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Poetry Tue Oct 13 2015

Spotlight on Juan Felipe Herrera's Visit to Chicago

juanfelipeherrera-th.jpgOn Oct. 7, the Chicago Public Library partnered with the Library of Congress to host the 61st annual Poetry Day celebrated with a reading by the U.S. Poet Laureate at the Harold Washington Library.

Every September the Library of Congress announces the next Poet Laureate who will serve until May. The laureateship has seen the likes of William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, and most recently Philip Levine and Charles Wright. On Sept. 15, Juan Felipe Herrera became this year's Poet Laureate.

Herrera greeted Chicago harmonica in hand. He sang and played music in between reading poems. He told an auditorium full of people how a middle school teacher was responsible for his poetry career. She made an introverted boy, new to the English language, stand in front of his peers and sing gospel music. That was a pivotal moment in which Herrera found his voice enabling him to share his stories with others. Herrera then pushed for the crowd to find their voice through a call and response style recitation of his poem "Jackrabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew." Herrera's poetry is closely tied to his family's oral history and experience immigrating to America from Mexico. During the Q&A session after the reading, the Library of Congress representative sheepishly requested that Herrera read his hugely popular poem "Half Mexican" as if Herrera was a rock musician who'd been holding on to one of his greatest hits in anticipation for an encore. The auditorium sighed in relief, thank god someone asked.

Herrera earned a rapport with his audience. Like a loving grandfather, he continuously called for "a big mano!" for the Library of Congress, for the poetry foundation, and for those in attendance. He transitioned between English and Spanish, always translating for the benefit of the monolinguals.

The selection of Herrera as laureate seems obvious. He's lived a hyperbolic version of the American Dream, growing up as a migrant worker in the Southwest, educating himself, rising to the position of college professor, and finally becoming U.S. Poet Laureate. His poetry speaks for the marginalized contingent of American society. Herrera read his "almost livin' almost dyin'," a poem that speaks to the racial tension prevalent in America today. Voicing individual experiences hardship, difference, inherited history, and formation of identity seems central to Herrera's brand of poetry.

Poets Laureate typically take on special projects, rather like how first ladies champion a cause like education or children's health. The Poet Laureate is meant to encourage people to read and write poetry, and to keep poetry's role in American culture vital. While the choice in Laureate reflects the moment in American culture, their choice in project typically suits their belief of what poetry's role is in our society, or what it can be. During a decade of nationwide educational reform efforts, Billy Collins pushed for poetry in the schools through a project that asked teachers to read and discuss a selected poem with their class every day.

In 2008, Ted Kooser worked with newspapers and websites to publish a weekly poem from lesser known contemporary poets to create a presence for current poetry in the broader American literary diet. Herrera has initiated La Casa de Colores, the national construction of an epic poem entitled "La Familia." Americans are invited to submit verses about their American experience that correspond to a specific monthly theme. Find out more about La Casa de Colores, and submit your own verse, here.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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