Sunday, February 25, 2018
Books

Hear the voice of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera in St. Petersburg on Monday

If you expect the poet laureate of the United States to be serious, somber, maybe even a little pretentious, then you're not expecting Juan Felipe Herrera.

"The poem wants to get rowdy with us," Herrera says. "If we limit it to what we think poetry is, the poem is unhappy. Poetry loves all genres. It can be interviews, it can be a document, a report from the future. It can be a broken typewriter. It can be ticker tape.

"Maybe the poem wants to be a molecular biologist."

Expect all of those possibilities and more at Herrera's reading in St. Petersburg on Monday night as part of the Plume Poetry Series, sponsored by St. Petersburg College. He has published in Plume, an online poetry journal founded by SPC writing teacher Daniel Lawless, and says he's looking forward to "coming back to Florida and meeting a beautiful audience."

Herrera, 67, says that since he was appointed U.S. poet laureate by the Library of Congress in 2015, "I feel sometimes like I'm standing in front of a giant tidal wave and meeting it as a human being."

He has been surprised and gratified to meet "so many people who love poetry. I'm doing readings for 500, 700 people. There's so much energy."

During his career, Herrera says, he has read his poems in "smoky cafes in Haight-Ashbury, libraries in the Yakima Valley in Washington state, in a grand ballroom in front of 5,000 students on strike."

His audience "includes everybody now."

During a 45-minute phone conversation from his home in his native California, Herrera riffs on politics, poetry and its relationship to other arts, and his unique path to the position of poet laureate.

The first Chicano poet chosen for the honor, Herrera was the son of Mexican farmworkers. "My mother was always my teacher," he says, a woman who passed her creative energies along to her son even though she left school after third grade.

As a young student, Herrera fell in love with such poets as Federico García Lorca "and all his fabulous friends, like (Luis) Buñuel, the filmmaker." He hung out at the legendary City Lights bookstore in San Francisco when he was a teenager and "(Allen) Ginsberg and all those characters were hanging around."

Herrera earned degrees in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford. "I didn't really learn how to write poetry in the classroom. I learned it on the streets and by browsing." He was in his 40s when he enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and poetry became more or less his main focus.

Herrera is best known as a poet, but he's also a musician, playwright, filmmaker and visual artist. He cites poetic inspirations from the other arts ranging from Rene Magritte to John Coltrane. Many of his poems reflect his interest in other art forms, and some mash up images and phrases in a way that suggests the mural art that is a part of Chicano culture. "I like to have five, six, seven adjectives before I hit the noun," Herrera says. "I like to create crazy alignments of terms."

He also combines Spanish and English in some of his poems. "People get a big kick out of reading bilingual poems," he says. "I was surprised by that. I really like the different words, the different languages jammed against each other. It's a new poetics, a whole new thing. I figured they'd say, 'Could you stick with the English, please?' "

On the day of the interview, Herrera is at work finishing a new book for middle school students called Jabberwalking. "It's about how to write a fast supersize poem," he says. "It's got all these digital drawings. It's a big experiment. My inspiration was thinking, I'll just write a book about how I actually write."

Not only is Herrera a "first-draft writer," he indeed likes to write while walking, often on a yellow legal pad. Medium matters to the poet laureate. As a schoolboy, he says, "I used to go in the bathrooms and get the paper towels, the very rough ones. I liked the big pieces. I wanted to write on them. I'm a paper person."

He has moved on to paper bags and is especially fond of the ones at Starbucks. "I tear it up and fold it into an accordion and use it as a journal. That's where you're going to find me, tearing up paper bags at Starbucks."

Herrera says he works on digital media as well and likes "all the art applications on the iPad. I'm a dangerous person around any writable material."

One of his public projects as poet laureate is La Casa de Colores, an online collaboration in writing poetry (loc.gov/poetry/casadecolores).

"I want all the voices, all the people," Herrera says. "You can write in any language — Italian, Arabic, Polish, Chinese, English. Whatever you want to say in 225 characters, any way you want to relate it to the theme of that month."

As a poet, he has often responded to public and political events. His most recent book, Notes on the Assemblage, includes Poem by Poem, in memory of the nine people murdered in their church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

"After the shootings in San Bernadino, I wrote a poem, and the chancellor read it at the vigil," Herrera says. "It's not so much political as concerned with the human condition. I want to provide an embrace, to a family in difficult times, to a community, to a whole nation.

"It's like Ginsberg said, you know. We need to hear those howls. We need to hear that fiery, full-throated voice, that concerned, tender, compassionate voice."

Poetry, Herrera says, "always comes down to a voice," and his will be front and center Monday. Expect the unexpected, he says.

"I always bring a harmonica. People say, 'Is he supposed to do that? Should we call the Library of Congress?' "

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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