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Juan Filipe Herrera

"The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress."
This interview was recorded with Juan Felipe Herrera on his inaugural appearance in Washington D.C., September 2015. This is Grace Cavalieri's conversation at The Library of Congress with the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate, Consultant in Poetry.

Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of 28 books of poetry, novels for young adults, and collections for children, including Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008), winner of National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Latino Book Award. His other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, two Latino Hall of Fame Poetry Awards, and a PEN / Beyond Margins Award. Elected a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, Herrera, who was born in Fowler, California, in 1948, served as the Poet Laureate of California from 2012-2015. Photo Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.

Grace Cavalieri:
The program is the Poet and the Poem Library of Congress. Today we're presenting the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera. And here he is with an opening poem.

Juan Filipe Herrera:

Jack Rabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew
Jackrabbits, green onions & witches stew
3 dollars & upside down lemons & you
Dinky planet on a skateboard of dynamite
O, what to do, chili peppers, Mrs. Oops
Dr. What, Mr. Space Station Unscrewed
The Redbook of Ants says you better run
No sireee, LOL, blowin' my bubble gum sun

You're he first Poet Laureate I've ever seen on Facebook. Did you Friend the nation, or did you just Friend poets? I saw you and your grandchild Kimiko.Then the next thing I saw was a picture of the Capitol with the words, "I've come to town." I said, "This Poet Laureate's real."

Juan Filipe:
Well I want to be real. I want my poetry to be real. Yes. You know a friend of mine said, "Why don't you get on Facebook?" This was a few years ago. And then he sent me some friends to friend with, and all of a sudden, I have a lot of friends

That was a nice entry for your presence here. I mean, here you are in the highest chair of poetry, and the first thing we know about is your granddaughter. Tell us how you learned that you were our new Poet Laureate.

Juan Filipe:
Well, it was most interesting and ticklish all at the same time. Rob Casper, the director of the Poetry Center and literature department here at the Library of Congress, said, "Why don't you call me up in a couple of weeks." And I said to myself well, wait a minute. Why are we making an appointment to talk? Why didn't we just right then? I was at University of Washington, Seattle, teaching American Ethnic Studies in my little office – my really cool office, cool people – and so I waited, and I called. And we always have this joke about grilled cheese sandwiches, me and Rob Casper, and I got the number, and I made the call and I said, Oh! I'm delivering 2 x 4 grilled cheeses on a flatbed truck. And then the person at the other end of the line said, "Oh, excuse me sir, this is Dr. Billington's office, and he would like to talk to you."

Well you're here with us now with a new book.

Juan Filipe:
It's from City Lights, San Francisco, This is called Notes on the Assemblage. And I might as well read you this poem on the art work of Alfredo Arreguín, who is a great University of Washington grad, and Pacific Northwest painter, and the work Tasmano is a title of one of his paintings. So I worked the poem in that way, and it has a lot of colors in it, and Spanish, and sights that he mentions. So it's very cubist, and mosaic-like.

let me
hold you
& let me
bury myself
into your seasonalsalmon skin
ice disappearance
blackness lips
cabellera máscaras Cholula culebra gold spattered spiral breasts la
lumbre Michoacana
de las cumbres brujas ripping spirit flesh blue madness locuras dentro
greener yellowness tehuan tehuanasalt storms arms I bow to
your tejido king Kodiak spirit in your sacred belly egg
man woman flayed scales fins gone lives
gone face destroyed turquoise
azar albedrío thrown &

Surreal, Neorealistic. Mosaic. A collage.

Juan Filipe:
Let's do another one in the same mode. And this one is about – who knows. I think the question will give you a sense. I Do Not Know What a Painting Does.

I do not know what a painting does it
lean against the wall – it could be any color of wall or house
in the kitchen on the refrigerator or next to the hard-carved
wooden masks the mirror that wakens when you pass by
you add grease you tap it with the palette knife the paste
moves then it thins its metals into the glazes a kind
of staccato it could be a self-portrait with all the difficulties
veiled in the half-dark jacket slapped with burning rectangles
titanium white as if they were confetti all in stillness
what else could it be it is flat it is smaller than you
even if it is a wall or a fence or a sky where you move
your brushes – what does it do that is my question
it looks back I think that is why you paint you are
waiting for the thing-in-itself to come back to you to
greet you in its odd oblong stunted manner its elegance
it feeds you it surrounds you wherever you go you
do not have to walk into it your tiny room it merely
poses for you when you are at your beginnings then
it follows you passes you dissolves ahead of you where
it is waiting for you when you get there you will not
know it until you see that it is seeing you seeing you.


Juan Felipe Herrera., you know how to move. And you know those consonants, you know those vowels, and you really move. I've counted more than twenty-seven books that you've written since 1972, and I know there are even more. I've read three of your children's books and there're also more, I think you'll turn a corner in children's literature, just as Shel Silverstein did for children twenty-five years ago. Y our children's books are contemporary and significant. And I see that you do everything. You draw, you're artistic, you've written for stage, and film, and theater pieces. What art form haven't you done?

Juan Filipe:
I want to do some sculpture. I always wanted to be in sculpture, and I remember looking at the Italian sculptors back in 1989 at the University of Iowa, and the art building, and I pulled out those amazing giant books on sculpture, and I would look at the Italian sculptures, and I would also see steel sculptures and mobiles from the fifties – the Calder's Mobiles, and of course Picasso's wooden, plaster, ceramic pieces, and iron giant horse face pieces. And that just moves me.

This is the year,, because you're retired, so the world is open for you. Do you have space to do that though? That's massive stuff.

Juan Filipe:
Yes. That's massive stuff. And when I was at the University of Iowa, I wanted to be part of the sculpture workshop, and they had a foundry. And I had already come up with my first piece, and then I realized that it's not just a workshop; it's the hours and hours and hours after that.

I want to talk about Senegal Taxi.

Juan Filipe:
Senegal Taxi. I wanted to do something when I was reading about Darfur and the children and families that were massacred – the villages that were burnt down, and bombed down, and shot down, and how a number of people that managed to survive were put in refugee camps. And then perhaps some of them made the big trek and journey to Senegal, which is really far, and you have to cross these burning, scorching deserts; and of course you're going to find others in captivity. And you're going to run into people with machine guns and AK-47's that are just going to nab you. They're going to nab you and throw you into what are called "ghost houses," and these are shacks where you are tortured and killed. So imagine what it takes to just live. That is life in Africa, and this particular experience is a very high degree – a horrific degree of oppression and exploitation. And then they have these beautiful people in this terrible, terrible, painful experience.. The dream is to make it to Senegal; to make it to that place, and get on a boat, make it to the Canary Islands and the big dream; make it to Barcelona, and maybe make it to New York. So I wanted to look at that experience at its core. There's a number of characters in the book, and three of them are children, and they're ghosts. So the ghosts are trying to escape. And then there's the Janjaweed, the paramilitary killers, with AK-47's. And then I said this is not enough. I need to open up the scape of this drama, of this story. If I just tell it through the voice of the ghosts and the Janjaweed, which itself is not going to be enough. So then I said I'll ask that AK-47 to speak. So the AK-47 speaks in this book. And I said, what about the flies? And what about the ants? They must have a lot to say. They have another point of view; a point of view I'm not going to get to if I just stay with human beings. And I did that. And then I said, well you know, this is getting a little too serious. What if I have a news anchor interview the Janjaweed? And what if I have a television interview, and there's a television somewhere in this village that's busted. Maybe this interview seeps out of that – it oozes out of that television. So then I have this interview.

From the rubble of war.

Juan Filipe:
From the rubble.

You break it up into forms of poetic phraseology, of dialogue, visuals, utterances, conversations – it's like war itself. It's like the breakage left from the ruins. And what it did for me was realize how much freedom we can have in writing. That's why I call you the Poet with freedom of heart. Because you write as if there's nothing to lose. Is there anything at stake? What do we have to lose?

Juan Filipe:
You know, we just have to throw ourselves into the life of the people. And any doubts, any sense of "oh I can't do it," "I don't know about this," "how could I do this?" "I have no right to do this," and "I must hold back," "I must wait," "I must do years of study," "I must, I must, I should, I should," those are hindrances and barricades. If you have the fire in your heart, and you want to pour kindness out of your being, which is abundant and infinite, then work from there. And if you are a word person, and if you have ink, then just do that.

Senegal Taxi is very popular, which is interesting because it's so iconoclastic in form, and fragmented. It's gotten very good notice, don't you think?

Juan Filipe:
Yes I hope so. I hope so, you know. When we throw ourselves into the fire, the work comes out of the fire and the ashes, with a lot of emotion,– we're talking about a lot of suffering.

And the way you use the children, I think, was the most powerful, because that's where it hurts the most. And when we think that Sudan is on the east, and Senegal is on the west – then people were trying to cross the whole continent of Africa, On YouTube, because of your book, I looked up Senegal. And there's a two-minute drive in a Senegal taxi through the city, which is very interesting because it's post Sudanese war, but it's still pretty sobering. You've brought a whole new world to us.

Juan Filipe:
And this is told through mud drawings.

Hieroglyphics on the walls of a cave.

Juan Filipe:
This is told through mud. Yes, the poems are not poems; they're mud drawings. My new book is also different. It's titled Notes on the Assemblage, and it was difficult to find a title for this book. I have a poem called Notes on the Assemblage, and I said, that kind of fits this book because it has a lot of things in it that perhaps wouldn't fit together. But sometimes things that are odd, and different shapes, that point in different directions, we've got to let them be. We've got to let them be. And they're already there for us. No need to jam them into a consistent pattern that they don't really belong to. Sometimes books come together like that; there's consistency and some kind of agreement. This one is a little different. And yet, there is an agreement. It's an assemblage. This poem is called Notes on the Assemblage.

use black & grey & speckled white construction paper
use stripped scraped & perforated construction paper
use found paper
use cardboard / wet &
overlay on old encyclopedias / sheets with images
something like Kentridge or Delmore Schwartz
use soap to brush them
draw with pencil & marker
draw the soap & noodles some stones
draw with pencil and marker for outline
11 x 14 sheet
draw the muddy camp the bus the pier
the toilet line
close-ups too
—how we look
at each other
what we have on our faces
you can cross thought through it
you can escape into it and out
through its holes its gases
our faces
have changed
can we go back
you can't wash it off
but you can erase it

If I say that you were the only son of migrant workers in California, what is the first thing that pops out of your mind?

Juan Filipe:
My mother. My mother Lucia. She was all spirit. She was all freedom. She always encouraged me to be free. She says, "I don't want you to grow up like I did. I wasn't allowed to sing, I wasn't allowed to dance – to go out into the public and dance and sing and join a theater." She wanted to be a theater in El Paso, Texas. This was in the twenties and thirties, when radio really came to life on the border with a big giant radio power station in Juarez. So everybody wanted to perform – be a radio star. And there were little theaters always moving around, migrant theaters. So she wanted to be a part of all that. But women were not allowed to do that. And the ones that made it really had to break away and confront brothers, and mothers, and whoever was in the family who said "that it's dangerous out there." "A woman shouldn't do these things. You should stay home and stay with me, I'm your mother. You have to stay with me until I die. And when I die then you can go out and date. But for the moment,, for sure, you're never going to be in that theater." So my mother, that was her experience. And then she told me when I was growing up, as a teenager,"I want you to be free, I want you to be free. Freedom, happiness, kindness, respect; you work on those things. That's all you need to do. Everything else comes second."

So, now you're living her dream.

Juan Filipe:
I'm living her dream. Through me.

And what did you get from your father.

Juan Filipe:
My father, he was a ramblin' adventurer. Easy to move. Let's go over here. Let's go to Ramona. What are we going to do in Ramona? Well they've got the best water in the world. But wait a minute; after this I think we're going to go to San Diego. But we just got here about two months ago. But San Diego has the best climate in the world. He was born in 1882, and I was born when he was 66. So that gives you an idea of the range and the kind of landscape he had, early on, that allowed him to move and travel. He jumped on a train at fourteen. He came from a little tiny, tiny straw-built village; lying under goats, drinking their milk, and then he jumped on a train, and in landed in Denver, landed on snow, looked out and said, "I guess I'm going to have to do something here," and became a cowboy, cattle hand, ranch hand, railroad worker, and then bought some land in southern New Mexico by Las Cruses and Mesquite, and kept on going and kept on moving. So that was my father.

What's in you?

Juan Filipe:
He was a quiet man. He was also a traveling man. And when things got difficult, he would speak up. But if things didn't get challenging, he just kept his cool.

So he was easy going and your mother was a free spirit. And so you've channeled both of those through you, into your work.

Juan Filipe:
I don't even have to channel; it's always with me.

Juan Filipe:
Let's do another poem. This is for Phil Levine, one of our recent Poet Laureates. A great friend, colleague, mentor. He was there when I got to Fresno State in 1990, after I graduated from the University of Iowa's writing workshop, and he was waiting for me. I said, is he waiting for me? It was a Chicano, Latin American Studies program – a beautiful program that I was invited to teach in, and he was there at the office, and he went, "Everything's fine. I've been waiting for you Juan Filipe." I said, "Oh Phil, it's so good to see you. Thank you for greeting me and extending friendship on my first day." That's Phil Levine. And then we used to perform and read together, and we'd joke on stage before the reading began. So we were like that. We were buddies and jokesters, and he was a great mentor and a great poet. This is called, Hey Phil. For Phil Levine, rest in peace.

They are writing about you Phil – you know
good stuff – the prizes Detroit and that
poem where you said in past lives you
were a wild sun-crested fox being chased
by "ladies and gentlemen on horseback" –
you said you would wake up with the poem
ready that it slipped untangled from a dream
all you had to do was sit up and write
the stage was a poem too – even though
most of us were to prepared you
preferred to joke before we went on
before the poetry light hit us on the face
it did not matter to you – you just carved
chiseled punctured rotated jitterbugged
and whirred past a distant gate.

What are you going to do to create a House of Colors, here at the Library of Congress?

Juan Filipe:
Yes, that's my Laureate project, La Casa de Colores, the House of Colors, and it really is a house of all of us, for all of us, all are invited to be in. We all are in that house already. Everyone here in the United States. Our House of Colors is our many languages, and many voices. So we're going to roll out a theme every month for a poem that's going to be built by daily, hourly, contributions of lines and poems by people tapping in.

Everyone's invited to the party.

Juan Filipe:
Everyone's invited to the party to the House of Colors, and see their poems on the House of Colors website. And every month we're going to change the style, the theme, the approach, and we're going to go deep, we're going to go high, we're going to swivel around. We're going to get on a rollercoaster, we're going to do things in schools, and on and on. And we're also going to have El Jardin, the Garden; that's part of the same project. The Garden is made of all the beautiful materials and archives here at the Library of Congress. I just saw the Hispanic division yesterday, and I was looking at Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes' novel,

The original?

Juan Filipe:
The original! I was holding it in my hands. I was also looking at Pele, the great amazing, magical soccer player from Brazil, and the book that's almost as big as a table that weighs thirty five pounds, and I was noticing. I was noticing the thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people that loved Pele - they loved Pele - and how big soccer is, and how human it is, and how we gather, and how we find ourselves, and how we love ourselves, and how we celebrate, and how we get emotional, and how we go up and down and cry .We become a family. So that could be something that I'm going to bring to El Jardin, for people to reflect on, and perhaps to write about.

And when your students study with you, do they learn to be free?

Juan Filipe:
Oh, they're free already.

So it's the teachers who clamp the lid on.

Juan Filipe:
They're free already, and when they start getting a little crusty, I throw some surprises at them. But they're good. They're great. They go ahead and do constructions, they do Russian material that I have them incorporate that into their poetry, or they do fluxes – constructions with poems that I encourage them to explore, or they just look at materials they haven't looked at, big art books –- expressionists and impressionists. Or I have them tear a newspaper into bits and rearrange it, and then read it like a poem, to show them that leaps and bounds are very important in a poem. If we just go A,B,C,D,E,F,G, that's okay, you know, nothing is really bad, nothing is really wrong. But explore jumping from a cliff in your poem.

And it all comes together

Juan Filipe:
It will all come together. The last poem in my book is called Poem by Poem, and this is in memory of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinkney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., Reverend Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson – Shot and killed while at church, Charleston, SC. This is for them, and this is for all of us.

poem bypoem
we can end the violence
every day after
every other day

9 killed in Charleston, South Carolina
they are not 9 they
are each one
we do not know

you have a poem to offer
it is made of action—you must
search for it run

outside and give your life to it
when you find itwalk it
back – blow upon it

carry it taller than the city where you live
when the blood comes down
do not askif

it is your blood it
is made of
honor them
wash them stop them
from falling

A poet for all of us.

Grateful acknowledgements to City Lights Books, San Francisco forsix Herrera poems reprinted here. Special thanks to the Poet Laureate Office at The Library of Congress for making this program possible. Funding for "The Poet and the Poem" is provided by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, and the Reva and David Logan Foundation.