Juan Felipe Herrera is the current Poet Laureate of the United States and the first Chicano Poet Laureate. He’s the author of twenty-nine books including his most recent collection of poems, Notes on the Assemblage, out now on City Lights Books. Gulf Stream assistant editor Ariel Francisco had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him at the 2015 Miami International Book Fair. The transcript of their conversation is featured below.
A: Poetry has always been important in Latin American countries and subsequently to many Latino-Americans living here in the states going back generations. How awesome is it to be the first Latino Poet Laureate and isn’t it about time?
JFH: It’s really awesome to be the first Chicano/Latino Poet Laureate of the United States and to be here for the entire nation. It’s also awesome to have a global voice. People come up to me at presentations and readings. I get amazing Latino/a people and communities seeing me at the readings not only buying the books but shaking my hand and asking me questions. There are fathers who come with their little kids and tell them “I want you to meet the first Latino Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera”, and then I shake hands with the children. So, it has that range. It’s a beautiful thing.
A: Can you tell us a bit about “La Casa de Colores”? Do you have any other projects/agendas you plan on implementing as Poet Laureate?
JFH: “La Casa de Colores” is a project that I put together online at the Library of Congress. It’s for all colors, all voices. There’s a monthly theme and this month’s theme is “migrants: portraits and friendships.” You can respond in any language you want and if you can translate it, that would be ideal. “La Casa de Colores” is all about visibility. We have our voices, we’ve cultivated our voices, we’ve been at this for a long time now, given the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties in particular and all the students that were coming into colleges at that time that all became writers and researchers, teachers, community organizers, you name it. However, despite all the accomplishments that have been made, most of our material is on bookshelves (of course, it’s in our lives too). Because of the tidal wave of media technology, new scenes, new stories come in every day, but the scenes and stories of working class people don’t always make it to prime time. So the idea is to bring in those voices, open up the media gates through the Library of Congress website to give them national and global exposure. And then to see it, to have our bilingual students or our bilingual families in our communities saying “I can’t believe it. This is my poem about my migrant experience. There it is!” That’s the idea. A completely amazing opening for all voices.
A: In your new book, Notes on the Assemblage, you very directly address issues of race and some of the tragedies that have gained wide media attention. Do you feel that, as a poet, it’s your responsibility to talk about these things?
JFH: I think it’s one of the major responsibilities of the poet. As poets we tend to not like the word “responsibility”. We prefer “freedom”, we want to be as free as we can, but freedom and responsibility can go together. We’re responsible because we’re writers, and we’ve been at this all our lives. So what would happen if we kept the resources that we’ve learned to polish, writing and language, to ourselves? It’s a waste of time and talent and resources. The idea is to give it away and use it for positive outcomes in our communities. So much violence is going on at a very extreme level, and we need words to reflect on what’s taking place. We have to create a space for reflection and to share what’s actually happening. One of the best places to do that is through poetry: our imagination, our creativity, and our stories most of all.
A: It’s an interesting contrast because when you see these things on the news it’s very quick, in your face, but when you see it on the page it’s with someone who has had time to reflect. It’s the same event but with a more thoughtful take.
JFH: And we need those thoughtful takes because that’s what makes us human. A human being that isn’t thoughtful is an incomplete human being. That’s the issue. It’s not just about speaking, it’s about being fully alive. We can’t be fully alive if we aren’t thoughtful, if we don’t respond to extreme violence with our own experiences and our own words. We just wait for the media to tell us what’s going on, and get depressed by commercial after commercial but we need to be broadcasters too. Broadcasters of unity, broadcasters of healing, broadcasters of what’s going on our lives, because otherwise there’s a stampede, and we need to slow it down.
A: And it seems that we forget. When there are so many tragedies, we move from one to the next, forgetting about the last one when a new one arises. Having it recorded in writing helps to remind us that we shouldn’t forget.
JFH: Having it recorded and having it visible, yeah. Visibility is most important right now. It’s not just the words. We can’t allow ourselves to become hidden human beings with hidden voices, and hidden experiences, and hidden responses to what’s going on. Because it’s a tidal wave of media. We need to press through that with our broadcasting, our humanity.