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We Must Act But How? A Conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera (Part 1 of 3)

By David Lau


An activist and literary spirit is the core of California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s adventurous poetic career. From varied California locales, he’s pursued perhaps the Chicano poetic project, smuggling chile verde while dreaming of Lamborghini sports cars, conjuring forth voices and situations from barrio back alleys that would often enough be otherwise buried by a clichéd inattention to social conditions. Here’s how the early poem “Children of Space” begins:

On Valencia Street the playground aches. Children float through parking lots riddled with the screams of distant throats.

In this San Francisco neighborhood of many political murals, “mother” and “father” make enigmatic appearances. An omniscient narration reveals

Only the stains of the assassinations remain on their bodies. They do not speak now. They cannot speak. Willingly, they have                 cut something inside. Vowels bleed across the sheets.

Here prose poetry becomes what Stephen Kessler calls “footprints… tracks in which can be heard the rhythms of migrating feet—running feet, trudging feet, marching feet, dancing feet”—within the cultural landscape and history of Chicano life. Scenes from San Diego, San Francisco, Fresno, Los Angeles, and the greater Inland Empire add layers of detail to a “lowriter” spray-painted mural, whose “Aztlán monsters” have been there since the early days of the Chicano movement, in the “plumed heart / of struggle.” Herrera’s poetry insists on the Chicano historical-geographic narrative as well as the set of aesthetic practices available within the traditions of Mesoamerican movement culture.

One of the most prolific experimental poets, Herrera’s “black holes of the Chicano mind” contact a living audience, the changing character of Chicano and Latino life, especially in California. His poems have also become more skeptical of the quaint understandings of the complex socio-cultural moment that is our times. Michael Dowdy’s recent volume of criticism, Broken Souths: Latino/a Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (Arizona, 2013) shows how, for instance, the 2003-volume Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler severely and humorously scrutinizes the politically volatile days of protest against the calmer present:

What have we learned from our Capitalism? The decapitation of our joys? The desire for simulations of consciousness?

Dowdy writes: “Two recurring ‘entries’ in Notebooks form extended prose meditations evaluating the Chicano movement as an ‘event’ with two levels: literary languages and everyday institutional practices.” A species of poetry as critical and historical testing, the volume’s rangy, disparate poems and prose raise challenging questions about what’s become of the Chicano movement in a political, social, and cultural sense.

In fact, some of the projects he’s fostered as California Poet Laureate respond to a whole series of big questions. How do we take over poetry, disassemble it, even disestablish the poet, and make poetry available in common? How do we deepen and extend another cultural geography, one that migrant communities past and present vividly embody, but one that still too often isn’t discussed?

A theatrical, visually sensual poetry, convoking a crowded, multicultural Chicanismo, his work binds distant places to each other—with a Zapatista horizon for the transforming cultural region of Aztlán. His is big-tent work—under “rebozos of love / we have woven / sudor de pueblos / on our back,” as the poem and four-line title of his early volume begins. Indeed, today one of his best-known projects as Poet Laureate of California is the Unity poem project, a mass solicitation for poems of unity and solidarity. The poems, like his poetics, have taken shape around a multilingual and transnational aesthetic imperative.

Juan Felipe Herrera’s Laureateship has been a time of initiatives, outreach efforts, and performances of dedicatory poems. We discussed several of these poetry projects by phone this past March in advance of his two-day visit to Cabrillo College for a workshop and performance. When the conversation shifted to Chicano literature, identity, and politics, he evinced a bold love for the youthful movement of the 60s. He also narrated the intricate and ongoing reinvention of the Aztlán literary and cultural movement. He shifted in and out of examples from the historical to the contemporary, with Gloria Anzuldúa and Chicana feminism figuring strongly for him in the development of the recent literary culture. It was a vibrant and complex discussion.


[Transcribed and edited by David Lau.]

Part I: Flexible Poetics

David Lau: I wanted to start out asking you what are your current projects are as California Poet Laureate? I know you have the great poem of unity project going, and also some other initiatives. So if you wanted to talk about some of the things that you’re up to…

Juan Felipe Herrera:
Sure. I started out with the “Most Incredible and Biggest Poem of Unity in the World.” The idea had to find its place. I talked to students and I asked them which one of my projects they liked. And a good number of them said we like this idea of this unity thing you’re talking about, the most incredible and biggest poem on unity in the world. They we’re tickled by that, so I said ok, that’s the one I’m going to do.  But it was still an idea. Then there’s how to do it, how to make it really work for people. So people began writing and sending in poems and letters, poems and phrases, but then it kind of slowed down. I said, well I guess that was ok, so when things began to happen— like the Sandy Hook terrible tragedy, massacre, shooting that we all got involved with in Newtown, CT—I said let’s write those unity poems with Sandy Hook in mind. And then people sent me poems, and they came in without any difficulty, they just came in. And then it kind of mellowed out again—people sent in fabulous poems, children sent in poems—but then the Boston bombings took place, so I said let me refresh the project again, and then people sent in poems. And then the typhoon in the Philippines took place and that one really took off. And I called on a couple of people to join me to create a Facebook page for that. It’s called Hawak Kamay. It means holding hands in Tagalog. I think there’re over 1600 members right now and hundreds and hundreds of poems in support of the peoples of the Philippines, the families and children, and all that took place, in poem after poem. It brought the Filipino community together as well and that was really good—its various communities, in California and the west coast and in the Philippines. That was really good. That’s one of the projects.

Then I’ve also been interested in bullying in the schools. There are many initiatives going on, so I said as poet laureate let me see what I can do as well. I was not yet poet laureate—in fact this was a week or two before I got the call to be appointed by the appointments office in Sacramento. Teresa Holoman called me, and Mona Pasquil—they’re the ones who work on all the appointments and it’s a lot of work—so Teresa called me and said we want to give you the news that you’re being appointed as a California poet laureate. But before that took place by a couple of weeks, I was looking at the television, CNN? No, local television actually, and I saw the image of a young 11 year-old girl, Joanna Ramos. A beautiful 5th grader, 11 years old, beautiful smile, and she had died after she had a fight after school with another 5th grader. I was really moved, and so I said I have to do something about this. I’m not just going to look at TV. And then the appointment came through a couple of weeks later on the 22nd of March. I said I’m going to do something, and it’s called “i-Promise Joanna.” This is one of the other things I’m doing. It’s a promise I am asking young people to make, any grade K-12, any age. However, I’m focusing on 5th graders since it’s kind of the age when things start getting a little rough at school. Of course before that it happens, but 5th grade is one of the big turning points. So I said let’s do this. So it’s a promise that young people make, 5th graders, to Joanna, in a sense, and I want them to talk about their experience being bullied and I want them to talk about their experience bullying others and to come up with a way of changing, and to say all this with words and to say all this with art. It’s like a big poster.

I work with groups in individual schools through the Gluck Program here on campus at UC Riverside. The Gluck Program sponsors creative writing majors and grads to go out into schools in the Riverside area and work with them with poetry and the arts. They gave a fellowship to one of our grads, David Campos, and he worked with students on this particular “i-Promise Joanna” Project. They drew posters. They morphed my idea into making posters. So they put words of friendship on the posters, issues that they felt needed to be addressed and they did it with letters and drawings. And then the second step was to talk about a project they would initiate back in school. A group of them said they were going to start an anti-bullying club. Another group said they were going to do a bullying carnival. They just came up with their own ideas. So that’s another thing. And that one looks like it needs to be school based—work with one school, and have a creative writing mentor. That’s how the group here was very successful. So that [project] took that shape.

I just keep on exploring different ways of engaging people with doing poetry and with issues that are affecting all of us. Another one is a text-messaging placard. Writing a letter or doing a poster takes a lot of attention, which is great. The “promise” and unity poem are both great, but you have to sit yourself down and crunch out a poem on Sandy Hook or Boston. Or you can do a phrase, but people like to write poems, and I’ve seen very few phrases. So then I said ok how could we make it quick so people will really get into it. This one is still in the hopper and I really need to design it. It’s using phrases and text messaging them. Just one line and it goes out really fast. It’s connected to the bullying project actually. And I ask the students to help out with this, because if I do it, it might not be on target. So I said to the students come up phrases you can text to friends that would ring the bell regarding bullying. I wanted to stay on the bullying thing. Everyone seems to have a “smart phone.” And one of the phrases I put down here was comparte tu respado—a phrase in Spanish that means share your snow cone—so comparte tu respado goes out—boom boom boom boom boom. It’s just one phrase. And what I want to do is create a jpeg out of the placard. The placard is a handheld sign, a colorful replica of a smartphone messagebox, where it says “comparte tu respado.” You’re really going to shoot the phrase instead of the whole placard, but you can also use the placard. I think I’m going to do that as a text on Tuesdays campaign in April. I’m going to do text on Tuesdays and ship these out. Ship these friendship messages out as opposed to these complex projects. I’m trying to do the fast, quick, and easy to do, and then the more involved projects, and the crisis related ones. So maybe through those three streams we can get this biggest poem in the world going.

So that’s where that’s headed. My laureate boat gets to shore in September of this year. So October I’m going to have a culmination with all these poems in a very public manner with participants here at UCR in the open air. And we’re going to sing these poems and there’s going to be music and a couple of other things to make it highly visible and musical, with movement and dancers perhaps. So that’s coming up in October. I’m trying to find the date on that, but we’ll know by the end of the month. So those are some of the things that have been working. I’ve also been going around and talking to people at schools and communities. I know there’s more and I’m not remembering all of them, but those are the basic ones.

I also did a documentary musical on the lives of two great El Paso/Juárez/Riverside, CA singers of the 30s. There were elderly women in their 90s, and I had been talking to them all these years, and I said rather than write a book, because that’s an intensive project, I said I’m going to write a short musical in progress. So I wrote “Stars of Juarez,” a short musical in progress about their lives as singers. It was short, let me see… like 35 minutes long. We debuted it here at UCR. I imagined them coming out of Juarez in the 30s when they were teenagers, and jumping into the new explosive wave of post-revolutionary Mexico. They were giants of radio. Radio had just begun, literally had just hit the floor and they were part of that movement. They wanted to be as teenagers, they wanted to be in the radio and sing and dance and they broke away from their mom in a way even though they didn’t leave the house. They said, no, we’re going to do this. So they started to sing and dance in the radio comedy shows in Juárez, and eventually El Paso. They toured Texas, and they toured México as young gals. And toured with some people who became big names later in the golden age of Mexican cinema in the 40s and 50s. They were in their 90s so you know I starting talking to them. They are beautiful, beautiful human beings and they’ve been giving me their story. I wanted to see if I can put this into a short musical in progress and invite their families and everybody else. And I had student actors and singers do their thing and it was really good. So that was something I did off the bat, a kind of documentary-California-oral-history on two great human beings who had not been given their due.

DL: And what were their names, Juan?

When they were singers and dancers they were Cuca Aguirre and her sister Eva Aguirre. Once married they were Cuca García and Eva Amezcua. And they were just amazing. I heard them sing in their 90s. It was great. Imagine how they sounded when they were 16 or 17. Jeez. [Laughs.] I see them as pioneers of what we could call the Latina and Latino performance art and poetry wave to the present. So I learned a lot about that. It was also the story of my uncle who was part of that troupe they were in.

Right. Your family was from El Paso…

JFH: Yes, my family was from El Paso. My mother ended up in El Paso in 1918 from Mexico City, and my father was from Chihuahua, and he was also in El Paso. So right I have roots there, even though I was never aware of it until the last, I don’t know, now I can say the last 20 years. [Laughs.]  But when I was in my 30s I really had no idea. But then I began to get into it. So that was beautiful, so I did that off the bat. I remember when I was being interviewed by the Senate, one asked, “Why would you want to do this thing on El Paso?” And I said El Paso is in California in a sense. And these are also California women who grew up in Juárez and did this thing in those years. The whole El Paso thing—we all kind of migrate into each other. All of our traditions migrated. We all crisscross traditions and influence each other. And the LA world, the LA Latino arts… How can we say… The west coast Latino/Latina arts and performance-current expressions owe a lot to the El Paso/Juárez renaissance of the 30s, in which Cuca and Eva were lead stars. No one knows that part. No one knows, [except] Gerardo Licón, who did a Ph.D. at USC on the history of Pachuco and Pachuca culture in El Paso/Juárez. And I just happened to bump into him a couple years ago and he said, “Hey, I’m doing my Ph.D. on this.” And I said, “You really are. I’m interested in that area too.” He’d be one of the few people who have written really extensively on the Juarez/El Paso performance roots of the Pachuco and Pachuca in the Zoot suit era, which of course explodes in LA in 1943. Before that in the 30s was the kind of germination of it all, and that where Cuca and Eva come in. So anyway that’s… I was able to do that and I felt it was such big thing and I would tell my nephews all about it later. And they said, “Gee tío, gee uncle, you sure are excited about this.” And I said what do you mean I’m excited about this? It was like discovering the moon, or a new part of the earth itself. “You’re sure all worked up about this uncle.” I go, yeah, I guess I am, give me some water, I’ll cool myself off.

DL: Many poets and writers have thought of an audience or a public. Your own work has a definite relationship to the Chicano political movement, for instance. How are some of your current projects as poet laureate extending or allowing you to develop some of your earlier approaches to audience, to a public? That may be a little academic and wooden.

JFH: What’s the last half of the question?

DL: The question part is just how are your projects… I think of your work and your poetry as being this kind of almost impossible synthesis of being very avant-garde and experimental, very innovative with respect to form and the use of language; but at the same time there’s at the heart of it is a kind of popular intention.

JFH: Yeah, you’re right.

So I’m just wondering how the Laureateship is allowing you to think about the public. It’s one of these things that writers do, imagine an audience or a public, but now in this established 2-year position…

JFH: That’s a good question. You’re right on it, very, very on it. You’re like surfing on the edge of a great wave coming through Santa Cruz. You’re really right. You’re right.

You know it’s one of these things. For example, I get a call from the California State Library reopening in early February, and they wanted me to write a poem, and I was going to anyway, that’s what I do. So I wrote a poem and they were very happy about it. So that’s what’s been happening. I write poems on call. I’m kind of on call now. I could write one of those complex Kierkegaardian pieces, but I really want to address what’s going on, or just provide a poem that you can spread on a slice of good wheat bread as opposed to putting it under glass at a banquet table that no one’s going to touch. So I’ve been writing on call, I’ve been pressing while you wait like the old laundries used to have signs for. So I’ve been doing that. We’d like you to be at the state library. Ok, here I go. I’m on the plane, and I’ll hammer out the poem. And then I’ll read it off of a laptop. I didn’t even have time to print it out.

When they opened the Grand Park, I inaugurated it with a poem. It was great of the people there to invite me, in the LA mayor’s building. So I wrote a poem for the opening of Grand Park in downtown LA. So I’m writing on call and these are specific audiences: State Library, downtown LA for the opening of the park. So I open up my community tool kit, which I love. So that’s one thing. So then I throw in some spins and somersaults. For example with the Grand Park poem, I threw in a little bit of Yiddish, Albert King blues, and I put in some shouts, for people to shout as we go along to have them shout out some words. When I went to inaugurate the opening of eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last September I did the same thing. I put in the language of the workers, which I found on the web: the cranes that they lift and go up in, words that they know more than anybody else. I said I’m going to put that in. So I bring in the language of the people as best as I can. I put in a multicultural spectrum because I know that’s what we’re all about, and that’s who participated in making the park happen and the bridge happen. So that’s what I do on my writing table. I keep it multicultural, I keep it bilingual or trilingual, I bring the voices in of workers, I bring the voices in of who started it, who had the idea for Grand Park in its inception back decades ago in the 50s. I do a little historical overlay, a bilingual spectrum, and the language of the workers.

After 40 years of just doing things naturally, now I bring in the voices, I look them up, I love it now. I really love it. I’ve been doing it for so long I can call upon it. And then, like you were saying I’ll put in some language acrobatics, but not those hard to breakdown things where language works against language against language, which I also like. I like language to crash against itself and explode. So I do a little bit of that, but it’s different. So that’s how I do it, I’m on call. I don’t have that much time to write it or peruse through it. I have to do a little of it automatically, which I like, cause that’s my style anyway. I don’t want to be talking straight out to people. But it still doesn’t matter because the other day at the State Library—I wrote a poem—and I got into it.  It was a little long. And one of the people I was talking to in the audience beforehand, after the reading he says, “Whatever it was that you just did…” I go, “What do you mean whatever it was? It was a poem.” But it’s ok. It tells me a lot of things. I learn more from what people tell me than what I tell them and from what I write. I learn more from what people tell me and what I see. So the poem is really more of a hello. And the audience is more of a poem. As opposed to the other way around. So it’s a new kind of poetry taking place these days.

DL: And in some ways what you’re describing in these specific contexts where you go and present the poem—it also just reminds me of your work in the theater, in theatrical performances that were rooted in political contexts… these are performances.

JFH: These are performances, you’re right. They’re almost improvised, automatic performances. And I do my best to fit the call. And sometimes I’m right on it, like at Grand Park, sometimes I’m a little more abstract like at the library, and sometimes it just really shines like at the Oakland Bay Bridge. But I enjoy all of them, and I learn from all of them. Sometimes it’s just talking and it’s about people moving at a fast pace in front of me. I was invited to go to the Napa Grape Growers Dia de la Familia events for the workers of the wineries. Which was in itself quite a thing to imagine because in the 60s and 70s we never heard, I never heard no grape growers, in the San Joaquin Valley in this case, throwing a Dia de la Familia festival. It was more like the farmworkers were on strike. [Laughs.] It was more like a boycott of the grape growers. [Laughs.]

In this case it was like the grape growers themselves who were doing a Dia de la Familia, so I went because I’m here to be part of all California Communities. But in this case the farmworkers were moving across the stage, going from one booth to the other booth, picking up some taquitos and going to the healthcare stage, going into the Puertas Abiertas/Open Doors Community Center, in and out of that. So people weren’t necessarily standing in front of me as a structured audience. They were in movement. So I thought the best thing to do here is just some call and response. So I did a call and response poem where people were just calling back, and then I would talk a little bit, and then calling back. So I was adjusting as I went along. That was really nice. I talked to the people who did the radio programing there, who were part of the community in Napa. Their children were workers, other children were college students who were part of the winery worker families, and grape grower families. It gave me a sense of what’s going on, in this case with agricultural workers in California in the 2013, last year. A lot of learning on the road. Yeah. And adjusting poetics. What would you call it, David? A flexible poetics. A poetics on call. As opposed to, here’s my idea of poetry, and I’m going to read my poems the same way everywhere, I’m dancing with every community when I write poetry now, much more than when I used to be. So that’s new.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 by David Lau.