JUAN FELIPE HERRERA
Poetry magazine, a publication of the historic Poetry Foundation has commenced its 110-year celebration with an iconic presentation at the Foundation’s annual Pegasus Awards.
The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a staple of the ceremony, typically awards $100,000 to one living U.S. poet. However, in an unprecedented move, the organization set aside over $1 million to honor 11 illustrious recipients during the October 2022 ceremony.
The Poet’s List is honored to present: The Pegasus Poets; an interview series with this legendary cohort of winners. The third installment of this interview series features Juan Felipe Herrera.
Given its esteemed 110 year history, what does it mean to you to be honored by The Poetry Foundation at this year’s Pegasus Awards?
I am honored by: the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; achieving it with my fellow 10 poets; [and] the generosity of the Poetry Foundation. I bow and appreciate, as a life-gift, 50+ years of writing, reciting and giving poetry to all.
Its meaning arises from the core of my parents’ life as farmworkers—migrants from Chihuahua and Mexico City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were pioneers, poets and storytellers, [leading] a life of hard work, simplicity and kindness. This is for them.
You were honored for your incredible achievement within the poetry world. At what point in your career did you first realize that your poetic contributions were groundbreaking? Could you ever have envisioned this level of success?
Poetry has always fascinated me. In all its forms. In its interrelationships with visual art and modern dance, as well as experimental theatre and Farmworker Teatro.
As I entered into these various forms and experiments—traveling across the Southwest, Mexico and Central America—seeking the way of poetry, I delighted in its: humanity; collective offerings; ritual spheres and visceral community powers.
In each phase, I gained delight and new ways of thinking and making the poem. Rarely did I think of myself. I was interested in the people: in their expressive life, collective experience, art and intelligence.
How would you describe your fellow Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize awardees?
Incredible. Community centered. Humanity thinkers. New world makers. Source thought gatherers. Peace makers. Givers of life.
Kind human beings. Compassionate prophets.
The Poetry Foundation has put forth dedicated efforts to increase diversity, as is reflected in its new leadership!
With regards to diversity, what markers signify forward progress within the poetry world or the community-at-large?
The progress began its routes during the Civil Rights era to the present. We gained deep insight into the cultural, historical and personal lives of our peoples here and throughout the world. We traveled, we learned new languages, we acquired new symbol sets and we lived among our ancestors — so we wrote.
Today, our task seems to need cultural, historical and personal crossovers. That is, for example, I want to write about George Floyd, Africa, Denise Levertov and Carlos Bulosan. Not only from my own cultural radius.
People speak largely about the dangers of cultural appropriation. However, culture and its peoples are always undergoing rapid change. It cannot be appropriated.
Cultural ways, peoples and regions are not static and monolithic. We must take a step across, and through, our assumed boundaries. Our community is global. We must find the threads into each other.
Since entering the spotlight, in what ways has your personal mission shifted or remained the same?
My personal mission is to expand my sense of compassionate poetics and an experimental practice to achieve it.
Currently, I am chipping away at a new work called “Quantum Sphere.” It is a fusion of physics in a sense: current events of war and pandemic — written with Mandala drawings and Japanese brush drawings — and traditional text. A major shift. We are all undergoing a tectonic change in our personal and planetary lives.
How has your audience changed over time? How does it affect your actual writing or the reception of your work?
Since I write for children and also create bilingual work, the audience and poem itself have leaped into new territory: climate change; school district; inspirational poems and material regarding the future; outer space (NASA); as well as healing poems for hospitals. It is no longer centered on the inscapes of my daily life.
The reception is most intriguing. [It has included]: global climate change institutions; hospitals; museums, with my art and cardboard poems; international conferences, for example. Everything expands. Go with it.
Prior to landing on poetry, what memories do you have of your relationship with literature and writing as a youth?
As I mentioned before —words, poems, riddles, sayings, stories and songs all derive from my mother, mostly. And from my father. Those are my key memories.
As I continued in school, a number of my teachers were pivotal and almost magical. In 3rd grade, Mrs. Lelya Sampson asked me to step up to the front of class and sing a song — something I never imagined I would be called on. After I finished singing “Three Blind Mice,” she said, “You have a beautiful voice.” This acknowledgment became my life and it would become the gift and phrase that I would later offer to everyone.
Mr. Robert Hayden in 6th grade asked me to write a play — point blank. I learned to take creative risks and take on projects and genres that I never had considered.
Later, in 10th grade, Mr. Petrich mesmerized me with his overview of various art movements — the Renaissance, the Impressionists, Expressionists and the Surrealists. To this day, I am influenced by all these artists. Song, gospel choir, painting, sculpture and drawing all take part in my poetry.
What captivates you most when consuming the work of other poets? In other words, what makes a good poet?
The art of language — such as in the work of Sharon Olds and Eleni Sikelianos.
The simplicity — as in the poetry of Ko Un, Gerald Stern and Richard Hugo.
The tone and melody — as Stern somehow creates in his poems of gardens and an everyday event; even a cat on the stairs.
And the depth — as Phil Levine and Nazim Hikmet present in their poetry.
Of course, the poem as a document and force that speaks to humanity, war and colonialism — such as in the work of Denise Levertov, Forché and Natasha Tretheway.
And complexity of thought — as in the work of Arthur Sze, which touches on the Taoist teachings of the ancient Chinese.
And impossible catalogue and riff — as Ginsberg and Hedge-Coke produce in their ferocious chants.
Most of all, I enjoy the voice of each poet, their inner self as it is, their nimble and tender truth.
The suffering of the world, all in one tiny room — as Etheridge Knight sketches into his prison poems.
Lastly, the fiery wisdom poured into three lines as in Francisco X. Alarcón’s “snake poems.”
There is delight in writing a poem — make it happen.
Of your body of work, which piece or collection would you like to serve as an introduction for the generations to come?
Perhaps, Half of the World in Light – a collection.
Or, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border – a collection.
What words of advice can you pass along to today’s passionate crop of contemporary poets?
Give us kindness. Give us your heart and a mind that connects all minds. Touch the earth with your forehead. Give us a glass jar of ocean water that you love. Hold humanity in your palm. The rest, we’ll get.
Poetry magazine will publish a commemorative folio of work by all 11 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winners in its April 2023 issue. Subscribe to Poetry today to ensure you receive a copy of this incredible issue!
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the featured artists (ie. poets, authors, writers and experts) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Poet’s List LLC. Any content provided by the artists are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything. Legal