Standing in the warm light of poetry giant Juan Felipe Herrera

United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

“Something happens in the presence of giants. There’s that warm; reddish glow,” I say to the former United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

“A warm reddish glow,” he repeats.

At that moment a colleague of his walks in, interrupting the conversation for a couple of minutes, which had drifted to one of his latest projects.  The Fresno Unified School District is building the Juan Felipe Herrera Elementary School in Southeast Fresno and Juan is involved with some of the design aspects of the school — including the school mascot — which will be a giant sequoia.

Of course, a tree for a mascot presents some design problems.

“It’s not a dynamic figure. It doesn’t fly like a hawk. It doesn’t jump like a tiger… it doesn’t have that kind of movement in it, but it has a lot of life,” he explains.

Starbucks cup Juan is using as an inspiration for Giant Sequoia artwork at an Elementary School named after him.
Starbucks cup Juan is using as an inspiration for Giant Sequoia artwork at an Elementary School named after him.

As a possible solution, Juan shows me a Starbucks cup to demonstrate the mosaic-style artwork he hopes will encapsulate the giant sequoia.

I find it quite incredible to meet someone who is going to have a school named after them. It seems that honor is usually reserved for presidents or leaders of the community who are honored posthumously. However, the reason I came to visit Juan was that I learned that recently he had received several major accolades in a short period of time. His children’s book “Imagine” was listed as a New York Times editor’s choice, his book “Jabber Walking” was awarded the Best Youth Chapter Nonfiction Book in the International Latino Book Awards, and he was listed in the Guardian’s Frederick Douglass 200 list.

For most poets, any of these could be the high mark of their career, but today I’m in the presence of a giant.United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Ahead of the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass, on February 14, 2019, The Guardian published their list of “200 people who best embody the spirit and work of Frederick Douglass, one of the most influential figures in history.”

The Guardian’s list includes former president Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Warren, Will Smith, and even Bruce Springsteen. However, when one clicks on the writer’s section, the very first name is “Juan Felipe Herrera.”

“A renowned poet and novelist, Juan Felipe Herrera’s writing is heavily influenced by his upbringing as the son of migrant farmers and centers around the experiences of migrant and indigenous people,” stated the Guardian.

“I was really honored, humbled. It’s a very big honor,” says Juan, before going on in an unexpected direction. “I think it’s a challenge for me… because it’s really focusing on all the good things that we want in our lives, and in our community, our schools, in our nation, and how we participate in the global community.”

“There’s the abuse of woman, the separation of families, the abuse of workers, and the issues of color and race. So, that’s quite a bit to handle, and the question is, ‘How do we respond to it?’”

Juan points out that Douglas was known for making speeches. So he sees this award as a challenge to be more vocal.

“All these (recipients) are vocal people,” he says. “So, I guess I have to be more vocal now.”

“Is this something new for you?” I ask.

“No, it’s not new for me,” says Juan. “I kind-of dedicated myself to this since grade school.”

He then talks about the quiet boy he was as a child. As the son of farm workers, he described himself as not having a voice — someone who was in the background; afraid and small. However, when he was about 12 years old, he couldn’t do it anymore; he had to speak up.

“It took me quite a number of years to even say a word,” Juan recalls. “I was just a nervous, embarrassed child. As a 12-year-old, I decided I just couldn’t handle all the stress of not saying anything ever.”

He describes the fear of being afraid to speak when he was called on and feeling small and insignificant. That fear kept him from even being in conversations with other people; essentially paralyzed him for years. In seventh grade, he decided was didn’t want to be silent anymore.

As a giant who’s tiny seeds release after fire scorches the earth to sprout with humble beginnings before spreading its limbs wide and stretching its head above to the heavens, it’s safe to say Juan Felipe Herrera has found his voice.

Benson Kirk looks up at a giant sequoia in McKinley Grove.
Benson Kirk looks up at a giant sequoia in McKinley Grove.

On Sept. 23, Juan’s children’s book “Imagine” was listed as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. “The former poet laureate relates his inspiring path from rural Mexico to august Washington in spare lines accompanied by (Lauren) Castillo’s pitch-perfect illustra­tion.”

“It’s about me,” says Juan. “I don’t like saying that, but I wrote my story in 16 scenes. It was all about becoming the U.S. Poet Laureate, and I want children and young people to notice what that is, the value of poetry and expressing themselves, and thinking… maybe it’s even possible for me.”

imagine book cover

He wants to show children that there is a big journey ahead of them and that anything is possible. He hopes children to see the path to becoming a poet laureate, not as an upward path, but as an internal, open and community path.

“But I don’t want it to be about me,” said he says. “It’s about ‘imagine’ — imagine yourself and what you can do.”

Juan wrote the entire “Imagine” book while his wife was in the shower. He says he had a yellow legal pad and decided to try to write something before his wife was done. He says it was like a game; a challenge.

“I wrote it in one flash; against the wall,” says Juan. “When she came back, I said, ‘Hey I did something. What do you think?’”

Jabberwalking book cover

The next award is for his book “Jabberwalking.” It was honored as the Best Youth Chapter Nonfiction Book for the International Latino Book Awards.

“I’ve just been too serious with my life. I write so seriously about so many serious things,” says Juan. “In ‘Jabberwalking’ I just decided to jump out of the serious train and jump into the fun train.. so it’s kind of wacky.”

The book, Juan says, is really about teaching someone how to write a poem. Rather than trying to teach using traditional literary methods, he wanted to have fun with it. One method in the book is the way he writes poetry while walking. With a small pad of paper, he walks around and jots down little pieces of poetry. And that is what he says “Jabberwalking” is about. How to walk around and write.

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“I didn’t really learn poetry that way,” Juan says of the more traditional methods. “I learned by scrapping it together. My father used to fix his beat-up leather shoes… with pieces of leather that he found by walking around the city in the morning around 4 or 5 a.m. He would come back with a whole stash of stuff, and then he would patch up his shoes. So that’s how I learned to write poetry; by just walking around and finding scraps here or there.”

Juan says he used Japanese bamboo sketching pens and Indian ink to write and illustrate his book — which required him to work fast as the ink does not last on the quill for very long after it is dipped.

“It took me longer to find the right writing pen than to write the book,” says Juan.

Juan Felipe Herrera talks about the old drafting tables used in the Laureate Lab.
Juan Felipe Herrera talks about the old drafting tables used in the Laureate Lab.

Dressed in a blue, green and white checkered shirt and wearing his fedora, Juan is quick with a smile and his personality is warm and inviting. Rather than wrapping up the interview, my attention is drawn to our surroundings inside the Laureate Lab and I ask him to show me around.

Juan says he likes to play with a lot of materials as part of his creative process — which is the inspiration for the Laureate Lab located in the Madden Library. The feel of the different materials under the pen is what he said attracts him to experiment with merging visual art with written words.

“The letters look good and feel good too,” he says when talking about writing on the cardboard that dry cleaners use after they press shirts. “They act differently on different mediums.”

This concept reduces to the essence of what the Laureate Lab is about; an on-going visualization experiment which attempts to wed the artist and the humanist within us to create something new. As with any experiment, the results of merging art with poetry can vary from the messy to the utterly beautiful and profound. It’s not always about the results, but the process of examination in the endeavor to present one’s soul plainly for the reflection of others.

Library Card art project
Library Card art project

Juan shows me a project that was just getting started in the lab. Thousands of old library catalog cards were from the trash for use in future art projects.

“So, this is an example of what we start with sometimes. We will take these little cards and turn them into something else,” says Juan. “We are going to use them to create some sculptures.”

White board inside the Laureate Lab
Whiteboard inside the Laureate Lab

Whiteboards in the lab serve not only as idea scratchboards but also as a place for inspirational poetry and “draw-writing.” The term Juan uses for artistic poets is “visual wordist” — which makes the lab a visual wordist studio.

The lab, located in Room 1110 on the first floor of the Madden Library behind the help desk, is run by graduate artists and allows visitors to drop-in to write, paint, create visual poems.

“The Laureate Lab is a space for those who love to play with new ways of doing sculpture, dance and words, performance and media, painting and materials, construction, posters and collage, and a way to interact with art in new ways,” Herrera said when the lab first opened in 2017.

So, next time you are on your way to visit Starbucks in the library, before you go up to the second floor, take a minute to stop by the Laureate Lab and ask for a tour. If you are lucky, you may see the light change and feel a warm glow; look around and see if you are in the presence of a giant.

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Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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