Chamber Singers help Library of Congress honor U.S. Poet Laureate Herrera in Washington, D.C.

Chamber Singers in Washington DC

Here is the video from this today’s performance (event begins at about 7 minutes):

Here is the video from the evening performance (event begins at about 3:30 minutes):


Photo: The Fresno State Chamber Singers rehearse with Dr. Benjamin Boone ahead of their performance at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on April 26 in celebration of U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

Several Fresno State representatives were in Washington, D.C., recently for the closing ceremony of Juan Felipe Herrera’s second term as the United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

The celebration, titled “Speak the People/the Spark/el Poema,” kicked off at noon on Wednesday, April 26, with a choral performance by the Fresno State Chamber Singers in Room 119 on the first floor of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building (10 First St. S.E.) in Washington, D.C. The singers, directed by Dr. Cari Earnhart, performed newly commissioned pieces developed by music professors Benjamin Boone and Kenneth Froelich in collaboration with the poet laureate, a Fowler native.

“You should know this is the first time Juan Felipe’s words have been set to song and been given a new life beyond the page,” Earnhart said in the Library of Congress before the Chamber Singers’ performance began. “These pieces, as you will see, tell the story of a man and his journey, not just through the last two years as poet laureate, but they also beautifully highlight those that have played a role in who he is today. From his parents to his school teacher Mrs. Sampson, who helped him find his voice, to his student, Mia Barraza, a fireball of his life, and events from his tenure as poet laureate that have touched his heart.”

Boone composed the following compositions:

  • “Aztec Invocation” – “On This Road, Ipal Nemohuani, You are the Singer” – based on a poem Herrera wrote in 1970, updating it for today.
  • “Mrs. Sampson Said” – a gospel-inspired song about Herrera’s third-grade teacher, Mrs. Laylia Sampson, who gave him the permission and encouragement to use his words and his voice, setting his words free.

“From that day on to this very day, this very moment,” Herrera said, “that was the key to my life.  And I took that key and I took those words and gave them to every one I could. That was what she was telling me – that the beauty in my voice was the beauty in everyone’s voices.”

  • “Ms. United States” – a raucous tribute number written using poetry by Mia Barraza Martinez, a student who died in November.

“Mia Barraza Martinez, she was just so eager and interested and full of intensity and passion for language and poetry,” Herrera said. “A beautiful talent, an amazing woman, was coming to class one day, was coming to the college one day and there was a torrential rain at that particular moment as she was getting on Freeway 41. So she made a turn into the freeway and that rain and all that happened at that moment caused her to flip over into the opposite lane. And a big truck came and that was the end of her life. So in one of her poems, which is called ‘I am Ms. United States,’ shows you the kind of passion she has.”

  • “Poem by Poem” – a reflection on voices that have been silenced in our society, through the church killings in Charleston, S.C.

At a rehearsal about a week before the trip while practicing “Poem by Poem,” Earnhart urged the Chamber Singers, “Tell their story. As writers, poets, artists, that’s what we do. Speak for them because they no longer can.”

The next number was a rousing rendition of Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” arranged by Craig Hella Johnson.

The Chamber Singers’ final number, “The Road,” featured an almost tribal sound, with vocal percussive sounds.

“This program will then conclude,” Earnhart said, “with a piece called ‘The Road,’ written by Dr. Froelich, which is a tapestry of sound reflected in this piece that highlights the journey of Juan Felipe’s voice and the many voices that have helped him along his road.”

“This was a rather long poem that he shot as a draft to us in December,” Froelich said. “It was kind of an initial shot of how he might want to approach this long project. I was really entranced by what he wrote with this initial poem – there was this large dialogue talking about many nationalities, talking about their cultures and how they all have to progress through this same path, this same road. So many of these other stories talk about his own path, the growing up, his own personal story, but then also talking about the many different cultures that have to go on this path.”

Festivities continued in the evening in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building with a panel discussion about the continuing emergence of Latino culture and its influence on the nation. Participants will be Herrera; Martha González, Quetzal lead vocalist; CSU Trustee Hugo Morales, the founder and executive director of Radio Bilingüe; and Louie Pérez, a singer and songwriter with Los Lobos. Rafael Pérez-Torres, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, will moderate the discussion.

Immediately following the panel, a concert in the Coolidge Auditorium with the Grammy Award-winning East Los Angeles Chicano rock band Quetzal will close out the celebration. Quetzal brings together a wide range of musical influences, including Mexican ranchera, cumbia, salsa, rock, R&B, folk and fusions of international music.

All events were free and open to the public, but tickets were required.

About the celebration, Herrera said, “Meshing poetry and music with the Fresno State Chamber Singers, a panel on Latino culture, music by Quetzal — this night is a culmination of two years of beautiful and thoughtful audiences; of trains, planes, cars, highways, children, teachers and artists; of poetry seekers driving for miles to listen and exchange and tell me about their lives. This event will have all the love I can bring to it, and all the appreciations that have been given to me during these last two years; I hope to give back.”

Herrera is the author of 30 books of poetry, novels for young adults and collections for children. He has been one of the most active poets laureate in the history of the position, with two first-term projects and three second-term projects.

This past September, Herrera launched an online project, “The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon” — a bilingual illustrated poem created by Herrera and artist Juana Medina. This poem, presented at, features contributions by second- and third-grade students and their elementary-school teachers and librarians from across the country.

Continuing his work with students, Herrera and the Library of Congress collaborated throughout the 2016–2017 school year with the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools on a program titled “Wordstreet Champions and Brave Builders of the Dream” ( Herrera worked with about 30 high school English teachers from Chicago to develop new exercises and strategies for teaching poetry to freshmen students.

Herrera’s third initiative during his second term involved the creation of a West Coast office, the “Laureate Lab — Visual Wordist Studio,” serving as a performance and classroom space in the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, where Herrera once taught. A Fresno resident, Herrera uses the space to develop small scale, dynamic programs and classes for his local community, mixing poetry with visual arts, song and movement.

For his poetry, Herrera has received two Latino Hall of Fame Poetry Awards, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award and a PEN/Beyond Margins Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Stanford University Chicano Fellows. In 2016, Herrera was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the 36th Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

Fresno State representatives at the festivities will include Provost Lynnette Zelezny, Dean Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and Associate Dean Honora Chapman, both of the College of Arts and Humanities, Boone, Froelich and Earnhart and 20 chamber singers.

Boone talked about the collaborative experience this has been:
“Former long-time staff accompanist Hatem Nadim, who lives in Washington now, will accompany them.

Cari Earnhart, our new director of choral activities, will lead the singers,” Boone said. “It’s truly been a pleasure to collaborate with all of these individuals on this fitting tribute to Juan Felipe’s journey. I think the amazing piece that Ken Froelich wrote – ’The Road’ – chronicles Juan Felipe’s journey as a farm worker all the way up to his professorship at Fresno State and his tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, in an artistic manner worthy of this auspicious occasion.”

The Chamber Singers will reprise their program in a free concert titled “Celebration of U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9, in the Concert Hall at Fresno State. Advance tickets may be picked up in the Music Office (M134) between May 1 and May 9 (quantities are limited).

The American Folklife Center is a co-sponsor of the event, which was presented in partnership with Fresno State, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost and the Fresno State Chamber Singers.

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