Remembering Why Libraries are Important

In early April, the Seattle Public Library invited me to speak at the city's Town Hall Auditorium. As is customary, they also had me speak at Ballard High School to an auditorium of some 300 students, and three classes, including the Latino Student group, Proyecto Saber. In addition, I spoke at the Alder School, which involves students in the electronic monitoring program of the Youth Detention Center. At the downtown library, I also addressed about 160 students in various alternative/continuation schools through the Interagency Academy. And I had a wonderful time speaking to a packed house at the South Park Community Center in the mostly Latino community of South Park.

Every group I spoke to became engaged in the issues and realities of their lives. The youth groups had well-thought out questions. My talks were titled "Expression and Empowerment in Troubled Times" or "Imagining Peace and Community in a Time of Violence and Chaos." I find these kinds of talks bring out a deeper participation into the fundamental concerns of the audiences I generally speak to -- concerns like gangs, violence, poverty, fear, and more.

With imagination and poetic language (I always have poems I read -- either mine or lines of poetry from some of my favorite poets like Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Theodore Roethke, Rumi, or Aime Cesaire) we attempt to enter a new ground of ideas, dialogue, hope, and community.

I know as a writer I can't just address issues of literature, publishing, or craft. Although these are important, and I'm particularly pleased when students ask me questions touching on such things, I'm also open to talk about life, wounds, gifts, dreams, and ways out of the runts and rants of the world we're in.

Young teen winners of a city-wide poetry contest were also present to read their poems during the main Town Hall presentation. Several weeks before, I had given them the theme of "purpose" for this contest. And the students did some wonderful work exploring purpose and meaning in their lives (the poems were in English and Spanish).

I was particularly taken by the library staff who helped organize all this, including making sure I got to the various events. They included Amy Twito, Jennifer Bisson, Lynn Miller, Theresa Mayer, Ken Gollersrud, and Ana Alvarez (Ana was extremely gracious with her time and in assisting me, for which I am most grateful). They also arranged a nice lunch with library staff members just before I left town.

In addition, I got a chance to meet with my friend Michael Meade, founder of the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, based in Seattle, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore (Thanks also to Elliott Bay for having books for sale at two of my events).

A couple of times, I related to the students how important libraries were in my life. Even when I was in a street gang, on drugs, homeless and in the streets, I found refuge among the books in the libraries of my neigborhood (a box of a building with a few shelves), the central library in downtown LA (where I would hang during the day when I was living in the streets as a teenager), and at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, where my father worked as a laboratory custodian and I spent hours in the library until he got off of work (my dad had tried to help me during a most troubling time in my youth by taking me away to a new school nearby, although I only lasted a couple of months there before dropping out).

I did not really begin to grasp English until the third grade. Because I was so shy and quiet, I found my language proficiency in books (and, of course, from watching the three or four channels on our black-and-white TV set). I know that books saved my life: they fired up my imagination, and also helped me develop the love of words and stories. I will always have libraries to thank for this (bookstores were non-existent in my neighborhood -- I did not visit a bookstore until I was in my early 20s).

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