“It’s English and Spanish – it’s like a river with many curves,” is how the newly-inaugurated National Poet Laureate of the United States describes his bilingual poetry. As the first Hispanic-American National Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera has big goals for his year-long term under the Library of Congress, although Poet Laureates are only required to do two readings and promote poetry.
Speaking to audiences in Shanghai and Beijing over a video call from the State Department in Washington, D.C., Mr. Herrera began his work on crossing cultures and encouraging everyone to write poetry. His official project, La Casa de Colores, will be a website dedicated to collecting poetry from Americans to create an American epic poem revolving around “the United States’ values, histories, and cultures.” However, more than that, Mr. Herrera said he wants to receive poetry from Shanghai and Beijing and other cities around the world: “When I read poetry of young people in Beijing, I am… I am… my mind blows up.”
From a young age, Mr. Herrera was destined to be a poet. The son of undocumented immigrants, both from Mexico, who worked as migrant farm workers, Mr. Herrera describes his childhood as “a hard life… but it was a beautiful life, because I had a lot of stories and I knew what was going on.” Mr. Herrera’s parents told him jokes and riddles and he shared a riddle from his mother with the audience: “I went to the marketplace, I bought beautifuls, and I went home and cried with them.” He spent his childhood using his imagination, rhyming, and trying to discover the subtle meanings in his parents’ riddles. In school, young Mr. Herrera did not speak much until third grade, when a teacher (who attended his inauguration ceremony on Sept. 15) encouraged him to sing in front of the class and then told him, “Juan, you have a beautiful voice.”
Mr. Herrera spoke of coming of age while “everyone was coming together in the very hot… events of the 1960s,” a.k.a. the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Mr. Herrera responded to questions about injustices committed against immigrants in the United States with an answer that was very similar to why he began writing poetry in the first place: “When we read poetry, we create unity in 15 seconds, because when we’re really coming out and saying something personal…. When you stand up, who you really are and you use your voice… change happens. People for a moment stop everything and they go ‘oh’ and they’re waiting… that’s unity. It’s pure and it’s real.”
When asked by an audience member from Beijing about his feelings for “a certain Republican candidate who wants to build a wall,” Mr. Herrera responded beautifully: “I like to focus on kindness. I like to focus on humanity. I like to focus on the human condition. I want to be part of a new society, not a dying society of walls and fences.” He complimented young people on their concern over these issues of the day and encouraged us to “establish international relations – with students and communities.” Along with this idea, Mr. Herrera not only read some of his own poetry, but also some poetry from an Old Anthology of Poets in Shanghai. He found the magazine in a bookcase from his ancestors (the Chang family) and had it specifically translated for the event.
A man from Shanghai asked Mr. Herrera: “Do you think a poet – or a man – has to be crazy to write poetry?” Mr. Herrera responded, “almost as crazy as society…. We’re non-traditional, by the way everybody, students are nontraditional. We need to grasp change.” He wishes for all Americans to write poetry, because “poetry goes right through concrete and touches hearts.”
This article was written by Allison Chesky. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Lilly Korinek