Friday, May 6, 2016

US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera at SCU

The First Chicano US Poet Laureate 
The title of Juan Felipe Herrera's performance was "Immigration, Migration and the Alien Thing." Herrera came to Santa Clara University for the first time in 1961, when he was a young altar boy. Back then he said he wrote in green ink on Chinatown stationary.

(Poet Laureate Hererra and I)

On Language

Francisco Jimenez (in photo below) helped Herrera get published in this 1970s when he was starting out. In his early poetry, Herrera said he traveled to 'Indian country' and learned Nahuatl in late 60s and early 70s. It was good a good feeling writing those poems, he said, keeping the language. Herrera explained that he writes in Spanish and English because he's bilingual. He said 'language is a musical instrument and we all make music more music makes more harmonies--and we be home.'

(Author Francisco Jimenez and Herrera)

Caring and Compassion

Herrera said he wrote Notes on the Assemblage about the terrible bloodletting that was happening. Still, he wanted to talk about kindness and compassion, being selfless and giving all you can give.

Herrera spoke of a friend who said that he wanted to 'read to the ocean.' Herrera said he interpreted this as thinking about the 'bigger world out there.' He read from a poem about the 43 students from the rural town of Ayotzinapa.

It's okay not to know everything, he said, just be sure to write with a heart and to care. He asked, 'what's compassion if you can't bring enemies together? Because enemies are not enemies. There's too much pain around.' He encourage students to build their vision because we need to think big picture. Too many little pictures are floating around. Too much violence, war, greed and talk of money.

His Youth and Laundry Bag Poem

Herrera explained that he came from the campos (fields) and he had friends--they were rabbits and ants--'Ants were my legos,' he said. He described the evolution of his sack lunches from potato burritos, graduating to wet sandwiches de tomate, and then to sandwiches de mantequilla, and finally to sardines.

His explanation of his lunches was inspired by a laundry bag that he compared to the large brown paper bags that he carried his lunches to school with. He wrote a poem about laundry on the bag, with the verse: "write while you wait."

He read from his book 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 about 1994 when prop 187 threatened to withhold public services from undocumented immigrants in California.

Jimenez asked Herrera about his mother. Herrera explained that she was born in 1906 for the revolution and moved to El Paso after the revolution with nothing. He explained that she was a pioneer and that she passed on dichos and poetry as well as love and compassion.

Inspiration from Teacher

Minutes asked him about his third grade teacher. Herrera explained he was born in barrio Logan when Elvis Presley was on the radio and before the freeway split his town in the name of "development." His third grade teacher asked him to come up to the front of class and sing. He said her five words changed his life: "You have a beautiful voice." He understood English, but he asked his friends, "Que dijo Mrs?" And his friend said, "Que tienes un vos muy beautiful."

Everyone has a beautiful voice, he said, as poet laureate, that's what he wants to tell everyone.

The Waste Land and Advice for Students and Writers

Herrera explained that when Gov. Brown asked him to be the poet laureate of California Brown asked him how Herrera understood TS Eliot and could apply the The Waste Land to California?" Herrera explained that it was a palm about a multicultural society and the harsh and cold realities we face but it was about how we could create a garden of life in this place.

For writers, he said, "Use your resources. Don't think about it[writing] too much, just start writing don't know how to start, that's okay. If our grandparents can make it to the US as pioneers we can write. We can be pioneers with words– meet it head on. Just get one word on the page. Two words--orale! Three words– it's a party."

Official SCU Press Release:

His books on Amazon (click on the book image): 

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