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?