Ching-In Chen with Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera (photo credit: University of California, Riverside)
Juan Felipe Herrera (photo credit: University of California, Riverside)
This conversation is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).

Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California as the only child of migrant farmers in 1948. These childhood experiences as well as his continued community activism, including a stint as a director of an arts space in Balboa Park converted from an occupied water tank, has shaped his writing. For the past four decades, Herrera has been a lightning bolt, a master at channeling the energy of the moment and documenting the world around him in his poetry. Known for writing on the edge of possibility and for his high-energy riffs and improvisations, Herrera has been celebrated by critics for his innovative style and constant re-inventions. This conversation was conducted shortly after Herrera won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems.

Ching-In Chen: Is it part of your writing process to write against what you’re comfortable with or known for? I’m thinking about your story about listening to John Ashbery invent a poem and feeling that you’re “condemned” to write political poetry.

Juan Felipe Herrera: When you’re a writer from the margins (or more than one margin, as Gloria Anzaldúa says), then it’s almost like a preliminary, required, or organic project to write and reclaim ourselves and our community. In the mid-80’s at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in southern Arizona, Ashbery read a piece from his new book Wave where he reconstructed a Nordic myth. I said to myself: well, he appears to be just choosing at random something he likes, reconstructing it and writing about it. I feel like I’ve been condemned to write in the manner that I write—to reclaim our history, our language, our various identities, to re-align what’s been said regarding our experience—since I started to write. Can I write like Ashbery—not in terms of style or craft, but metaphysically? Can I get out of myself that way? Can I reposition myself that way or will I be condemned to write as my own other?

That’s when I wrote Facegames. It was all about writing whatever I heard, whatever I read from walls. Everything had to be detached from my imagination and my ruminations, my ideologies, my personal orientations as much as possible. Extremely as much as possible. I found that at the end of writing, publishing and reading that book, that I had got even closer and deeper.

CIC: To what you were writing before?

JFH: Yes. I liked that moment because I became aware of the metaphysical labyrinth of self that I had been writing in, that we all write in when we’re from the margins.

CIC: It seems like all your books contain these kinds of shifts against what you’re doing before.

JFH: Not consciously. Facegames was a conscious attempt to write in a cultural vacuum. I had been writing about exile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, class issues in the Americas, language itself as a brown Chicano trying to break the official language so I felt these had been almost natural things to do as a brown writer. So when I heard Ashbery, it was a whole different thing. It’s hard to do because where is freedom? Is freedom where you can just get up and write at will without being connected or oriented to the margin where you are positioned? Or is freedom writing from the margins? I think the things you call shifts are just pulses.

CIC: What do you mean by pulses?

JFH: I don’t know why certain writers always seem to write in the same manner. Even if their constructions vary, if you look at the book from 14 inches away, go from page one to page 14 all the way to page 61, the poems all feel and look the same, talk from and speak from a familiar landscape. For me, everything is changing at every split second so why would I write the way I wrote in 1970? I’d love to, but I’ve learned so much and changed so much so those things are going to influence what I lay down on paper. Writing is a natural pulse of life.

Another way to look at it is I love language. Poets, we love language and we love the world and experience and thinking. We love being rebels so we put all those things together—rebellion, love for language, world, knowledge. For me, that spells doing things differently. I wanted to write a letter to the hungry students of Berlin in the mid-90’s. I was thrilled by traveling through time and space. I wasn’t thrilled in that same manner in the late 60’s. Writing Giraffe on Fire, I wanted to write a metaphysical history of the Americas and collapse various historical figures that existed at different times and spaces like Jack Kerouac, Freud and Gala (Dali’s partner), black slaves and the viceroys of new Spain into the new setting. That’s lovely. That made my day when I was writing that. That’s an example of how we love language and I wrote in a different manner and set of subjects than I had worked with before. Much more erotically oriented, or I talked about the body in a more daring way than I had before. That influences what and how I write, my own delights for a whole range of materials, subjects and knowledges.

CIC: What has survived over the many incarnations of your transformations in terms of your writing?

JFH: I feel like some kind of cocoon or something, always transforming. My love for liberation—liberating the mind; the writing; liberating, as impossible as it is, those that I write about. What kind of book is in the plantations of El Salvador? But because a poem is like a raindrop, it does have reverberations across the universe. I don’t mean it to sound grand. However, I think what we say and what we write does influence everyone and everything. I am concerned with liberation in a very personal way, not in a late 60’s way.

I come from a family that was held back from true potential in many ways. My mother’s stories about not being allowed to be who she wanted to be, back in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. She wanted to be a singer, dancer, and actress. That was prohibited in that time for a young Mexican woman from El Paso, Texas, and she had all that talent. I heard her stories and it became part of my marrow. So anything that holds people back, denies them their life potential, I’m concerned about it and I want to write about it in one way or other. It’s very painful—to see people bound up and fettered. Also, my natural penchant “to go to the dark side,” as they say in the movie Sideways. I’m opening up the scope.

CIC: I’ve heard you talking about the visual artist Max Beckmann and his idea of needing to have some black in your art. Can you talk more about this idea?

JFH: I heard Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize-winning speech on Pacifica. He mentioned art as entertain-ism, that that’s kind of a danger, that our work doesn’t become a superficial leisure product. I’m saying this, knowing that I’m guilty of this too, that I’m the king of entertain-ism, a response to my own aesthetics. I love to clown around, improvise, and perform.

I was in San Francisco; Francisco Alarcón was in the audience. He was in the restroom and heard this guy say: Did you hear Juan Felipe Herrera? Man, he used to be good! I had just let everything go and didn’t read, and it has happened to me countless times. Entertaining the audience, reader, poem, language, ideas, style, but never really in all honesty getting to the deep silence and darkness of it all. It doesn’t mean you’re going to write about everything cruel and brutal in your life only, but it means you’re going to touch your realities and you’re not going to shy away from them.

Max Beckmann was talking about color, tone and what makes a painting a painting? What makes it really stark and powerful? He said to his art workshop in the United States—if you don’t have black in your painting, I don’t even want to look at it. Without that color, maybe you were just fooling around. For me, it became a metaphor, a very direct statement because there was a time in the late 70’s and early 80’s that I didn’t want to even use the word “black” in a poem. Because I felt I would call upon it, I would end up conjuring my mother’s death and she was very ill at that time. At that time, that’s how I felt. I was afraid that whatever I said, especially in a poem, would influence her health.

It sounds odd, but what happens is in all our experiences as poets, there comes a time when a poem predicts an outcome. We write a poem, a week later, that poem comes true. You use a name or talk about a figure you don’t know or use a landscape. You think—a poem, it’s just a creation. A month later, that person appears in front of you. That’s how I was thinking. So when Max Beckmann says the color black, it shook me up and then I found it to be true.

And I love the color black. And, of course, we have the fear of blackness in American culture. There’s a lot of stuff packed in there—Mexican-Indian religious stuff, racialized stuff, the power of black, and art—it all comes together.

It’s not a perfect balance issue but it can also become overwhelming and then poetry suffers. My young adult novel, Cinnamon Girl, is about a teen Puerto Rican female after 9-11 who wants to save her uncle’s life who’s been almost crushed by the incident. One of the reviewers said that the book was “relentlessly” bleak. I re-visited the book and thought this person had a point. It’s not easy to get in touch with our darkness. Sometimes we miss, sometimes we overdo it, sometimes we never get there. I think this was a case of overdoing it.

My book from HarperCollins, Put a Poem Wherever You Go, lacked darkness. It had all the bubble & fizz, Shel Silverstein feel, zappy, effervescent. I didn’t want to put in a gallon of real-life darkness so I thought I’m just going to put in a quarter cup. Just one left uppercut. I feel really good about it because I think it’s just right.

I think it’s a good thing to think about as writers because sometimes our language is just flying. It helps us think about our writing—are we getting mesmerized by language? Are we getting mesmerized by social realities? Are we getting mesmerized by our literary habits? Because darkness doesn’t reside in any one of those and the full-blown poem doesn’t really reside in any one. But it does have the color black.

CIC: How much do you borrow from other art forms as inspiration for your own poems? I’ve also heard you say that it’s important to approach other forms with your own strength. Can you talk more about how you came to that understanding as someone who writes in multiple forms and even languages?

JFH: I’ll mention what happened to me in University of Iowa in 1989. I was in the Writers’ Workshop for Poetry and I wanted to jump into the playwriting workshop. I submitted my poems to enter the workshop, and I didn’t submit a play. Part of that had to do with the generosity of Shelly Berc and Bob Hedley, who were the directors of the Playwriting Workshop. They were very open. When I turned in my first “play,” it was a 40-page performance poem called “Prison Journal.” The performance poem was composed of voices of a prisoner that I almost arbitrarily cut into short and long sections on little paper strips. I pasted them on paper, re-typed them and submitted it. To me, that’s what a poet does. We work in lines, we work in personas, we work with speakers in our poems, short lines and long lines. I just added different voices. I created a cast of characters out of one and sprinkled them throughout the text. When I turned that in, people thought it was great. I didn’t attempt to walk in like a playwright outside of my strength.

CIC: Did you want to? How did you know to do that?

JFH: Because I had talked to Shelly Berc and she was doing things that looked like poetry to me. To her, it was a play. She had a play where the main character was fire and written in short lines. I was very intrigued by that so I felt comfortable doing what I was doing. I noticed the others were forcing themselves to turning plays that were in the old-school play form and they were having a hard time. So when I came in with a poem that was possibly a play, a hybrid, a funny-looking jackaloupe, that was exciting for them and for me. Of course, I was using playwriting devices too, but as a poet. When I say, stay true to your own strength, if you’re a poet who wants to become a novelist, stick with what you’re doing, grow the novel from your poetry. Don’t uproot your garden and jump over the street and start from scratch. Because when you notice, when you go to the new novels coming out, they are looking more like poems. New plays coming out, they look like performance poems. New films coming out, they have literary devices. If you find yourself wanting to be a filmmaker, please don’t abandon everything you’re doing as a poet or a novelist. The poem is one of the most malleable forms.

CIC: Where do your poems come from? Do you work poem by poem, or with a larger conceptual idea?

JFH: My poems come from everywhere. I don’t know where they come from. They just appear. Sometimes I get a phrase going or I hear a phrase or I read a phrase or a word or hear music like Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 CD and I’m ready to rock. Or I’ll see a Rothko print and I’m ready to go. Or I’ll see Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. So it can be an external stimuli—photograph, print, cool beat, atmosphere, phrase I hear. I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle pink section and I saw a photograph about the galaxy. It was the eagle nebulae which is 9.1 light years long vertically. This became the last poem in Border-Crossing with a Lamborghini Dream. My poetry comes from big mind, where all minds live and are members of.

Probably, my first five or six books are written poem by poem or episode by episode, but then I transitioned into the larger conceptual idea with books like Love After the Riots. Giraffe On Fire and Border-Crossing with a Lamborghini Dream are more concept books where it’s a series of books all linked directly to one concept. Then, I broke up concept manuscripts into separate pieces to make a piece-by-piece book. I went a full circle.

CIC: Is that the book you burned?

JFH: The book I burned. It used to be part of a longer, more cohesive manuscript. Some of the end poems from Half of the World in Light. That’s our practice. We go poem-by-poem. We spend a long time just getting to one poem. Sometimes we write a hundred poems in two months. Sometimes we write a poem that we burn and then we resurrect. That means we’re at work. We’re thrashing through the materials. We’re doing what Jackson Pollack did. We’re splashing paint, pencil on paper, ink on paper, ink and pencil, oils and acrylics, mixing elements, using different elements, yellow paper, red ink, technical pens, bathroom paper towels, restaurant napkins, engineering paper, graphic paper, blank paper, pulp, blue-lined paper, Chinese booklets from Chinatown. I used to travel miles upon miles to get to Chinatown and search stationary store by stationary store until I found the right one that had beautiful sewn 4×9, 5×9 pulp blank soft paper that for me at that time was ideal to write poetry in. I had to have that. I couldn’t write on anything else. That’s our hilarious practice.

CIC: What project are you working on next?

JFH: The Freezer, a young adult novel about a young boy who crosses from Mexico to southern Arizona and dies and doesn’t know he’s dead and searches for resurrection, but he’s in a freezer at the coroner’s office and his spirit breaks out in search of a body that he finds and becomes a hiphop dancer. Some picture books—The United States of Alegría. SpoMo—which stands for spoken word movement. Spoken word is you’re standing up and speaking your poem vs. hiphop is fast, complex movements. SpoMo is in-between. I’m working on a performance project where I want to see if I can further define SpoMo as a new form of spoken word.

I’m working on Deserts and Mirages about migration, rebellion and escape under extreme conditions from Sudan to Senegal to the Canary Islands to Europe, the mirage and possibility of getting out of incredible, extreme oppression. This is for the Montalvo Arts residency in July.

It’s time to strip our writing of the ideological trappings of the past and present. I come from the 60’s generation so I was very involved with causes; poetry and political causes were one and the same. I think we need to reorient our thinking about our writing and our connection to humanity without being trapped by ideology or fully enveloped in our ideologies of other times.

I think the new and young writers we have in border-crossing regions are doing fantastic things. Perhaps we’re living in the age of the border-crossing poetics because we’re all transcultural, transgendered, transnational writers. I think we’re in the age of transpoetics. That’s what I’m trying to get to.

When I recently heard Sherwin Bitsui in the first annual Tucson Festival of the Books, I heard something new and I’m going to call it, for the joy of it, “floodsong.” It’s the name of one of his books, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s this new thing that he’s doing. A new stream in the ongoing fugue of what new writers are doing. It’s like an “Aftermath-Surrealism,” a post-20th century thick description song, swishing poly-vocal registers crash-loving through time-space natures and peoples. When you put it all together and let it get loose, you form “Floodsong.” I see Gabriela Jaúregui doing this, Tim Hernandez, Devoya Mayo, Matt Lippmann and others. As they used to say in the late 50’s, “get hip to the jive.”


Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of twenty-nine books and for seven years served as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Herrera’s work has received wide critical acclaim including numerous national and international awards. Herrera was elected to the Board of Chancellors for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 2010, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry in 2009, in 2008, the PEN USA Award and two Latino Hall of Fame Awards in 2002 and 2000. In 2012, Herrera was named California’s Poet Laureate.

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