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Georgette M. Dorn: Today, September 11th, 2015 we are recording Juan Felipe Herrera for the Library of Congress for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. My name is Georgette Dorn and I’m the chief of the Hispanic division, and Mike Turpin is our wonderful recorder who is recording this session, and we thank him very much. And of course Juan Felipe is poet laureate of the Library of Congress of the whole country beginning this year and we’re very proud of him and very pleased with him. Welcome Juan Felipe.

Juan Felipe Herrera:  Thank you very much, es un gran placer, thank you so much.

GMD: I would like you to tell us a little bit about yourself, how you started writing.

JFH:  Well, you know I started writing really with my imagination. My parents were campesinos, farm workers, in Central California and throughout California, and Nuevo Mexico and Texas. And my parents came from Mexico, from Chihuahua and from Mexico City. My father came up in the late 1890’s, he was born in 1882, and I was born when he was 66.

GMD: 1882?

JFH:  1882.

GMD: Wow!

JFH:  1882. And my mother was born in 1907, and I was born in 1948.

GMD: So they came before the revolution, or during the revolution?

JFH:  In between, the revolution was in between both of them. My father before, and my mother afterwards, right afterwards. So I grew up with their stories, and that’s what happened to me, I grew up with their stories and their love for riddles and las adivinanzas, sayings and stories and chistes and jokes. While playing the harmonica my father would tell jokes and how he came up as young boy at 14. So that’s how my imagination and my whole body, my whole life began with a lot of inspiration, a lot of love for words and for languages and stories. And then as I went through school my teacher’s helped me a lot. Mrs. Sampson in third grade told me I had a beautiful voice and she invited me up to sing.

GMD: Oh, wonderful!

JFH:  Yes it was. And I didn’t know what to do, what to say, I was shocked. I was shocked, I had never been in front of the class, and no one had ever told me that. And in Mrs. Sampson’s class there was a lot of music, a lot of gospel and choir music and choirs singing. So by the end of the year I sang a solo in front of the entire school. Mrs. Sampson really brought me all the way to the front, all the way to the front, and I had been all the way to the back, because I only spoke Spanish the first two years, or mostly Spanish.

GMD: Was the school in Spanish and English?

JFH: No, that would have been great.

GMD: But it was mostly English, right?

JFH: It was all English, it was all English in Santiago, California, Logan Heights Barrio, and Lowell Elementary. Before that I had gone to Central Elementary in Escondido for one year, and that was a tough experience. English was really enforced, and if you didn’t speak English you were punished, you were spanked or hit with a ruler. I mean that was the 50’s, we know the 50’s. And then Mrs. Sampson came around in 3rd grade in the later 50’s, 1958, and I began to sing in front of the whole school. So that was also part of my becoming a poet and a writer. Of course in high school I had amazing teachers. I always will thank Mr. Whiteman in 11th grade and Mr. Petridge in tenth grade. They taught me art, visual art, and the history of painting, and choir and literature and philosophy. And those are great nutrients for a young poet. And then I began to write, I just began to write, my English teacher said, “I’m going to give you ten words that are new for you and you write a story with them.” And I said, “Oh, that’s very exciting. I want to do that. And I loved to do that.” And going back to my 8th grade teacher he said, “I want you to turn this sentence around. I don’t want to hear a sentence that says ‘In 1977 bla bla bla’ instead I want you to find a new way to introduce what you’re talking about, I want you to move language around inside the sentence.” I was very excited about that. And the day came when he said “Okay, I got your papers, everybody’s graded, and I want to let you know that only one person in this classroom I’m really excited because he wrote what I asked everyone to do. And that person was John Herrera.

GMD: John Herrera?

JFH: And that was me. And again, just like it was with Mrs. Sampson I was shocked again. I said, “How could I be the one, that’s impossible.” But he said that my paper was the best paper, and I refused to believe it, even though it was the truth. And in 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grade I was in Choir, because I wanted to speak, I was afraid to speak, and I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. So I forced myself to join choir, so all of those things were forces that were inside of me that turned into poetry, singing and philosophy and thinking about my voice and the voice of everybody else, and wanting to do the same for others. And of course in the late 60’s I was at UCLA on an affirmative action scholarship, and educational opportunity program scholarship. And UCLA in the late sixties was a cauldron of creativity, music, protest, social change, ideas, and great speakers. It was the era of Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X. So it was prime soil for me to think and speak and recite and put myself out in front of everybody and that’s what I did. And I was writing poems, and I haven’t stopped, for sure, since eleventh grade.

GMD: That’s fantastic, very good. Well we would love to have you read some of your poems for us.

JFH: I sure will, and thank you for inviting me to read. Poems from a collection of poems called Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems that was published by the University of Arizona Press, which I am also very thankful for. So I’m going to read you perhaps one of the first bilingual poems that was published, in a book called Rebozos of Love/We have Woven/Sudor de Pueblos/On Our Back. And I gave it a reversible title that you can recite anyway you want On our Back/Rebozos of Love/ We Have Woven/Sudor De Pueblos. So this poem is called, “Let us gather in a flourishing way.”

  • Poet reads “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way” - Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)                                                     

JFH: And that is one of the first poems that came to me. The title was first “Let us Gather in a Flourishing Way” and I just ran to the nearest table or bench and wrote it at UCLA in 1970.

  • Poet reads “Vamos a Cantar”- Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)                                                           

JFH: And that’s one of the shorter poems, I rarely write short poems because they are difficult to write and because they’re beautiful to write. It’s a different style of writing, a different approach. So that was 1974 when that collection got published, Rebozos of Love. And by 1980, I said to myself, I was in the bay area now, and that early book Rebozos of Love was in San Diego. A bilingual explosion, Alurista was there, who was a pioneer in Bilingual/Chicano poetry, and Jorge Gonzalez was there and Viviana Servaino, many amazing artists.

  • Poet reads “Exiles” - Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)

JFH: I came up the Bay Area in the 1970’s in San Francisco, and I said to myself “I want to write in English this time, I want to just change up the palette. This is called “Exiles,” with the epigraph from the diary of Edvard Munch, 1892.

  • Poet reads “Inside the Jacket” - Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)

JFH: So that poem is from the collection in this book called “Exiles of Desire.” And I wanted to experiment in English and work with those kind of materials and things that were going on at the time. Of course, there came a moment in the mid-80’s where I wanted to change. You know, I said, “I’ve been tearing so much poetry out of myself, I think I just want to invent and take words from walls and words that I hear on the street and I’m going to just throw them on paper and they’re not really going to be mine. They’re not really going to be mine, they’re just going to be automatic exchanges and I’m going to slap it on paper. And maybe I’ll be like everybody else that writes poetry. I won’t be so concerned about history and so concerned about suffering. Maybe I’ll just write freely and breathe in the open air like a blue bird; I’ll be a blue bird writing.” And this is called “Inside The Jacket” from the book called “Face games.” Because it was going to be a game of faces. So this is “Inside the Jacket” and it’s also in this collection called “Half of the world in Light.” 

JFH: And I found out little by little that even if I grabbed words from the air, I could not get rid of what I was really going through, and what was really going on and what really had happened, the way I felt at particular moments in my life, to me, my parents, my community. It’s not hard to tell where it really comes from.

  • Poet reads “Foreign Inhabitant” - Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)

JFH: So that’s me making up things out of nothing and then they turn out to be much more pointed in a way than the poems I thought I was tearing outside of myself, which is hard to believe.

  • Poet reads “Xunka: I”- Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)

JFH: This is from the same collection from a book that I wrote while I was very concerned with Chiapas in Mexico, Central America, Latin America, the wars and the paramilitary and how they affected and ravaged villages. So I choose for characters, four women and a family, and the piece is called “Thunderweavers/ Tejedoras de Raya.” And it begins with Xunka, one of the younger ones in the family. And it’s dedicated for the people of Acteal, Chenalhó, Chiapas and all of the indigenous communities of the Americas. And of course Acteal in Chenalhó was attacked by paramilitary, and many people died. So she is speaking

GMD: What was the title of that? Weavers?

JFH: Thunder Weavers.

GMD: Oh, thunder weavers, I see. Beautiful, it’s beautiful.

JFH: Tejedoras de Rayas. It came out in 2000. And then the mother speaks.

  • Poet reads “Pascuala: III”- Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)
  • Poet reads “Makal V”- Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)

JFH: So that’s Thunder Weavers, Tejedoras de Rayas.

GMD: It’s a beautiful image.

JFH:  Yeah, and that’s what they do, Tejedor Rayas, and they are rayas. And this is the way this collection works. And it ends with different kinds of poems. And this poem is about my father called La Plazita and it comes from the end of the section, and it’s a new poem in this collection it’s not from a previous book.

  • Poet reads “La Plazita”- Half of the world in light: new and selected poems (2008)

GMD: So that’s a compilation of thirty years or so.

JFH: Oh, many years, and many experiments and things going on.

  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #1. The Village Ant”- Senegal Taxi (2013)

JFH: And this is called “Senegal Taxi” and I wrote most of it in 2009, Senegal Taxi. I was very concerned about what had happened a few years before in Africa and to Sudan and Darfur. I was really shocked and still feeling everything. I saw some photographs from the National Geographic and I noticed the faces and the burnt villages and that trip from Sudan to Senegal and the dream of reaching the United States, and I noticed how far that was. So this is written in the voice of three young children ghosts, and also the bomb, I have the Russian bombs that were dropped on Sudan speak and the Kalashnikov Ak-47’s speak, and the ants speak and the fly speak, and on and on. I said “I need to create as many voices as I can to see this experience as best as I can from so far away.

  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #2. The Antonov Bomb”- Senegal Taxi (2013)
  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #3. The Kalshnikov AK-47”- Senegal Taxi (2013)

GMD:  I’m sorry we’re not videotaping this; it would be wonderful if we were videotaping this.

JFH: And the Kalashnikov. Mud Drawing #3. The Kalashnikov AK-47. So I’m reading you the first three poems, and this is the third mud drawing because they are not poems they are mud drawings that the children make to leave us a story of what they went through in mud on whatever walls they could find. The Kalashnikov AK-47 speaks.

JFH: So I have different voices for different characters

GMD:  It’s an African voice, right?

JFH: Well, if it’s possible.

GMD:  Yeah, I think you almost spoke like an African. It’s very interesting.

JFH: Well, you got to me on that one.

GMD:  You’ve got a musical ear.

JFH: Well, thank you.

  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #5. The Village Fly”- Senegal Taxi (2013)

JFH: And Mud Drawing #5 is the Village Fly. And the Village Fly is a little different, he’s a little professional. Or maybe, I don’t know, you’ll have to tell me. Mud Drawing #5 is the Village Fly.

  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #7. The Village Ant”- Senegal Taxi (2013)
  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #13. Sahel, the Village Girl”- Senegal Taxi (2013)
  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #16. Ibrahim, the Village Boy”- Senegal Taxi (2013)

JFH: And then there’s Ibrahim Mud Drawing #16 The Village Boy. Ibrahim Mud Drawing #16. The Village Boy, and he’s kind of the leader, and he’s speaking to the Taxi Driver. And we do not know where this taxi is, but that’s who he’s speaking too.

  • Poet reads “Mud Drawing #24. Abdullah, the Village Boy with One Eye”- Senegal Taxi (2013)

GMD:  Beautiful, had you gone to Africa?

JFH: No, that’s a long distance journey inside of me; I had to do my best.

GMD:  The imagery is beautiful.

JFH:  Thank you.

  • Poet reads “It Can Begin with Clouds”- Notes on the Assemblage (2015)

JFH:  Thank you, and now I’ll read from “Notes on the Assemblage,” my most recent book.

GMD:  Notes from?

JFH:  “Notes on the Assemblage” and it just came out actually, in September this month, September 2015.

GMD: We probably don’t even have it yet.

JFH:  Yes, it’s just barely rolling out of the panaderías, the bakeries. And the first one is called “It Can Begin with Clouds.”

  • Poet reads “Ayotzinapa”- Notes on the Assemblage (2015)

JFH: This is called “Ayotzinapa.” And it’s called “Ayotzinapa” and as we have come to know it is the town not that far from Iguala in Guerrero, Mexico where a number of students were killed without mercy. So this is for Mexico, for the students, and for the world.

  • Poet reads “You Throw a Stone”- Notes on the Assemblage (2015)

JFH: So this book, it kind of has all these different poems going in different directions yet somehow they become a family. This piece I haven’t read – most of the pieces I don’t think I’ve read any of these. It’s called “You throw a stone.”

  • Poet reads “Poem by Poem”- Notes on the Assemblage (2015)

GMD:  That’s beautiful, thank you so much. You know this is the very place where Octavio Paz recorded, this very lab.

JFH:  I’m so honored.

GMD:  And Neruda a long time ago and García Márquez, this very corner. This lab has been here since the 1920’s when the Coolidge Auditorium began. Certainly since the forties, because my division recorded authors as early as 1943.

JFH:  Oh, it’s a great honor to read here.

GMD:  It’s a historic moment. You are wonderful; these were very, very beautiful poems.

JFH:  Oh, thank you so much!

GMD: Thank you very much!

JFH: Thank you, it’s a great honor, a great gift to be here with you and with so many voices that have been here.

GMD: Everything you said was so real, so now. You know, even Charleston. Very moving. Thank you very much.


U.S. Poetry at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC,

September 11, 2015

Approximately 53 minutes.

Recording Title: Juan Felipe Herrera Reading from his Work
Reading moderated by: Georgette Dorn


1). Selections from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2000)
- “Let Us Gather In a Flourishing Way” - (min. 7:50)
- “Vamos a Cantar” - (min. 10:30)
- “Exiles” - (min. 12:08)
- “Inside the Jacket” - (min. 16:50)
- “Foreign Inhabitant” - (min. 18:42)
- “Xunka: I” - (min. 22:16)
- “Pascuala: III” - (min. 23:42)
- “Makal V” - (min. 25:10)
- “La Plazita” - (min. 28:01)

2). Selections from ‘Senegal Taxi’ (2013)
- “Mud Drawing #1. The Village Ant” - (min. 31:10)
- “Mud Drawing #2. The Antonov Bomb” - (min. 31:50)
- “Mud Drawing #3. The Kalashnikov AK-47” - (min. 33:07)
- “Mud Drawing #5. The Village Fly” - (min. 34:21)
- “Mud Drawing #7. The Village Ant” - (min. 35:30)
- “Mud Drawing #13. Sahel, the Village Girl” - (min. 36:44)
- “Mud Drawing #16. Ibrahim, the Village Boy” - (min. 37:35)
- “Mud Drawing #24. Abdullah, the Village Boy with One Eye” - (min. 39:02)

3). Selections from ‘Notes on the Assemblage’ (2013)
- “It Can Begin with Clouds” - (min. 41:37)
- “Ayotzinapa” - (min. 43:28)
- “You throw a stone” - (min. 47:32)
- “Poem by Poem” - (min. 48:40)

Concluding Commentary – (min 52:02)

End – (min. 53:02)

Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems

LC Catalog record:
Juan Felipe Herrera, Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008)

Senegal Taxi

 LC Catalog record:
Juan Felipe Herrera, Senegal Taxi  (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013)

Notes on the Assemblage

LC Catalog record:
Juan Felipe Herrera, Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco, California: City Lights Books, 2015)

Related Resources

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California in 1948. He is the author of 28 books of poetry, novels for young adults, and collections for children, including “Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems" (2008), winner of National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Latino Book Award. His other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, two Latino Hall of Fame Poetry Awards, and a PEN / Beyond Margins Award. Elected a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, Herrera served as the Poet Laureate of California from 2012-2015. Herrera took up his duties as the 21st Poet Laureate on Tuesday, September 15, 2015—the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month—with a reading of his work at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium.

Learn more about Juan Felipe Herrera at The Poetry Foundation