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 Ä 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 Ä 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.
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