Aspen Words opens winter series with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera
January 13, 2016
If You Go …
Who: Juan Herrera at Winter Words
When: Tuesday, Jan. 12, 6 p.m.
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera has a hard time hanging onto his books.
He's been on the road for readings and events more or less since he was named to the nation's highest poetic honor in June, becoming America's first Mexican-American laureate. Meeting students and young writers in his travels, he tends to give his books away. So what he reads at events like today's Winter Words opener at Paepcke Auditorium depends on what book he hasn't gifted.
"For this one I need to find a copy of 'Half of the World in Light' — I tend to give them away at readings," he said Saturday from Fresno, California. "I find students that can't afford them, so I give away my copy and then I need to hunt one down."
A Herrera reading often also includes new work — he responds quickly to new towns, new people and current events. Lately he's found that writing on paper bags or pieces of cardboard boxes has opened him up creatively.
"Poems come to me in a big chariot, so I have to write them fast," he said.
The son of migrant farmworkers, Herrera, 67, previously served as poet laureate of his native California. He has addressed issues of migrant and immigrant identity in his work throughout his career while also serving as an heir to the Beat Generation with his experimental and exuberant free verse.
He found his voice as a poet and public speaker, he recalled, from his days in the late 1960s at UCLA, where he did performance art and got involved in the Chicano civil-rights movement.
"I started as a squeaky guy — my voice squeaked," he said. "I would shout to avoid the nervousness or I just plain squeaked."
Herrera took his post as U.S. Poet Laureate at a time when the national conversation about immigration was growing divisive and Donald Trump built his bid for the presidency on open hostility toward Mexicans. (It's conceivable that Herrera's term as poet laureate could extend into a Trump presidency).
"It's one of the knotty, hairy, tangled-up debates," Herrea said. "I'm not a member of the debate team. Sometimes they're extremely polarizing. I guess that's the drama of getting votes, or something. But polarizing issues regarding the conditions of human beings is dangerous. I prefer open horizons and inclusiveness and unity. I'm into the positive side of things."
His most recent poetry collection, "Notes on the Assemblage," includes some works printed in Spanish, some in English, some with bilingual translations and some without.
"I thought it added a nice question to the book," he said. "It added another layer. Like, 'What is this doing here?' I like that — I like an artwork to pose questions."
Herrera scrapped a different, more conceptual collection of poems before publishing "Notes on the Assemblage" instead.
"I just put together what was on my table, and those were the poems," he said.
The collection is full of works that engage our current cultural moment. It includes evocations of young black men killed by police officers — Eric Garner and Michael Brown — in "Almost Livin' Almost Dyin.'" Garner and Brown return, along with Trayvon Martin and others, in the visceral "We Are Remarkably Loud Not Masked," which talks of the power of tragedy to mobilize people and bring them together. His "Poem By Poem" grapples with the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
Herrera is a poet laureate whose art is responding directly to some of the most vexing issues for the nation he's serving in the post. Days after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, he wrote the poem "Nohemi — A Song for Paris," honoring California State University-Long Beach student Nohemi Gonzalez, who was the only American killed in the attacks. It was printed in California newspapers, read at a university vigil and drew readers online.
Most importantly for Herrera, though, it reached some of those closest to Gonzalez, including her roommate at the school. Hearing from her, Herrera said, spoke to the unique power of poetry.
"She saw the poem in the student newspaper and put it up on her dorm wall and kept it there because it gave her a lot of comfort," he said. "It helped assuage the pain in some way. So that's what a poem can do. It's a personal thing that happens. It's not like changing a law or influencing thousands — but it's a possibility for personal change. And that's a lot."
Herrera's talk is the first in a series of five Winter Words author events presented by the nonprofit Aspen Words. He'll be followed by Alison Bechdel and Beth Malone (Jan. 27), Adam Johnson (Feb. 13), Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz (March 15), and Sandra Cisneros (April 5).