Juan Felipe Herrera
Juan Felipe Herrera: I also read poems that it’s just language that’s crashing and blowing up. And it’s meant to do that. It’s like my laboratory, too, where I twist the words around. And I break them. I’ll even invent words. And I’ll use the page with great delight. The page is just a beautiful canvas for me. And I’ll do that with a poem.
Jo Reed : That is the current Poet Laureate of the United States and two time NEA fellow, Juan Felipe Herrera. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Juan Felipe Herrera is a man of great humor, generous spirit and enormous talent. The child of Mexican immigrants, he is the first Latino to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Herrera grew up in California traveling up and down the coast with his parents who were farm workers. He inherited his love of language and poetry from his mother who was his first and best teacher. His delight in language is evident as is his understanding of language's power to open doors to new worlds. He is a prolific writer, according to the Library of Congress he has published some 28 books— they include collections of poetry, novels in verse, and children's books. His writing can experimental in form-- Herrera is never afraid to push himself and play with language or with subject matter. Although much of his writing concerns Chicano culture and life in the barrio or in the fields, as his recent book, Senegal Taxi demonstrates, Herrera is also willing to turn his poetic eye on global issues.
Juan Felipe Herrera: This is a poem from Senegal Taxi and this is one of the children whose name is Abdullah, who is running away from the massacres that have taken place in Darfur and along with his sister, Sahil, and his brother, Abrihin, they’re trying to get to Senegal and hopes of getting further-- wherever that could be-- and this on the way from Darfur to that magical city and that magical place in Senegal.
Abdullah, the village boy with one eye. All darkness in my eye, even though the sun perches on a limb next to me, webs of light in the stars that I speak to drooling my arms ahead of me. Where? Where? They ask me in starry breath pieces. Why are you running child? They say. Why through this smooth wind under the moon? I tell them that I cannot see, that I can barely breathe, that all is gone, just me now, my sister, gone back, my brother gone forward too soon, too fast, too long. I want to wrap all the trees on my back, tie all the threads of stone and rag and bone, so I will not get lost. Do not hurry the starry ash mouths say. You will live. I do not know, I say. I do not know if I am living or dead or nothing or something, or maybe I’m a giraffe, a giraffe dreaming of walking, dreaming of a giraffe that sings hungry and thirsty, for a name, a name, like Abdullah, who knows hunger and fire. I lift my branch and toss the sun and pull down the moon and bring up the breath under my face with spotted skin, with scars in the shape of cracked crystals.
Jo Reed: Juan Felipe Hererra, thank you so much for that. That’s from Senegal Taxi. You know, it’s interesting, because on one hand, Senegal Taxi is quite different for you and on the other hand, it’s not different at all. Even though you often write about Chicano culture and Chicano history and California, I think it’s fair to say displaced people is a subject of yours.
Juan Felipe Herrera: It’s a subject of mine, you know, I think we’re all displaced right now, we’re all being displaced right now. No matter how hard we hold on to whatever we want to hold on to-- our house, our family, our neighborhood, our community, ourselves-- we’re being dislodged at every moment with all the pain and shotguns and massacres and firing upon each other, and of course the larger global violence and the poverty and just all the clashes of people against people. So in my writing, I want to address all communities, you know. I’ve spent many years talking about Chicano culture, Chicano history and at the same time, I’ve also been in many communities and presented my work in many communities, in many classrooms, and that’s where my vision is and my delight is and my heart is. I want to for sure, write at a global level and, in this case, about Africa and some of its peoples as best as I can, and it’s a good thing for me, personally, it’s a good thing for my writing as well. But it’s also good, I hope it is, a good model for all of us to cross borders regardless of our, apprehensions about it, “I can’t do that,” or “I don’t know how to write from that space, or from that cultural stance and I’ll be doing harm if I do.” All those doubts that are, in many ways, you know, we’ve talked about those things for a number of decades of appropriating these other groups' culture and making some kind of caricature out of it and doing more harm than good. So it’s a risk that I wanted to take that I encourage in the 21st century. Because we need to be united more than divided and sometimes we have to take those kinds of risks as writers, as long as we stay very close to the experiences at our core.
Jo Reed: Well tell us the experience at your core. Tell us your story and the story of your parents.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Well, you know, it’s a story that’s been unfolding all my life. My mother was a great storyteller and a great historian in her own way. She only made it to third grade. She came from Mexico City at the tail end of the Mexican Revolution, and that kind of turmoil and chaos and frenzy and also excitement. My grandmother and my mom and my aunt Aurelia, my grandmother Juanita, my mom Lucia-- we lived on the outskirts of a barrio in Mexico City called Tepito, and Tepito for many, many decades was the largest barrio in Mexico and perhaps even Latin America. A boiling barrio of suffering and poverty, of course a very creative place because when you’re at the margins, you also see things from a very unique point of view and you create things, language and idioms and art and stories. They got on the train at the tail end of the Revolution. They came up north to Guerrero, Chihuahua at the very edge of the border with the United States and my uncles had already come up north and joined the Army as an effort to perhaps ease the crossing of the border for my mother, my grandmother and my aunt. So that’s how they crossed over. My mother was a washerwoman, or a woman that cleaned houses in Texas... in Plaxo, Texas, who always loved poetry and always loved stories. And as time went on, she was the youngest child and then she inherited all the photographs of my grandmother, who was being sent photographs by all the children, which there were eight children. And my mother liked the camera too, so she kind of was my photographer, mother and storyteller mom and poetry mom and performance mom, because she wanted to be an actress, but she was prevented from being in that world because a woman was not supposed to be in theater or dancing or going around “loosely” throughout the state and little troops where anything could happen, so that was a traditional point of view. So--
Jo Reed: But she passed it along to you.
Juan Felipe Herrera: But she decided to pass it along to me.
Juan Felipe Herrera: So that’s kind of the beginning of my family stories.
Jo Reed: Now you grew up going up and down the California coast, didn’t you?
Juan Felipe Herrera: Yes I did. Yes I did. I’ve always been on the move. My father was always on the move. We were always on the move in my father’s Army pickup. Since they were farm workers, my mother and father, and indeed from ranch to ranch, from field to field as a child, by the time I was around seven years old, it was time to hit first grade and we had kind of done the routes of the Central Valley of California and the small towns, Vista, California and even Escondido and for some reason, my father was like a Don Quixote so he said, “Wow, we’re going to Ramona.” “Why are we going to Ramona?” “Well don’t you know at Ramona, they’ve got the best water?” So then we would go to Ramona. And then, after like maybe three months, he said, “We’re going to San Diego.” And then my mom said, “Well, why are we going to San Diego?” “They have the best climate in San Diego.” So we kept on moving.
Jo Reed: English wasn’t your first language?
Juan Felipe Herrera: No. It wasn’t my first language. It was Spanish. That’s a whole other story. I only spoke Spanish. And my mother taught me Spanish from an old beat-up primer that she found in a thrift store in Spanish on how to read and pronounce letters. So she used that book. A natural teacher, she used that book. So that’s how I learned it as we were walking down the street too. Even on the sidewalk, she’d be making sure I knew my alphabet, and at home, reading and showing me the images of the letters which were accompanied by drawings, so I could read in Spanish before I went to school. But once I was in school, it was not allowed. I was not allowed to speak in Spanish and if I did, if I was late, which I was the first day, and I spoke in Spanish, the first day, because I didn’t know what was going on, my father just pointed me to this big cement building. He said, “There’s the school. There it is. Andale. Vamanos." Because he had, as a 14 year old, he had jumped on a train from that little village in Chihuahua and he made it all the way to Denver and in Denver, he stepped out of that train and he did the same thing. He had to look at buildings and find out where to go, and how to get things happening. Now that I think about it, that’s what happened to me. It was harsh, let me tell you. I was spanked. I was hit with a ruler, told to speak English, so I had to deal with that. I had to deal with that until Mrs. Sampson in third grade. And I wrote a children’s book about her.
Jo Reed: Explain to the listeners who Mrs. Sampson was in your life.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Well, Mrs. Sampson was my third grade teacher. I wasn’t really speaking anymore because it was a kind of difficult world, you know, you’re going to face some consequences, especially in Spanish. So in third grade, she goes, “John, come on
up and stand in front of the class, okay? I want you to sing a song.” I said to myself, “Sing a song? I can’t even speak in class and all of a sudden I’m asked to be singing a song?” And she was very encouraging and her tone... it was an invitation. So I got up in front of the class and I sang "Three Blind Mice." And after I finished singing "Three Blind Mice," she said, “You have a beautiful voice. You have a beautiful voice.” I didn’t say anything. I knew what she said. And I knew those words. It was like a sign I had never seen, it was actually a map for the rest of my life that I was going to need to discover my voice and I was going to need to discover the beauty of my voice and in turn, encourage others to acknowledge their voices and to acknowledge the beauty of their voices. So that’s why I’m here.
Jo Reed: When did you discover poetry? Or creative writing? When did you begin writing?
Juan Felipe Herrera: Well, you know, like the formal stuff, like cracking sentences and moving words around, I kind of started with my mother’s talent, my mother wanting to play word games with me and a billion stories that she told me day after day and real, real stories, I mean, you know, woman’s stories that her life as a young woman and what she had to deal with in life as a woman, like those stories about joining the theater now. So she started me going with language games and verbal art.
Jo Reed: Now, you went to UCLA, as you mentioned earlier. And it was during the civil rights movement and the Chicano movement was starting at that time. And that had a great influence on you. Talk about the influence that it had on you and on your work and how you proceeded.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Geez, you know that’s a very big question. That’s like a year. We have to spend a year talking about it. Going from a little apartment in San Diego, a fifty dollar a month apartment, sleeping on the sofa, my little mother and myself. My father had passed away a few years earlier. So, imagine leaving that little apartment and the kind of world I had lived in, even though I was in high school. And I joined every organization you could ever join because I lived downtown. And what am I going to do downtown other than walk around and look at things, which I did, and window shop, which I did. I’m an expert window shopper. I’ve got medals in window shopping <laughs>. So, I got in a car with my buddies who also got an EOP scholarship, Equal Opportunity Program scholarship, to UCLA. And I left my mom. I said, “Bye, Mama, adios.” And that’s the last time we were together as a little unit, mother and son. And for me, as a wild teenager, it was no problem. But now that I think back, it was a big move. It was a big old move. But yeah. So, I got in that crazy car, and landed in UCLA. So, because I felt I was kind of cloistered up in my world as an only child living with my mom and living in little apartments, always moving, never really having a neighborhood because I was going from neighborhood to neighborhood. So, when I got to UCLA at thirty-five thousand students and the big old campus, I thought this was Lego Land. I could build anything I wanted and go anywhere I wanted. So, I got a little lost in that in a sense. I got lost. And the medium that got me together was becoming part of the, of the Chicano student organization on campus. So, I became part of that organization and part of the campus. It was music and jazz and cultural, political, social, social change oriented way of seeing things. It kind of created a constellation for me that included my family, my upbringing, my
language, and my way of seeing things as a farm worker child and young man. And at that time, Cesar Chavez had just began in ’64 the United Farm Workers Movement. So, as I stepped into campus in ’67, the farm worker movement had also stepped in, and Martin Luther King, and the women’s movement, and the gay movement, and the student movement, global student movement. So, I was right at the heart of that. And that was the cauldron where I shaped and catapulted and cooked and spiced up this thing called my voice that turned into poetry.
Jo Reed: Your poetry is... it’s experimental in form. And you move from one form to another with such ease. But you’re such a storyteller. And your poetry, a lot of your early poetry particularly, it’s very autobiographical. And you’re telling the story of the campesinos. You’re telling the story of what it means to be Chicano, what it means to try and cross borders.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Yes, you’re right. You know, it's... I tell the story because it’s my experience. I also tell the story because it’s the experience of many Latinos and Latinas whether they’re in the United States or just coming in first generation, or in Latin America, or throughout the Caribbean, and many peoples that have experienced the immigrant experience and migrant experience. So, I wrote it right from my heart coming out to our communities. And I also wrote it as creating a panorama that I thought wasn’t available and that, as students at that time and still today, we feel it’s not available and not present in the media, or in the bookstores, or in the libraries, that we tell our stories in this manner, perhaps in new forms because we just need to be heard like everybody needs to be heard. And we want all voices. And it’s also beautiful to write, you know? It’s beautiful to write. It’s beautiful to use indigenous words.
Jo Reed: I was going to say because some of the poems, some are in English. Some are in Spanish.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Some are in both.
Juan Felipe Herrera: It’s like Stevie Wonder. You’re playing like four keyboards at the same time. I encourage that. And you’re right. And different mediums, different registers, different styles, different genres, it’s a very beautiful experience. And of course, this is the experience of the 21st century.
Jo Reed: I think this poem really kind of speaks to this, "Ricardo Slick Ric Salinas." I think that gives a good sense. I was looking for it, sorry. I should have marked it better.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Ricardo Slick Ric Salinas is a really great friend of mine. He’s part of a performance group called Culture Clash. And this poem is kind of... being involved in this cultural fair on 24th Street in the Mission District in San Francisco. And it used to take place every year. It may have changed. Ricardo Slick Ric Salinas was a rapper. He was a rapper and a performer and also a DJ, rapping at the 24th Street Fair, San Francisco. And the year must have been 1982.
You look so slick in your hot lemon parachute pants and your cutoff tank, dude. The Achaias and Dominique doing a spin on the staging. I remember when you were writing love letters to her. That’s what I’m saying. And I had Margie’s photo on the wall back in that sugar shack on the hill. When we were doing teatro for Reese Veldez. I mean the wall looked like some kind of 1969 North Beach poster shop. But they closed them down. And the teatro season is over, except for Herb. He just got a gig with Teatro Esperanza, right? It’s not movement anymore, Carnel, not really a street fair either. It’s something else. You know what, Slick? I got a feeling your rap got through the cut on the great wall where despair set in long ago. Good times. We had good times. We were--
Jo Reed: Good poem.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Thank you so much. Yeah, we were in Teatro Campesino for a season.
Jo Reed: But what you do with your poetry is it’s so accessible. And often with experimental poetry, one feels that the poet is writing for him or herself. And this is me speaking just for me. What you do is you include us. You’re like putting your arm around us and saying, “Here, you might not have looked at this before, but look at this with me.”
Juan Felipe Herrera: That’s true. I believe in that. I believe in that. I believe in when you’re reading, I believe in communication. I read in front of audiences. And sometimes, I’m reading something really deep and really heavy, you know. And you’ve got to look up at the audience on occasion. And I look up. And the audience’s faces are like sad. And they’re like sallow and sometimes crying. I go, “Yeah this is a good poem I think. But you know what? I don’t think I want to be part of making an audience look like that. Geez, it looks like they’re suffering out there.” <laughs>. So, I get involved, but not everyone’s like that, responds like I do. I remember touring with Amiri Baraka and he read like he was on fire everywhere he was. It didn’t matter if he had two people or it was standing room only with a line going out the café or reading. He was just booming and bursting. And I wasn’t because if there’s four people, I’m going to read to those four people. I’m going to be mellower. You know, this whole thing is, it’s like you're always examining your life in your poems and what you’re saying and how you say it and with the audience. The audience is you in many ways, too. You look at the audience. You go, “Oh, this is what I’m writing. This is how they’re feeling. This is how I’m feeling. This is what’s in this poem. Okay. All right.” And sometimes, I improvise on the place where I’m at. I used to do that a lot. And I don’t really recommend it because I’d go around town and listening and taking in people’s conversations. And I’d ask them a couple of questions because I was interested. And then I would do a little improv about what I had heard, but just a light-handed, nice, almost funny and sometimes funny, little improv intro before I read the poems. It does not work all the time. Your audience teaches you a lot of things and reflects who you are. So, geez, you know, it’s one thing is the writing getting your work out and finding new ways of writing. And then there’s finding ways of what the stage is all about, the performance is all about, the reading is all about, and who’s there is all about. And of course, you want to address your audience. In certain places, I just know I can go all out, all bilingualed out. I can just let my bilingual ’57 Chevy roll out and have a great time. Or I can talk about particular experiences that I know I have in common with the audience. Then again, I
also read poems that it’s just language that’s crashing and blowing up. And it’s meant to do that. It’s like my laboratory, too, where I twist the words around. And I break them. I’ll even invent words. And I’ll use the page with great delight. The page is just a beautiful canvas for me. And I’ll do that with a poem.
Jo Reed: You received two NEA grants.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Yes, I did.
Jo Reed: Where were you as a poet when you got-- do you remember?
Juan Felipe Herrera: I remember, I was in San Francisco, 1979. I got my first NEA grant when I was at Stanford. But I moved into San Francisco into the Mission District. I was writing this very intense collection called Akrilica, acrylic in Spanish and translated into English through my friends. I told them, “I don’t want to translate this. I have burned my whole body up with this book.” So, that’s where I was. I was into-- I had left my kind of Chicano literary, cultural voices. And I moved into Vayehi Neruda, Garcia Márquez approaches with my writing in Spanish and translated into English. So, I got into a very delightful beautiful palette. The book is called Acrylic, which the book functions like a gallery of paintings. So, I enjoyed creating poems that were murals, poems that were watercolors, poems that were experimental plays. I just loved writing that book. Anyway, that’s where I was, before I get into the book too much. So I wrote the proposal and I got the grant. It made me feel like I was on my way to being a poet. You know how we think of becoming poets. So that made me feel like I was becoming a poet even though I had been a poet for a decade. You know, it helped me a lot. It gave me a sense of place to be. And of course, it helped me financially to do everything I needed to do and find time to write. 1985, I got the second grant. And I was in dire straits. It was even worse straits than I had been in 1979. And I was in between worlds. I finished up at Stanford, had two degrees. I was writing, a lot of writing experiments in my mind. I wanted to write something called Bato Gula. And it was a collection of scribbles. I was thinking at that time that process was more important than product. I was thinking at that level at that time. That was where my experimental writing life was at. I was looking at covers or books and writing cover poems. And I was into, very deeply into writing about process. So, when that grant came in, it helped me pay these immense bills hanging over my immense head at that time <laughs>. And I could really, really get into the books that I was developing in the mid ‘80s.
Jo Reed: Now, did you have an inkling that you were going to be named U.S. Poet Laureate?
Juan Felipe Herrera: No, no, no. There were no-- there was no ink and no inkling <laughs>. There was neither one taking place regarding U.S. Poet Laureate. The dream did pass through my mind, maybe two, three years earlier. But it passed very quickly. But I said, “No, that’s not going to happen. Let me get back to reality here and do what I do and teach and finish teaching, retire, and then just write, just write. I’ve got a lot of ideas for projects.” And that’s where I was when I got the call.
Jo Reed: But you had been Poet Laureate of California.
Juan Felipe Herrera: That, too. See, that was another lightning bolt. It’s like all the other lightning bolts. And I had been nominated to be the California Poet Laureate. And I was very happy to be nominated. And I was thankful to the California Arts Council for nominating me. But I said, “Come on, California Poet Laureate.”
Jo Reed: The projects that you did as Poet Laureate of California, such as “The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World”… And how do you not love that title, never mind the concept behind it?
Juan Felipe Herrera: That’s right.
Jo Reed: Which is a poem that's written by California residents.
Juan Felipe Herrera: That’s right.
Jo Reed: Can we look at your projects as Poet Laureate of California as an indication of what you might do as U.S. Poet Laureate?
Juan Felipe Herrera: Yes, yes you can because it’s all about including people. And it’s all about honoring people’s languages and voices. It’s all about honoring everyone in the United States, their vision, and what moves them, and their reflections, and their inspirations. Some of the deepest things we have in our lives, in our fast, rushing, working hour, day to day obligations is those set of reflections and that soft, soul-like heart that beats and dreams and feels. That’s where the poetry is. And that’s who I am calling. I’m calling everybody’s heart to speak out. So, in a way, that’s going to be very similar. The banner is Casa de Colores, house of colors. This includes everybody, not just two or three colors, all colors, all languages, and all voices.
Jo Reed: I feel like we’ll be in very good hands Juan Felipe. And I want you to read one more poem... One of the letters to Victor?
Juan Felipe Herrera: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. Oh, you know Victor Martinez was a beautiful, extremely brilliant-- he was a guy I would go to and ask about what on Earth is Heidegger talking about? He could churn it out. He could crunch it. And he was a really good-hearted man. He passed away in 2011, lung cancer. And I felt it. And I miss him. But he knew about these poems <laughs>. “Undelivered Letters to Victor, Number Nine,”
I want to rock in Teddy Matthews’ America, in his hula palace. Remember Teddy Matthews? Teddy out gay talking about Nicaragua, doing the reading series at Modern Times? Teddy working hard through AIDS, through pain? And in the end, with god face, febrile fingers, and starry eyes? Teddy’s drawn face calls and calls. And his clear eyes peer through me. Battles, missions, random intersections, chaos, time, and culture boosters, explosions. I want writing to contain all this because we contain all this. Is this closer to what you mean by saying, “We are Americanos”? Is this your mission? You know, Victor, I’m going to say it. No more movements. Nothing about lines or metaphors or even about quality and craft. You know what I mean?
Jo Reed: Juan Felipe, thank you so much. And congratulations truly, I was so thrilled.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Thank you. It’s an honor. Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That's the current Poet Laureate of the United States and two time former NEA fellow, Juan Felipe Herrera. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Music Credit: “Chunky” Sanchez “Chicano Park Samba”, live
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The new poet laureate of the United States and two-time NEA fellow calls for everyone's heart to speak out.