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Former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera wants poetry to be joyous

Former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera wants poetry to be joyous
"In terms of my writing," said poet Juan Felipe Herrera, "I want to write about hope." (Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Juan Felipe Herrera can't stand still.

He finished his last chapter as U.S. poet laureate last year, but the 69-year-old is as busy as ever. He wrapped up a poetry reading of his new book "Jabberwalking" in Washington, D.C., before jetting to Dallas for a librarians' conference. He'll be in San Jose holding a workshop on visual poetry before coming to Los Angeles for the Festival of Books. There's not a time zone he won't cross for poetry.

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His frantic energy is everywhere in "Jabberwalking." First conceived as a manual for middle-school students looking to find their inner poet, it turned out to be something a little different. It's not prescriptive. Instead, it features scribbles, comic strips and ink drawings using Japanese bamboo pens. Like its author, the book wants you to forget what you think you know about poetry.

"I wanted to stretch this thing as far as I could," said Herrera, who at one point has a character slip into a time warp only to find herself on Pluto. "They're interested in super-exciting things," he says about young readers. "They're explosive. And they feel everything."

The book encourages its young reader to begin to write, even if it means scribbling, to find whatever material one can find to write on, especially if it's not paper, and to write and walk to get the creative juices flowing.

"I don't talk about metaphor, simile, and sestinas, and meter, and caesura, and all those beautiful elements we can use to make a poem deep and meaningful, and expansive and elegant y todas esas palabrotas [and all those big words]," he said. Instead, he's hoping to inspire young authors feel free to experiment with the format.

"You have to play with that page," Herrera said. "Be a migrant traveling artist poet that uses whatever you find to create something new."

I would turn in poetry for term papers. Whatever class it was, most of the time, I’d turn poetry in.


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He recalls his father waking up early in the morning for long walks. "That was kind of in my blood," he says. He himself wrote poetry while walking when young, and continued as an undergraduate student at UCLA. "I used to walk nonstop and write madly on yellow legal pads. Just moving and writing."

Herrera wasn't penning research papers on those strolls along Westwood.

"I would turn in poetry for term papers. Whatever class it was, most of the time, I'd turn poetry in." Herrera remembers turning in a 40-page poem for his Economic Anthropology class. "They gave me an A-minus. "

He wants young writers to feel as free as he did. Part of that comes from his experience of being U.S. poet laureate. The job opened his eyes and changed him in ways he didn't expect.

Juan Felipe Herrera leads a poetry workshop at UC Riverside in 2012.
Juan Felipe Herrera leads a poetry workshop at UC Riverside in 2012. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

"I met so many people. So many audiences in so many different places. And I listened to so many stories." He met undocumented students, young people who were rattled by the 2016 presidential election, and refugees from different parts of the world. But there's one experience Herrera can't forget. One white high school student who, during a reading, was critical of Herrera's poetry.

"You don't write for us people. You just for for your people," Herrera recalls the student saying. "At the core, he was right."

The experience of being U.S. poet laureate made him a better listener. It also left him exasperated.

"I was very tired. I was very angry when I finally finished those two years. I just felt so much pain from so many people."

"I became angry. I wanted to do something about it. What can I do?" Herrera said he took to the page only to find he didn't recognize his voice anymore.

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"I looked at the poems and go, "God these are angry poems.' I went from Mr. Happy Go Lucky to clenching my jaws. I was crabby. Not only the poetry but myself. I felt all the unfairness."

Herrera has turned the page. He says he's not only back to being Mr. Happy Go Lucky but also finds himself with more wisdom, humility and finally, inspired again.

"In terms of my writing," he says. "I want to write about hope."

Juan Felipe Herrera will appear at the Festival of Books on April 21 for two readings, at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., and lead a poetry workshop at 3:30 p.m. with students from High School Insider.

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