Let me tell you what’s really good: A standing room only venue; an attentive audience of adults, teens and kids from every demo you could think of; excited organizers giving away(!) books from the feature; and a featured reader who is ready to drop poems from his best of, some new hotness and then speak openly on a life of literary/political activism. Yeah, that’s what’s really good.
The featured reader was Luis J. Rodriguez who quickly set the tone for the evening by coming out with a handful of titles from Tia Chucha Press and speaking on Tia Chucha’s commitment to quality multi-cultural literature. More importantly, Luis let the audience know that this reading was going to be a two-way street, where he was not just going to share from his extensive collection of work but was also very interested in the room’s response to the work. “Afterwards, I really want to have a dialogue,” he stressed.
The first part of the set was poems from My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, including “The Rooster Who Thought It Was A Dog,” “Tia Chucha,” and “Meeting the Animal in Washington Square Park.” All the pieces had the right mix of imagery, humor, place and social commentary to keep both the youth and adult portions of the audience engaged and piqued for more.
Luis paused for a second to speak on the richness of language in poetry and how some audience may feel overwhelmed at times. “Poetry is meant to be heard many times and read many times,” Rodriguez told the audience. “For now, juts get a detail here and there to grab on to. And the next time, maybe another detail will get you.”
His second set was all new work. “Making Medicine,” a reflection on the sweat lodge ceremony; “”Moonlight to Water,” an ode to his youngest sons and their sibling dynamic; “Machu Picchu or What I Should Have Become When the Shadows Called My Blood,” a poem in the truest tradition of Pablo Neruda, favorite line: a father when my father ate the hearts of his own children. Rodriguez also recounted the story of the first poetry reading he ever attended. The reading was in Berkeley and the features were José Montoya, David Henderson, and Pedro Pietri. “Feed the Shapes” paid homage to these men, their work, and how it changed Rodriguez’s conception of American Poetry from an Anglo-based bland form to a vibrant musical ethnically diverse landscape.
As promised, Luis did dialogue with the audience who was curious about his spiritual awakenings (Rodriguez credits the movimiento of Chicano consciousness with giving him “power in a world where I felt powerless”), the number of books he has written (currently: 13, with a new memoir coming soon), his favorite poet (“Neruda”), which book was the hardest to write (Always Running since it hurt his family and others but the obligation “to the scary truth” won out even when it pitted him against old allies and enemies).
A good portion of the Q&A revolved around the related issues of gentrification, community and gang life. Rodriguez laid out a five point gang reduction strategy that focused on community involvement to youth that worked to fill in the gaps misdirected youth fall into. Rodriguez challenge: “Every person should mentor at least one young person to get them ready for the world.” He also spoke on American gang history and how “gangs” like the Black Panthers and Young Lords were stamped out because of their commitment to political change while other gangs with longer histories continue to thrive even in the face of police efforts. Efforts that amount to concentrated assaults on communities in an effort to clear them for greedy developers while pushing hostile criminal gangs into other areas.
I asked Rodriguez if he ever experienced any conflict between the oral tradition (experiences in the sweat experiences, and tales from the vida loca) and the written word (desire to publish his own works and those of others). Rodriguez credits that conflict as a source of his creativity.
The last and best question of the night came from a pre-teen skateboarded from the front of the room. “I hear what you’re saying and have heard a lot of the same history from many of my teachers. I say all this to ask will the revolution take violence?” The young man’s articulate and pointed question was received with nodding heads and broad smiles from the audience. Luis’s answer was to expand the definition of resistance. “Expand your imagination. We are in the arms struggle but expand the definition of arms. Use your body, hearts and minds. Use it all. Use all your arts. Before you give a man a weapon, give him your heart.”