March 27, 2016

Juan Felipe Herrera Reading, March 23

I am usually indifferent to, if not mildly annoyed by, the selection of the Poet Laureate of the United States. Back in 1991 I actually penned a column for Metroland, the former entertainment weekly here in Albany, NY challenging Joseph Brodsky’s program of “bringing poetry to the people” by inviting him to the ongoing monthly open mic at the QE2 in Albany where the people were already doing poetry. But the recent selection of the activist poet, Juan Felipe Herrera, to that position was one that I felt well-represented the “community poets” in the world that I spin in. I plan to attend the Split This Rock Poetry Festival later in April in Washington, D.C. & was pleased to see that he would be giving a reading on April 13, the night before the official start of the festival. Then I was beyond thrilled to see he would be reading at Skidmore College this night — I’m not only there, but was there early enough to get good seats in the 4th row, with one of my favorite poet/lady friends.

It was not just a reading, but the College conferred upon Herrera an Honorary Degree. This was preceded by the requisite stuffy introduction by the Director of the Latin American Studies Program, who in introducing Herrera & bringing him to the stage, referred to him as “the Poet Laureate of the United States” but did not use his name until presenting him to the President of the College for the Honorary Degree. Then Herrera, who was wearing the requisite black academic gown, was obviously surprised when the Dean of the Faculty actually placed the academic hood over his head. To add to the comedy, as Herrera was left to start his reading, he asked, deferentially I thought, if he could take it off the gown & hood, which he did.

His reading & interaction with the packed audience of the Gannett Auditorium of Palamountain Hall was equally relaxed & playful. He told an anecdote about his father learning English in the fields as a migrant worker by paying a fellow worker a penny per word, then in a great gesture of compassion for the students in the audience read from his notebook a poem about Will Golden the Skidmore student who had died recently in a fall.

“Like a peddler just opening his sack,” Herrera pulled a stack of books from his bag & began with a poem from Laughing Out Loud, I Fly (1998), which he described as written in the style of Picasso’s poetry, leading the audience in repeating the Spanish in “The Enchildadas the Butcher Gave Me.” His reading was bi-lingual sharing where he would translate/explain the Spanish words & phrases that are his poems making a bridge between cultures & languages to share with his audience, as in the 70s era poem “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way” that he translated as he went along. A good single source is Herrera’s Half the World in Light: New & Selected Poems (2008), his poems ranging from the post-Rodney King riots, to film noir (“8PM”), to one titled “I Found Myself in the Studio of a Tabla Master,” another, about Marc Chagall, “19 Poklonskaya Street.”

The poems from Senegal Taxi (2013) take on injustice in Africa in the personae of not only a young girl & a boy with one eye, but also in that of a village fly & a Kalashnikov. He included poems from the recent City Lights collection Notes on the Assemblage, “I Do Not know What A Painting Does,” “Jack Rabbit, Green Onions & Witches Stew,” & “The Man With the Choke Hold,” ending with an animated performance of the 3-voice piece “The Soap Factory.”

I turned to my companion, who has often accompanied me to readings by well-known poets in this very auditorium, & we both said that this was by far the best reading we had heard here in this room — lively, engaging, playful, warm, real poems for the real world.

Gracias, Juan Felipe Herrera.

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