By Nick Narbutas, Poets & Writers
The title of poet laureate is one of the highest honors a poet can hold, but beyond the honor, the post can mean a variety of things. The United States has a national poet laureate, forty state poets laureate, and countless more at the local level, in dozens of cities and towns across the country. All of these offices are overseen by different organizations, from the Library of Congress to local arts councils, and almost none of them have a universally agreed-upon definition of the title. Some have launched initiatives to bring poetry to the classroom, while others have sent poets themselves to the schools. Robert Pinsky asked Americans to send him their favorite poems, while Ted Kooser told the country about his favorites. We talked to three poets laureate—Luis J. Rodriguez, the current poet laureate of Los Angeles; Joseph Bathanti, the former poet laureate of North Carolina; and Natasha Trethewey, the former poet laureate of the United States and current poet laureate of Mississippi—to find out exactly what the title means to them. While they each have a different take, all three shared a common mission: to go out into the community (whether that be a city, a state, or the entire country) and talk to people about poetry and explore the influence it can have on our lives.
Luis J. Rodriguez
Los Angeles Poet Laureate, 2014–2016
The author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most recently the memoir It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing, published by Touchstone in 2011. His most recent poetry collection is My Nature Is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, published by Curbstone Books in 2005.
Before becoming the second poet laureate of Los Angeles, you founded a cultural center, helped start an organization for at-risk youth, worked in gang intervention, and campaigned for urban peace, actually helping to broker peace agreements between warring gangs. As poet laureate, what do you envision as your main project? How will this differ from the extensive work you’ve done in the past? Does the position afford you resources you didn’t have before?
I have forty years of experiences working with troubled youth, in gangs and outside of gangs, for urban peace…for a healthy and clean environment, against poverty, and for social justice. This makes me a unique addition to the poet laureate tradition. Poets laureate are supposed to sing the praises of rulers, kings, queens, or the state; I [want to] sing the beauty and bounty of Los Angeles, but also point out its faults, such as income inequality, [how it is] both the poorest county in the country and one of the richest. My goal is beauty, truth, and the good.
But to do that I have to address the darkness as well as be a beacon for what’s possible, to consider new ways of thinking, living, and relating. An aim then is to use words, images, sound, and movement to convey the parameters of a just, equitable, and free world. However, I don’t want to make this position a “bully pulpit.” While I have a lot to say, and much to decry, I will do this with dignity, responsibly and artfully. There is far more good in Los Angeles, and from here the threads of a caring, cooperative, and fully conscious governance and economy should be imagined and created.
All this informs what I plan to do as poet laureate, including establishing and/or taking part in at least six city-wide events a year; facilitating workshops with youth and neglected communities; visiting and incorporating as many venues, open mics, and important spaces as possible; and, of course, writing poems. I will also work with others—the Mayor’s office, the City Council, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the L.A. Public Library system, community organizations, and more—to help poetry and the arts explode everywhere. I have always been doing this; now I can continue and magnify my life’s work by other means. I’m eager to use whatever resources this position may afford me to do just that. Click Here For Full Interview