Pioneers, Elvis, and grilled cheese sandwiches: a conversation with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.
Juan Felipe Herrera first came to Santa Clara University in 1961 when he was in middle school. He has come back to give readings and talks several different times in recent years—to give a reading for The Santa Clara Review, and in April 2016 as a guest of SCU’s Center for the Arts and Humanities. Most recently, he was chosen to speak at SCU’s 2017 undergraduate commencement ceremony. Read a recap of that big event—including excerpts of his SCU commencement poem, “You Are That Day,” here.
Herrera is the 21st United States poet laureate and the first Mexican-American to hold this position. Shortly before his visit to Santa Clara, the Library of Congress announced that Herrera would serve a second term as poet laureate.
Herrera is the author of 30 books, including collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels and picture books with children. Among his many works are Notes of the Assemblage, Senegal Taxi, Half of the World in Light, and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.
He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN Beyond Margins Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 2012 to 2014 Mr. Herrera served as California's poet laureate.
Following a reading, he joined Professor Emeritus Francisco Jiménez ’66 in conversation. A pioneering scholar of Chicano literature, Jiménez was also an early mentor and inspiration to Herrera.
Francisco Jiménez: Gracias, Juan! Thank you for your beautiful, wonderful talk. You fill us all with alegría y espereanza y fe. You fill us with joy and hope and faith. I have several questions that were submitted to me by the faculty, some staff, and some students. But before I ask them, I want to ask a couple of my own.
Mr. Herrera: I’m in trouble now.
Francisco Jiménez: Next Sunday is Mother's Day. And all of us in this room owe a lot to our mothers, for the sacrifices they’ve made so that we can have a better life. In many occasions you talk about your wonderful mother and the influence she had on you. So could you tell us a little bit more about your mother?
Mr. Herrera: My mother was born in 1906, before the Mexican Revolution. She only went to third grade in El Paso, came up from Mexico City, Barrio El Niño Perdido—the Lost Child Barrio and—around 1918, and made it all the way up to El Norte, to Juarez, and into El Paso in the strange, humbling world of the aftermath of the revolution without anything.
She left the Juarez and lived on floors of brick houses and then came to El Segundo Barrio in El Paso. Went to third grade and was pulled out of third grade. That was just the way it was back then. And wasn’t allowed to go back to school. She loved learning. She always gave me all the words that she didn't get to have and enjoy in the school.
And she recited poems for me, and sayings and riddles. I would attempt to figure out all those things. She was filled with love and filled with compassion. Those were the bigger gifts, even though she gave me poetry.
Francisco Jiménez: I assume there are many teachers in the audience. And as you know, teachers have tremendous influence in our lives. Could you talk a little bit about your third grade teacher, Lucille Sampson?
Mr. Herrera: Mrs. Sampson. Third grade teacher, Logan Heights Barrio: 1956, Elvis Presley was playing for the first times on the radio—before the barrio was split apart by freeways and quote-unquote “development.” I was in class with Mrs. Sampson. She used to play a lot of gospel music. And it was like rocking music, you know? It was good.
But I never spoke up. I was still dealing with first grade when I wasn’t allowed to speak. And she said, “I want you to come up here and sing in front of everybody.”
You gotta be kidding, Mrs. Sampson. No way I’m gonna do that. No way.
But she was so kind with her voice, and so open and inviting. I said okay. So I walked up there and I turned around and she was right next to me. She wasn’t out there somewhere, she was right next to me, standing with me. So I felt good and I sang “Three Blind Mice.” El Corrido the Three Blind Mice.
Then she turned around and she said five words that changed my life. My parents, they were just hard farm-working Mexicanos living their life of beauty and simplicity, but very harsh. They didn’t have anything—but they were pioneers. They were pioneers. She said, “You have a beautiful voice.” You have a beautiful voice.
I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t really know it, but I could feel it—and it was too big for me, too big of a phrase for me. I wasn’t able to receive that gift from her.
And it just stayed with me forever. Forever.
Once I started teaching many years later, I would tell that to my students. That’s what I'm telling you tonight. I have a lot of poems here. That’s all fine and dandy. But what I’m really saying here is: Everyone here has a beautiful voice. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I do as a poet laureate of the whole place.
Francisco Jiménez: Several people want to know: How were you first informed about being U.S. poet laureate—how did it happen?
Mr. Herrera: It was pretty close to the bolita. I happened to be joking around with my friend, Robert Casbro, who happened to be the director of the literature department in Library of Congress. He said, why don't you call me three weeks from now like around 2:30, okay? I'm gonna call you, okay? Pick it up, okay. Yeah, but why are you being so weird and specific about it?
It's okay, answer the phone, okay?
Answer the phone. Gee, wow.
So I waited two weeks and a half and on that day at 2:30 and I was next to the phone, and Robert Casper and I had made a lot of jokes about Swiss cheese sandwiches in the past. Got lost in LA, ran into a grilled cheese sandwich shops of all places. Ordered some sandwiches. They were about this big. What’s going on here? Radiation. That looks delish.
So anyway, phone rang. It’s Robert. “Hey, you know what? I got some Swiss cheese sandwiches coming your way. They’re gonna be so big.”
Uh, Mr. Herrera? This is Dr. James Billington’s office, you know the head of Library Congress?
He would like to talk to you at this moment. Could you please wait for a second?
Hello, Mr. Herrera.
Hello, Dr. James Billington. We’ve been talking about your poetry out here.
Oh I’m so happy. Thank you so much.
He says, How's it going?
Oh perfect, perfect.
He says, You know we’ve been thinking that your poems are like Walt Whitman and America and the people.
And he says, I really want to thank you. Let me get to the point here, Mr. Herrera.
I’d just like to know if you’d be interested, if you would consider in being the poet laureate of the United States.
Do you have any questions?
Oh, no way!
Grilled cheese sandwiches! So that’s how it happened.
Francisco Jiménez: You want to contrast that with your being named poet laureate of California?
Mr. Herrera: No, I don’t want to contrast it. It’s just beautiful. Dr. James Billington. He was head librarian of the entire Library of Congress. This was his 28th year. So I was his last appointment. It was very kind of him to consider me and to call me. And endure the grilled cheese sandwich bit. And I’m so happy. I’m so appreciative, because this is not for me, it’s for everyone here and everyone in the United States—for all the good peoples, for every one of them.
Governor Brown—wow, he’s—you better be ready. You better be ready. So I was in his office. I was invited to go up there and meet him face-to-face and do the oath, swearing and things like that.
He goes, “Well, Juan, well, I’d like you to give me an idea—T. S. Eliot. I want to know how can we apply T. S. Eliot—are you listening?—apply T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland, in the social organization of California. I want to apply the findings of that poem—the insight of that 433 line poem—in the way we do business and conduct our society in the state.”
Oh, oh, oh …
He didn't say it like that. He’s very astute. He’s a very learned man. He loves literature and he reads it back to back. He’s a great role model. He really is.
I said, “Governor Brown, it’s a poem. It’s a poem. You know, enjoy.”
But he really got me thinking. He got me thinking. Because that poem is 433 lines and it’s in seven languages. T. S. Eliot uses seven languages in that poem.
He used different voices and different styles. So I guess one response that would have been more appropriate at that time would have been: It’s really a poem of the multicultural society, and it’s a poem of all our voices, and it’s a poem that deals with the harsh and cold realities that we face. How can we go from being a wasteland to a garden, of many voices? So that would have been more on on it.
Because of the left hook and I went down. I went down. So I had to do some studying. He got me on that one.
Francisco Jiménez: Talking about poems in different languages: From the readings you did this evening, you did two, three different languages. One question was: Why do you write in bilingual form?
Mr. Herrera: Because I’m bilingual.
It was hard enough shutting down for like seven years—and not being able to speak in Spanish. So it created a lot of fuel. It wasn’t a bad thing. It’s never just all bad and all good. It’s always a rich guacamole and salsa. It’s always rich. Life is rich. It was a harsh way to start. It was a punishing way to start. It was a shocking thing. But I had to get it together. I had to get it together. I had to find a way to respond. I had to find inner strength—and my teachers looked out for me and assisted me in finding my inner strength. They got in there and fired me up with kindness, compassion, and teacher guidance, which is very unique. Teacher guidance. So I finally broke open around seventh, eighth grade. I started to get it together and really want to express myself. By the time the civil rights wave hit me, then it was bilingual time. Bilingual time for all of us, for everyone. All colors, all cultures.
Francisco Jiménez: It’s beautiful the way you do it, because using Spanish communicates part of the beauty of Latino culture.
Mr. Herrera: It’s another set of musical instruments. We’re all music makers. How we speak, what words we use and how we use those words and how we raise them high, raise them low, and beautiful sounds. The more languages, the more music. And the more music, the more harmony. And the more harmony, the more spirit. And the more spirit, we be home. We got it together. Once we get there, we got it together.
Francisco Jiménez: Another question: You write passionately about social issues. Where does that passion come from?
Mr. Herrera: Feeling. You know, feeling. For many reasons, but it hurts me to see people who are hurt. It hurts me to see children that are pushed back. It hurts me to see parents that are pushed back. I want them at 100 percent.
When I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I was at a children’s event and celebrating my books, for children—they had been given away. That was beautiful, thank you. And then the farmworker parents, one of the fathers came up to me and showed me his hands. This is what I give my children. And I looked at his hands and they looked red and they were hard, like they had been whipped, hard work. I looked at my hands, they looked like Pillsbury hands—because I’m a writer.
So that’s why I give books. I want those parents to have those books and I want those children to have those books, and I’m gonna do everything I can to get those books in their hands and to assist them. That’s what I’m here for. That’s what we’re all here for. Otherwise I might as well just call it even. Take off and walk the earth with a little piece of onion or something.
Francisco Jiménez: It gives you purpose.
Mr. Herrera: Yeah, it gives me purpose. Otherwise I feel terrible.
Francisco Jiménez: You’d really feel terrible?
Mr. Herrera: Yeah.
Francisco Jiménez: You have been compared to Whitman, and it is said that Ginsberg was a big influence. But the personality of the poet still runs large in their work. It seems you are up to something different, if related. Could you talk about who the speakers are in your poems—or maybe put another way: How do the voices come to you and move through you into the page when you’re creating poetry?
Mr. Herrera: They’re there already. We have a voice. You have a voice. A beautiful voice. And it’s also the voice of many. It’s the voice of many. We don’t really own it. It’s nice to have it, but we don’t really own it, ’cause we give it away. And also, because we have a voice and mind and consciousness, you can connect to everybody else—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make it to being a human being.
We have the ability to connect with everything and everyone. And because of that we can take in their voices—and through our voice speak, just like that. So when I say, like my mother, “Come on, Jaunito, when you go to school, be respectful, Juanito.”
So that’s my mom. And my Tia Lela: “Don’t you be jumping around!”
My mother would get so upset. Lela was like that. Tough aunt.
So we can do that. You know, a lot of voices. I believe in that. And if I can do that—it’s not supposed to be accurate. It’s an attempt, an experiment.
And if I can bring up Kenji Goto’s voice a little bit, and if I can bring up the voices of the women, who ride the border bus—that get detained, get arrested in a bus, going to be detained in a holding cell in a city in California, or are stopped from entering that city by the residents of that city. I said to myself, What? What? You’re getting to me here. I’m gonna have to do something now.
We are on call here. You know, the poet’s always on call. Sit down, have a little water, a little taquito, ’cause it’s a poem.
I saw that. I said, Wait a minute. Hey, it’s time for me to get up.
So the poem is in the voices of these two women in this bus being taken to a detention center after being arrested at the border—crossing the border. They don’t have papers. And now they can't even get into their town because the residents don’t want them to be in their town, even though they have a detention center. So I wrote that piece for them and got the word out.
Francisco Jiménez: I have two last questions. These questions came from many students. The first one is: What advice would you give students who are aspiring to be writers of poems? And the second question is: What advice would you give college students?
Mr. Herrera: Well you know, you have a lot of resources. Use your resources to write. Don’t think too much about it. Just start writing. You start saying, “I can’t write, I’m not a poet, I don’t know what to say … That’s okay. That’s how we all begin. We begin at one or at zero and we move on, little by little. And we experiment.
If our grandparents could make it to the United States on absolutely nothing—our ancestors—then we can write.
They were pioneers. So now it’s our turn to be pioneers. But we’re gonna be pioneers with the word. It takes meeting it head on, like our grandparents. It’s that kind of thing. Just meet it head on. Imagine coming from Chihuahua at age 14, getting on a train and leaving everything behind, getting to Denver, Colorado in the snow, getting off that train, 14 years old, nowhere to run. It’s like that. We gotta meet it head on. And if you think, No I can’t do it, that’s okay. But then let that thought go by and still go forward.
All you gotta do, though, is get that pen, get that computer, just slap something on. Just get one word on there. Just get one little word on there and that word will lead you to the next one. As long as it stays blank, it’s tough. Get one word on there and you can go to the second word. Two words, go to the third word. You got three words, it’s a party. Then after that it’s all yours. It’s a boardwalk after that. It’s gonna be a big old party.
And play. Remember, it’s gotta play. Playing and experimenting. You’re not really writing, you’re playing. You’re moving things. You’re experimenting. You’re moving, shaping, experimenting, throwing words at them and see what happens. Move around, see what happens.
Francisco Jiménez: The other one was what advice would you give college students.
Mr. Herrera: Well you’re here already. What advice for college students? Continue doing what you’re doing. Use as many resources as possible. They’re all at your hand right here. Amazing resources, right? And you have amazing professors and teachers and programs. Work with them. Get feedback. Alone is very difficult.
In a group is excellent—and with resources even better. And media even better. ’Cause the next step is building your vision. Build your vision. Career is one thing. Major is another thing. That’s great. But what’s your vision? Grab that vision. Grab it. It could just simply be speaking up, speaking your mind. This is what I want to do with Latino studies. This is what I want to do. And you gotta begin to speak it out.
And as you speak it out, what you want to do, you’re gonna start tapping what your heart’s set on and what your vision is. You want to get to that vision. It’s like Martin Luther King: There's a vision. That's what you want to have. It’s that spirit thing. Everything else is working. Now you just got to put that rocket fuel in there, which you already have. You’re doing it already.
But I’m just saying it, because we need the big picture. We need the big picture. Too many little pictures are floating around. Too many little pictures are floating around—things that are being done to kind of create more problems. We want a beautiful vision. A vision for all—what is that in whatever role you have? How can we contribute to that big picture?
Too much violence, too much war, too much greed, too much money, money, money talk, too much militarization. Where’s room for the vision? Where’s the heart at? I want to hear that. I want to see that. I’m tired of all those commercials. I’m tired of all those commercials. I want to see you. I want to hear you. Say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. This is what I want to do for the people.” All right! That's the one! Whatever—in law, in writing … “It’s what I want to do for the people.”
I want to hear that. That’s what we need to hear. That’s what our communities need to hear. That’s what our children need to hear.
“Oh, did you hear that? Oh she wants to do this for the people! I never heard someone speak like that. That’s inspiring. I want to talk to her.”
It’s like that. Once you speak your vision for a better world for others, people are gonna want to get inspired. And then it’ll multiply.
So you’re there already. Just stick it out a little bit longer. You’re there already. You don’t need to go any further, you’re there already.
Francisco Jiménez: I was talking over dinner with someone who admires the creative energy that you have. And I kept thinking, Where does that come from? I’ve known you for many, many years, and I think I know that your energy comes from the love you have for all people. Your heart has no limits, no walls. And so I thank you for bringing us hope and for enriching our lives.