A Conversation With California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera | Photo: Courtesy of Juan Felipe Herrera.

A few weeks ago, Juan Felipe Herrera and I were slated to be honored at Riverside City Hall, a celebration of Juan Felipe's appointment as California Poet Laureate and my own more local appointment as Inlandia Literary Laureate. I was looking forward to seeing Juan Felipe and congratulating him in person--the state of California couldn't have picked a more generous, inventive guy for the job. My own appointment is an exciting development, but his is a major, major deal.

Juan Felipe Herrera, California's first Latino Poet Laureate, was born to migrant workers and his childhood deeply informs his work as a poet, writer for young people, playwright, performer and activist. He holds the Tomas Rivera Endowed Chair at the University of California, Riverside, and has been showered with all sorts of amazing kudos for his 20 plus books, from the National Book Critics Circle Award for his poetry collection Half the World in Light to a Guggenheim Fellowship to the Smithsonian Children's Book of the Year Award. His writing is imbued with humor and compassion and a keen awareness of injustice--all qualities that shine through when you meet the guy. He is an innovative teacher, getting people of all ages excited about writing, and bringing a rare playfulness to the university classroom (I remember one student telling me about an exercise where he had the class walk in a circle, writing poems on pages pressed against one another's backs.) Juan Felipe coined the term "Inlandia" that has given our region a more cohesive literary identity, starting with the Inlandia anthology published by Heyday Books, composed of historical and contemporary writings from the Inland Empire, and leading to the formation of the regional literary organization, Inlandia Institute, which led to my own laureateship. And now, of course, his appointment brings even more literary cache to the area. As California Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe plans to create a communal poem that he calls "The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem in the World on Unity."

We recently interviewed each other by email about writing and laureate life. He jumped right in with the first question.

Gayle Brandeis | Photo: Michael J. Elderman.
Gayle Brandeis | Photo: Michael J. Elderman.

JFH: What lives in a word?

GB: Breath. Heat. Possibility. Witness. All the other mouths and hands that have shaped that word across time and space. Each letter within it brimming with its own history and potential. The way it feels rattling inside the chest. The images it creates in the mind. The words it wants to rub up against to create sound and meaning and song. The place it comes from, pulsing through.

Where do your poems come from?

JFH: They come from everywhere at the same time. A poem is usually just a leaf from an immense tree that happens to be floating by. They also come from the places I have been and the people I have met and the mountains too - except those come in ciphers like clouds or little stone paths in the shape of crescents and wavy lines. My father's stories, my mother's dances and songs, they are there too, weaving out of me. The most tender are the ones from tiny birds fallen from nests or about to fly for the first time. Poems go more than they come.

How (do) you guide your life in poetry?

GB: I guide by not-guiding, by staying open, by letting poetry guide me. I often think of writing like breath--inhale: take the world in; exhale--give ourselves back to the world. A constant interchange--senses, heart, mind ready to receive, to express. And lately, more than ever, I've been trying to let fearlessness guide me. To let myself go to the darkest, scariest, most authentic places in my work. It's how we let the light back in. After my mom took her own life two and a half years ago, I was unable to write for a while (I had a newborn then, too, which also kept the words at bay.) Now that I am finally writing about her death, the words are giving me strength, and release. And of course, other writers and poets guide and nourish me daily.

California is so lucky to have you as Poet Laureate. What are your deepest dreams for your laureateship?

JFH: My dreams are that millions of children of all ages will participate, contribute, share their dreams, poems, stories, lives and create an expanding circle of harmony for themselves and others. Inner peace, outer unity with all - a living poem.

After my father passed away from diabetes in 1964 when I was sixteen and after my mother passed away in 1986 my poems were one of the few places where I could go to find peace of heart by letting my heart open to all the pain I had since I was a child - it took time, blunders and non-stop writing and throwing myself out into the world of audiences. Perhaps that is why I say that inner peace, harmony and unity, unity within us and with others is so precious.

And your deepest dreams for your laureateship?

GB: I was inspired by your wonderful coining of "Inlandia" to coin a couple of terms of my own--in the first year of the laureateship, I plan to focus on INnerLANDIA, encouraging people to explore the connection between self and place, the way we carry landscapes inside our bodies and minds. In the second year, my focus will be OUTLandia, encouraging people to set their imaginations free, to wildly explore creative possibility. I am hoping that both projects will help the people of our region realize that they are capable of so much more than they ever dreamed. I am also hoping that through sharing our stories, sharing our inner worlds, we can create a deeper sense of community, that we can become more aware of the beauty of our diversity and the richness of all that we share (I agree that unity within us and with others is so very, very precious). I want to foster a safe space where people can express their most tender selves, their hope and pain and playfulness and truth. A living poem, indeed.


I asked Juan Felipe if he'd like to stop there or keep going, and he wrote "We can stop the turns but the nebulae continues."

I'm so grateful to share a little corner of his vast and glittering sky.


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