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.
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.
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.