Juan Felipe Herrera, U.S. poet laureate, responds to gun violence with a new poem
America is still reeling from last week’s violence, which began with the videotaped deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., respectively. Sterling was shot while pinned to the ground by officers; Castile was killed, his girlfriend said, while reaching for his wallet.
And on Thursday, five Dallas police officers were slain during an anti-police-violence protest by a sniper who reportedly targeted white officers. The shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, was killed by a police robot armed with a bomb.
The killings left many Americans at a loss for words. But U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera was able to summon some.
On Sunday, Herrera published a poem in response to the week of violence, called “@ the Crossroads — A Sudden American Poem.” It is dedicated to Sterling, Castile, the five slain Dallas officers and those who were injured, and the victims’ families.
“Let us celebrate the lives of all,” the poem begins, “As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths.”
“There are / ‘small massacres’ now — yes,” Herrera wrote, “it is true, this place where we find / ourselves.”
Herrera has been swift to use art and poetry to respond to gun violence. In June, in the wake of the killing of professor William Klug on the UCLA campus, Herrera published “Where We Find Ourselves” in The Times.
The UCLA shooting was personal for Herrera, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the university. He served as California’s poet laureate from 2012 to 2015, and was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2015, the first Latino writer to receive the title.
Herrera spoke about the influence of social justice on his poetry in his acceptance speech for the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes in April.
“There were so many voices, and we were all singing out and talking out. Civil rights. End the wars that were taking place in the world, in Vietnam,” he said, “And the wars in our own nation, and the wars inside of us. How there needed to be a voice. And what was that voice made out of? I did not know, but I knew I had to create it, I knew I had to push it, I knew I had to let it fly.”
Herrera’s poem about the last week’s violence celebrates Black Lives Matter activists, “officers dressed in Blues” and mourns those lost — “Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm & a continent-shaped flood of blood….” — read the complete poem at Poets.org.
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