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“A Magnificent Mega-Event!”: The National Book Festival Through Our Laureate’s Eyes

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The following is a cross-post from the National Book Festival Blog, written by our very own Rob Casper.

On June 10th, the Library of Congress announced the appointment of the 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Juan Felipe Herrera. Herrera will begin his term as Laureate on September 1st, and his first official event as Poet Laureate will be at the National Book Festival.

You were featured in the Poetry and Prose Tent at the 2013 National Book Festival, and read your poem “Half Mexican” at the Gala the night before. Can you talk about that experience?

Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. Photo courtesy Blue Flower Arts.
Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. Photo courtesy Blue Flower Arts.

Exhilarating. It was an extremely new experience for me, new audiences too. “Half-Mexican” was a serious poem to read on its own, one that I would usually present after reading a shorter one with a different tone altogether, yet the audience was very receptive. I was honored to read at the Gala, and the tent was a lot of fun-I get a thrill out of open-air environments. I listened closely to Albert Goldbarth and joined him on his verbal body-surf. Dean Young’s poetry was an incredible, endless loop of perceptions and anti-perceptions; what an experimenter! Natasha Trethewey’s tent was full so I stood from afar and marveled at her voice and intelligence. Katherine Applegate moved me with The One and Only Ivan-I was a crying a little and mustering courage like Ivan, the gorilla. What a magnificent mega-event!

You’ll be reading from your new book Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes in the NBF’s Children’s Pavilion this year. What was your motive for writing this book, at this time?

Portraits was a challenge since it is non-fiction. I used research, interviews, and tons of notes, had to find a way to dive as deep as humanly possible (for me) to uncover the secret of each hero; otherwise I would have sculpted just a pretty bio-book without a lotus-shaped heart. Portraits of Hispanic-American Heroes is timely since Latinas and Latinos are such an incredible force in our society at this very moment-when I am on the radio, people call in and want to know about this kind of book. I am glad that it is available for all.

Not only are you our first Hispanic Poet Laureate, you’re also our first Laureate to begin his or her term reading to a young audience. What does this mean to you, and how do you see working with children and young adults fitting into your Laureateship?

Working with young people, writing for young audiences is most significant. We need to trade stories with each other. Many speak of alienation-that is, how the new generations are “cut-off” from other generations, and how we have such a fractured society. The poet/writer can make tiny adjustments with words that can bring people together. Being the first Latino Poet Laureate is such an honor that it reverberates through many generations in my family-we are all very thankful. Perhaps, most important is what our U.S. communities are saying-they feel included in a most personal way. Inclusion can get bigger every day too, can you believe that? Let’s make that happen in our daily lives.

Juan Felipe Herrera at the 2013 National Book Festival
Juan Felipe Herrera at the 2013 National Book Festival

What is your biggest dream of what the National Book Festival could accomplish, for its participants and its audience?

It is a dream-come-true already. I invite everyone to make the National Book Festival their dream-come-true every year, add your spice and style in all its splendor.

Finally: what book do you feel you cannot live without?

The book of life. And my mother Lucha’s words in Spanish-scribbled in a tiny red address book from the ’50s. I want to place all writers and communities’ words in one ever-evolving book. Can we do that?