The Power of Creativity

"I think poetry is a very healing art," says Luis Rodriguez in an interview with Scott Simon of National Public Radio. Rodriguez should know. Poetry helped him escape a violent, dead-end life in the streets.

Luis Rodriguez"When you start creating things, when you start using words in creative, unique, interesting ways, you start realizing that you can overcome some of the most basic troubles you may be in, because creativity is, as I say, all powerful... it's inexhaustible and it can do almost anything," says Luis Rodriguez, who will bring his way with words to North Carolina for a series of residencies.

Rodriguez, born in the U.S. of Mexican parents, spent his childhood in California, where he became involved in gangs, drugs, alcohol, and crime. In South Central Los Angeles, according to Rodriguez, he and fellow gang members saw no future outside their community. "We were kind of confined to a world. The sense was you couldn't get out of this world. You were supposed to conform to the poverty, the factories, to whatever people said - this was our lot. And I don't - and I didn't really believe that, and I think poetry allowed me to see that," he says.

His passionate belief that poetry could change lives led him to start "Youth Struggling for Survival," a movement that strives to turn young people away from violence and find meaning in life. He rejects the notion that youth who have committed crimes are unredeemable. In an article in Social Justice, Rodriguez writes, "I've read poetry to incarcerated youth, including murder(er)s and rapists. I have seen the glow in their eye, the power in their voice when expressing something deep within themselves." He concludes, "We simply cannot afford to write off any of our youth."

Rodriguez has an impressive list of published work, including Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A, which he wrote in a desperate attempt to get through to his son when he became involved in gangs in Chicago, where the Rodriguez family had moved. It is a personal account of his own gang-oriented youth and how he escaped it. The book won a Carl Sandburg Literary Award and a Chicago Sun-Times Book Award and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book for 1993.

His books of poetry have garnered no fewer awards. In addition, he has won an Hispanic Heritage Literary Award, a Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers' Award, a Lannon Foundation Literary Fellowship, the Dorothea Lang/Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke (with Donna DeCesare), a National Association for Poetry Therapy Public Service Award, and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council.

On the Road in North Carolina
Now Rodriguez is bringing his expertise and experiences to North Carolina for Word Wide, ten one-week residencies sponsored by the North Carolina Literary Consortium (NCLC). Besides Council funding of the project, participating sponsors are putting up funds and are fundraising locally.
"My approach is to share my story to begin honoring and opening up participants to their own story," says Rodriguez. Those participants will be diverse in race, age, and gender. For example, some of the programming planned for one of his weeks of residency includes an after-school project for at-risk teenagers at the Greensboro Public Library; readings and smaller hands-on class sessions at Rowan County's five public high schools; outreach programs for Mexican immigrants coordinated by Hispanos Unidos and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury; workshops and readings coordinated by Mitchell Community College Writer-in-Residence Joseph Bathanti at the Fifth Street Homeless Shelter, My Sister's House (a residence for battered women), Barium Springs Home for Children (a facility for at-risk youth), and the Iredell Correctional Facility; public readings at several different venues in a four-county area; and teacher education workshops.

The NCLC estimates 10,000 people will be exposed to Rodriguez directly, and hopes that radio and television and the Internet will increase that number significantly.

There will be a number of by-products of what promises to be a rich experience for those thousands of people. "We are discovering Latin American writers and storytellers who live in the state in the planning process," says Debbie McGill, literature director at the N.C. Arts Council. "We're glad to have the opportunity to embrace Latin American writers more fully in the state's literary community. Writers and readers will have the opportunity to cross ethnic and cultural barriers through the medium of literature. Now that's exciting," says McGill.

As Mr. Rodriguez takes his show on the road, he will be mentoring Latin American writers living in North Carolina. Thus, the project will serve as a model for future residency work.

But with all the talk of numbers and future relationships, it all comes back to the individual for Rodriguez. He says simply, "I believe in showing how everybody's life has value."