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Verse Like Water: Stories of a life, warts and all

Luis J. Rodriguez, visiting poet in the Central Lakes College Verse Like Water Series, said Wednesday he became a poet when writing in jail and in juvenile hall. He didn’t know what he was doing, but those poems became the foundation for a prolific poetry career. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch

Many hurdles in his life could have kept poet Luis J. Rodriguez from taking the Chalberg Theatre stage at the Central Lakes College Brainerd campus Wednesday.

Rodriguez was born in Mexico before his family settled in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif. In his early teenage years, he joined a gang, which threw him headfirst into a life of violence, crime, heroin abuse and stints in jail.

Wednesday, as a visiting poet in the Verse Like Water Series, Rodriguez said he became a poet because he started writing in jail and in juvenile hall. He didn't even know what he was doing, but those poems became the foundation for a prolific poetry career.

A friend submitted those poems to a competition, which resulted in an honorable mention award for Rodriguez. The award came with $250 and a plane ticket to Berkeley, Calif., where Rodriguez attended a poetry conference and heard other poets for the first time. This experience inspired the poem "Fevered Shapes," one of a handful of poems Rodriguez read Wednesday.

"These poems came for me, lassoed my throat, demanded my life's savings, taking me for a sunset ride," Rodriguez read.

Certain things impact Rodriguez differently at different points in his life, he said. Because of this, he chose to honor women from his life—and femininity in general—by reading poems about his mother, wife and aunt. After reading "Heavy Blue Veins: Watts, 1959," a poem about his mother, the audience met Rodriguez with a respectful silence. He reassured the audience it was OK to applaud if they felt like it.

"Poets don't make a lot of money," Rodriguez said. "So applause is like our best currency."

"The Dance Known as La Trini," a poem dedicated to Rodriguez's wife, describes the incident which led to his sobriety. After using heroin for seven years and drinking alcohol for 20 years, he decided to get sober after he brought his wife to the bar with him. After seeing Rodriguez flirting with another woman, his wife got up on the bar and danced, to show him what he would lose if he didn't make a change.

"It was an angry dance," Rodriguez said. "No one should ever have to do that, but it woke me up."

Prior to reading two sonnets, Rodriguez spoke about how Americans should approach the rest of the world. Without mentioning him by name, Rodriguez said he opposes President Donald Trump's "America First" approach.

"We need the world first," Rodriguez said. "Now I love my country, but I love the world more."

The focus should be on ensuring every person in the world has enough food, water and a place to live, Rodriguez said, as well as education and health care.

"If everybody's taken care of, guess what?" Rodriguez said. "We're taken care of, too."

Liam Knutson, CLC student, read some of Rodriguez's poems in his English class prior to the event Wednesday. His poems are very personal, introspective and detailed, Knutson said.

"He kept it real, really real," Knutson said. "He didn't beat around the bush, about the stuff with his wife, his addictions, the stuff he's been through."

After reading a selection of poems, Rodriguez fielded questions from the audience. He provided some advice for young writers, as well as anyone facing challenges like he did when he was younger. Knutson, who writes frequently in a notebook, said it was encouraging to hear Rodriguez tell writers to keep writing.

"Just keep doing what I like," Knutson said. "It's just personal and whatnot and I'm probably the only one going to read it. But do it. If you like it, do it."

Rodriguez has the luxury of writing and speaking for a living, he said. He and his wife are busy running the Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, a cultural center in Sylmar, Calif., named for Rodriguez's aunt. Because of his busy schedule, the only time he gets to write is very early in the morning.

"If I spend two to three hours writing, I'm like the happiest all day long," Rodriguez said. "That centers me, that's like the most meditative, reflective thing I can do."

Rodriguez spends a lot of time running writing workshops for prisoners in maximum security prisons in California. They write honestly and openly, he said, because they know his workshops are a safe space.

"It takes them awhile to get going, but once they get going, it's amazing," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has five things he tells the troubled youth he works with, he said. Those five things are:

• Get help and find a healthy community,

• Find your passion, art or your genius,

• Find a cause bigger than you,

• Find a spiritual path,

• Learn to own your life.

It's important for writers to read, Rodriguez said, so they know what's out there and what they want to introduce to the world. He also told writers to write as much as they can, because it's something they need to practice.

"Be persistent, don't give up," Rodriguez said. "If that's what you love, don't stop doing it."

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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