Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera on First Miami Book Fair Visit: "Looking Forward to Meeting the Local Poets"

If there’s one poet you don’t want to miss this year at the Miami Book Fair, it’s Juan Felipe Herrera. Not just because this past June he was named U.S. poet laureate, but also because his writing is engaging, socially conscious, and performative.

The son of migrant farm workers, the 66-year-old Chicano has spent most of his life on the West Coast, was educated at UCLA and Stanford University, and also holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poetry books include 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007, Half the World in Light (2008), and Notes on the Assemblage (2015), and he’s also written short stories, YA and children’s literature.

New Times spoke with Herrera, who will participate in the panel “Two U.S. Poets Laureate: A Reading and Conversation” at the book fair this weekend.

New Times: Have you attended the Miami Book Fair before?
Juan Felipe Herrera: No, I haven’t attended before; Miami is one of the few places I haven’t been to. I’m really looking forward to meeting the local poets and the community at large — everyone really. Whether I know the people or not, I’m excited to make some connections.

How do you feel being the first Latino named the U.S. poet laureate? Do you have any specific duties?
It’s great. I have this position not only as a poet, but also as a human being. As poet laureate we have the option of doing a project and mine is called La Casa de Colores. It’s a project that can be found on the Library of Congress and focuses on creating a nationwide poetry project. Every month there is a different theme and the first one was familia. Anyone can write up to 200 characters of poetry, submit them online, and then in a few weeks you may see your poem on the web for the whole world to read. The goal is to take the poems and voices of our community and offer them up on a worldwide scope.

Do you remember the first poem you heard or read?
The first poem I ever heard was from my mother, Lucha. She came to the U.S. right after the Mexican Revolution from Mexico City and because she was very poor, she only made it to third grade. But she loved the arts and memorized all the poems and songs she learned in school. So my first poems were in the forms of Mexican corridos, and the first one I remember was “El contrabando del paso,” which we would sing together.

What are you reading right now?
Something in my bag right now is Room by Emma Donoghue. I wanted to read it because I’ve heard it’s very good and also to study the craft of how she wrote it. I also just got Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University by Francisco Jiménez, which is part of a series and is really great because it chronicles his time as a migrant farmer and also him attending school. It’s a great story and it’s also a sort of how-to guide for first-generation college students.

So far, what has been the best part about being poet laureate?
It’s all memorable. Every place I visit is like a step through the rainbow. The audiences are amazing and there are a lot of Latinas and Latinos, along with everyone else. They come up and say hello to me, they tell me about their manuscripts, fathers introduce me to their sons and daughters because they want their kids to meet a Latino poet. It’s a beautiful experience. As a Latino it’s a whole new pathway we haven’t traveled yet and I want to bring along as many people with me as possible.

Two U.S. Poets Laureate: A Reading and Conversation
With Juan Felipe Herrera and Kay Ryan, as part of Miami Book Fair 2015, Sunday, November 22, at 3:30 p.m. at Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Building 3, Second Floor, Room 3210, Miami. Admission is free but tickets are required. Visit MiamiBookFair.com.

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