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“To Find Our Larger Self”: An Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera

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As a follow-up to the publication of “@ the Crossroads—A Sudden Poem”—written by our Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and originally published as part of the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series on July 10th—Poetry and Literature Center Head Robert Casper conducted an interview over e-mail with the Poet Laureate.

The U.S. Poet Laureate is not required to write occasional poems—but you wrote them before taking on the position and have, if anything, written even more as Laureate. What does the occasional poem offer you, as a poet and as Poet Laureate?

The occasional poem is a poem of direct emotional power: it is accessible, and it fosters a public relationship. It is the place were we all can meet—to offer our words, the news, and the heart of our lives—in a time of crises. I have dedicated my life to these endeavors. What else is there? As Poet Laureate, I can knock on the doors of our national house, visit for a moment or two and sit with families in pain and suffering. Seven months into the year, I have made many “poetry visits” such as these—perhaps too many.

I was struck that you titled this “A Sudden American Poem.” How does lyric poetry respond to the urgency of a given moment?

Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Middle Eastern and Aztec poetics offer magnificent traditions. Being raised as a Farmworkers child, on the outskirts of towns and cities, gave me the lenses to wander and wonder about things-as-themselves, not as they should be. I began to notice their brutal, naked and magnificent existence, I began to praise them as my mother did every day and night—the almost-impossible lives of the migrant worker and the deep friendship and care found in tiny villages of sun-scorched strangers. We must search for the core of things and respond to it, to the center of being—the place where we all are one, any place we happen to be, where at times we hesitate to truly meet each other. We must labor—even against our hardened views—to find our larger self, our humanity.

“@ the Crossroads” is powered by anaphora, as well as a kind of free-flowing phrasing that reminds me of Leaves of Grass. Can you talk about this poem’s connection to an American tradition?

For this poem, I had to unloosen the line, let the phrasing unravel the way our heart wants to let go when we find ourselves and others in the face of incredible loss. Yes, it is Whitman’s drum, the people’s call, the household’s song—it is the way we speak when we are crying and when we are in bliss and benediction. It is the magic of Jazz and the triumph of “declamación,” the bilingual Américas where the youth and working-class poets belt out original anthems of unity, solidarity, and community celebration. Whitman has been my companion since the sixties, as well as Ginsberg, Neruda, Black Arts Poets of New York, the Cubists of the early 20th Century and the bards of Mexico, Latin América and the Caribbean—all lovers of the anaphora’s open, magnetic and incantatory pulse of and for the people. Anaphora is my morning cereal.

In your poem “Almost Livin’, Almost Dyin’” you wrote, “kiss the candles by the last four trees still soaked/in Michael Brown red and Officer Liu red and/Officer Ramos Red and Eric Garner . . . ”—and you dedicate this poem to “Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—and all their families. And to all those injured.” Can you talk about the importance of inclusion in your work?

A poet must be free with the poem—every line and sound-angle of each letter must be released with abandon. Yet, we must also think hard on the gestures of the poem, how it presents its materials. When Officer Liu and Officer Ramos were killed in cold blood, I took note. Writing feverishly in a hotel in Riverside, California about the deep frustrations of youth in the street, their lives dangling between being and non-being—as I mentioned Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s violent deaths, I brought in the last moments of these officers, their final seconds. We cannot just mention half of life—if we want to write about it, we must mention all of it. It was extremely important for me to put these two sensitive moments together—we must stare into the abyss if we want to transcend it.

Much of today’s news is about our country’s deep divides—and in response I think of the William Carlos Williams lines, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” Do you think poems can address that lack?

Poems are moments in-between the grinding gears of all the machines, hammers, and techno-clicks that have set off our lives into something close to madness. We all long for essence, for clarity, for harmony, for peace, for an enlightened way of life—yet we seem to have collectively agreed to let a mechanical delirium be our guide. What I am saying: find seventeen seconds of your day to reflect, to provide an offering—to write five words. “You have a beautiful voice,” for example. Say this to someone and you will change their lives. Think of the 3rd grade teacher in San Diego, Mrs. Lelya Sampson, in 1956, uttering these words to a shut-down farm-worker country boy—that child was me.



  1. An insightful, inspirational interview.
    So much food for thought in these personal and collective volatile times.

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