Juan Felipe Herrera’s Long Road to United States Poet Laureate

January 21, 2016  • Caroline Tory, Guest Blogger

Above, watch US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera speak during the Winter Words author series.

Juan Felipe Herrera’s appearance at Aspen Words was a kind of homecoming for the United States poet laureate, whose father emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Denver, Colorado, in the late 1800’s. As he welcomed the Aspen audience, Herrera described his father’s first impressions of Colorado: “he said ‘it was so cold when I spit down on the ground, it was little tiny cubes of ice.’”

For the poet laureate, speaking in Aspen on a cold evening for the Winter Words author series was like “coming full circle.” He went on to share several poems and stories of his own immigrant experience with a packed auditorium that included 60 students from local schools, as well as members of the Roaring Fork Valley’s large Latino community.

Herrera has been on the road since June 2015, when the Library of Congress appointed him poet laureate, a role designed to raise the national consciousness around poetry. The son of migrant farm workers, Herrera is the 21st laureate and the first Latino to hold the prestigious position.

Flowing between Spanish and English, Herrera opened with stories about his childhood living in a “Mexicano Winnebago” as his family travelled around California to different farming communities.

“I lived in a one-room house that my father built on top of a beat-up old car that he found buried on [a] hill…” he said. “That one room was an entertainment center, that one room was a bedroom, that one room was a kitchen, that one room was a guest room, it was a playground, it was a storytelling center.”

After a childhood on the road attending a variety of schools from San Francisco to San Diego, Herrera attended the University of California, Los Angeles, on an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship where he became immersed in the Chicano civil rights movement.

As the national dialogue around immigration becomes increasingly divisive, Herrera’s work radiates compassion and bridges boundaries between different American experiences. This is particularly evident in his most recent poetry collection “Notes on the Assemblage,” from which he read the poem “Borderbus.” The poem switches from English to Spanish as two women discuss their situation on a deportation bus headed for a detention center. Despite the pain and injustice portrayed in the poem, hope and healing are equally relevant. The final lines explore the universality in the womens’ situation:

“Freedom comes from deep inside

all the pain of the world lives there

the second we cleanse that pain from our guts

we shall be free and in that moment we have to

fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings

to free them — all of them”

Herrera also read from an earlier poetry collection titled “Senegal Taxi,” which tells the stories of three children escaping to Senegal from the horrors of the war in Darfur. The collection weaves together prose, verse, dialogue, and even visual art that Herrera created specifically for the book.

While Herrera read from “Senegal Taxi,” it became obvious why his work is meant to be spoken aloud. Walking around the stage with dramatic flair, he presented the various voices in the book: the Village Ant; the Russian Antonov Bomb; Sahel, the little Village Girl; and the Kalashnikov AK-47. The detail and emotion in the poems would suggest that Herrera had spent time in Africa; however, he wrote the entire book from a writer’s residency in Saratoga, California. It is this ability to transcend boundaries and relate to those suffering in far-off places that make Herrera such a unifying force as poet laureate.

When a young boy in the audience told Herrera that he wanted to become an author, the poet laureate welcomed the boy into the club with open arms. “You’re already an author because you’re already speaking up, and when we speak up we become authors because we’re taking charge of our voice.”

Caroline Tory is the program associate of marketing and communications at Aspen Words