A Conversation with Poet Laureate, Publisher, and Mentor Luis Rodriguez

In 2017, the inaugural fellows of the LARB / USC Publishing Workshop gathered at USC to learn more about the ever-evolving publishing industry. We anticipated speakers, cohort projects, creative opportunities, and career counseling. But we could not have imagined the caliber of achievement our mentors would draw from to teach. One such mentor was Luis Rodriguez.

Luis Rodriguez is an award-winning poet, publisher, author, urban peace activist, healer, youth advocate, and Los Angeles Poet Laureate (2014-2016). Today, his focus is on the future; he facilitates opportunities for emerging voices whenever possible. He teaches creative writing at Lancaster State Prison, is a script consultant on the FX-TV show Snowfall, and is Founding Editor of Tia Chucha Press, and co-founder/president of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural. “Luis has proven his commitment to fostering the personal development and creativity of young persons in Los Angeles, [in] California, and beyond,” says Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Lynne Thompson.

In the Publishing Workshop, Luis gave us an honest look at the victories and challenges of publishing in an evolving industry. Here, Luis discusses the process of selection in publishing with me, as well as running an independent press, mentorship in a shifting industry, and the future of storytelling. As it was in the Workshop, so it is on the page: Rodriguez has numerous insights to share.

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RJ NEWELL: In the early days of Tia Chucha Press, you began with publishing poetry collections by emerging writers of the Chicago Poetry Slam scene. More than a few of those writers have since gained international acclaim — National Book Award-winners, Pulitzer Prize-winners, and more. How does one cultivate the ability to pinpoint this kind of potential?

LUIS RODRIGUEZ: There’s a gut instinct many editors have for the right voice when you read a clean and well-thought-out manuscript. Of course, I’ve had a sense of what’s considered literary merit — I knew if a poet understood the US poetry terrain, including that of black, brown, LGBTQ, women, and others often not featured in literary magazines or anthologies. In addition, Chicago had its own dynamics. And since I also took part in the early years of the Slam Poetry movement in Chicago, I befriended and admired many poets who took their rhythms, verses, and emotions to engaging levels on the stage. But for the page, I had to see another range of possibilities…We haven’t always hit a homerun, but Tia Chucha Press books have impacted US letters in profound ways just the same.

Rather than staying on to become a permanent Chicago fixture, Tia Chucha Press transferred to Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural in Southern California in 2005 to expand its resources for emerging writers in this region. What motivated the move, and how does the Los Angeles literary landscape differ from a place like Chicago?

Our move was largely due to family…I loved living in Chicago, even with the poverty, crime, and violence — all related if one spends time on this. Most of Chicago was not violent or rundown. Most of my neighbors were wonderful. But I also worked with the most troubled youth as well as the homeless and recovering addicts, which most people wouldn’t do. [My wife] Trini and I recognized we had no extended family there. I had made a positive mark in Chicago. One weekly Chicago publication consistently named me among the 50 most important persons in Chi-Town literature/publishing due to my own work (poetry as well as the best-selling memoir Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.) and Tia Chucha Press. We moved nonetheless and I’m convinced it was the right thing.

A year after moving to the San Fernando Valley, in a community where Trini grew up, in the once-named “Mexican” side of the Valley, with the largest African American population in the Valley, we decided to create a cultural center, bookstore, performance space, workshop center, art gallery, and café called Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural. It had the Chicago spirit, including open mics and performance poetry. It also had the Xicanx spirit from my movement days in East Los Angeles…In the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, I helped organize readings, workshops, including in prisons, and published a literary & art magazine (ChismeArte — or “gossip art”). I was a cofounder with Manazar Gamboa of the Galeria Ocaso, one of the first, if not the first, art gallery and performance space in Echo Park. All this and my time in Chicago came together to establish our new cultural space, the only one of its kind for the 500,000 people of the Northeast San Fernando Valley.

Although we are no longer a café, we still provide workshops, performances, and exhibits in the arts, music, dance, theater, writing, and more, including one of the few remaining weekly Open Mics in the Los Angeles area. Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural draws from all over Los Angeles, but we also tap into Northeast Valley voices, stories, and flavors. In 2016, during the two years I served as L.A.’s official Poet Laureate, Tia Chucha Press published the largest anthology of Los Angeles poetry ever: Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles, edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez.

Tia Chucha Press now gives voice to authors and poets otherwise under-recognized in the national landscape. Looking back, what do you feel have been Tia Chucha’s most significant victories and challenges in pursuing this mission?

The US literary world is layered and divided. There are leading editors, publishers, and agents in New York who never heard of Xicanx writing, or Chicago-style poets, or much of anything outside of their insulated world. I’ve been published there (Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins) as well as with medium and smaller presses…So I know most ends of the US literary spectrum. Tia Chucha Press is really small — mostly two books a year. But we look for quality work from a diversity of communities, not just Xicanx, but from all ethnicities, races, and sexual orientations that move our editors and me. Native American-German-French artist/writer Jane Brunette designs all our books — they are each amazingly beautiful and yet there is also a Tia Chucha Press look to them…Tia Chucha Press can’t compete with the “big boys” and we don’t want to. We just do books that matter, which sing, that demonstrate how diversity is the heart and soul of this country.

Our challenges are mostly funding — few grants exist for publishing what we do. And our sales are up and down, although having Northwestern University Press as our national distributor (since our Chicago days) has been a godsend. In spite of the challenges, we know this press is needed. Its vitality is palpable. We need presses willing to take the right risks, with the right authors, to make a powerful difference in the complex literary landscape of this vast country.

Is there anything you wish you’d known, when first starting out as a publisher, about the process of building and maintaining an independent press, balancing that with your own writing life, and accomplishing this much overall?

I didn’t know anything about publishing when I started. But I’m resourceful and learned fast. I studied on my own, but also attended writers and publishing conferences. I asked for help from a lot of people…I [also] had my own literary work to deal with, now with 15 books in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. And combined with my community work (gangs, prisons, homeless, etc.) and the arts, including with Tia Chucha’s, as well as family…I had to juggle many things and fast. I made tons of mistakes — the only path to success I know — and I have to say that with Trini I had the most supportive wife and partner. She backed me every step of the way, including running Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural for 17 years.

I’m blessed beyond measure. I can’t provide any formula on how to do any of this. But I will say that being an average person, with average intelligence, and even with average issues of addictions, mortgages, hurdles in making money, is miracle enough. Having the right attitude, something I didn’t always have (I’ve self-sabotaged much over the years) is key. Be persistent but patient, and never, ever give up.

With social media, Amazon, and shifting industry trends, the business of literature has changed since the founding of Tia Chucha Press. From your perspective, what have been the biggest changes to the business of storytelling, and what do you hope emerging publishers can contribute to this industry’s future?

Digital technology has changed everything. But I also know there is still a love of actual books, printed pages, and that’s why I only do printed collections and anthologies, no ebooks or other digital content. I’m not against these. I just want Tia Chucha Press to represent the quality of what hand-held books can be today. This may change in the future.

I also use social media to promote. My own work is all over the digital stream. Tia Chucha Press is a way to introduce an emerging voice in literature to the world, like a powerful calling card. The biggest impact for us was the closure of Borders Bookstores, after Borders and Barnes & Noble helped close down many independent bookstores. I spent hours, and volunteered, at the beloved Guild Books in Chicago (out of which the Guild Complex Literary Arts Center emerged). I also loved L.A.’s Midnight Special in Santa Monica. Both gone. Having said that, I know great book lovers in Barnes & Noble, which now carries Tia Chucha Press books and my own work. And Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural has a bookstore — the only trade bookstore for half-a-million people in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. We hold an annual “Celebrating Words” Arts & Literacy Festival in Pacoima. People, especially in poor communities of color, need book ownership. I love libraries — one of this country’s greatest institutions. But owning a book is crucial for those wanting to further their education. I particularly love how children, mostly from Spanish-speaking families, love our Children’s Book section. Books still ignite their imaginations and spirits. As long as this happens, Tia Chucha’s will be about books.

Are there any areas in the publishing world that you feel have the most room for growth that might otherwise be overlooked or underrepresented?

All areas in publishing overlook the variety of voices, flavors, and stories in the country, let alone the world. Lee & Low Books is one dedicated to these voices in children’s literature. There are more in other genres. But publishing still has a long way to go. As I said, there are layers… On top of the pyramid, making the big decisions of who gets published in big presses and why, are mostly white and male power brokers, often from wealthier classes. The big prizes generally go to similar demographics, although I know this has changed. I think by the time I came around with my poetry and memoir in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, funding for new books began to include writers of color, women, and LGBTQ people. Early in my career I won a Lannan Fellowship and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award, which gave substantial money to young writers.

Foundations gave promotional funds for smaller publishers, [but] these funds no longer exist. In fact, publishers today don’t generally provide promotional book tours like they used to. Even journalist training programs, like the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at UC, Berkeley, are gone…People talk about “affirmative action,” but such efforts have largely been diminished. I got in at a good time, but what about the fantastic writers coming up now? Tia Chucha Press is one place where we pay attention to these publishing gaps and do our best to bridge them.

Your handprints and signature were recently immortalized in Vroman’s Author Walk of Fame in celebration of your important contributions to Los Angeles literature, poetry, and culture. How does it feel to be honored in this way, and what does it mean to you moving forward?

Vroman’s is one of few independent bookstores in the Los Angeles area. It’s my favorite bookstore, after Tia Chucha’s, of course. This was a singular honor, placing my handprints and signature on cement like at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Many friends from Pasadena, East Los Angeles, and the Northeast Valley, among other communities, attended. I especially liked that African-American commentator and columnist Lynell George led a public dialogue with me that day. She asked the important questions — I wished it was filmed and perhaps put on TV, or at least social media. Again, some of the most important and creative thinkers are not being heard as much as they should. Media pundits mostly seem to be cut from the same cloth, hardly ever from the “shadows” and outposts of this land.

I had the pleasure of first hearing you speak in person at the inaugural LARB/USC Publishing Workshop. As a student with limited access to the publishing world before the workshop, it was such a gift to have this kind of direct access to creative, collaborative speakers and mentors. As someone who currently facilitates opportunities through Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, what are your views on mentorship in publishing now?

Mentorship in publishing? I wish I had this when I started. Mentorship now is mostly within a publishing house. Editors and readers move up, and often make the rounds, of the big publishing houses. I’ve had editors who were working on a book of mine, then had to leave practically midstream for another editing job. The smaller presses generally have the same editors, who make this a labor of love (hardly ever labor for money). As founding editor of Tia Chucha Press, I have been thinking for a while of mentoring someone to fill the position I’m in. We hired somebody once who was doing a fantastic job, a Salvadoran American, respectfully Xicanaized (although she was clear on her Salvi roots). But she had to move on when funding fell through. That’s been the big problem — we have money for getting our books published, but that’s about it. And when we don’t have the funds, I usually cover the costs from my own pocket. Once in a great while with a grant, we’ll have money to promote (although Northwestern University Press helps with this as much as possible as does Tia Chucha’s Bookstore). We’ve never had paid staff at the press, although we do have paid staff at the center/bookstore. For almost three decades, Tia Chucha Press has been Jane and me. As in Chicago, I’ve established an unpaid editorial committee that helps with reading and deciding on which manuscript we’ll publish, and on occasions in shepherding a book to publication. In the future, Tia Chucha Press must have its own staff, and a paid editor, or it will go away when I go away.

When you look back on all that you’ve published, written, facilitated, and shaped over the years, does anything in particular stand out as the most personally meaningful?

Recently, my old elementary school in Rosemead CA dedicated a “Luis Rodriguez Reading Park” with a bench and plaque…No one, least of all me, imagined I’d be someone they’d honor this way. At nine, I was shy, bullied, and generally unresponsive — until I toughened up at age 11 and joined a gang. At nine I had my jaw cracked after two toughies beat me up. A growth developed that gave me a big chin. As a skinny, brown-skinned, barely English-speaking Mexican kid, I was ugly and a pariah. Everyone made fun of me. A girl called me “monkey.” It was the gang that embraced me — chin and all (my gang moniker was “Chin”). Who’d have thought I’d reach the levels I have — from drugs, gangs, and jails, to a working stiff in industry; to reporter/writer, including in San Bernardino, Chicago, Mexico, and Central America; to activist, teacher, and nonprofit proprietor; and now poet/author/speaker. Similarly, when L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti named me the city’s Poet Laureate in October of 2013, it was at the downtown Central Library…where at 15, homeless and using heroin, I roamed the stacks of books as my most valuable refuge. Books, language, ideas, and the arts saved me. I found my primary agreement with the universe, to move in the direction [that] my own soul-genius was trying to take me. I’ve gone off road, into muddy fields, dark abysses…But I got back on track. I made it. I’m here. There’s a lesson in there for anyone.

As a multi-faceted artist, publisher, and creative leader, what are your hopes for the future of storytelling?

We have lost a mythic imagination in this country. Everything is getting literalized — even our stories, our sacred texts, our politics. We are living in times when archaic ideas, concepts, and ways of doing things continue to hold us, although the heart of society is preparing for new birth. The “old” is holding the “new” hostage…That’s why everything appears in crisis — economies, political parties, religions, relationships, and the rest. Most people feel alienated, disconnected, from their own geniuses, from each other, from nature and natural law, and from the divine. The creative is the way out. Order is not the way out of chaos, creativity is.

I once heard someone say that computers now hold the world’s knowledge. Why then are human beings being fed book knowledge, facts, and tests? We can’t compete with computers at this level. We need instead to develop and honor what makes us human, which no computer can emulate… caring, empathy, thinking, cooperation, and a full imaginative life. The problem is we’ve “invented” our way here — almost everything human is made up. But now we are dis-aligned. Inventing things is necessary, but it’s most powerful when it’s in sync with the patterns, laws, and rhythms of the world and cosmos. That’s where we’re at — how to align again, at macro and micro levels, and then move forward. This will require a trust in the organic creative capacity we all possess.

For as others have said before me, to be a complete human being is to be a complete artist. The next major stage of human development is integrality, but only if we stay properly connected. But if we don’t consciously and actively make the right personal as well as societal choices, we may “miss our star home” as the poet William Stafford wrote. I feel my books, talks, media creations, and teachings must cover this essential ground.

Click here for more information about the 2018 LARB / USC Publishing Workshop.

 

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