Lee Herrick, Fresno’s poet laureate and the driving force behind Fresno’s LitHop 2016, squeezed past me Saturday during the first session of the festival at Goldstein’s Mortuary and Delicatessen, just one of several non-traditional venues that were part of the event. I could tell even then that the day would be a success.
There was a hint of a satisfied smile on Herrick’s face as he made his way through the crowded bar – a look that said 1) Things are running smoothly; 2) We’ve got big crowds; and 3) Just how cool is it that so many people are turning out to listen to writers read from their works?
Indeed, there was a generous spirit at work through the afternoon, which featured more than 140 writers from throughout the state at nine different venues spread throughout the Tower District. Authors might by design be somewhat solitary creatures, as opposed to the more collaborative arts, but I sensed a strong sense of community and enthusiasm. Respect, encouragement, laughter, empathy, and occasional jaw-dropping amazement at just how beautiful words can be when arranged in a particular way – all were on display. It felt good.
Congratulations to the Herricks (both Lee and his wife, Lisa) and the event’s planning committee. Lee Herrick on Monday was still getting final numbers from venue managers, but he estimates a “few thousand” people attended. He told me: “It felt like something very special happened on Saturday. The feedback I’m getting is incredible and very touching. I’m almost certain we’ll do it again next year.”
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I thoroughly enjoyed the session I attended, “LGBTQ Voices of the Central Valley,” which featured Randa Jarrar, Steven Sanchez, Ying Thao and Juan Luis Guzman.
The keynote event, at Fresno City College’s Old Administration Building Auditorium, was one of those special, you-had-to-be-there moments. Here was Fresno welcoming its conquering literary hero: Juan Felipe Herrera, days ago reappointed the U.S. poet laureate. The hall was nearly full, the crowd boisterous, the enthusiasm infectious. He came out to thunderous applause.
Herrera, whose voice and demeanor could melt the icy exterior of even the most frozen anti-poetry zealot, was in top form. Winding up with essentially a bunch of kids sitting on the stage next to him – they were part of a sweet introductory moment in which they recited his “Poem by Poem” to him, line by line – he made sure during his reading to include the children in his presentation as well. Herrera is a natural performer and a great improviser, and he made fine use of his unexpected “props,” turning the presentation into a salute (and a plea) for a younger generation to be steeped in a love of words.
The only real drawback of the night was the lousy acoustics. (I talked to a few people afterward who were convinced they needed hearing tests.)
But through it all, Herrera wooed the hometown crowd. He repeatedly praised the lively literary scene in the central San Joaquin Valley, giving a shout-out to local poet Mai Der Vang, who just won the 2016 Walt Whitman award, and he pumped up the egos of the many writers present. “Fresno is the capital of poetry in the world!” he proclaimed to much applause.
This was no staid, hushed reading. With his jaunty hat, bright red jacket, sailor-suit striped shirt and white pants, Herrera brought a clown’s sense of comic timing and a preacher’s thundering sense of call-and-response rhythm to the proceedings. It was like a revival meeting, but the holy book(s) were provided by the nation’s poet. I’ll raise my hands in praise to that.