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Juan Felipe Herrera

The first Chicano Poet Laureate of the United States on diversity, discovery and cartoons



The son of migrant laborers, Juan Felipe Herrera ascended to the forefront of the Chicano cultural renaissance in 1970s California. He has established himself as a teacher, visual artist and one of America's most versatile and accomplished writers.

In 2015, Herrera became the first Chicano to be appointed U.S. Poet Laureate and, prior to a visit to Boise Thursday, Feb. 2 as part of The Cabin's Readings and Conversations series at The Egyptian Theatre, he spoke about his role as poet laureate, talking to students and what he would say if he had five minutes with the president.

What are the pros and cons of being poet laureate?

I think it's all pros. It's a very open, almost infinite spectrum of possibilities. When I go to one university, I meet students and I talk with them. Limitations: I can't go everywhere, but I do the best I can. All the time I'm being welcomed to houses, classes and auditoriums.

What's your latest verbal or linguistic discovery?

There are a lot of them. On paper, there's a lot of new poetry that uses "erasure," where you write a line and block 80 percent of it out, like you're redacting a poem. Or you create crossword formats in the poem, almost like a tic-tac-toe box. There's also media culture. For example, a lot of people talk about diversity, however, there's also a phrase that challenges that word. It's "forced race mixing," which is a counter-phrase to the term diversity. Then, there's "West Coast elites." It has become a prominent [phrase], but in a displaced manner. All of it is extremely interesting for me.

You talk to students from a range of backgrounds. What do diversity and cultural hybridity mean to the students you meet?

It's very important for the students. They've developed diversity programs, and there's still ethnic studies, but all the programs that came out of the initial civil rights movement are being challenged and slowly pushed back. I've been to close to 100 universities in the last two years, and it's still a great challenge to the students. They're having a hard time keeping those programs alive. The good things are, we do have Latino students in programs we didn't have before, like graduate programs and the sciences.

Former-President Barack Obama recently said race relations in America are getting better. What are your thoughts?

I'm sure he knows more than me. There is a lot of progress. What I'm looking at is on the ground because I travel. What I see are a lot of people without representation. It definitely has happened. It's tough because I'm a poet, and what I see is of great concern. At the same time, things do move forward regardless, and they don't move as fast as it takes for me to write a poem.

What's the path forward artistically for people who are bilingual or bicultural?

New generations are more multi-identity, blurred identities. We're no longer in the world of one-identity-ness. Now, we're into information, data, surveillance and coding—they're beyond the notion of identity. Now, we see each other because we're media peoples. Media is part of our skin. I'm no longer a story of myself: It's a sequence of patterns.

How is this post-identity generation creating art that's different from before?

Beautifully. There's a new wave of Filipino and Filipina writers, poets and performers that's coming into its own. There's a lot of new investigations into what were called "folktales" in the '60s, but now they're kuwento ["stories"]. Rachelle Cruz is one of the poets who has been working on this, so has Barbara Jane Reyes.

If you had five minutes with Presidents Obama and Trump, what would you say?

I'd say, "Keep doing the best you can." Kindness is what the people are looking for. We still have many young children who need services and good meals in schools. We still have immigrants who are caught up in the machinery of contention and suffering, and we still have a lot of misunderstanding between ethnic groups.

What's next for you?

I just finished a book for middle grades. It's called Jabberwalking. I started with an idea about writing as fast as you can while you're walking. I've called it "verbal Olympics." I did the art for it—24 pieces of black-ink drawings. I'd never done that before. In eighth grade I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I guess I was right.

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