On September 23, 2014 I retrieved a phone message from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who called to say I’ve been chosen as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. The Mayor picked me from four finalists, which in turn came from more than 30 applicants. I’m the second poet laureate in L.A.’s history, which involves a two-year appointment, honorarium, many events, readings, festivals, and talks.
The official announcement is today, October 9, at the Central Library with the Mayor, other dignitaries, the media, some family, and friends.
For a few days I’ve been humbled, reflective—this is an honor and a great responsibility. L.A. poets are many and amazing. I hope to represent them well—along with the whole city and its many voices, stories, colors, languages, and flavors.
We are a singularly enriched city because of this.
For me poetry is deep soul-talk, a transformative energy, one of the most powerful means to enlarge one’s presence in the world. Now I will join with the mayor in a new and imaginative journey to make Los Angeles a livable, welcoming and artistically alive place.
It’s been a long personal journey as well.
When I was a teenager, I was in a gang, in and out of jails, using hard drugs (huffing toxic sprays, dropping pills, smoking reefer, shooting up heroin). At 15, I dropped out of school, got kicked out of the house, and briefly ended up homeless, mostly in downtown L.A. I slept in abandoned cars, alongside the L.A. River, church pews, behind Dumpsters, in shuttered warehouse buildings.
My refuge was the Central Public Library, where I’d go during the day and spend hours reading books. I loved books. In the end books saved my life. I eventually returned home, re-enrolled in school, received my diploma, painted murals, and began a lifelong political and cultural life.
Despite setbacks and missteps, by age 20, around the time of my first son’s birth, I became gang-free, crime-free and drug-free. Then after the 1993 release of my first memoir (“Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.”) librarians told me this book turned out as one of the most checked out—and one of the most stolen.
Full circle, I’m now going to have an office at that same Central Library.
This is enchanting—something one can’t predict, but which can happen any time, anywhere, when one aligns their personal genius, inspiration and discipline to social needs, revolutionary vision, significant ways to impact and shape the world.
I’m most grateful for this opportunity. I thank Mayor Garcetti, the Department of Cultural Affairs as well as the panel looking through the applications—and the abundant possibilities inherent in this great city. I’ll do what I can to help bring forth the beauty and bounty that poetry and all the arts can elicit in people, families and communities.
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