Coming to Florida Studio Theatre for PoetryLife 2018, activist poet and former Poet Laureate of the United States Juan Felipe Herrerra took to the stage in the John C. Court Cabaret for an intimate evening of readings and conversation alongside Ocean Vuong, a budding talent whose award-winning collections explore race, sexuality, refugee culture and more. Stepping away from the microphone, Herrera talks power, the importance of community and the future of poetry.  

FORMER POET LAUREATE OF THE UNITED STATES JUAN FELIPE HERRERRA TOOK THE STAGE AT THE ANNUAL POETRYLIFE EVENT AT FLORIDA STUDIO THEATRE. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Much of your work has dealt with the plight of exploited workers and migrant laborers. How has your understanding of this system changed over the years?  Juan Felipe Herrera Migration is the flow of humanity on this planet. It is ceaseless, nourishing and generates new ideas and discoveries. Power cuts across it, and limits, severs, and damages its potential. Power establishes things like Slavery, re-segregation, elimination and tragic abuse. We cannot reach our full potential and awareness of our full and expansive lives without migration flows, contact, exchange and community.

Is poetry something that everyone should explore and experiment with, or is it the domain of poets? Poetry is another word for Insight into our lives. Open thinking and open perception. — sudden awarenesses. And also, it is close to painting, dancing, sculpture and playing.

Why are readings like PoetryLife important? Meeting each other is the most important—an intimate moment for both of us, where we become a community, an example of what a creative micro-society can look like and be like. Also, a positive examination of the boundlessness of poetry, something that everyone does every day, something more than a genre, closer to human talk, beyond business talk. New questions without immediate answers.

The German philosopher/composer Theodor Adorno once claimed, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” As not only a practicing and celebrated poet post-Auschwitz, but one who uses poetry to address issues steeped in systemic injustice, prejudice and callousness, what did Adorno miss in his reckoning? In accord with another Holocaust poet, Rózewicz, who rallied against “ornamental” poetry and chose to write in a most direct manner—for example his poem, Survivor, where he inscribes his last three lines, “at twenty four / led to slaughter / we survived.” This also resonates with much of what Milosz says in his profound work, The Captive Mind, where the role of the poet is critical and subverted by Hitlerism and Stalinism. Of course, our present sociopolitical reality is a different puzzle.

What does it mean to be the nation’s first Latino poet laureate? I am simply another poet. My focus is speaking and getting to know the generous audiences. Poetry and its various fixtures such as language, material, institutions, readings, prizes and titles must become more centered within all communities. Latinx writing has boomed since the ‘70s when Rudy Acuña wrote Bless Me Ultima, and the ‘80s, when Sandra Cisneros wrote House on Mango Street, along with groundbreaking work by Rigoberta Menchú and Gloria Anzaldúa. Same is true for poetry. 

What are your thoughts on the future of the craft in terms of relevance? How does the Internet forum measure against the classic parlor room symposium? Poetry becomes more relevant when it breaks through its traditional confines. The Internet provides another society with different ways of organizing power, thought, knowledge, writing, art and community. All this is new to us. We must examine the meanings of these differences.

What’s next for you? Young audiences are most important. I am looking forward to new children’s picture books, and middle grade and Young Adult material, as well as bilingual and international writing. Two new books this year: Jabberwalking and Imagine. Totally, totally excited about these works, for you.