Poet Laureate's Migrant Childhood Was Like 'Living In Literature Every Day' | WGLT

Poet Laureate's Migrant Childhood Was Like 'Living In Literature Every Day'

Sep 15, 2015
Originally published on September 15, 2015 6:42 pm

When Juan Felipe Herrera came to NPR's Washington studio, the poet laureate carried a sketch pad of drawings and scribbles of poems in the works. Herrera is the child of Mexican migrant farmworkers. He grew up following the seasons as his parents picked crops in the heat and dust of California's fields.

Herrera gives his first official reading as the nation's new poet laureate on Tuesday. When he sat down with NPR, he shared something from his sketch pad — a fragment of the poem he was writing for his inaugural reading. The poem is called "So I Will Speak Of It" and it's about visiting an indigenous community:

Herrera shares his notes for the poem "So I Will Speak Of It."
Ariel Zambelich / NPR

Let it begin — you say, crimson fibers &
solar epoch rise up at the broken spike of the life-highway
bones of ragged singers the ones you find painted in street shadow life

the ones made of sugar black coffee tin can drink
asleep by the mountain scar — they
still keep songs woven on brown-off-white belts

let grandfather fire Tatewarí tear himself
for the ache sweet waters of mother waves Aramara
teal-glaze ocean-red beads sea speak here

speak here:
long & ancient strings splintered
tiny guitar plywood sanded down
sit here — this corner by Fanta machines teetering
gas pump road to Guadalajara - - -

Who
will
listen?

Herrera tells NPR's Renee Montagne about his writing process and a poem he wrote about the shooting in Charleston, S.C. His new collection is called Notes on the Assemblage.


Interview Highlights

On what his childhood was like

I had a mother [who] sang and told stories and loved poetry, even though she only went to third grade. She kept an incredible album of family photographs from the 1800s passed on to her mother, my grandmother. So I had all those treasures from my mother — and of course her, which was the best part.

And those landscapes, you know, those are some deep landscapes of mountains and grape fields and barns and tractors; families gathering at night to have little celebrations in the mountains and aquamarine lakes way down below. So, see, all that is like living in literature every day.

On how his poem "Half-Mexican" came to him

Sometimes I have a very fleeting emotional dance with a fleeting phrase, like "half-Mexican." As long as I get to a table or a piece of paper and a pen, then, with one or two words, then I just follow it and it becomes the poem, in this case like this poem. That's how I wrote it. It's that velvet lightning bolt, and I have to just run for a table, run after something — get a twig, scratch the lines down with a twig. And then it's just one set of brushstrokes and the poem comes alive.

On his advice for writing poetry

[You] want to scribble, you want to write. Do not wait for a poem; a poem is too fast for you. Do not wait for the poem, run with the poem and then write the poem. And of course immerse yourself in a sea of books and poems. You want to be in that parade, that's what you have to do. Of course there's many ways, there's many ways to do this.

On "Poem By Poem," which he wrote to honor those killed in the shooting at a Charleston church, and the line "you have a poem to offer/ it is made of action"

Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, "This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space." A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind — no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Poetry will truly come alive tonight at the Library of Congress here in the nation's capital. America's new poet laureate gives his first official reading. Our colleague Renee Montagne got a preview.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Juan Felipe Herrera came to our Washington studio, the poet laureate carried a sketch pad of drawings and also scribbles of poems in the works.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Would you like me to read a little piece of a poem?

MONTAGNE: Yes, that would be great.

HERRERA: All right.

MONTAGNE: He selected a fragment he was still working on, something he was writing for his inaugural reading.

HERRERA: I'm looking for it. I'm looking for it right now, as we speak. OK, here. OK, this poem is called "So I Will Speak Of It," and it is a poem about visiting an indigenous community.

(Reading) The journey begins. Let it begin, you say. Fibers and solar epochs, bones of singers, scars at the edge of the mountain still have songs. Let grandfather Tatewari, grandfather fire, sing. Ocean beads, teal, glazed, woman, sea, speak, speak here through the long and ancient strings. Who will listen?

MONTAGNE: Juan Felipe Herrera has spent a lifetime listening as the child of Mexican migrant farmworkers following the seasons, picking crops in the heat and dust of the fields of California.

HERRERA: You know, I had a mother that sang and told stories and loved poetry even though she only went to third grade. She kept an incredible album of family photographs from the 1800s passed on to her mother, my grandmother. So I had all those treasures from my mother and, of course, her, which was the best part (laughter). And those landscapes, you know, those are some deep landscapes of mountains and grape fields and barns and tractors, families gathering at night to have little celebrations in the mountains and aquamarine lakes way down below. So, see, all that is like living in literature every day.

MONTAGNE: And your work, of course, is grounded in the Chicano experience, which was one of great beauty in some moments but also hard times. There is a poem in your newest collection. It's called "Half-Mexican." Would you read us a bit of that?

HERRERA: Oh, sure.

(Reading) Time, light, how they stalk you and how you beseech them. All this becomes your lifelong project. That is, you are Mexican, one half Mexican and the other half, Mexican, then the half against itself.

MONTAGNE: How do you come to a poem? I mean, I have a vision of an old (laughter), like, a coffee pot and words percolating.

HERRERA: Well, that's right. Words do percolate in my head. Sometimes I have a very fleeting emotional dance with a fleeting phrase, like half-Mexican. As long as I get to a table or a piece of paper and a pen, then - with one or two words - then I just follow it. And it becomes the poem, in this case, like this poem. That's how I wrote it. It's that velvet lightning bolt, and I have to just run for a table, run after something, get a twig and scratch the lines down with a twig. And then it's just one set of brushstrokes, and the poem comes alive.

MONTAGNE: You probably, up 'til now, haven't been in the business of giving advice. But now, poet laureate of the United States, in a way, that's part of your role.

HERRERA: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Is that - do you think that's a good way for people - to just take it on when it comes to you?

HERRERA: Yes, and then you also want to scribble. Do not wait for a poem. A poem is too fast for you. Do not wait for the poem. Run with the poem, and then write the poem. And, of course, immerse yourself in a sea of books and poems. You want to be in that parade. That's what you have to do. Of course, there's many ways. There's many ways to do this.

MONTAGNE: You have a poem in your new collection honoring the nine people killed a few months ago in Charleston, S.C. at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It's called "Poem By Poem." I'm just also wondering if that came to you in a flash.

HERRERA: Yes, it did. And I don't think I changed one thing in it.

(Reading) Poem by poem, we can end the violence every day after every other day. Nine killed in Charleston, S.C. They are not nine. They are each one, alive, we do not know. You have a poem to offer. It is made of action. You must search for it, run outside and give your life to it. When you find it, walk it back, blow upon it. Carry it taller than the city where you live. When the blood comes down, do not ask if it is your blood. It is made of nine drops. Honor them. Wash them. Stop them from falling.

MONTAGNE: That is so beautiful, and the line, you have a poem to offer, it is made of action... Poetry, to you, is that a call to action?

HERRERA: Well, yes. Poetry is a call to action, and it also is action. Sometimes we say, this tragedy, it happened far away; I don't know what to do. I'm concerned, but I'm just dangling in space. A poem can lead you through that. And it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem, you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind - no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

HERRERA: Well, thank you. It's been a great honor and a great pleasure. Muchas gracias.

GREENE: That was Renee speaking to Juan Felipe Herrera. His new poetry collection is "Notes On The Assemblage." And as poet laureate, he recently announced his first project. It's an epic nationwide poem where all Americans can contribute a line or two. It's called "La Casa De Colores," "The House Of Colors." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.