U.S. Poet Laureate reads at CLC
Central Lakes College on Friday heard the words of a man who holds the highest honor for poetry in the nation. In 2015, Juan Felipe Herrera became the first Latino author to garner the mantle of U.S. Poet Laureate from the Library of Congress, an...
Central Lakes College on Friday heard the words of a man who holds the highest honor for poetry in the nation.
In 2015, Juan Felipe Herrera became the first Latino author to garner the mantle of U.S. Poet Laureate from the Library of Congress, and it was revealed last week he would serve another year-long term with the honor.
Herrera grew up the child of migrant farm workers in California, and went on to study at UCLA and Stanford. He received his master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Before he regaled a packed audience in Chalberg Theatre with poems and stories from his life, however, Herrera read aloud a work called "Cool" from someone sitting in the crowd, that he had been given just moments earlier. The author in question was a 7-year-old named Dot.
"A girl is walking by.
You are in a dress. She is in jeans.
You want them.
You want to be cool."
Herrera praised the college students gathered before him, and encouraged them to create art themselves.
"You're carving away at the big questions," he said. "We need you, your beautiful minds and your beautiful resources that you know how to tap. We're going to lose ourselves if we don't have you."
The 67-year-old wore a large sky-blue hat and gave gleeful impressions of people from his life story, imitating a stodgy professor and hippies from his time in San Francisco. Even the way he described the beer kegs from his college days was poetic: "strange oblong tin barrels, beverages."
Both the job of the poet laureate to increase national awareness of the poetic arts and Herrera's flamboyant demeanor contrasted with the story of his personality as a boy, introverted and sensitive.
"I started out by not speaking at all," he said. "I started out by hiding. I got A plusses in hiding."
Performing on stage as a youth, including a stint in choir, helped Herrera break out of his shell, he said.
Herrera's presentation, offered as part of CLC's Verse Like Water program, also covered darker territory. He read from a poem he had written on the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., that claimed the lives of nine people.
He said he considers himself an "on-call" poet, compelled time and time again to respond through poetry to horrific events like mass shootings and terrorist attacks.
"I am on-call," he said. "All of us are on call, to provide a response."
Herrera first became an activist in college, when a lecture clued him in to a dwindling band of
Maya Indians living in Mexico near the border with Guatemala. He rallied a band of friends and hired a plane to take the group down to where the tribe lived. They told him of rape, deforestation, and exploitation of resources by outsiders, he said.
"I had gone there to meet them, to get a sense of my own cultural heritage," he said. "I had gone there to find a new way of doing poetry."
But the visit taught him there were other, deeper things to talk about, he said.
Decades later, another issue that confronts Herrera is surveillance and the rise of big data.
"Big data is not interested in stories, and it's not interested in identity," he said. "You're not observing people, you're observing patterns."
ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .