Chronicling National Poetry Month, vol. IV: Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s Closing Events

Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera (2015-2017)

The following is a guest post by Anastasia Nikolis, a graduate student intern in the Poetry and Literature Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester.

Somehow it is the last week of April, which means it is the last week of National Poetry Month, and the end of Juan Felipe Herrera’s term as Poet Laureate. I can think of no better way to close out this month than with the grand closing events that Juan Felipe has cooked up for this Wednesday, April 26, with the Poetry and Literature Center and a host of co-sponsors and partners. The closing celebration is titled “Speak the People/the Spark/el Poema,” which so captures Juan Felipe’s magical vision of poetry as a creative force to bring people together.

Working with Juan Felipe has been a highlight of my internship with the Poetry and Literature Center. He is high energy, imaginative, and warm, with a mind constantly rendering his environment in new ways and inviting the people around him into his bright new world. I felt this firsthand on the first afternoon I met him, when we were standing together in the Poet Laureate’s Office taking in the spectacular view of the Capitol building with a bright orange sun setting behind it. Dressed in an electric blue shirt and one of his signature fedoras, this one fading from red to black, he turned to me and said, “Doesn’t the sun look like a giant mango?” and drew me into this alternate world where the sun was a ripe, juicy tropical fruit hanging in the sky, dripping all over the severe white marble buildings of Washington.

This is the magic of Juan Felipe: he can’t help but see the world in Technicolor. Just take a look at his online Laureate project, “The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon,” which is a story built in installments from submissions made by students across the country, rendered into poetry by Juan Felipe, and presented with illustrations by Juana Medina. This story of a little girl named Catalina and her doggie, Tortilla, could have become unwieldy with all of its twists and turns—surprise alien visits, intergalactic trips to the library—and its episodic updating, but the magic of Juan Felipe is that it only grows steadier and more alive as more elements and voices are added.

Juan Felipe is a uniter. Whether it is by mixing English and Spanish words in his poetry, combining his poetry with music and art, or by amplifying multiple voices until they chorus together, he is always looking for ways to make the world more whole. His closing ceremony promises to be a heaping slice of this supercharged world.

As Juan Felipe explains it, “Meshing poetry and music with the Fresno State Chamber Singers, a panel on Latino culture, music by Quetzal—this night is a culmination of two years of beautiful and thoughtful audiences; of trains, planes, cars, highways, children, teachers, and artists; of poetry seekers driving for miles to listen and exchange and tell me about their lives.”

The event this Wednesday celebrates the way poetry can bring all kinds of art, all kinds of experiences, and all kinds of people together. The panel discussion—moderated by Rafael Pérez-Torres, featuring Martha González, Hugo Morales, and Louie Pérez—brings together scholars, community organizers, and musicians to talk about the continuing emergence of Latino culture and its influence on the nation. The Fresno State Chamber Singers are flying across the country to participate in the event, having worked with Juan Felipe to set his poems to music. And the night will close out with a concert by the Grammy Award-winning East L.A. Chicano rock band Quetzal, who are influenced by a “soundscape composed of Mexican ranchera, cumbia, salsa, rock, R&B, folk, and fusions of international musics.”

The expansive dynamism of this Poet Laureate and his closing event is difficult to contain in just one little blog post. But, perhaps the most important takeaway is the love and enthusiasm that underlines all of Juan Felipe’s engagement with poetry and the American people during his time as Poet Laureate: “This event will have all the love I can bring to it, and all the appreciations that have been given to me during these last two years; I hope to give back.”

We hope you will join us this Wednesday, April 26, to get caught up in Juan Felipe Herrera’s spark of poetry love!

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Wednesday, April 26, at 12:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Poet Laureate Closing Events: Speak the People/the Spark/el Poema

A host of acclaimed scholars, musicians, and community organizers join Juan Felipe Herrera to close his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate. All events are free and open to the public. Book sales to follow panel discussion. These events will be livecast via YouTube and Facebook. Co-sponsored by the Library of Congress Music Division, Hispanic Division, and American Folklife Center. Presented in partnership with California State University, Fresno, and the Fresno State Chamber Singers.

  • 12:00 p.m.: Fresno State Chamber Singers Concert | Free, tickets available
    The Fresno State Chamber Singers, under the direction of Dr. Cari Earnhart, perform newly commissioned pieces created with Juan Felipe Herrera. Location: Room 119, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building.
  • 7:00 p.m.: Panel Discussion and Quetzal Concert | Free, tickets required
    Panel discussion with Juan Felipe Herrera and Martha Gonzalez, Hugo Morales, and Louie Pérez, moderated by Rafael Pérez-Torres. To close out the evening, Grammy Award-winning band Quetzal gives a concert. Location: Coolidge Auditorium, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building.

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