Three Poets Laureate: Lightning Rods for Poetry

Nick Narbutas
From the July/August 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

You also mentioned the limits and requirements of being poet laureate. What do you consider those limits and requirements to be?
So far the requirements are basic: Enhance the presence and appreciation of poetry and the literary arts in Los Angeles by engaging with the community in all its diversity, [through] a number of readings, workshops, and events; honor historic L.A. writers; and create new work. There’s a plan for a monthly blog on the city’s website, and I can write one or more commemorative poems to Los Angeles. Of course, I can do more—anthologies, publications, social media outreach, my own blogs and podcasts. My aim is to go broader and deeper. I [want to] be keenly aware of social mores, differences, and a general sense of propriety. I personally won’t use inappropriate language or insulting and divisive images. As long as I’m in this position, I won’t lend my name to political office seekers or be used for commercial purposes. Be that as it may, I will address as many issues as I can with dignity. I will assert my voice and help create spaces for more voices, ideas, and stories to be heard. I will continue to speak out, but as delicately and artfully as I can. This is a great responsibility and opportunity, not to be squandered or misused. And as I’ve stated before, this position should also not be so limiting that I can’t be who I’ve been most of my life—a revolutionary thinker, activist and truth-teller.

In terms of writing poems to Los Angeles, is there any pressure on you to write poems portraying the city in a positive light, to gloss over its problems? Or, in a more general sense, is there an expectation that you write a certain kind of poem?
Mayor Eric Garcetti chose me knowing I’ve spoken my heart, written about hard, dark things, run for office, and fought for a just world. There is no pressure to write poems that make L.A. appear more—or less—than what it is.

Though you’ve spent most of your life in Los Angeles, you also lived in Chicago for a number of years. How do you view the two cities? Did you see similarities between the communities? Is the role of poetry different in Chicago than in LA?
I see Chicago as my second home. I was enmeshed in Chicago politics, youth work, and poetry for fifteen years. I started Tia Chucha Press, a small cross-cultural poetry publisher, in Chicago—it’s now the publishing wing of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Even my most famous “L.A.” book, Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., was published while I was in Chicago. On the surface, Los Angeles and Chicago are as different as two cities can be. Chicago is Midwestern, compact, flat, old, with three-story flats, and home to amazing blues, jazz, and the now world-renowned poetry slams. But the similarities are striking. They are both the largest manufacturing centers of the country. Chicago is known for its meatpacking yards, steel mills, and trains. But L.A. also had meatpacking, steel mills, auto plants, aerospace industries, a massive harbor, garment plants, canneries, and more (I worked in many of those industries as a young man).

Unfortunately, most people think L.A.’s industry is solely in Hollywood. During the de-industrialization that first struck the U.S. in the mid-1970s, picking up steam in the 80s and 90s, both cities got hit hard. For four decades, L.A. and Chicago have been the country’s gang capitals, mostly generating armies of economically strapped youth during this de-industrialization process when the trade in drugs and guns took the place of industrial-based work. Chicago today has more gang violence, but for years L.A. led in this area. Both Chicago and L.A. have been active in “squeezing” black and brown communities through versions of gang injunctions, gentrification, and high rents, forcing many poor to move to suburbs or outlying communities and states. But L.A. has been more successful at this, including massive deportations of Mexicans and Central Americans. Because of these two cities, I’m working-class in my ideology, writings, work ethic, and make-up—in my blood.

As for poetry, Chicago sparked a literary explosion in the mid-1980s that has moved across the country and other parts of the world, including slam poetry. I took part in this phenomenon not long after it began at the Green Mill Lounge in Uptown. I moved to Chicago in 1985 and in three years I became integral to this, as cofounder of the Guild Complex and cofounder of the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival, which at one time brought three thousand people to the city’s lakefront. I was even on the first slam poetry tour of Europe in 1993. I was at the heart of this particular brand of performance poetry that also included poetry bands, poetry videos, poetry theater, and more.

I also did writing workshops in homeless shelters, prisons, and juvenile lockups. And I worked as a journalist and editor, primarily in community newspapers, magazines, and radio. In addition, I pioneered gang intervention work through Youth Struggling for Survival, the Increase the Peace Network, and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach Program. When I returned to Los Angeles in 2000, I took this spirit and experience with me. This became the catalyst for the creation of Tia Chucha’s—in thirteen years we’ve raised more than a million dollars for community-based multi-arts training and presentation.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement—as a writer, an activist, or a community organizer—so far?
I can’t say any area is more valuable or more appreciated. I am every one of these—writer, activist, organizer—and I’ll add father, husband, elder, teacher. However, I incorporate them as a whole. For example, my writing cannot exist outside of activism, family, and community. Because I’ve been largely fractured, with various aspects of myself at odds with one another, it’s important for me to be keenly aware of this process. Any achievement I’ve had as a writer is integrated with revolutionary ideas and actions. Being L.A.’s poet laureate, given to me largely because of my development as a poet, my discipline, my contribution to spreading the power of poetry, is inextricable from being a long-time change agent. Not change [as in], “Let’s do something different” (though this can be part of it), but what needs to be changed in order to align. In my personal life it was for my emotional, spiritual, psychological, creative, and physical aspects to align to the dream of my life—to my gifts, my passions, what I was inherently born to do. I had to change addictive, raging, and impulsive dispositions in my nature. For society it’s aligning to the regenerative capacities of the earth and of people—which means having the right relationships so both can thrive. Presently we are not aligned this way in society or in our governance. This means changing those characteristics of the post-industrial capitalist world that tear away at the healing qualities of earth and people. So while I may emphasize poetry these next two years, including the vitality of poetry in anyone’s life, the underlying motives are these alignments—both for the short and the long range; for the immediate demands, and for our future.