April 15, 2016

Juan Felipe Herrera, April 13

Pre-opening night for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington D.C. was a lecture by US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera at the palatial Library of Congress. Some of us were sad to see that this was billed as “A Final Lecture”, but we were thrilled to hear from David S. Mao, Acting Librarian of Congress, in his introductory remarks that Herrera will remain on for a second term. I had seen him read recently at Skidmore College in March & was excited to see him again.

Tonight, his lecture was titled "Pioneers of Flowers & Song," a tribute to his mentors & compañeros in the poetry scene, many now gone. He read poems, showed photos, & told stories, beginning with Francisco X. Alarcón (1954 - 2016), a poet & translator of Aztec texts — “flowers & songs” being the Aztec translation of “poetry.” Herrera’s “lecture” was accompanied by photos including of paintings based on Aztec hieroglyphs, images from the great Mexican muralists, such as Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, & the poet/muralist Jose Montoya, as well as pictures of his father, mother, aunts, even his 1st grade school photo, as well as those of the poets to whom he paid tribute.

He repeated the wonderful story of his father learning English by buying words for a penny from a friend in the field, & a tale of his mother singing & reciting poetry while serving dinner, & the wonderful conjunction of Anthony Quinn, Pancho Villa & his mother leaving Mexico the same time. He read poems & excerpts from many poets, including Ray Gonzalez, Gloria Velazquez (“Superwoman Chicana”), Victor Martinez, Gary Soto, & others, even a poem by his uncle, “Street Conversation.” He talked about growing up & learning to write poetry, giving loose-leaf school paper to friends to write poems, to “re-write the map” as one put it, he said, “the world was our workshop.” Like the earlier reading at Skidmore, it was another wonderful reading/performance/conversation, more like your Chicano uncle telling you stories than what we have heard in the past by “Poets Laureate.”

Sarita Gonzalez, Juan Felipe Herrera, Elena Medina
As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, Herrera introduced us to New Pioneers of Flower & Song, 2 young Chicana poets, Sarita Sol Gonzalez, & Elena Izcalli Medina, poets he had discovered on his travels reading & speaking across the country. Sarita, 11-years old from Albuquerque, NM, read her poems “Remember” & “Mentors,” moving & mature work that had the audience cheering & on their feet.

Elena, 12 years-old from Chula Vista, CA read “Elegy” for her grandfather that began & ended with a brief ukulele accompaniment, a piece as much about immortality & social justice as about her grandfather, that had her in tears (& members of the audience as well). The night ended with Juan reading with Sarita & Elena an “exquisite corpse” done by email that they titled “The Earth Is Ours & Ask Us Many Things.”

I am pleased that Herrera will continue for another year as our Poet Laureate, but even more pleased that the young poets Sarita Gonzalez & Elena Medina have burst on the scene, & hope to have to buy their poetry books in the future.  All are Pioneers of Flower & Song.

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