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U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera on the art of poetry

'How can you write a poem by just saying it?' Juan Felipe Herrera muses on writing poetry

As you might expect from a U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera has a way with words. When we talked to him about his appointment, he shared his ideas on the act of writing, some of his inspirations and the art of poetry.

Here are Herrera's thoughts, in his own words.

On the craft of poetry: The beauty of creating a line, a phrase — the art of it. It’s an artwork. I tell my workshop students, I want you to think of yourselves as artists. Then when you’re writing, you’re painting, you’re crafting, you’re making a design, you’re sculpting, you’re creating choreography, sound, a sound script. You’re composing a choir on the page. Yes, indeed.

On the physical act of writing: A pen is different from the pad, the key, moving your fingers across a screen. I like both. I like to work on sketchbooks, big old white sketch paper. I like how that feels, and I like to put different media on it. Then there’s the phone, smartphone, iPad: It’s the new page, and it’s not the same page anymore. It’s like the typewriter; I remember typewriters. I used to borrow my friend’s Olivetti. The keys were very simple. It was a light, smaller typewriter. I liked the font of the keys, a whole new feel. The feel inspired me to write particular kinds of poetry. Writing with red ink on a yellow paper pad inspires a different kind of poem. I could go on and on.

On being inspired by James Joyce: I remember looking at James Joyce’s journals. It was just amazing — it looked like ants had written on the page. So much writing on one page, every corner of the page was filled. Some of the lines were underlined in yellow or blue or red. A lot of color, intense writing. Of course, the language. I walked away wanting to do very rich poems with a lot of language in them.

On what he learned at Iowa, part 1: I loved being at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Marvin Bell always looked very closely at how lines could break, how you could put over one line into the second line. How you could stop the line two or three times within the line: You could make it stop. It’s like running an electric charge through, wires scattered on the page. When you hit the electric charge at one end, it’ll go as fast as it can to the other end. But that’s because you don’t have any pauses or breaks in that one line. Break that one line into 25 pieces, separate it into different lengths, it’ll stop and start and go and take off and stop-stop-stop and start-start-start — those stops and starts create rhythms and musics. It just lifts the poem way up there. You can see it crackle right in front of you. … That one thing helped me write books and books, where I’m really working with that one particular way of writing a poem, breaking lines, creating pauses, moving the lines around and creating new meanings. The words are the same, but the pauses and turns are different, and per stanza, perhaps per line. Therefore, you can say one thing without pauses, breaks and stanzas, and then say another thing with the same language with pauses, breaks and different types of stanzas. I just thought that was a magical wand I had been given.

On how poetry flows on the printed page: The book is part of the poem. Because you have little trees in the paper that are holding the poem up, and little rivers going through the paper, encouraging the poem to flow.

On what he learned at Iowa, part 2: Gerald Stern’s class, it was the power of simplicity. How can you write a poem by just saying it? Just saying it like you’re talking to your friend? Can that be a poem? Is that a conversation, or is that just chatting? How can you make it a poem and let it have the magnetism that a poem can have, the intensity, yet it can be very accessible.

On the young people he met as California poet laureate: I went to high schools. Do you know in almost every high school, they had poetry clubs? They enjoyed vocalizing, spoken word. They read a lot of books. … Young people are beginning to take a very interesting lead in the creation of a new poetry, the new poetics. There’s more than one. … It’s not a shy poetics. Not shy. People come out and speak it out. This is great, a really good thing. It’s no longer that early, 15th century or 16th century definition of literature; it’s not "polite writing." It’s loud — you know, the Poetry Out Loud projects, they’re right on it. They’re very courageous. They talk about what’s going on in their personal lives, what’s going on in their bodies, what’s going on in their minds, what’s going on in their neighborhoods, what’s going on throughout the United States. They’re very interested in issue of race and issues of social change. And they’re very good. Their style of writing is long poems, long lines, few stanzas. Very personal and direct. Very conceptual too. Very conceptual. Pick up one of those poems and it’s hard to put them down. Hard to put them down. I’m very inspired by them. Very inspired.

On what he'll do as U.S. poet laureate: I would like to say hello, invite people to write, honor their experience, culture, style, traditions and voices, in writing. … That’s something I would love to do. It’s important.

 

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