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United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera: Writing and Reinvention

Photo courtesy University of California-Riverside
Juan Felipe Herrera Unity Poem Fiesta

Juan Felipe Herrera is already crisscrossing the country as the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Herrera is the son of migrant farm workers in California, and he grew up bilingual. His work traverses boundaries of all kinds, from describing the immigrant experience to taking the words off the page and creating performance art.

Herrera was in Milwaukee at the end of February to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and he explained how he first developed curiosity about poetry.

"When I was a kid I would walk through the libraries...and I would just look at the titles of books in the poetry section. I would see the books pass by, almost like a fast set of video clips. I would see little black titles and green titles and yellow letters," describes Herrera, "...and then I would open the books and look at what it was saying and who it was, and then I got really moved by that."

Herrera says his mother's fire, her "duende," was passed on to him at a young age, because she, too, had a passion for performance. Herrera says his creativity was then stoked throughout the civil rights movement of the 1960's.

"Everything was an experiment in the late 60's... We're not going to pick up an old form or tradition," notes Herrera. "We're gonna make the experimental attempt to re-create everything: how we dressed, how we sang, what we did, how we lived, what we wrote, how we wrote, who we wrote for, why we wrote. All that was a new thing."

Herrera says that his creative urgency to reinvent and start anew is balanced by his ability to quietly observe and take in his surroundings.

Poetry "really does involve a lot of time out and time in... considering things along the way," he says. "Because if we don't [observe], we just kind of pass everything up and only pay attention to the things we feel we're supposed to pay attention to, when, in fact, there are  gazillions of things that took place in front of us and we never even notice them."

Herrera finds that, "those things are the ones that the poet survives on. Those things that no one else notices." 

In the Lake Effect studio, Herrera composed a brand new poem called They Said They Wanted to Build A Beautiful Wall.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.