Poet discusses goals, work with homeless

By Michael Eilers

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Luis Rodriguez is a Chicano poet living in Chicago, where he writes and conducts poetry workshops in homeless shelters. Rodriguez also travels across the country speaking to students and teachers about gang prevention. A former gang member himself, Rodriguez, who grew up in Watts and Los Angeles, uses this experience to fuel a writing career that has garnered many awards and prizes, including the 1994 Chicago Sun-Times Book Award, The Carl Sandburg Award for Nonfiction, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. He will give a poetry reading and discussion today, Feb. 15, in the Modern Languages Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Wildcat: You've been billed as a "poet for the homeless." What does this title mean to you?

Luis Rodriguez: For five years I've been working in homeless shelters, giving poetry workshops and working with members of that community. I try to get their work together and help them find publishers and outlets for writing. We've had two anthologies, two chapbooks, a calendar, and many other works published. I'm not really a poet for the homeless, I'm a poet who works with the homeless.

WC: When did you begin writing? What motivated you to write?

L.R.: I started writing as a teenager in jails and shelters, and as I got older I realized this was something I wanted to pursue, that I wanted to take seriously. I was working in steel mills and factories, taking classes at night during the week, workshops and other classes that would help me out. I spent some time as a journalist, and as a news writer for radio in Chicago. I guess my serious writing career started in 1980, and I've been doing it for 15 years now.

WC.: What are some sources of inspiration for your work?

L.R.: Life itself is a source I draw from life experience, the experiences of friends, the news, voices I hear, people I see on the bus, my years on the street. I jot things down on note pads, keep journals, and just collect ideas, images, sounds, and then I go the computer and that's where things start. I just write a lot and try not to be an editor. Later I come back and it's kind of like a sculpture, I chip away until I find the poem or poems inside.

WC: Can you tell me about Always Running: La Vida Local, Gang Days in L.A.?

L.R.: Always is a nonfiction memoir of my experiences as a teenager, and as a gang member. Here I was, a former gang member, and then a few years later my own son got into a gang, so this book was a way to use my experience to help him out, and other kids like him. There were a lot of books out about gangs, but none by former gang members, and I thought I could bring in a unique perspective.

WC: You are known for teaching poetry workshops for the homeless, gang members, and other disenfranchised groups. What are your goals as a teacher?

L.R. I call them "Expression Empowerment Workshops," and I try to help people open themselves up to their experiences, to their issues, try to help them find a voice. People who have been so marginalized have lost their value in society's eyes, whether they lost a job, or a wife, or their house they have to realize their value as human beings in order to help themselves. Poetry is a way to tap into that, getting them to open up to themselves through writing. It's not therapy, I'm not a therapist, it just a way to help them find a voice.

WC: Can you give us a preview of your talk Wednesday?

L.R.: There will be a place for discussion, a place for the poetry, some readings. I think we need to start examining people's motivations, the reasons why they do things, their impulses. Poetry is a way to examine these motivations, and to start discussions about them. I'll try to deal with gang issues, and talk about the homeless and the writing of poetry.

Read Next Article