‘Imagine, even the ghosts were trying to get away’ U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera reads at Smith College

Last modified: 12/16/2015 6:50:00 PM

Poet Juan Felipe Herrera, our newly appointed poet laureate of the United States, is a man of action.

Which should be obvious because, as Herrera told a near-capacity crowd in Smith College’s Weinstein Auditorium Tuesday night, “Poetry is a call to action. And it also is action.”

Herrera’s reading was part of the Poetry Center at Smith College reading series, which brings an array of internationally known poets to Northampton in addition to providing a public browsing room filled with volumes of poetry and journals.

The son of Mexican immigrants who worked in California as migrant farmers, Herrera writes often about immigration and issues of social justice. He has received many prizes and grants, taught at the University of California-Riverside and published 29 books, including literature for children in addition to poetry.

Herrera began with a poem dedicated to Nohemi Gonzalez, a California State University-Long Beach student, who was killed in the Paris attacks on Nov.13.

“Let us see poetry in that manner of offering our hearts to those families,” Herrera said, referring to all of the families who lost loved ones in Paris.

“We are all writing a poem for you,” Herrera read, inviting the audience to repeat this and other phrases, creating a web of voices throughout the auditorium.

Throughout the evening, Herrera read from a sampling of his books, telling the audience a little about each.

His 1999 collection “Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives,” came about when he was invited to write poems in response to Artemio Rodriquez’s linoleum cuts based on images from Mexican loteria cards. The idea intrigued him from the start but the artwork nailed it for him, Herrera said.

“It’s as if (M.C.) Escher and Jimi Hendrix did a drawing,” Herrera said with a laugh.

When he read from “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border” (City Lights, 2007), Herrera invited the audience to participate again, asking us to loudly declare, “Because,” before each of his reasons, which ranged from the comical — “Because someone made our IDs out of corn,” — to the more politically charged, “Because the CIA trains better with brown targets.”

Prefacing some Jack Kerouac-inspired poems, Herrera said, “I love writing as fast as I can. That way there’s no brakes. You’re just flying.”

Chuckling, he described flying in a car that comes apart piece by piece, wheels dropping off, doors falling away until you are holding only a steering wheel.

“Then it’s just you, driving this invisible car,” Herrera said.

Then, even the steering wheel disappears, “And you’re really in trouble. This is my learned opinion,” Herrera said with a laugh.

Herrera moved to a darker tone with “Senegal Taxi” (The University of Arizona Press, 2013), a collection that gives voice to three children killed in a bombing — who, even though they are already dead, flee Sudan for Senegal, where they plan to catch a boat to the United States.

“Imagine, even the ghosts were trying to get away,” Herrera said.

The poems in “Senegal Taxi” also give voice to the ants and the flies of the region, a junked television, the Janjaweed ringleader, an AK-47 and even the bomb itself, which sings in a low voice as it drops, “Here I go, down below … Who sent me? I don’t know.”

Notes from the Assemblage

Herrera’s latest book, “Notes from the Assemblage,” published in September by City Lights, “Just happened,” Herrera said.

As poet laureate of California, a post he was awarded in 2012, Herrera had been writing and encouraging others to write poems about the Boston Marathon bombings, Sandy Hook and other violent or traumatic events. Herrera gathered these poems to create “Notes.”

The collection includes poems about the recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown; the murders of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa in Syria; Mexican immigrants caught trying to cross the U.S. border; as well as poems that might have been written “on the Kerouac train,” as Herrera said earlier.

But the poem Herrera chose to read from “Notes” was the quiet and beautiful opening poem, “it can begin with clouds.”

“The violence now is so extreme,” Herrera said quietly, by way of introduction. “We do what we usually do but we’re kind of different.”

“Let us embrace all who are suffering,” Herrera said. “But let us not exclude our joy.”

Herrera ended with a poem written for his brother-in-law, who had been a Marine in Vietnam. The ex-Marine suffers from his experiences in the war.

“Here, inside the chest, all those lives, they don’t go away,” Herrera read. “They burn, they burn.”

When he had finished the poem, the audience rose to a standing ovation.

La Casa de Colores

One of Herrera’s projects as U.S. Poet Laureate is “La Casa de Colores,” or “The House of Colors.”

“In this house we will feed the hearth and heart of our communities with creativity and imagination. And we will stand together in times of struggle and joy,” Herrera writes on the project’s website.

There are two features to the project, “La Familia (The Family)” and “El Jardin (The Garden)”.

The first offers everyone the opportunity to contribute to an “epic poem.” Each month, Herrera provides a theme or guidance for contributors. Until Dec. 14, the theme is “Language Weavers.”

“El Jardin” provides an online peek into the Library of Congress’ wealth of materials, accompanied by poems Herrera writes in response.

To learn more, visit http://www.loc.gov/poetry/casadecolores/

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. One of the founders of Slate Roof, a member-run press publishing western Massachusetts poets, her chapbook “Walk through Paradise Backwards” was published by the press in 2004. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, journals and Ted Kooser’s national column, “An American Life in Poetry.” She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com. Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. To submit a book, mail it to Franklin County Poets, The Recorder, P.O. Box 1367, Greenfield, MA 01302. Or, drop it off at our office, 14 Hope St., Greenfield.


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