Monday, September 26, 2016

Letras Latinas Exclusive: an interview with Juan Felipe Herrera

an interview series

This summer I had the pleasure of reading six books of poetry by six wondrous poetas: 

Yesenia Montilla
Roberto F. Santiago
Verónica Reyes
Emanuel Xavier
Natalie Scenters-Zapico

and the current Poet Laureate of the United States, the beautiful

Juan Felipe Herrera.

It was an honor diving into their work and interviewing them too; such addicting and powerful words. There is something to learn from each of these Latino/a poets that is too valuable to pass on, and the importance of their works should be discussed in college classrooms across the country. I thank the poets for their time and for their trust. Gracias por sus palabras.

From the streets of L.A. to the streets of N.Y.C. we are in and on the rollercoaster next to these wonderful voices: you will feel every sharp turn and every steep drop. Go buy their books if you don’t already own them! I am very proud of this series of six entrevistas and I hope everyone falls in love with the poet’s raw responses; this summer was life changing for me. A special thank you to my friend and padrino of poetry, Francisco Aragón, for this opportunity.

Luis Lopez-Maldonado (M.F.A. ’17)
University of Notre Dame


Juan Felipe Herrera

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
JFH: Juan Felipe Herrera


With twenty-nine books published so far in your career, how does Notes on the Assemblage differ from other collections of poetry that have come before it? Why was it important to let the world see these poems, amidst the waves of violence, racism, and hate we are currently experiencing as a country and people? 

It is different in that it is literally an "assemblage" of poems-on-the-table. Usually, I write a thematic collection even though it wavers and moves in various directions. This one was an outcome of a years-long draft of a poetry text called "The Soap Factory." The piece was too conceptual and I felt the moment called for a more grounded collection. Its main pillars had to do with the notions of "Big Data vs Story, numbers and patterns vs identity, closed-tier militarized narratives vs open-tier peoples cultural life ways, security vs public flow."

Also -- on my "table" I happened to have poems that I had written for various tragic events and also eulogies for poets and departed friends of mine as well as scraps of "The Soap Factory." And some new ones. It was a good experiment in making a book outside of the Novelistic-Conceptual trend that has taken hold of poetry book making.

To me the book is important because of its odd-mix and its homage poems, it's bilingual texts and the Taoist pieces. These are all new directions for me...

Does it make a difference now that you are the United States Poet Laureate, in the way you create work or how your work is represented? Do you feel you have a responsibility as a poet and leader now more than ever, to write about themes that might inspire or bring social change?

I have always been writing socially and culturally centered poems and as well as experimental pieces and performance poems. My responsibilities lie closer to addressing audiences, providing insights on self awareness and war, peace, culture and power and most of all, compassion and freedom.

In the poem titled, "Ayotzinapa," you write in response to the event that happened in Mexico, that left thousands of family members crying out for their lost loved ones (the 43 students). What was the process for writing about this politically charged event? When and how did you decide to include yourself as a person/writer/poet or speaker of the poem, in the poem itself (first person: fuimos, nuestros, seguimos)?

The use of the First Person feels natural to me - particularly in portraying subjects, materials and events that are distant. Approach allows me to touch base with my own inner life that is related to the lives at hand. It is more about finding our core life-pursuits and inner life that assists us in relating to others not matter who they are and where they live. Suffering is universal.

Personal history, including of experience, familia, and upbringing, seems to be threaded throughout much of your past work. We see this again in this new work. Why is it important for you to include such information in your work? Do some of your memories trigger new works, in general, or do you bring these images from your past, into a work after you have already started writing? Do you feel it is important as a poet to write from the heart and expose your self so that your voice reaches all audiences and invites others to do the same?

Good question -- yes. My generation has been one of giving primary significance to socio-cultural dimensions and the relationships of power and culture. For me, it also extremely important to give the poem "weight." What I mean is that each poem must contain depth, darkness, reality so it can undulate in various directions - rather than have a one-dimensional text. Of course, there are many ways to make the poem curve and insightful.

You surprise the reader at times with how much space is used or not used in your poems. For example, on your poems titled, "On the Verge of Drowning" and "You Throw a Stone," aesthetically, on the page, you seem to be painting a picture for your audiences. How do you come up with these poetic shapes on the page? Do some of these spaces in the poems strictly mean something metaphorically, or are they there for the reader to use as pauses when reading your poetry? Is there a process that you submit to, when writing poems like these? For Notes on the Assemblage, how many times did you revise poems like these before you were happy with how they looked on the page?

Revision is a minor gesture. My delight is in the first explosive rendering. The use of space on the page is an "additional poem." It is the poem of "rhythm, pauses and silences." Much like playing the piano - think of Thelonius Monk, the magnificent Jazz pioneer. Another thing about the use of blank space, and pauses and beats in-between words is also choreography and architecture as well as structure. A poem is not merely words; it is not merely lines or even statements and meanings. It is, perhaps, more about the openness that exists somewhere on that mysterious page.

Under the section titled, "hard hooks," we read five RIP's, as I call them, which can be seen as mini love letters to loved individuals that have passed in your life. These lovely poems are all connected, in that memory plays a large part in the meat of the poem. How did you use memory and friendship or admiration, to develop each poem? Did you write these poems as a sort of eulogy, or did you write each of them in response to their deaths? What do these poems have, that others do not, in this collection of poetry?

These poems looser - more relaxed, more accessible, and more concerned with the death of a friend and human being. They are more "classical" in a way - they are celebrations of a life gone. In some of them, I did bring in moments that I experienced. In others, I worked through fog, hoping I could grasp something, a thread, a speck of that life I had barely known - Jack Gilbert, for example. In such as case I "remembered" the poems of the poet and found the life in the words.

In your poem titled, "The Soap Factory," some readers might think it is a poem that looks like a theater script or a recorded conversation. How did you decide the format for this poem? Did you have in mind the reader? The characters, the last names used, are these actual workers from a soap factory, and if so, how did these characters evolve from the first version until the poem was finished or ready for publication? What do you want your audiences to take from this poem?

I rarely think about what "I want" the audience to receive and experience or see in a poem. The creation and constructions of the poem are more delightful. Art is not a goal, it is a new space. This piece comes from a larger manuscript that I put away - with the same title, "The Soap Factory." Performance and theatre and "throwing voices," are dramas that I love to take to task in the poem. These approaches provide new ways to tackle the material, figures, voices and themes playing in the poem.

"Poema por poema" is another poem written in response to an event that caught the eye of the media and the President of the United States of America, among many others. Do you believe creating art based on events like the Charleston bible-study shooting, is a way to join the people, lets say, for example, in the fight against gun-laws here in America? As a poet, as an artist, as an educator, how do you decide what events to respond to? Do you allow a certain amount of time to pass from the event, to when you begin writing about it? Does this type of poem, make Juan Felipe Herrera hungry to keep representing multi-cultural people through his work, using language as a advocate for change?

Another good question. It is extremely important to provide poems that border-cross our individual cultural affiliations. In the last five decades we have given much time to "closed" ethnic poetics, work that focuses on our own identity-groups. It is time to move on. A poem that responds to horrific tragedies, in particular those with racist elements are key. As artists, writers, poets and speakers we have many roles - one of them is to light a candle for those that have died, and their families and the nation and world at large. Such poems need to be timed closely to the event, without being contrived. Make an attempt, you will touch the heart of the people.


In 2015 JUAN FELIPE HERRERA was appointed the 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In his statement, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Herrara’s poems “contain Whitman-esque multitudes that champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective” that serve to illuminate our larger American identity. In 2016, he was appointed to serve a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.
Herrera is the author of thirty books, including collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels and picture books for children. His collections of poetry include Notes on the Assemblage (2015), Senegal Taxi (2013), Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008), a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (2007), and Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse (1999), which received the Americas Award. In 2014, he released the nonfiction work Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (Dial), which showcases twenty Hispanic and Latino American men and women who have made outstanding contributions to the arts, politics, science, humanitarianism, and athletics.

From 2012-2014, Herrera served as California’s Poet Laureate, appointed by Governor Jerry Brown. As the state Laureate, Herrera created the i-Promise Joanna Project, an anti-bullying poetry project. Other initiatives included Answer Cancer with a Poem, Show Me Your Papers, and The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.

Influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez and his own immersion in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, Herrera is also a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth. While 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Borders chronicles Herrera’s involvement with spoken word and street movement performance troupes across the nation, his attention to language-centered texts can be seen in Half of the World in Light. Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chairman and recipient of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, points to the significance of his connection to a younger generation. Herrera is “the first U.S. laureate whose work has emerged from the new oral traditions that have been transforming American poetry over the past ­quarter-century,” Gioia says. (Washington Post)

Herrera has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others.  In 2011, Herrera was elected a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets. In 2016, he was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the 36th L.A. Times Book Prizes. He was educated at UCLA and Stanford University in Social Anthropology, and received his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught at Iowa Writers’ Workshop and served as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at CSU-Fresno. Herrera recently retired from the Creative Writing Department at UC Riverside. He lives in Fresno, California with his partner, the poet and performance artist, Margarita Robles.

LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review, Cloudbank, The Packinghouse Review, Public Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Project.   

No comments: