Photo by David J. Hawkins

Luis J. Rodriguez speaks to CSUN students, faculty and staff at a May 2015 event honoring his appointment as Los Angeles Poet Laureate.

Aspiring writers and poets at California State University, Northridge have the opportunity to learn from the ultimate mentor this spring. None other than the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, Luis J. Rodriguez, a lifelong Angeleno and self-proclaimed “Valley Guy,” is serving as scholar-in-residence this semester and teaching a literature course in the Department of Chicana/o Studies.

The class, “The Heartbeat at the Periphery: How Marginalized and Oppressed Literature is Moving the Culture,” focuses on works by people of color and labeled as “other” in the United States, including Chicana/o, Native American, African-American and LGBTQ writers, Rodriguez said. The graduate-level class includes undergraduates and graduate students.

“I link literature to real life, to the world we’re in — poetry and its various rhythms, and its impact on people’s lives,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the time, young people are not exposed to great literature any more. Often, the canon is narrowed to white writers. My goal is to connect this great literature to the real world.”

As his CSUN students explore authors such as Luis Alberto Urrea and Audre Lorde and exercise their own writing muscles in the class, Rodriguez said he’s seen their writing improve.

“I want them to be activists about this new kind of literature,” he said. “I’m encouraging them and challenging them so they’re more able to use language in a powerful way — language that connects to their own lives.”

As part of his term as CSUN scholar-in-residence, Rodriguez will present a “Big Read” of his poetry on Wednesday, April 20. The event is open to the campus and wider communities and will take place from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m. in the Northridge Center of the University Student Union.

Chicana/o Studies major Mayra Zaragoza said she jumped at the chance to take a class with Rodriguez, who has served as her mentor at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in Sylmar. The center is popular with CSUN students and includes the headquarters for Rodriguez’s Tia Chucha Press.

“[The class] is a great opportunity for young writers, because he is very honest when it comes to helping anyone who wants to go into the field,” said Zaragoza, 25, a junior. “He is Chicano, and when you think poet, you don’t necessarily think Chicano.

“Him being here is such an honor and a privilege for us, because his story is very unique,” she said. “He went from being in a gang to turning his life around through poetry and writing.”

Brought up in Watts and East Los Angeles, Rodriguez is a community activist and vocal advocate for the power of words to change lives. Best known for his memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” Rodriguez is also an award-winning poet. His collections include “My Nature is Hunger,” “The Concrete River,” “Trochemoche” and “Poems Across the Pavement.” He published a sequel to “Always Running” in 2011 called “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing.” The following year, the book became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. Rodriguez will release a new book of poetry, “Borrowed Bones,” this spring.

“We are fortunate to have him on campus this semester as a guest lecturer,” said Chicana/o Studies lecturer Maria Elena Fernandez, herself a published author. “He is the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles — it’s pretty exciting.”

This spring, Rodriguez also is leading a monthly men’s healing circle on campus, a group designed to give male students and other members of the CSUN community a safe place to discuss tough issues such as race, family and social justice.

“A lot of guys don’t have places to go to talk,” Rodriguez said. “We’re talking about campus life, issues of race and growth, how to handle crisis. It’s a place where young people can share and open up.”

Former Provost Harry Hellenbrand approached Rodriguez about teaching at CSUN after a May 2015 event on campus, when the Department of Chicana/o Studies honored him for his appointment by Mayor Eric Garcetti as the city’s Poet Laureate. The Office of the Provost and the dean’s office in the College of Humanities collaborated to bring the poet as scholar-in-residence for the spring 2016 semester, he said. “I love it, and I would love to return,” Rodriguez said.

His students said they are benefitting from exposure to literature from different voices and different perspectives.

“The literature we’re reading is trying to make us think outside the box, with new settings,” Zaragoza said. “[Rodriguez] is trying to help us make connections to stories in a whole new way. He’s trying to help us see our own lives as stories.”

The “Big Read” by Luis J. Rodriguez, scholar-in-residence and Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, will take place from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, in the Northridge Center of the University Student Union. The student union is located on the east side of campus, at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. The event is open to the campus and wider communities. For information, contact the Department of Chicana/o Studies at (818) 677-2734.