Learning from Juan Felipe Herrera: Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings

Congratulations to Juan Felipe Herrera! I am very happy to hear that his latest book, Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008) has just won the 2008 National Book Critics’ Circle award in poetry. He shares this year’s award with August Kleinzahler’s Sleeping It Off in Rapid City.

You can read the interview “Reclaiming the Sleepless Volcano: How celebrated Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera found his voice,” over at the Poetry Foundation website here. Many things to admire and learn from in this interview, and I found the section on “learning craft” “outside” of the grassroots community very interesting:

In 1988, around the time he was polishing the final text of Akrílica, Herrera left California for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, under the tutelage of Jorie Graham, Gerald Stern, and Marvin Bell, Herrera began to learn craft. “Juan Felipe, you’ve got to work on simplicity,” Herrera remembers Stern saying. “You’re too complicated. You’re obscure. I recommend you work toward simplicity.”

“What do you mean, I’m obscure?” Herrera thought to himself. “I want to be more obscure next time—wait till you hear my next piece.” He tried out simplicity anyway, and his newfound ability to write more clearly and concisely led him to publish in an unexpected genre. “I discovered Stern was right,” Herrera said.

Anyway, I will say one more thing about JFH, and then leave you with a poem. There’s a comment left after the interview regarding, “finding voice,” and how this applies to many populations of poets and writers in the USA. I am happy to find that JFH’s experiences as a California-born son of Mexican farmworkers has application outside of our communities of English learners, and by extension, immigrants to the USA. I am happy to find that others who don’t classify themselves as English learners and immigrants can find applicability here.

As for myself, I’ve only recently come into JFH’s work, but I am glad I came into his work when I did, and which I did through 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights Books, 2007). Already I was newly coming into his work from a retro-perspective, his development over much time, seeing that he has tried many different things in poetry, and in poetic prose, seeing that his trajectory has been both forward and upward movement, but also cyclical movement. Certainly this is what I need for myself, to be able to envision writing poetry over long periods of time, being in this for the “long haul,” and not falling into the habit of writing the same one or two kinds of poems or the same one book over and over again for the rest of my career. I think there are poets who do this, and I think they are stuck, or have stuck themselves in time and place. I do not want to be one of the stuck ones. JFH’s career shows me some impressive blueprint of a career in letters, existing in multiple (sometimes disparate) places.

[Related, amazing: JFH’s “A Natural History of Chicano Literature” performance lecture here.]

Great Poet. American Poet. Palabra.

* * *

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings
by Juan Felipe Herrera

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

From Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera. Copyright © 2008 Juan Felipe Herrera.

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2 thoughts on “Learning from Juan Felipe Herrera: Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings

  1. Hi Barbara: It’s great to see someone who’s been doing their thing for so so long and, yes, in such various ways, getting this kind of recognition. I wasn’t aware of that long piece on JFH at the Poetry Foundation website till now. We’re bringing him to Chicago for Palabra Pura in September with co-sponsorship from PF.

  2. i like your poetrys so much i want to be just like you like i mean a good poem woman been a chicana/o is good to be prove of because i was born in chicago but my mom is from mexico morelos cuarnavaca but my dad was born in los angeles california but his parents are from mexico zacatecas and i got one sister adn one brother as well and mi hermana tiene 17 anos i va tener un baby y mi hermano tiene 8 anos y yo 15 so hope you like wan i wrote to you was good and great thing to write about to you bye bye

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