Posts Tagged ‘Juan Felipe Herrera’

A new poetry anthology for the fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that shape California life

Sunday, March 8th, 2020

On Friday, a slim book arrived at my Stanford mailbox in a brown envelope with a neat, small, handwritten address written on it. I wasn’t expecting Molly Fisk‘s California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology to be such a trim endeavor, but here it is, weighing in at a compact 190 pages for $15. It’s a reminder that an “anthology” need not always be a staggering door-stopper to make its point. The book was supported by a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, funded by the Mellon Foundation, and packs 143 poets into, including some heavy hitters – Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Kim Addonizio, Juan Felipe Herrera, and even a page for my humble self, as well as poet-teachers, poet laureates from all over, and students of all ages.

Editor Molly Fisk, an American Poets Laureate Fellow, explains the rationale behind the volume in the preface: “If you don’t experience a disaster yourself, it can be hard to imagine it. Photos and video are shocking, but they don’t hijack your nervous system the way reality does. And they only last a few minutes. One thing I’ve learned about disasters is how far-reaching the consequences are and how long the effects last.”

So when Molly was Nevada County’s poet laureate in the Sierra foothills, she took matters into her own hands: “When I saw a new grant that asked me to address something important to my community, of course I thought of wildfire.” So did most of the contributors, it appears – fire seems to dominate the table of contents. But not only.

Fisk: honored poet of the Sierra foothills

She continues: “Fire is not the only trouble we’re up against, so I broadened the lesson plan scope to include any kind of climate crisis our state has seen: floods, mudslides, smoke, drought, coastal erosion and sea level rise, refugee populations.”

UCLA’s SA Smythe in the foreword wrote that the book is a compendium of voices “working to make meaning of their lives and futures amid ongoing climate crisis … this book is a soothing gesture of solidarity, an outstretched arm in the wake of helplessness that can befall those of us confronting the harsh reality of a planet engulfed in flames. How can we continue to navigate a life in extremis? We bring together our memories and cobble together our defenses – ancestral and contemporary, coalitional and creative – to ward off the fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that persist and shape our lives today.”

I was very pleasantly surprised to see a poem by a longtime friend, Kate Dwyer – not a narrow escape from catastrophe, but a rueful take on a wet springtime in Nevada County:


Spring as Adversary

Mid-month it rained so hard
the daffodils lay down and did not get up again.
The apple trees pelted us with blossoms,
death by wet confetti.
I emptied the rain gauge 6 times in 3 weeks.
And a sinkhole the size of a battleship
swallowed the parking lot at the tire store.
It took no prisoners.
Still, after 5 years of drought,
we dared not complain.
I put on my rain suit for the 64th day in a row
and tried to be grateful that
I would be soaked through before
the dog walk was over.

                                        – Kate Dwyer

“A Chicano on fire”: U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera returns home to Stanford

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

Herrera offering cookies at the Poetry Foundation (Photo: Don Share)

Last month, U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera visited Stanford. We were still only two months into a new presidency. It was much on Herrera’s mind, and on the collective mind of the full house he had attracted to Cubberley Auditorium for a free-wheeling evening of reading, commentary, reflections, and audience participation.

He spoke of the United Farm Workers Movement – “those were my classrooms,” he said. He grew up in a different era, the era in the 1960s, where the vital question was: “Do you want to be in the classroom, or out in the streets, marching with people?” He remembered his “early occupied water tank poetry,” when he was director of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, headquartered in an occupied water tank in San Diego’s Balboa Park, which had been converted into an arts space.

He also referred to his time as a Stanford anthropology major: “I was sizzling on anthropology, sizzling on poetry – two major sizzles.” Of course we know which sizzle won.

“I was a Chicano on fire.” He still is. As poet laureate, he described meeting an 11-year-old who had written a poem about the children left behind because their parents had been deported. The story got a big round of applause, or perhaps the applause came when he said, “America! Stop deporting us!

He recalled saying “one thing they made sure – that we could never be authors” – that is, by prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write.

“You are the author. You are the author,” he told the audience.

From the director of Stanford’s Creative writing program, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, who gave an excellent (as usual) introduction:

As he traveled through those landscapes, in actuality and memory, he also explored the psyche of place, drawing into his work influences and affinities as far apart and yet as apposite as Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez.

And in all of these travels and writings he has been an innovative, restless stylist, in the words of  in the New York Times  becoming the creator of “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in HumanitiesIt is the something else, perhaps, that makes us especially eager to hear him this evening. In an interview with NPR he recalled his childhood. As the son of Mexican farm workers, he followed them the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys,migrating as his parents did, seeking work. But when he remembered those years in an interview given to NPR he also spoke about their meaning. This is what he said:

“And those landscapes, you know, those are some deep landscapes of mountains and grape fields and barns and tractors; families gathering at night to have little celebrations in the mountains and aquamarine lakes way down below. So, see, all that is like living in literature every day.”

Juan Felipe Hererra’s words here provide a pathway into his achievement. The idea of a literary enterprise which is lived rather than learned is everywhere in his work.  His words also remind us that the oldest life of poetry lies deep in its communal existence, in  its companionable relation to a people, to a language, to the future of both. It also reminds us of the association of this writer with one of the true traditions of poetry, the poet’s refusal from Homer onwards to disown the adventures and sorrows of a people, and the artistic determination to draw their story into the dignity of remembrance and beautiful speech.

The PLOTUS as anthropologist: Juan Felipe Herrera recalls his time with the Lacandón Mayas

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

The poet offering cookies at the Poetry Foundation. (Photo: Don Share)

On February 29 this year, I made the trip to Fresno to interview U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. The results of that occasion, as well as the phone calls that followed (not to mention a trip to Oakland to hear him talk at the University of California headquarters on Cesar Chavez Day), were published this month in a Stanford Magazine article here

There have been many articles on the popular PLOTUS who is the Chicano son of migrant workers. But to my knowledge, none have included much about his background as an anthropologist, the focus of his Stanford master’s degree… until now. An excerpt:

With the help of an educational opportunity program, he went to UCLA; as a 21-year-old anthropology major, he heard about a nearly extinct ethnic group in southeastern Chiapas. Although the remote community was known to a few anthropologists and archaeologists, no Chicano had been there, Herrera says.  “I immediately had an awakening—‘I have to go.’ It was a deep, soulful response to do something for 250 Lacandón Mayas, who are part of who I am.”

Chicano studies and cultural centers were new at the time, Herrera notes. He wanted to “do something original”—with interviews, photographs, artifacts—“to bring about some kind of awareness in the United States.” At the same time, he was trying to find “a new way of doing political theater and a new way of doing poetry.” He thought, “Wait a minute. Let me get back to my cultural roots and see what poetry is like there.”

mayandrifterWith funding from UCLA’s Mexican American Center, he set off to the Mexican lowlands with a classmate, an experienced videographer. They packed old Army fatigues, machetes, mosquito nets, anti-viper first aid kits, Vietnam tropical combat boots, plenty of 16mm Ilford film and top-notch camera equipment. “It was a great idea, a timely idea, a perfect idea. Conceptually, a triple A-plus. Did we know how to go about it? C-minus,” he says.

In Mexico, “we hired a Harrison Ford kind of guy—a piloto,” says Herrera. It was straight out of a 1940s film: a man in khakis and a crumpled shirt writing with a half-pencil on a tiny desk, in a dark office that had his name in black letters on the door’s frosted-glass window. He agreed to make the trip for 100,000 pesos.

The Cessna landed in the rain forest and tore off a wheel. The piloto patched it back together, and then the small plane disappeared into the sky, as Herrera watched. He found himself in the jungle, among little huts and local elders who were willing to talk. He listened to their stories of “eco-piracy”—slash-and-burn farming, deforestation by loggers and “chicleros,” who stripped the forests to make Chiclets gum from the sap of the chicle trees. They told him of the destruction of the wildlife and the rape of the local women.

“The situation was immense, immeasurable,” Herrera recalls. Until his visit, “No one had really gotten on the ground and said, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Bananas. I’d like to share a tortilla with you.’” Later, he wrote: “To read about their ‘way of life’ and spew Chicano ‘azteca’ poetry jive was blasphemy, and to assign the oppressed Maya the honorable position of ancestors was a cultural crime—if I did not take action.”

He continued his studies in social anthropology when he came to Stanford in 1977, though the lure of poetry and performance was already beginning to exert a powerful counterpull. Stanford Libraries now has the poet’s archives, which include the documentation for his life-changing trip to Chiapas—reel-to-reel tapes, audiocassettes of interviews and about 45 minutes of the rush prints of the film.

Read the whole thing here

BREAKING NEWS! California’s new poet laureate is Dana Gioia, former NEA chair!

Friday, December 4th, 2015



Happy about the new job: Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

I’ve wondered why Dana Gioia has never been California’s poet laureate. After all, he is a genuine California native, born in Hawthorne, a gritty little burg outside L.A. As former National Endowment for the Arts chair from 2003 to 2009, as a leading poet who has won a number of awards, as a provocative critic, and as a champion of poetry (and indeed all the arts), who could better serve in the role?

Wonder no more: Gov. Jerry Brown today announced the appointment of Dana, who is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.


Champion of Poetry Out Loud

Dana just sent me an email to let me know of his appointment. His statement to the Book Haven:  “I’m honored by this appointment. It’s hard for me to describe how much I love California. My life has taken me to many other places – Boston, New York, Washington – but in every case there came a point when I decided to quit and come back home. I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than to represent my art in my place.”

The office of the California poet laureate was created in 2001 to inspire an appreciation for the art of poetry throughout the state. During his two-year term, Gioia will provide public readings in classrooms, board rooms and other places. What else does he plan to do? I asked him: “It would be very easy to spend my time as laureate in a few big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. But California is a big and diverse state. Most of it is rural. I want to visit as much of the state as possible. I especially want to focus on the high schools and public libraries. Those are the great civic institutions of literacy.”


Stanford’s 2007 commencement speaker (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about Dana before: read about his last collection of poems, Pity the Beautiful here, and on his recent essay about poet Dunstan Thompson here, and on whether America is getting dumber here, and a few words on his mentor Elizabeth Bishop here, and on receiving the Laetare Medal here, among other places.

“Dana will bring the voice of a native son of California to his new role,” Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, said in a statement. “And he’ll also help our state’s young people learn to explore and develop their own voices — just as he did when he created the Poetry Out Loud high school recitation program while at the NEA — a program which has greatly impacted California’s young people for ten years.”  (We wrote about Dana and Poetry Out Loud here.)

His newest collection of poetry, 99 Poems: New & Selected will be out in March.

He two-year appointment succeeds Juan Felipe Herrera, who is now the U.S. Poet Laureate. Now, I’ve always wondered why Dana Gioia wasn’t made the U.S. poet laureate…