How does the United States poet laureate react when he looks for the first time at printed sheet music set to one of his poems?
Juan Felipe Herrera, sitting at Fresno’s La Boulangerie bakery after contentedly scarfing down a pastry, points at the notes on the page and the section indicating the part of the song where he will step in and recite a few lines of his poetry. With a grin as giddy as a kid contemplating a second pastry, he exclaims: “Whoa! I’m in there!”
If you were expecting me in this reflection on Herrera’s acclaimed two-year tenure as the nation’s official poet to offer a kick-off quotation from him so important and wildly literary that it shouts out for inclusion in American Poetry Review, let’s be clear about something right away:
After tens of thousands of air miles, 130 booked engagements, three honorary doctorates (including Fresno State) and a fourth to come, a lifetime book achievement award from the Los Angeles Times, scores of media interviews, a stint preparing 30 Chicago high-school teachers how to get kids interested in poetry and hundreds of hours signing books until the last person in line has gone home, the Fowler-born son of migrant farmworkers hasn’t gotten all uppity and formal on us. He is as down-to-earth, amiable, approachable, amusing and generous of spirit as ever. He calls himself a “poet of the people.” Two years traveling the country with the imprimatur of the poetry community and hanging out at the Library of Congress hasn’t changed any of that, say his family and friends.
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“He is the happy-go-lucky guy he’s always been,” says his wife, Margarita Robles.
For two years I have kept track of Herrera’s tenure as poet laureate – he was reappointed to a second one-year term in 2016, an additional honor – and marveled at his endurance and tenacity as he toured the country. I’ve sat in his audience at some of his Fresno readings, read his latest book of poems, “Notes on the Assemblage,” visited his vibrant new “Laureate Lab” performance space and classroom at Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library and hunted him down on trains rumbling from New York to Washington for phone interviews.
Through it all he has been a tireless advocate for Fresno’s thriving poetry scene. Herrera, 68, a former professor in Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American Studies department, is the second U.S. poet laureate from the city in just seven years, following the esteemed Philip Levine, another Fresno State professor, in 2011-12. Herrera boasts around the country that Fresno is the poetry capital of the world. (“And who is going to argue with me?” he says with a laugh.)
“He has been the most active poet laureate that I can remember, and not only active, but tireless and giving while he’s being active,” says Lee Herrick, a Fresno City College poetry professor and Herrera fan who is just finishing up his own tenure as Fresno poet laureate.
Though Herrera prides himself on his low-key, Everyman persona, it doesn’t take long in conversation with him for his mastery of language to make itself known. Herrera mentions a poem that he’s trying to write about a noted ethnomusicologist named Sidney Robertson Cowell. (It’s a digression in the conversation, a common event when you hang with Herrera.)
He’s having problems reaching the heart of the poem, and he ponders why. And now, as he talks about struggling to write the poem, he finds himself struggling to explain to me how he can’t quite make it work. (A double whammy!) Then, in an act as natural to Herrera as breathing, his words take over. He offers an image.
“I can’t get down,” he says of the poem, his voice offering the slightest hint of a rich, musical cadence. “I’m on the top of the swimming pool, and I want to go down there and touch the cement floor, the blue cement. I can’t get down. I need some weight.”
What a glorious, evocative – dare we say poetic? – metaphor for the creative process.
Crying at his readings
That’s Herrera for you: One moment he’s as laid back and humble as an old and treasured VW van still chugging down the road. At readings across the country, the nation’s first Latino poet laureate has drawn a demographic much different than his predecessors: a healthy turnout of people of color, some of them immigrants fearful of recent political developments, many of them proud of a compatriota who has made it big in the hallowed halls of poetry. A handful of these people have stayed afterward at his readings, crying, moved at his words and anxious about the future.
But in another moment, Herrera can slip right in with the establishment, too: the Ivy League poetry crowd (he spoke recently at Harvard, and his papers are going to Stanford), the earnest graduate students, the highly educated literary journalists, the polite but courteous politicians who wouldn’t know a good poem if it bit them on their fat-cat behinds. He even wrote a poem for the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, as smooth a way as you can imagine to make an impression on a mover and shaker.
“I have it framed,” Hayden tells me as she describes the original signed copy of the poem, titled “Each Book is a Story.”
She’s a fan and admires his accessibility as a poet, saying, “He dreams, but he isn’t dreamy.”
Did anyone at the Library of Congress ever ask Herrera, say, to be careful about being too political? Did he ever feel he was self-censoring?
He breaks out laughing. “I plead the Fifth Amendment,” he says. “If people ask, I’m not going to comment about Trump. I’m going to talk to you about my experience. When Larry King asked if was true that he wasn’t supposed to ask me questions about illegal immigration, I told him, ‘That’s right, Larry. If I did respond, I’d be selling pencils on the corner.’ ”
That doesn’t mean Herrera is afraid to voice his opinions. (Indeed, the New York Times reported Friday on a new book titled “Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance,” an anthology featuring the work of 350 poets, which features a foreword by Herrera.) It’s just that he sees his role more as a disseminater. He likens himself to the old corrido singers, or ballad singers, during the Mexican Revolution.
“I go town to town singing my songs, bringing news from the previous town. What I write about are concerns I hear from the people. The big stuff up there in Washington – it’s all so big, I can’t imagine being in the heat of the middle of it.”
On this morning a couple of weeks ago at La Boulangerie, Herrera is talking with me about the celebration marking the “closing” of his tenure that will take place Wednesday at the Library of Congress. The event, titled “Speak the People/the Spark/el Poema,” will include the 20-member Fresno State Chamber Singers under the direction of Cari Earnhart, many of whose students will be visiting Washington, D.C., for the first time.
Herrera doesn’t like the word closing.
“I like to think of it as the two-year celebration of the laureate for everyone in the United States, all the animals, plants and beyond that, all the bioacoustic sounds of the planet,” he says wryly, the words spilling out in a leisurely manner, like a bluesman contentedly improvising on a theme. That last “bioacoustic” mention is a coy reference to Eleni Sikelianos, one of the many noted poets he met over his tenure, this one in Iowa City.
But if it has to be a closing, Herrera is going to do it in style. Fresno State music composition professor Benjamin Boone composed four pieces of music for the concert, three of them set to works by Herrera, and one – a raucous tribute piece titled “Ms. United States” – set to the work of Mia Barraza Martinez, one of Herrera’s beloved former students who was killed in November.
The music includes a tribute to Herrera’s 97-year-old elementary school choir teacher, in an upbeat gospel rhythm, and a somber poignant reflection on the killings in Charleston, S.C., titled “Poem by Poem.”
Herrera will offer a few short readings on his own during the event, but most of it will be music. The program will close with a piece titled “The Road” composed by Fresno State music professor Kenneth Froelich. (The concert will be repeated 7 p.m. May 9 at the Fresno State Concert Hall.)
The text is meant to evoke Herrera’s unorthodox career as a poet. (In his 2002 book “Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler,” he wrote that he had been a dishwasher, photographer, art director, antropoetista, Aztec dancer, graphic artist, cartoonist, salsa sauce specialist, actor, video artist and stand-up comedian.) And the song also reflects one of his primary goals as poet laureate: to get everyone else on their road, on their journey.
Boone, sitting in La Baloungerie with us going over the program, reads aloud the lyrics of the song:
Give your voice away
Every day and you will know
The road the road
Is you and all
The road is long
With a poem keep it wide
For all to walk
For all to love all life
Boone gives a tiny emotional gulp. He looks across the table at Herrera and says: “That’s you, man.”
Given his pace for the past two years, Herrera is a little tired. “I’ve been running around like a boll weevil,” he admits. He’s even written a bunch of new poems, every chance he gets on a plane, train or in a hotel room.
Part of his tiredness has to do, I suspect, with the energy he expends performing his poetry. (I use “performing” and not “reading” deliberately.) When Herrera was honored in October 2015 at Fresno State just after his poet-laureate term began, I still recall the boundless energy he brought to the podium.
He read a poem titled “La Traila en la Yarda (“The Trailer in the Yard”), and he delighted in the way the words sounded rolling across his tongue: “And the rooster that pecks and picks and fights.” The poem burst with colors (yellow, black stripes, turquoise, cool vanilla) and food imagery (pinching the edges of hot tortillas, a big pot of frijoles and salt pork), leaving the audience awash in sensory delights.
Another reason he’s tired: He finds it hard to say no to people who want his time, his wife says.
Robles, a performance artist and poet, chafes just a little at the wear-and-tear on her husband in these past two years.
“He feels so committed, so obligated, so responsible,” she says. “He tries to do it all.”
Herrera insists on talking to every last person in line at the book-signing table, which can drive the sponsors crazy, his wife says.
And yet, despite his crazy schedule, Robles smiles in the end. How can one quibble with such a generous human spirit?
“I don’t think it’s changed him as a human being,” she says of his tenure. “I’m lucky.”
What does he think?
“I’m still asking myself how I changed, but I know I did,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out these emotional moments when I have to confront the questions and people and see the naked, raw reality – not my poetry.”
One of those moments came at a reading in Florida. A white high school boy approached the signing table afterward and offered a forceful critique.
“You know, you write about your people a lot,” the student said. “But you don’t write about us.”
Herrera was startled, then defensive. He pointed to a poem he wrote titled “@ the Crossroads — A Sudden American Poem” that was dedicated to the five slain officers in the 2016 Dallas shooting. He told the student: “I wrote about the police because I don’t want the police and the rest of the community to be apart.”
The student was unmoved. “That’s not good enough,” he told Herrera. Turning to leave, he added, “You’ve got some homework to do.”
Someone with Herrera’s stature and record of inclusion in his poetry could have laughed the incident off. He did laugh, more at the student’s chutzpah than anything else, but he also had a long, hard think.
“It was a crack in my got-it-together shell,” he says of the encounter. “He’s right. There is homework there. So I’m glad he said it.”
Perhaps he can do even more thinking and writing once he returns to Fresno.
It will be good to be back for good.
“It’s like a big circle,” he says. “I remember in 1955 playing in the fountains in downtown Fresno. My father and mother and me, just passing through, and splashing around in the fountains. It was extremely hot. My parents working here in this area as farmworkers, and my mother picking peaches. This is a big cycle, coming back, as I’m finishing up my laureate, I’m finishing the big journey of the story of my family and the story of many families.
“Whatever I bring back is really for our communities. In a way I’ll be carrying a box of treasures. I carry those treasures for everyone. I’m bringing them back to where I started out.”