U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera on Using Literature as a Tool for Peace

Juan Felipe Herrera with young poets Sarita Sol Gonzalez and Elena Izcalli Medina during a reading at the Library of Congress.EXPAND
Juan Felipe Herrera with young poets Sarita Sol Gonzalez and Elena Izcalli Medina during a reading at the Library of Congress.
By Slowking4, via Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Poet Laureate Felipe Herrera could be frustrated. As the first Latino appointed to America's highest honor in poetry, and a writer who often delves into his experiences as a Mexican-American, he could use the platform to express his disillusionment with the hostility being directed toward immigrants in the United States. But instead, his message is one of optimism—that through artistic expression and exchange of ideas, we can overcome our polarized views and recover our shared humanity.

He will bring his message to Dallas today, May 12, when he speaks with students about poetry and literacy at St. Matthew's Cathedral. He'll then appear at "Literacy in Motion" at the Latino Cultural Center at 7 p.m. The event will benefit the the Aberg Center for Literacy. 

Founded in 2002, the Aberg Center takes a multi-generational approach to literacy in Dallas County, where 60 percent of children entering Kindergarten in DISD need remediation, a quarter of adults are not fluent English speakers and 21 percent are illiterate, according to the Aberg Center's website.

Working with young people has always been central to Herrera's mission. Many of Herrera's books, such as The Upside Down Boy: El Niño de Cabeza, have been written for a young audience. Herrera caught the poetry bug early himself, when he was a boy growing up in San Diego. His parents were migrant workers in the Salinas Valley. 

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"It's always been about reaching as many people as possible, and putting writing on the table of as many families and schools as possible," he says. "I write for different audiences which could be young adults, toddlers, adults, experimental poets or performance poets. I do all these things because I love writing and because I love people, and not just one group, but all groups."

His second term as poet laureate was announced last month. In his first term Herrera created a website hosted by the Library of Congress, "La Casa de Colores," where he invited Americans of all ages to contribute to epic poems on subjects like democracy, immigration and family.

"[Being poet laureate] is a great platform to promote peace through literature," he says. "Issues, they're real, but at the same time I work on focusing on all the experiences of people. Migration and immigration are such misunderstood things and it's through poetry, literature, art and dialogue that we can begin to resolve all that stuff. A lot of us are polarized. I say, let's read some poetry — immigrant poetry, migrant poetry, bilingual poetry — and we'll get a better sense of the complicated issues." 

As part of this initiative, in his second term Herrera will begin a project called "Found in Translation" which will showcase foreign authors on the Library of Congress website. "I'm here to promote poetry in the United States, but we do want to have a lot of exchange with the world," Herrera says. "That's what makes it true literature." 

The first project of his second term will be a series of books for elementary-school aged children called The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon. Herrera will write the first episode, which will be presented as a downloadable coloring book, and episodes two through nine will be written by children across the United States. 

Herrera is pragmatic when it comes to his own artistic expression — often writing hurriedly on open corners of newspapers or food wrappers — and his online projects as poet laureate also reflect this attitude. He says the first poem he wrote was likely on the back of a Valentine's Day card as a young child, but his poetry writing began in earnest when he was in high school. He was inspired by English translations of short poems by Russian writer Boris Pasternak and novels by European authors like Herman Hesse. Herrera was fascinated  by the concept of the "magic theater" in Hesse's novel Steppenwolf, in particular. 

"I like those unique images, offbeat images, impossible images," Herrera says. "You put Jimi Hendrix together with Allen Ginsberg together with Andy Warhol together with Franz Kafka and you get a sense of the poetry of the time which influenced me quite a bit."

Around that time Herrera began publishing in the Lit Parade literary magazine at San Diego High School, where he graduated in '67. "After that I just couldn't stop," he says. "Poetry was a rip tide that took me." In college he was intrigued by other artistic mediums like painting and sculpture, but the classes were hard to get into unless you were a major. The lack of barriers to poetry writing appealed to him. "For poetry all you needed was a piece of paper and a pen, I didn't have to get in line."

Herrera will teach others to write how he does, quickly and while in motion, in his  latest book, Jabberwalking, which will be released in the fall. "I'm a fast writer," Herrera says. "I don't say that bragging; it's just how I am. I love scribbling and drawing and writing on planes and trains. For me it's an artistic experience more than a conceptual or a grammatical experience." 

For Herrera, the artistic experience makes it possible to integrate the mixed messages presented by a world of contrasts. "Everything make sense if you're an artist," he says. "Anything that's out in the world, in the news, it makes sense because it's like art — it's moving, it's exciting, it's off balance, it has bright colors and dark colors, and some of it is very direct, some of it is totally abstract. If you put an art canvas on top of reality it will all snap into that frame and there will be no problem, because it will all fit. There will be no you versus me,  no us versus them."

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera will appear at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St., at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 12, for Literacy in Motion benefitting the Aberg Center for Literacy. Tickets are $40. To purchase and find more info, visit abergcenter.org.


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