Dr James H Billington started the program speaking of the choice of Juan Felipe Herrera as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He also spoke of previous Poet Laureates and their choices of projects that they achieved during their tenure. Wonderful Projects like the favorite poem project by Robert Pinsky in 1997 and Ted Kooser’s project to create space and presence for poetry in American Culture by providing a free weekly column for newspapers and periodicals and Natasha Tretheway’s project of exploring societal issues through poetry’s lens in a series of reports with PBS NewsHour Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, as part of the show’s Poetry Series just to name a few.
Juan Felipe calls poetry Freedom and he is right. This is what he said to NPR
“Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, “This tragedy, it happened far away. I don’t know what to do. I’m concerned but I’m just dangling in space.” A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you’re giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we’re going to change somebody’s mind — no, we’re going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That’s the best we can do.”
I was honored to be at this wonderful reception and reading by our new Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. I was able to get some photographs of Juan Felipe during the reception and also later at his reading. There was a wonderful Balada and spoken word performance which was put together in an earlier ballad class presented by Juan Dies, Juan Felipe’s friend. The words were written by the attendees of the class: I have recorded most of the words spoken by Juan Felipe here accompanied by the beautiful guitar music of Juan Dies who often frames Juan Felipe’s own poetry in just this way :
I want to sing about it about a woman who died her name was Sandra Bland they say she committed suicide. It was the 10th of July in Texas the police arrested her just because she didn’t blink the lights right and took her to jail. She was a brave African American she who knew her rights she was a great activist and she stood up against the police. Brian was a mean man he thought too much of himself and he abused Sandra Bland and now everybody knows. Sandra knew about all the dangers of discrimination, she shouted out “Black Lives Matter” and that was her doom. When Brian told Sandra, “Put out that cigarette” she said “no sir, I know my rights.”
Brian was so upset he just yanked her out of the car with violence and with pushes and with force he arrested her. She was in jail for three days no one knew what had happened to her with a plastic bag they say she committed suicide. “Please everybody you know, violence is going to continue even though you have a video that may not save you.”
There was more, unfortunately my iPhone photo app was suddenly full, so I missed the last bit. It wasn’t much longer, but so beautiful and I am going to put up what I have on You Tube.
I was moved to tears more than once by the poetry of Juan Felipe. It is so real and so deep, so honest and so free. The son of Mexican migrant workers Juan Felipe was encouraged to use his voice by his 3rd grade teacher who had him get up in front of class and sing. When he finished his song she told him what a beautiful voice you have Juan Felipe and so his journey with words began.
This wonderful woman was present for this event along with Juan Felipe’s family and friends from Riverside CA. Recently has been the California State Poet Laureate.
The poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera speaks to the richness of color and life of the earth and her bones, he writes of the journeys of man, the war and famine the soldier and suicide, the soldier and mental illness… ” all those lives never go away they burn they burn ” He writes with a kindness and gentleness, with a scream and a rhythm that is this life. He writes with honesty and the freedom of the gritty and the Light.
The first photo is of myself and Grace Cavalieri at the Library of Congress.
This is what Juan Felipe read as his closing poem. He wrote this poem for the event.
SO I WILL SPEAK OF IT
Let it begin – you say, crimson fibers &
solar epoch rise up at the broken spoke of
the life highway
bones of ragged singers the ones you find painted in
street shadow life
the ones made of sugar, black coffee, tin can drink
asleep by the mountain scar – they
still keep songs woven on brown-off-white belts
let grandfather fire Tatewari tear himself
for the ache sweet waters of mother waves Aramara
teal glaze ocean – red beads sea speak here
long and ancient strings splintered
tiny guitar plywood sanded down
sit here – this corner by Fanta machines teetering
gas pump road to Guadalajara —