order.
But again, my prison experiences have been the best, even in terrible inhumane prisons in places like El Salvador or Mexico.
W: Talk about Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore, and the press you run under the same name. Why did you open this organization? What kind of work do you publish?
R: I began Tia Chucha Press in Chicago in 1989 to publish my first book, “Poems across the Pavement.” A mixed Native American/white artist named Jane Brunette designed the book when we both worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s publishing wing. The book did so well that others came to me to publish their works. Then I also solicited manuscripts of poets I loved—and I’ve been doing this ever since. For more than 25 years now—and Jane has been my only designer.
When Trini, my two youngest boys, and I moved back to LA in 2000 (my oldest son was in prison, and my daughter and her child eventually joined us later). We moved to the northeast San Fernando Valley, the mostly Mexican and Central American section of the Valley where Trini grew up. Unfortunately, the northeast Valley had become culturally barren. A year later, we took out mortgages, credit cards, and royalties from sales of Always Running to create Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore—the only bookstore, art gallery, and decent performance space for 500,000 people. We’ve now been in existence 15 years. For the past 10 years I’ve not had to put my own money in there, although both Trini—who is Interim Executive Director—and myself have never been paid for creating and sustaining this center. It’s our gift to community.
W: Based on your experience, what are some of the challenges in getting published today? Do writers of color face experience additional challenges when it comes to publishing their work? What are some of the challenges publishing as a Latino publisher? What do you look for as a publisher?
R: Writers of color have only recently been recognized, beginning in the 1960s. Yet, despite many wonderful Chicano, Puerto Rican, African American, Native American, and Asian writers, we are still highly marginalized in the publishing world. Tia Chucha Press is now known as one of the leading cross-cultural small presses. But it is hard to compete in a world with corporate publishing houses controlling the market and most distribution and also during the developing shift to digital books. But I still edit and publish books—I believe in the printed book. I believe in the new voices often not wanted by others. This is a business, of course; the bottom line’s important. But we do this for the love of literature, compelling writing, the unheard voices. Yes, many good literature and poetry gets published in the general trade, but for the most part it’s about the blockbusters and popular fare.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful publishers for my books such as Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Seven Stories, Lee & Low, Curbstone, and Open Road Integrated Media. But this is not true for the vast majority of writers of color. It’s a struggle even though people of color have become a quarter of the U.S. population. By 2050 it’s estimated the majority of the population will be from communities of color. As everyone is saying now, we need more diversity in books as well as movies, TV, radio, the Internet, all media. That’s an area I plan to keep remedying as long as I can.
W: What has your experience been in getting published with large publishing houses? What are the advantages about getting a small press to publish your work?
R: The larger publishers have the distribution power. My books with major publishing houses can appear most everywhere. In Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, airports, Staples Stores, and more. Also whatever major media writers can get, it’s usually because of the big publishers and their marketing budgets. You generally need an agent to represent you with these publishers—one that knows the market but also the individual editors.
Although book tours in cities with media appointments are mostly not budgeted for anymore—except for blockbusters—I have made a living reading everywhere: universities, colleges, conference, libraries, schools, even bookstores, as much as I can. My books therefore are constantly being promoted. It’s a natural part of the “hustle” required to be an independent sole proprietor as a writer/lecturer/reader.
As for small presses, you don’t need an agent. You can send to various publishers, especially if you’ve done the homework. There are Literary Marketplace reference books (often in the various genres) you should consult. There are magazines and conferences you should turn to. Once a small publisher shows interest in your work, they also put their heart and soul behind each book. For example, Tia Chucha Press only does two books a year, but we design them beautifully and individually (although there is a Tia Chucha Press “look” that we’ve acquired over the years). We have a distributor among one of the most prestigious university presses, Northwestern University out of Chicago. Small presses don’t sell anywhere near as many books as the big publishers. But each sell is organized for, fought for, and valued.
There are other ways to go—self-publishing, print-on-demand, vanity presses, etc. All can be legitimate. But for me, even with less percentage of each book price for royalties, it’s best to get a long-standing and hardworking publisher behind my books.
W: What advice would you give young writers trying to find their voice and then getting their work out there?
R: The first and most important advice is: “don’t give up.” There is no surefire path to publishing, but you can pretty much make this a plausible fait accompli by getting the writing skills—compelling, powerful, unique (don’t write like anyone else) in the genre or genres you are passionate about. This requires adequate schooling but also ongoing self-study.
Next read many books, all the time, even books you don’t like (figure out why you don’t like them).
Third is write all the time. It’s an artistic practice. Any sportsperson, painter, musician, mechanic… what have you… get better the more they do their craft. Same with writing. Experiment perhaps. Try different forms. Discover new ones.
Writing like any art is an inexhaustible power once you’ve reached deep and draw from your own internal creative reservoir.
W: How important is it for writers to know how the publishing industry works?
R: It’s important to know the ins and outs of any professional field you’re interested in. Writing is a rigorous and demanding career. It’s highly competitive and hard to negotiate. Knowing the markets, the publishing houses, what they publish and don’t (so you don’t waste time sending manuscripts to people who don’t publish what you write), and aspects like agents, contracts, and copyright laws are all necessary. You can go to professional bodies like the Associated Writing and Writing Programs conferences every year (they also have a magazine with jobs listing, writing tips, interviews, and teaching positions in Masters in Fine Arts programs in writing).
I have a lecture agency, a literary agent, and a Hollywood lawyer to help me with all this. They are paid by the work I do, and so far I’ve made a decent living, although it’s a year-by-year proposition (some years are better than others).
The main thing again is your writing. Concentrate on that and then let the world revolve around this. Make time for your art.