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New U.S. Poet Laureate Hopes To Invite All Communities To Express Themselves


The nation is getting a new poet laureate. California writer Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Latino to be appointed to the post. He comes with a breathtaking body of literary works in English and Spanish and poems for children, as well as adults. When I spoke with Mr. Herrera, he told me of his upbringing in central California, the son of migrant farm workers.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: I was born in Fowler, a few miles from Fresno. And as soon as I was 29 days old, we got back on the road and went to the next (speaking Spanish) in the next town. And my parents would pick the crops and on and on until I was around seven years old.

CORNISH: And I understand that when you enrolled in school in the third grade, you didn't speak English. And I can't imagine that's an easy introduction to language.

HERRERA: Well, that's right. You know, first grade was - I spoke only Spanish, and second grade - probably a bit more English. And by the time I hit third grade, I was learning, of course, much, much more English. And then Mrs. Sampson - Lucille Sampson (ph) invited me to walk up to the front of the class and sing a song. So I think that was the time it was time for me to stand up and face my first audience.

I was so shocked - surprised at my own third grade courage. And my teacher, Mrs. Sampson, said, you have a beautiful voice. And I guess that's what shocked me for the rest of my life. And I wanted to unravel those terms - what they meant. I'd never heard of that. Voice, I said, beautiful - no one ever said that to me and used those words. So they became my kind of golden keys that I had to pick up and find out - what were they for?

CORNISH: When you sit down to write, how do you decide whether it's going to be in English, in Spanish - kind of the form it's going to take?

HERRERA: I'm usually writing in English, and then I'll get the hankering to change channels. And usually I'll do that when I want to try a whole new set of keys, like musical keys. When I want to change scales in the sound and tone...

CORNISH: You sound like a songwriter.

HERRERA: (Laughter) That's right. You know, well, I love that. So that's when I go into Spanish. Sometimes it's like that. I go, you know what? I'm going to just change scales. I'm going to even change instruments. And I'm going to go into the chromatics of the Spanish language, and I do. You know, the poem is totally different. It's like a lunar voice versus a day voice, a solar voice.

CORNISH: As poet laureate of California, you had an anti-bullying project. You had another project, which was Open Source Poetry, where the public was invited to contribute to a poem that ended up being, like, 170 pages long.


CORNISH: What project are you thinking of now that you are the U.S. - the national poet laureate?

HERRERA: You know, the goal for me is to be as expansive as possible, and the Library of Congress offers so many resources. I want to invite all communities to take part. Of course, I'm going to also invite all communities to write and read and express themselves in classic ways, traditional ways and in experimental ways. I want to reach as far as I can and as deep as I can and invite as many people as I can. And, of course, poetry's going to be that invitation.

CORNISH: Juan Felipe Herrera, we'd like you to read one of your poems.

HERRERA: I'm going to read you this poem titled "Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings."

Before you go further, let me tell you what a poem brings. First, you must know the secret. There is no poem to speak of. It is a way to obtain a life without boundaries. Yes, it is that easy - a poem. Imagine me telling you this. Instead of going day by day, against that the razors - well, the judgments - all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example. From the outside, you think you are being entertained. When you enter, things change. You get caught by surprise. Your mouth goes sour. You get thirsty. Your legs grow cold standing still in the middle of the storm. A poem, of course, is always open for business, too. Except, as you can see, it isn't exactly business that pulls your spirit into the alarming waters. There you can bathe. You can play. You can even join in on the gossip - the mist, that is. The mist becomes central to your existence.

CORNISH: Well, Juan Felipe Herrera, thank you so much for speaking with us, for taking the time out to share your work with us. Congratulations.

HERRERA: It's been an amazing pleasure, and I've always loved NPR. Thank you.

CORNISH: Juan Felipe Herrera will be the next the poet laureate of the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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