Recess talks to the U.S. National Poet Laureate

a photo essay and q&a

The United States National Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera visited Duke's Rubenstein Library Nov. 17 to read selections from his poetry and other works in both Spanish and English. Herrera is the first Mexican-American and Latino to be named poet laureate. The Chronicle sat down with Herrera to discuss his writing process, his activism and the subtle beauties of life. The following interview has been edited for clarity.   

The Chronicle: Is this visit [to Duke] part of a tour? Have you’ve been at other colleges and places recently?

Juan Felipe Herrera: Well, that’s what I do as a Poet Laureate, you know, I go throughout the whole USA. This is my one-and-a-half year point. I started back in 2015, and I’ll be done in the middle of 2017, at the end of April. I’ve been traveling quite a bit, seeing schools, universities, public health centers, community organizations, children in elementary schools, workshops, talking with grads and undergrads, faculty, you name it—anything you can do as a writer in motion. I remember I was going to Saratoga Springs, and I noticed that, just in the few days before I was to arrive, a student had died. Willem Golden—so I said I’m going to write a poem for him, so when I come to campus that’s the first thing I’ll do… I’ll read that poem. So that’s what I did. And it was very good, for everyone and for his family. I heard about that much later, when the President wrote me back and said the family wants to thank you very much for writing that poem. So, I do talks and I do readings and visits, and I also—as the occasion rises up—I’ll write a poem for them, if something or someone really stands out in that manner, which is not that often for campuses. 

TC: What is it like being the Poet Laureate? What do you do on a normal day?

JFH: On a normal day I’m traveling, I’m at an airport and I’m meeting students—I go to the campus, I’m on an interesting car ride or taxi ride. I meet Pakistani taxicab drivers, and they tell me about the poetry in Urdu and sing songs, or others tell me about Puerto Rican percussion. I listen quite a bit to the audiences and the people I meet at the signature table, which is interesting—that’s where a lot of things are shared. It’s like a little visiting place that lasts maybe five to ten minutes with each person. Which makes it a very long event, but that’s okay. So I listen to what people are thinking and feeling and saying. I met a ten-year-old adobe maker, just a few weeks ago. So she’s ten years old, and she told me—I said, “well what do you do?” and she goes, “well, I make adobes.” “Who taught you?” “Well, my grandfather taught me.” And she was very proud of being able to make adobes. This was in Bloomington—no, this was in Pueblo Colorado I met her. So I get the stories of the people without asking for them, and that’s good for them and it’s good for me. It’s just good to know people, period. The stories are just plentiful, you know. People just say what’s on their mind, and why they’re coming to the reading. They want to know about climate change and, in Milwaukee, for example, students came from very far away driving. I said, “where did you come from?” “I came from Racing.” “How far is that?” “Just like a couple hours driving.” “Oh, you came that far?” “Yeah, you know, cause we want to know about climate change.” Well, I don’t know anything about climate change. But I’ll do something, so I wrote a little, short two-line piece. I think it went:

Climate change in the air

What are we gonna do? Says Mr. Polar Bear.

It was something a little cooler than that though. So that’s how it is; there’s a reading, it’s meeting people. But between that, there’s a lot of society in motion that’s opening itself up to me—what people what, what students are thinking about, what problems they’re facing in college as individuals in their major or in their field or just as a group, facing the larger campus community or the administration or something. They kind of confide in me. So then I walk a way with a lot of a-ha about the things they’re studying and the kind of things they’re looking into, and then also feeling for them because sometimes they feel unheard. And they want to say things, what they’re concerned about on campus, but if they do, sometimes they feel like there’s going to be some retribution, because campuses want to just be campuses—they don’t necessarily want students rocking the boat. But that’s a part of student life, you know, that’s what we do at the university—we speak up, especially when we’re just starting off; we want to change it, we want to change things. So I hear that too. I hear amazing things that students have done. This is going to sound funny to you, I was talking about fruit flies, and the protein function in fruit flies. And what’s funny about that is one of the questions was—well, you know, the protein function in fruit flies and yeast and human beings is the same. So then the question is—why does one turn into a fruit fly and the other into a human being if the way the protein works is the same. I go, well you got me; I don’t even think about those things. Creating a pipeline into unambiguous star systems—that’s what one of the women was studying. She has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and she was interested in forming a pipeline through the cosmos, that you can see and you can work with in order to see new unambiguous star systems. I go, “unambiguous new star systems? Wow. Isn’t that great?” So that’s what I run into, as well as their real human concerns—and then as human beings and as ethnic groups, as students of color feeling like they’re having a hard time on campus even though they’re doing good in their studies.

So a little bit of that, and I also discover a lot of great artists. I’m kind of like a talent scout, without wanting to be. So I see eight-year-old and eleven-year-old poets at readings and community centers, and I go, “geez, eight years old! Standing up there and reading poetry so well and so expressive. I can’t believe it. One was in Albuquerque—the eight-year-old—and the eleven-year-old was in San Diego. I recruited both of those young girls to come to the Library of Congress and read their poetry. I thought, I don’t want them to wait till later—I want them to be acknowledged now, and I want them to feel that they’re worthy as writers and poets, and the only way I know how to do that is to bring them to the Library of Congress. And they went, and everybody was astounded. I hope that was good for them and their families and for their schools…and for other girls looking at them, Latina girls looking at them, thinking, “Oh, a poet? What is that? Oh yeah poetry, okay. They’re the same age I am, and they’re at the Library of Congress? Wow.” I want them to be role models too. 

TC: So you mentioned a little bit about how you write before a specific reading, but what does the writing process in general look like for you?

JFH: It changes, as I go from moment to moment. Right now I’m in motion—I’m traveling all the time, so that means my writing process has to adapt to that. So I’m in hotels, writing in airports, and I’m writing a lot in planes—sometimes so much that my fingertips get numb. Right now my fingertips are numb and I’m trying to figure out why they get numb so quickly. I’m just writing nonstop. So it changes that way, and I use pens and pencils and colored pens and gel pens. I have a laptop, but I don’t really use it because when you’re in motion you have to keep it balanced. So I use a sketchbook and a good inky pen, and it’s fun to do it in a sketchbook cause you’re kind of drawing and writing, and you can doodle gobbley-gooks and have fun. I’m writing in a squeezed world—airports and planes—which is different cause I’m used to writing at home or at libraries, which I love. I also have more writing modes that I choose from, because I’ll get ideas like learning about the fruit fly and I’ll want to write about the fruit fly, so that’s a particular style. Then I’ll be going to New Mexico—my sisters and family are there—so I’ll write some poems for my family there, and they’re not going to be the fruit-fly poem. I’m going to read it—cause they made a poster out of it, so I’ll read that poem. But I’m going to write some poems for my sisters, and they’re going to be based on the stories that they shared with me about our family way back in the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s. I’m going to do that, which is kind of a new thing. So my writing changes given where I’m at and where I’m going, and the audiences. It doesn’t have to, but I’m just that kind of guy. I like to adapt and try something out.

TC: Can you discuss some of the main inspirations behind your writing?

JFH: It’s really more like an energy. The inspiration is the people, because I want to provide something for everyone. Making lives better and bringing about social change. Really relating to people, but at the same time I like to play with language and experiment, and get conceptual and trying new things like that. And for new material, new experimental material, that’s kind of an artistic motivation.

It’s my whole life, you know. Writing is my whole life—it’s probably 95% of my life. Which is not the best balance. I guess it’s like you guys studying, it’s like 98% of your lives, everything else is maybe 2%. Just like that, it’s not much different 'cause you’re always reading and always thinking and you’re writing and, even though you’re a human being, you’re locked into one world—which is the student world, the world of thinking and thought, of writing and sharing. So it’s writing for the people. I’d have to say that’s my motivation. But it’s not a concept, it’s more like a purpose. It sounds like an odd, almost paternalistic approach, but it’s really just that I care a lot for people and I want to write for them. And at the same time, I love art and I love language and words. I see them as my playmates and my friends and my family—writing is my family. I hang out with writing all the time. And I’m also here to discover what writing is and to find new ways of what we can do with it. It’s consciousness; writing is consciousness. It’s kind of endless.

But maybe the purpose began with talking about farm workers back in the university. When I was at UCLA in the late 60’s, the farm workers movement just exploded, marching and striking, so I got on the stage to talk about those things as a writer and a poet. I did music and theatre and all those good things.

TC: As immigration was a major subject of debate leading up to the election, and then obviously because of the election results—my question to you is, as a the son of migrant farm workers and as a Mexican-American, have the results changed the way you view the nation or the way you view your own writing?

JFH: That’s an interesting question. It’s probably influencing me right now as we speak. But I’ve been writing about it all my life. It’s kind of funny, you know, you write about this your whole life then all of a sudden it’s one of the main issues. So yeah, I do want to write more about what migration is and what migrants are and what the migrant experience is, at least from my own small experience. I did some pieces in the airport and on the plane. It’s such an odd conversation, because it has a little bit of everything in it—there’s issues of power and culture, it has issues of labor, it has issues of law, it has historical issues, it has issues of land which are never spoken about. You know, Mexican land grants—the treaties of 1848—they were never honored. So in other words, you have all this land that was once Mexican and Indian land, and it’s no longer ours. And it’s important to know that because, in a way, we’re kind of migrating to our own land. It’s a historical trail—it’s not unknown territory. So, even though we’re called aliens, we’re not alien to the land. It’s a terrible word; it’s a word to not ever be used. So, I feel like I want to clarify things, and I am writing much more about it.

I want people to be treated as human beings, not just Latinos and Latinas; I want human beings to be treated as human beings—all cultures, all groups, all colors. That is the goal—to honor, treat, accept, work with, and honor all people as human beings. And if I can assist in any small way, through poetry, words, then that’s what I do. But there is a lot going on, and it’s kind of a very narrow set of statements that we see from the media, and from people that have the statement “build a wall.” It does so much harm. It makes children scared in schools. It makes families nervous and filled with anxiety because they don’t have paperwork—what are they going to do? ICE was already coming into houses and schools and pulling people out. An eleven-year-old boy who raised his hand during the question and answer period in LA, at the main library in LA, cause I was speaking for CSULA. An eleven-year-old boy raises his hand and I say, “Yes?” and he says, “I would like to know how to make my writing better.” And I say, “Well, what are you writing? If I know what you’re writing about and what you’re into, I’ll get a better idea.” And he goes, “Well, I want to know how to write better cause I want to write about children who get abandoned because their parents have been deported.” That was like a hammer—it hit me like a hammer, and I think it hit everybody like a hammer. So imagine now. That was before all this talk of “build a wall,” send them back home, they’re taking our jobs. But I’m not really commenting on the election, I’m just commenting on the ongoing stories and awareness of Latinos, Latinas and Mexicans in the United States, and particularly those without papers. It’s not a kind position. I don’t know why people say that we’re taking jobs—I don’t get it. Who would want a job working in the fields at a hundred and ten degrees? With their hands blistering and their face blistering and their eyes with growths because of the heat? You’re sucking in pesticides, your back is breaking, you’re getting minimal pay, you’re getting up at four AM and you scorch your body out, all day long. Who would want that job? And besides, you have to know that job—you can’t just walk in and say okay, I want to pick grapes today. It’s like being an investment banker; you have to know how to do it. But then again, there’s a whole issue—the infamous issue—of “cheap labor,” which is important to agribusiness, a billions of dollars industry. So in a way it’s just a platform, undocumented peoples of the United States have become a political platform, not because then after things are said and done, you know, everybody’s where they want to be. We’re still where we were.

But of course, if two or three million people are targeted, that’s incredible. Imagine hunting down two or three million people. It’s just a horrible picture. Children, families, fathers, mothers, grandmothers taken to detention centers. Well, what is that? It’s a whole series of immigrant prisons, with all the latest materials and equipment and security systems. And they’re taken back to wherever we all come from—penniless. 

TC: As the Poet Laureate, you’ve talked about how it’s a way to connect with people and spread your message. What sort of advice would you give to student writers who what to be able to do what you’re doing?

JFH: Continue writing, and follow your creativity and your curiosity and your love for poetry, and how you like to get up on stage and daring yourself to read out loud. This whole thing is not an A-Z; it’s kind of spiral-shaped and jigsaw-puzzle-shaped and cartoon-shaped, and it’s also seriously shaped. And it’s also all those things that involve cafes and getting on stage and having friends that are just as nutty as you. You hang out late and you share poems and you call each other late at night and you go, “Oh, I got a new poem Juan Felipe! Do you have time? Can I read it to you?” And I go, “No I don’t have time, but go ahead and read it to me. I’m totally burned out, what is it?” And then they read me the poem, and that’s what we do. But the key is to be fully accepting of yourself and letting yourself be enamored with the poetry, and whatever it is you’re doing with language, because you just love it so much—you don’t know why, and you don’t know if you can really write good, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Cause this is what you love. Then you just follow it—you just follow that golden path. In that golden path you meet writers, you go to readings, you get in beat-up cars to get to the next reading, and maybe you get twenty-five bucks. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe you get a guitar or banjo, maybe you do a blog—all those things are part of it. The more you continue, the more possibilities open, and as more possibilities open, the more your poetry grows. Until one day you’ll find yourself in this little chair I’m sitting in now, without even thinking about it or knowing about it, or looking for it. That’s the beauty of it. And of course you do it for the people, you do this for children, for teachers, for schools, for juvenile halls and for prisons, for women’s shelters, for other poets, for poets in St. Mark’s at New York City. There’s a lot of hats you can wear; it’s not just one hat. And then maybe you’ll publish something. It’s really not that important, but maybe you’ll publish something and fine, then your poetry can be purchased in a book. But the most important thing is to get up and read, and get up and write. And give it all away. That’s the heart of it all. If you keep it to yourself and you don’t want to share it, if you’re waiting till that magical day when you’re going to get published, you’re kind of going in the wrong direction. Even if you do get published, your poetry will be very thirsty, and it’ll be starved—starving poetry. Your poetry gets fed by your audiences, and things you learn along the way.


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