For the 44th yearbook Author week, University of California’s Riverside Creative Writing Department, in collaboration with the LA Review of Books, Awarded three US Poets Laureates with Lifetime Achievement Awards: Rita Dove (1993–95), Juan Felipe Herrera (2015–16) and Joy Harjo (2019– current). Crystal AC Salas, a third year MFA student at UCR, interviewed each award winner by phone and zoom in commemoration of the occasion.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of National Poetry Month, in the second part of this series of three conversations, Juan Felipe Herrera discusses his role as a poet-laureate, the creative abilities of children and young people, and the importance of a real connection in poetry.
Crystal AC Salas: Who would you identify as your ancestors in your legacy of poet as an ambassador, community organizer, and activist? How are these ancestors present in your work with the public?
Juan Felipe Herrera: I would say at the beginning it would have to be my parents as we were only together – the three of us traveled on the hiking trail. It was a very closed world, although Big Sky, but closed outside of everything. Perhaps, except when we were shopping for groceries, we were in the world of the Grocery Society. Otherwise we were on the other side of the highway on the outskirts of town. I just got from here to there at a very early age.
All this close contact and story-telling – my mom really wanted to be my teacher consciously. And that involved a lot of conversations and conversations about who my family was. She had an old album passed down from my grandmother Juanita who got all the photos from our parents and grandparents and kept them all in one album. And then my mother inherited all these photos. It was one of those five-cent albums with a red, leather-like plastic cover with the black felt paper and brownie photos. All photos from the late 19th century of my grandmother, my great-grandmother and my grandfather. It started there and then just went on. . . until the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and that’s how it ends.
Every photo had a story and she opened it and said to me: “Oh mira, that! This is tú abuelita Juanita! And she was very strict. And she didn’t want me to go to school after the third grade because she made me feel at home Theft of candy! “Those were difficult stories. And then [my mother] She pointed to another and said, “And that’s me, I wanted to be a dancer.” She would pull out everything she could find to look like a gypsy dancer. And she looked like one – I think that’s really who she was. “And yet,” she said, “I wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t allowed to go to the local barrio theater.”
The variety-style theaters came out in El Paso-Juarez in the 1930s. They were the big thing from 1930 because the major radio stations were installed in Juarez-El Paso in the late 1920s. So suddenly there were auditions for anyone who wanted to take part. She wanted to do this with all of her heart, with all of her body, and with all of her soul, but she was held back because she was a woman. And that’s it. A great old line was drawn. That was her story. And it really got me busy. In a way, I was fighting. I made a little war with myself and with society. I’d get up there one way or another and somehow I’d include them in the stories along the way.
So was my dad, but my dad was always traveling – traveling fathers – he would be gone for a year. But he had stories to tell. Or just observations. When we are children we watch everything. When we are teenagers, we feel and hear and hear. Even if we don’t look like that, we take everything in. So I recorded everything. And then there are others – in the 1950s and 1960s we went from Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix. 1956 to 1968 – that’s a lot of crazy, beautiful, wild music! I would listen to everything all the time.
And the social movements – this is a kind of collective ancestor. As students, we were all involved. It was either the Campesino movement, the LatinX movement, the Chicano movement, the gay rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the Native American movement, and then the global student movements across Latin America and the world. You could just flip a coin and find a move!
Salas: How did you understand the position of the American poet award winner prior to your appointment and how did this develop during your tenure? Also, could you talk to your process of approaching your award winner’s key project? What surprised you to learn about the accessibility of poetry programming resources?
Herrera: I didn’t do a lot of research on the position beforehand. I just felt good about it, and knew I would represent everyone in the United States, and I would promote literature and poetry, and my natural inclination is always to reach out to our communities of colors and Latinas, Latinos, and children. That was exactly what I had done, that was in my heart and I just wanted to let it work! That was usually my whole life experience walking into a new room – not knowing what it is, then discovering it and moving through it.
When I was there for the first time, I received an important visit. The Library of Congress has several departments – the African American Department, what’s called the Hispanic Department, the Asian Department, the Folklife Center, the Rare Books Department, and the Princeton Photography Department, and so on. . . . They all have librarians and are departments, but they are really micro-libraries that collect these materials and have accumulated them over time. So the main Hispanic librarian comes in with a couple of our librarians and she walks right up to me, she comes in the door, and there I am in this elegant office with antique furniture – emerald green and windows facing the large lawn, the mall, and so on to other buildings in the area. And she says very quietly and slowly with tearful eyes: “We have been waiting for you.”
That was a big old bell that she struck, you know? Well, I don’t think it was me, Juan Felipe Herrera, but it was precisely at that moment that a Latino was the United States Poet Prize Winner and it was time to get together.
I found that the Hispanic department has a lot of lovely resources, materials, records, photographs, and old books. One thing I got to see was a special edition of one of Lorca’s scrapbooks. España en el corazón. It was made from the soldiers’ uniforms. They wanted to give him a present so they tore some of their clothes. They crushed it and made pulp out of it, and they made the pages and then printed the letters of those poems and folded it into a nice envelope. They gave it to him because he had served with them for some time and supported the cause against Franco.
If you are in the largest cafeteria in the world that you have never been to and if you have been hungry all your life, then you are going to be creating some projects!
I’ve done four or five projects because when you’re in the biggest cafeteria in the world that you’ve never been to, and if you’ve been hungry all your life, you’re going to be making some projects! The first was Casa de Colores, That was for everyone. I wanted everyone to publish poetry. I wanted their voices to be heard in every way they wanted to write, what they wanted to write, and what language they wanted to write in, without an editor saying “This is not good” or “It is not worth it” . You have to go to university for fifty years and then we’ll look at your poems! “I wanted this to happen, so we made a call. Casa de Colores included “La Familia,” a project with occasional subjects, and people submitted poems on the subject, such as “Community” and a number of other subjects that I introduced to the nation. Many poems came in. Some of them came from adult education classrooms. And some were in Spanish, a little German, a little Italian, a little Portuguese. So that was “La Familia”– –It was an ongoing scroll. And then something else Casa de Colores was “El Jardin” who had presentations I made through the Library of Congress myself with the main librarian.
I did it next The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon. This was for second graders to inspire them to work with a teacher and librarian to give me ideas and write for this story that was blank and should be mentioned The technicolor adventures of Catalina Neon and her puppy tortilla. They sent a lot of things and then I tweaked them around. And it turned out to be a wild story!
And then the workshops with migrant women, schoolgirls with a migrant background and teachers who teach schoolgirls with a migrant background – that was the most moving. Their stories had to do with ICE, had to do with parents, had to do with dropping out of school even though they were Straight A students because they had to go to work because their parents didn’t want to be caught. and they wanted to protect the family and earn some income. Migrant women came to the readings a few times and were there estilos cómodos like at home, like en nuestras casas; They weren’t all “broken”. I mean why, right? It’s a poetry reading!
They didn’t say much. Because it was most likely new to her too. So I had the opportunity to talk to them – for me it was like code language – I said: “Cómo están y cómo están las cosas?” And that meant, “What is going on in your life and what is going on in your church?” Because the times were tough. And they would say: “Allá le vamos” (We survive). And that was enough to say a lot right there. We didn’t have to get into a deep conversation. And what all said was that they were there. I mean, why come to a poetry reading? But they came. I learned from everyone who came to the readings.
Salas: After Amanda Gorman’s captivating performance at the President’s inauguration, many people seemed shocked that such a young person could write and perform with such powerful articulation. Personally, as someone who works with teenagers while in awe of their performance, I was not at all surprised by the sharpness of vision that has arrived at their young age. What were some of your favorite learnings about the potential of poetry emerging from working with children and younger poets?
Children and younger poets have such a large lens.
Herrera: Children and younger poets have such a large lens. On the way, I had a group of second and third graders as the awardees. And I said, “Let’s talk about some things that interest you, shall we? Let’s solve some world problems…. Do you want to do that?” And they would say, “Yes! We want to solve some world problems!” And I would say, “Great! Which world problems do you want to solve? “And then they gave me a list, and it was a serious list; It wasn’t like making candy or anything! You put some big things on the board.
So I said, “Let’s put that aside. How about a shape or something so that we can take in these world problems? You know like a circle, but not a circle. You made a shape and we did will try. “And a second grader, a tiny, microscopic second grader, raises her hand and I say,” Yeah? What form should I put up there? “She says,” An infinite cube! ” So I had the chalk in my hand and I go: “Wow. . . You know what, okay Tell you what, let you do it! “Because I knew they’d make it. In my head it was like an Einstein’s cube. Remember that? No volume, either side had no volume, but it was a cube? That’s what her idea sounded like to me.
So they came and decided to go boys first and then girls. They decided to split up. Boys went here and girls went over there. And then the girls made these sea anemone shapes that crossed and I said, “Wow! Gosh, this is amazing! “And the guys were just making little triangles and rectangles – someday men will move forward! And they started putting up the kind of problems they wanted to solve, and then they picked one [from the list]. And they did! And they have achieved amazing results! And I said, “You did it! That’s great!”
I enjoy working with children, see how they think and how flexible their thoughts are, how open and creative they are. And the youth too. They jump up and speak spoken and they are amazing. It’s always a whole new thing. It is reality, rhythm and joy at the same time. The rhythms are amazing and the lines are not a problem. The reality is, you know, the harsh realities, the harsh realities that people rarely write or can write about. The language is very direct, which is great. And the joy is there and the performance and the bringing out and the electrical reaction from the audience. It’s about a lot of courage and courage. I look at them [the youth] as a teacher. I think Amanda Gorman introduced a new writing model. Because it was so magnetic. We all loved what she said and how she said it. It was like drinking a glass of water. A glass of clear, clear, clear water.
I think Amanda Gorman introduced a new writing model.
Salas: We are at a time of renewed investment in activism where we will hopefully also ask about the ethics of these gestures and our position to provide services in a way that is sensitive and even desirable to the communities we seek to nurture. As a literary activist and ambassador, how do you stay in touch with this cause? What questions do you ask yourself?
Herrera: I’ve been such a traveler – since I was a kid who moved from place to place. I feel a lot for everyone; I believe that everyone finds happiness and is essentially accepted and recognized with respect. There are other things – there is food. Of course there is clothes and there is a house and there is everything that everyone else has. I want everyone to have this. But on a deeper level, I want everyone not to suffer. I want to help. I want to solve. I want to participate in ending this suffering, especially with people I know. I know I may not know her name, but I do know her. Although times have changed since I was a child, time has stood still. Do you remember me saying I live off the main street on the outskirts of town, in the open field? And because you’re sitting in a trailer, you don’t take up much space there. To live like this means to stop there, and maybe you stay there for a while, I don’t know – maybe two, three, four weeks – and then you move on. So life is difficult. With this vision and cause, I don’t really feel like I am meddling. I don’t like “Oh, hey, hey! Everyone has to learn English.”
I only meet people with open arms. I meet people openly; I don’t meet people to do something. I don’t meet people to ask about anything. I don’t meet people to convey something. I don’t meet people who agree with me in any way. So this is the key: being sincere and as open as possible because everyone has a different point of view. But that’s what guides me: friendliness. And to want to be available to the people, especially the indigenous Latinos, Latinas and Méxicano / as, Centroamericano / as, Latin Americans, Afro-Americans, everyone – everyone!
I know some people have been out there like me. And that’s all you know I keep ideology and teaching outside of my relationship with people.
I keep ideology and teaching outside of my relationship with people.
Salas: The concept of a public mandate for a county, state, and / or national art ambassador has always intrigued me in our nation – it’s a remarkable contrast in a culture where being an American artist means, constantly social To have legitimacy of the siege. Being a BIPOC artist often means enduring the added complexity of the rejection of personality and lived experience of the dominant culture alongside their art. The national and institutional recognition of a poet as a necessary ambassador to the republic has always made me curious about the joys and precariousness of the post. How did you reconcile the promise of this post with the devaluation of the arts and humanities in our racist and capitalist culture?
Herrera: As a poet award winner, you sometimes get funny questions. . . Sometimes the questions are rough. Once – I think it was in an art museum – a gentleman who was part of the museum came up to me and asked me, “Can you name any Victorian poets?”
So I was put to the test, like in my head, “Maybe you are not good enough to be a poet award winner?” You hit a little bit of everything so you have to listen to it and think about it. It is part of the prism of the nation. You know, not all of them are bullies wearing a release button! Not all speak spoken! Or like César Vallejo-like poetry of a Latino. And go on, right? So we learn quite a bit when we are open.
We have to be open. Once, after a reading, a young man, an alternative high school student, came in last in the room with his teacher and another student. And I noticed that they couldn’t afford the $ 15 book. So I said, “It’s okay! It’s up to me!” So both got a book Notes on assembly. And I signed it for him. When I gave it to him, he said, before turning to take off, “You only write about your people. You don’t write for us. “I said,” Okay. Well, I’m a civil rights poet, you know, I write for everyone. “He said,” No, no, you don’t, no, you don’t. You have homework. “And then he drove off.
You know you have to think about it. I thought about it. I don’t remember writing a poem for whites even though it was in there. And that’s a question mark. We let people out of our community, from our literary audience, from our book community, from our poetry community. Just the way we speak creates a demarcation. Only the words we use create a demarcation. The status of the language creates a demarcation. So this is something to think about. I started thinking about it – even though I include everyone, I wonder if it isn’t going to get through. Maybe we don’t care. Or maybe yes. It is important to take care of it. It is important to be open. I went out with that.
We have to sit back and see it because we are going to stand there. We are the ones who have the pen and put it on, put it down and hold the keyboard. And we are the ones who have the mind and all these classes that we have attended and all these books that we have at home. And someone challenges us and then we already have this really high position, even though we don’t feel it and we don’t really think about it, but it really is quite a position. Good old-fashioned poet-poet with no MFA, no workshops, good old-fashioned poet-poet still has an elevated position. Suddenly you have to prove yourself. Because you have this elevated position. It is even more difficult. So it’s good to open up, to experiment.
Suddenly you have to prove yourself. Because you have this elevated position.
Salas: What did you observe about the role of poetry and its role in community awareness when the nature of public space changed so drastically? What do you hope for the role of poetic engagement in the community if the nation does not go back to “normal” but resumes at a time of reckoning with the grief and post-trauma of its recent events?
Herrera: In Austin, Texas, I did a workshop for Mexicans who crossed the border and made it to Austin and survived. They’d come from central Mexico and northern Mexico and just walked, climbed through, jumped under the wire, and somehow got over. And now they learned how to use computers and how to write.
In this workshop they created this little table, una mesa. And then a smaller table on top of the table. It almost looked like an altar. And it had a mantelpiece, a tablecloth, and over it photo albums of her children, postcards and small letters. There was a lot of love in all the photos of the families. This album was really like their poetry book. It had photos and inscriptions, and the years went by, and a new baby and another little poetic postcard, and they really appreciated it. And then they had flowers on top of the smaller table. In my mind I call it that Mesa trusts, the family table. Everything there was a kind of poem: the table, the mesa, where we all gather with our Abuelitas. There was el coatAs we know, a mantelpiece is not just a tablecloth, but a special thing. And then the album, the most important thing, and the photos of the children and growing up, little rhymes and puzzles. It wasn’t like: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is my book, it’s called Consciousness and the oblique light of time. “But it was a poem presentation.
There will be a lot more changes. We have to go in empty if we are really poets.
Because if we really wanted to present something to our community. . . Will our book really combine or would it be this table with a mantelpiece and Altarcito, with the album, family pictures, writings and postcards? Which one would really connect?
I think we have to be open to the changes that are taking place. And of course the viruses and what happens to the families, all of this only brings us upside down and sideways. We have to go in empty. This is a time when we lay down our ideas about poetry and then see what new poetry grows out of us. This is a time when we usually do that. . . it’s over. Because literally everything has changed. We no longer have what we used to have. The genre needs to be dismantled.
Yeah, I wish I could ride a horse downtown But there are no more horses to be ridden. There are only cars. And even the cars are going crazy – trucks are too big and people should be switching to gas anyway. I think we have to put everything down and go in with an empty pocket, empty mind and empty hands. No pens, no nothing, no paper, even the devices. So that we can receive the new rain, the new thunder, the tectonic shift and be part of it. It has only just started. There will be a lot more changes. We have to go in empty if we are really poets.