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You Can’t Make History Alone

Juan Felipe Herrera on poetry rallies, villages and more

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Award-winning poet, professor and children's book author Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate. His work addresses the multidimensional plight of migrants, of class and of language.

Tere Fowler-Chapman talked with Herrera ahead of his appearance at this weekend's Tucson Festival of Books.

What's your favorite thing to remember?

My favorite thing to remember is singing Mexican ballads with my mom. These were songs about the Mexican Revolution. There was one we always sang called "El Corrido del Contrabando del Paso" (The Ballad of the El Paso Contraband). It's an early song she taught me when I was a child. It's a song about Mexicans getting apprehended at the border, has a great melody of course, and has a lot deep messages. You know, Mexican ballads are just like distributing the newspaper. It's a story.

I checked out your NPR interview where you said your mom would break into poem. Do you have a poem from your childhood that shaped you into the son you are today?

I don't remember the lines but it was a poem about starting life in a little brown house underneath an apple tree and then the story takes you through a journey and you end up coming back to that little brown house. It was a very sweet poem. It was so sweet that in sixth grade I had memorized it and was going to read it instead of a project report that everyone had to do. I got tangled up though. I thought I had to wear a tux to read it. So I went to downtown San Francisco and looked around and found a tuxedo shop on Market Street. I stood across the street in front of the tuxedo shop trying to figure out how I was going to rent a tuxedo with $10, which is all I had in my pocket.

The farthest I got was across the street, staring at the shop. So I went back to the default project and read a report instead of the little brown house poem. This was back in 1961. I had the intention of doing it [reading the poem], I just got tangled on that tuxedo idea.

Those darn tuxedos.

I wanted to look sharp. Imagine wearing a tuxedo? That would've been cool.

Definitely.

It's still a mystery ... the poetry tuxedo.

"The Poetry Tuxedo." I love that. I wanted to take this opportunity to personally congratulate you on your first and second terms as U.S. Poet Laureate. What a time. You and Barack Obama creating history in the same breath. Overdue history, but history nonetheless.

Thank you. I was a part of it. You are a part of it. You can't make history alone.

So, I have to ask, in your opinion how did we get here? From the nation working together to make history to the Trump Administration.

Well ... you know without making a comment about Trump, let me just say you are right. You're right about things changing in the last year. How did we get here? We all got here by agreeing on many things. We always end up where we end by the choices we have made for a long time.

Speaking of here. At the Festival of Books. Let's talk about "Because We Come From Everything"— a space addressing the relationship between language and human migrations. How can we support undocumented folks in our communities?

We have to get into action. We have to speak up and reflect on what we can actually do. What can you actually do? Writing, having discussions, going to the most urgent area of what's taking place. Sanctuary is a very key thing right now.

Hearing this makes me think of my favorite poem of yours, "Almost Livin', Almost Dyin'". Besides the rich truth that is your poetry, what can the people expect from you at the Tucson Festival of Books?

They can expect a feeling of community. We used to say poetry readings. I feel like they are becoming poetry rallies and poetry villages where there is a lot of nurturing and strengthening of our sense of community.

Teré Fowler-Chapman is a gender non-conforming poet, educator and founder of Words on the Avenue. Find out more about his/her/their work at terefowlerchapman.com

Poems

By Juan Felipe Herrera

19 Pokrovskaya Street

My father lights the kerosene lamp, his beard bitten, hands

wet from the river, where he kneels to pray in the mornings,

he sits and pulls out his razor, rummages through a gunnysack,

papers, photos of his children in another country, he cries a little

when he mentions his mother, Benita, and his father, Salomé,

who ran a stable in El Mulato, Chihuahua, eyes cast down

then he points to the mural on the wall, the red

angels descending to earth, naked mothers with bellies giving birth,

lovers in wrinkled green trousers, and a horse with the figures

of children laughing on its back, a goat floats across the night,

a flank of tawdry farmers unfurl into a sparkling forest moon

where elegant birds sit on snowy branches, here is

a miniature virgin where the yellow flames light up the village

one dancer carries fishing poles and easels with diamonds

and other jewels as colors, my father is silent

when he sees these things cut across my face.

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Bringsfor Charles Fishman

Before you go further,

let me tell you what a poem brings,

first, you must know the secret, there is no poem

to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,

yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,

instead of going day by day against the razors, well,

the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket

sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from

the outside you think you are being entertained,

when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,

your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold

standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,

is always open for business too, except, as you can see,

it isn't exactly business that pulls your spirit into

the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,

you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,

the mist becomes central to your existence.

The two above poems are excerpted from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera. Copyright ©2008 Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arizona Press. This material is protected from unauthorized downloading and distribution.

Say blood man

You telling me everything is all right,

the church in progress, the state in process

our army with ant noses, the forced potato

bridal cake without pubis, the altar smelter

this language in the sausage, this remedy

with razors, that is, with plutonium, this

atomic ventricle going into a rap about love

you know, the All, the Hood, the Rule, my

constant pouring urinal machine, astute

vested, armed to the lung, one nerve shows

your nipple dangle, shoo-bop, is that you

telling me, with you ripped mandible

at the newsstand stomping on a baseball

a bit of sugar, a wafer found on the way

you say, this cube little crystal theory

big bang from Kentucky beheaded, on the road

she was, you do say, she was, as always

inside a five-gallon jug, stuffed, the confession

in regalia, bluegrass anthems, the crime

sublime, dandy.

Excerpted from Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream by Juan Felipe Herrera. Copyright ©1999 Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arizona Press. This material is protected from unauthorized downloading and distribution.

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