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Juan Felipe Herrera On Poetry In Tough Times


U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera from his office at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Beck Harlan/NPR
U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera from his office at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

As the United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera travels the nation reading poems to audiences in communities large and small, communities often starkly different from the U.S.-Mexico border region where Herrera grew up as a son of Mexican immigrants.

Yet he said the response he gets from young people who hear his poems is similar regardless of where he is.

"They are standing up and they're crying," he said, "and their emotion is coming from all the emotion we're experiencing collectively."

Herrera stays keenly attuned to the social fault lines of our times – to the toxic politics and the stories about mass shootings and the distress among African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color who feel they enjoy only a tenuous claim on the American story.

His poems evoke the sounds and smells and sights of this upheaval and its effects, because, "as a poet, as a human being... I'm concerned about those things," he said, "And I want my poetry to be concerned about it too."

NPR recently sat down with Herrera in a poetry reading room at the Library of Congress, where he has an office. He read some recent poems in English and Spanish, spoke about his creative process, and reflected on how he thinks poems can create change in "personal, intimate, and momentary" ways. Below are a few edited selections from that longer interview, which is available in full on NPR's Facebook page.

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In this first video, Herrera reads "Almost Livin' Almost Dyin,'" which draws on the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police, and on the killings of two New York police officers by a man who later took his own life.

Speaking about his creative process, Herrera said an idea will often start small.

"I'll get a phrase or I'll get this intensity sometimes," he said, "a great, intense rush of emotion" that propels him into a writing frenzy.

"I believe in beautiful messes," he said. "I like to splatter a lot."

He splatters both figuratively and literally. Herrera does much of his writing these days in airports or on airplanes, using leaky oil pens or, when he can, fountain pens. "Fountain pens blow up when you're 35,000 feet above sea level. So I take them but I really can't open them."

Much of Herrera's poetry is in Spanish, or is bilingual. Even if he doesn't speak a language, he said he'll look for small ways to include it in his work as a way to make readers and audiences feel included.Here, he reads a Spanish poem about a traditional Mexican festival. His description feels like a vibrant explosion.

A viewer who was watching our interview live on Facebook asked Herrera whether intensely personal work could also be useful politically. Herrera thought it could be, but he said the change that poems can effect in people is often subtle, by nudging along shifts in perception or understanding.

Here's one more poem for you. In this one, called "Poem by Poem," Herrera offers a tribute to the nine black worshippers who were murdered by a young white man at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.

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