Kevin Keckeisen: How did you get started writing poetry?
Juan Felipe Herrera: I got started more than once. I think the first time I got started was growing up with my parents’ great storytelling. We went through migrant camps, through the San Joaquin Valley, Central California and they had tons of stories. No books, two newspapers, and a couple of magazines. But [I] was just saturated with stories. Saturated.
K: I can imagine there was so much to tell.
JFH: Yeah, my mother, she had an album. It was actually like this keeper of the stories, keeper of the photographs, and that’s interesting because we had no money back then. So, that was my first start. My parents’ stories. The second moment [I] was interested in writing began with my teachers in elementary school. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Samson, encouraged me to sing. My seventh grade teacher encouraged me to get into music. Then I got into choir with Mr. Harrison Maxwell later on in high school, and then I got into literature with Mr. Whiteman, and Mr. Hayden back in sixth grade got me into theater. So all those teachers, put them all together and it’s…a world of art. And Mr. Pepperidge, all the artists of the Renaissance, he just drilled them in. The impressionists and expressionists and the surrealists—he drilled them in.
K: In sixth grade?
JFH: No, I went back and forth. This was in tenth grade…It was a big old classroom, like a warehouse, back then and we had these big old high desks. We did life drawings, watercolors, learned about all the artists.
K: It sounds like a pretty interesting class. The sad thing is, you don’t really see too much of that nowadays.
JFH: Yeah, it was pretty cool. It’s a goner nowadays. So, from my parents to third grade on, even though I ran into English-only classes, I only spoke Spanish. So I had to wrestle my way through that. Those were the first two, kind of. Parents, school, teachers. My third start was in the civil rights movement at UCLA. That’s when I just threw myself out onto podiums and preached [my poetry].
K: When was this?
JFH: That was ’67 to ’72. So I just threw myself out onto podiums and I created street theater groups that worked with musicians to do performance poetry.
K: From what I understand, you majored in anthropology, correct? How did anthropology influence your writing, if at all?
JFH: It definitely did. I always thought that I should have gone into art, because that’s what I was all about, except I didn’t know it. I was really truly into painting and sculpture in high school. But I don’t know why I never [pursued it].
K: I think if you really want to write, or create any art form for that matter, you don’t necessarily need formal training.
JFH: If you really want to write, just write. Express yourself. Just jump in…you know, you have a lot of opportunities at this university. You’re at the top of the pyramid, so you could go into anthro, writing, you can go to the library…whatever you want. Just throw yourself in without really knowing how to do anything and then you’ll pick up stuff. That’s what I did for 20 years. [laughs]
K: You said that Spanish was your first language. When did you feel you finally had a grasp on English?
JFH: That’s a good question…I probably had a firmer grasp in third grade with Mr. Samson, who got us to sing. So from that point on I began to build my English by speaking and writing. But I’ve always like sound and spelling…so my ears would tune to words. Spanish is also a way to help people learn English because you can spin off everything in English into Spanish, and therefore you can spell it much easier than somebody who is just trying to find out the English…even though you don’t know English that well, you can turn it into Spanish, and then you can write it.
K: How was attending UCLA during the civil rights movement?
JFH: It was heavy. We shut the whole capital down back in ’68. All the students got together to fight. Even if you didn’t want to shut it down, it got shut down because of a number of policies, like the Vietnam War, Dow Chemical, affirmative action and a number of other issues. Those were important issues to students.
K: When did you start writing creatively?
JFH: About tenth grade. Everything came together. My father passed away when I was in tenth grade, and that probably was part of it. I’m an only child, so what else am I going to do? I lived downtown; I had no friends around me. Not that those were the core reasons, but they were part of my environment as a writer. So I had solitude to write or paint. I had open space and open time. You know, when you’re in high school, you had to do your homework and then you got the whole day.
K: And it wasn’t like today where kids are inundated with technology. Speaking for myself, I know it can get in the way of the creative process.
JFH: You’re right. We didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have a car. We had a black and white TV. The whole city was mine. I used to walk the whole city of San Diego—just walk it. I’d go all over the city, just alone with my 35mm camera.
K: You’ve dabbled in a lot of things. You’re a musician, a photographer, a writer, a painter. It’s always interesting to mix together different art forms. They’re all different ways of expressing the same thing.
JFH: Yes, I’m a total dabbler. [laughs] Cameras are fabulous. I used to develop my own film in the bathtub…and then I used print them out, all in my bathtub in the bathroom. I had my little cheap 35mm camera, but I got really good pictures.
K: Do you still have any of your pictures?
JFH: I have one photograph. It’s a self-portrait I did. I put a mirror in front of me, on the sofa in the living room, and I put the Brownie [camera] on some books. I was the focus, and [I positioned it] so that the camera hit the mirror and showed me in the mirror, shooting [a picture of] myself. I like that photo!
K: After UCLA, what direction did you take with your writing?
JFH: I got an MFA when I was 40. I didn’t know about writers’ workshops and I didn’t know about majoring in creative writing. I didn’t know about majoring in poetry or getting your master’s—I didn’t know about any of that because I lived in my small tiny world of being a kind of gypsy writer, a theater dude, a music dude, a photography dude and a poetry dude. For me, that was my universe. Of course, I was just a speck.
K: After you finished your undergraduate degree at UCLA what did you do?
JFH: Well, I went to San Diego and I joined a bunch of artists that I had known for a while.
K: So you had your own little workshop where you were creating your own artistic community within the city.
JFH: You’re right. That was my workshop. [laughs] And it was a wild workshop. It was an occupied water tank in Balboa Park and the artists were attempting to provide art workshops for the community in Logan Heights, which is largely a Chicano, Mexican and African-American community. It was a good vision. Looking back now, it was a bit of a narrow vision, but that’s what it was. So that’s what I was doing out there. Then after a while, I got kind of expunged by the amoeba; they kind of spit me out.
Then I applied to Stanford and went back to social anthropology. I guess I didn’t know anything else and it was an old gut reaction. I got my master’s, and then a friend of mine suggested I apply to Iowa Writer’s Workshop…He told me a little about it and I said, ‘You mean they just sit around writing poetry? I can do that!’ I don’t know why that was so attractive, I mean, I was writing already, but I applied, got in, and…it was such a free environment; so many cool workshops.
K: What year did you get admitted into the writer’s workshop? Can you describe your experience at the University of Iowa?
JFH: This was in ’88. I loved it. It was amazing. I loved the city, I loved the houses, I loved the people, I loved the students and I loved the workshops and my professors. They all were very different. I loved the [group] of students that I got to know. It was just fun. After the workshop, we’d go have a brew at the mill, which the poets owned…I also got into a playwright workshop and a sculpture workshop, but I wasn’t able to do it because I realized it required more time than anything else…It was very exciting to me, but I was in the writer’s workshop, the playwright’s workshop, and a multi-media workshop. I really ate it all up…I learned a lot, and I loved it.
K: So, I’m switching gears here, but how did you feel when you were appointed by Governor Brown to be the next Poet Laureate for California?
JFH: I felt like I was backed into a waterfall. It was very exciting; it was very refreshing and exhilarating. It was also a meditative moment because…[it put me] in a new state of mind.
K: How does it feel now?
JFH: It feels great. Sometimes I feel tired. Sometimes I feel like I’m still responding from my previous life before being a poet laureate. I’ve still got to learn how to work with interviews.
K: I bet you’ve been giving a lot of interviews lately. How did the recent interview with BBC go?
JFH: It was interesting. It was a little wobbly. There were two other people being interviewed about immigration. One was a policy-person and the other was a journalist…and then they had the poet. They have a different language, which is good. We all have different languages of how we talk about certain issues…They all had misgivings about immigration and [issues] in the White House. By the time it came to me, I had been sitting still a long time at the studio at UCR, and I just fired like a dragon. I said, ‘Let’s talk about the immigration prisons, let’s talk about cheap labor, let’s talk about the need for educational services in our neighborhoods.’ But as I was saying that, I noticed I was getting kind of heated. I came out swinging, and when you come out swinging it doesn’t really matter because it all gets filtered in…Then I waited for another hour, because they wanted me to read a poem. I selected something from a book that I have in process, which is going to be published by the University of Arizona Press. It’s called “Senegal Taxi.”
K: When will “Senegal Taxi” be published? Can you explain what it’s about?
JFH: It will probably be available next fall. It’s a story of three ghost children who are hiding, most of the time, from the Gangare, who are the paramilitary, which have burned and destroyed the villages and a majority of the people by the hundreds of thousands. Their village has gone up in smoke, so they’re hiding in a cave, and the cave is a kind of muddy cave. The main character, Ibrahim, does a lot of drawing, and his drawings serve as the stories that I tell in this book.
K: Is this a book of poetry?
JFH: It’s a book of poetry, but it looks like fiction and it looks like performance…You could call it a performance poem. It has a cast put out at the very onset. The AK-47 is an actor in this, [along with] the blood, the children, the paramilitary, and a newscaster called Mark Crimson. So I read one of the pieces (on BBC) by one of the children, named Abdullah, who has only one eye. They’re really devastating. They’re ghosts already, but they’re really the last survivors. So he [Abdullah] says something about where he’s coming from in this one piece, which I like a lot…so I ended with that, and that was the end of the whole program.
K: What does it mean to you to be a California Poet Laureate?
JFH: It means that I have California as co-participants, as co-laureates, as an audience, and as a network that I now can call upon. I’ve worked throughout California as a poet; in colleges, universities, worker camps, migrant education offices, continuation high schools, juvenile halls, prisons, and gifted classrooms. I would say [I’ve been] from San Diego all the way to Arcata and throughout the valleys…for the last 40 years. Now that I have the laureate low-rider car, I’m going to call on them, invite them to do the most incredible and biggest poem in the world on unity, which is one thing I want to do.
K: Wow, that sounds great. Can you tell us a little more about that?
JFH: It’s the biggest poem in the world on unity. It’s pretty basic. You know, all the recent problems with bullying in schools…the whole issue of race is suddenly really coming back to a point that we thought it would never come back to. A lot of violence, a lot of guns involved…So, I want to call on all the schools, all the community centers, all the state-run organizations and the humanities, to promote this project, which I’m calling Project Primavera California, or Project Springtime California. It’s a flourishing of poetry in all areas.
K: You’re giving everyone a chance to express his or her voice.
JFH: Yeah, it’s not going to be, ‘Here I am, come and see me.’ It’s going to be your input also—and while we’re at it, why don’t we write about some things that are going on that are affecting us in order to assist people and bring about some friendship, bring about some understanding, and bring about some reflection on this out-of-control train of violence. Let’s see if we can stop this train.
K: Everyone has a story to tell, and this is a good opportunity to let people express themselves. Going back to poetry, what really draws you to the craft? What beauty or value do you see in poetry?
JFH: Perhaps one of the most accessible diamonds on Earth is poetry. You can easily pick it up and easily wear it and easily give it away. It’s very precious, but you can only find it because it’s yours. You have it already, and you can easily polish it and craft it. You can easily share it with others. That’s one way of talking about it. The other way of talking about it is that it comes very naturally to me. It’s just the way my mind works. Everything else I have to really work on, but the only thing that comes naturally to me is poetry. It has its own life. Inanimate paper with inanimate color and an inanimate pencil can create this life. Once it’s perceived by someone else, it just comes alive. Like a story, or like anything else, really…but there’s something unique about it. It’s great because it can be very conceptual, it can be very visceral, it can be very playful, it can be very aesthetic, it can be very architectural. I like all of those things.
K: How do you feel about your experience teaching UCR students about poetry?
JFH: I feel fabulous because we have great talent and great, great writers. Undergraduate writers are at the level that poets from the writer’s workshop are in Iowa, or in any MFA program. The undergraduates that I have worked with are at levels that are soaring. These are not poems that need immense work [because] they are excellent writers and a good number of them are already gifted geniuses. I’m telling you the truth. So that’s one great thing; there are natural great writers here. I also love that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic reality that we have on campus, it’s really great. The working-class reality. I love that. Students are very open. I’ve been in workshops where people are looking for one kind of professor, with one kind of approach, and if that’s not available, they literally walk out…Then I’ve been in workshops similar to ours…working class students usually came together at Southern Illinois University. I’ve taught some workshops there, and I’ve found it to be similar in talent to what we have here. Those different cultural mixes and working class connections are really good, they’re very healthy, but it’s not universal.
K: Can you describe your personal creative process?
JFH: I’m kind of like an automatic poet; whatever I throw on paper is good. Like Jackson Pollock, I love that approach—throw paint on the floor, throw words on the floor. I like poetry that flows immediately. Sometimes I like to sculpt the language on paper. Sometimes I sculpt it, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it depends on where it’s going to get published, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter, I’ll just sculpt…Sometime I make it really open…and it’s really hard to understand, but it’s because it’s not to be understood for what it’s saying but for how it’s constructed. Sometimes I’ll create a performance or I’ll interview people, because I want their stories and not my stories, and then I add another layer of performance to that.
K: How would you describe performance poetry?
JFH: Performance poetry is like a play. However, it’s poetry. It can be read as poetry, or it can be performed with music and all the garnishes that a play would have. Kind of [like] early Greek theatre and indigenous performance. Indigenous communities don’t necessarily have a word for ‘art’, it’s all one thing. In indigenous communities, they have storytelling, ritual, song and vision. All of those go together, and they all use language. Some of them are very highly marked off as a ritual and in that ritual, the language gets very condensed into something that maybe you and I would call poetry…it’s a multi-genre thing, even though there is no word for it. That’s what a performance poem is like.
K: When you write, do you prefer long hand or typing? I know some writers dabble in both methods and then there are others who are adamant about their own way.
JFH: I’ll go right into the computer…If I’m writing as I’m walking then I’m using a journal. I do a lot of walking-writing and closed-space writing. I’ll go to a gallery and I’ll write nonstop until I see every art piece in that gallery and then when I walk out I stop…I use my walk through a gallery as a walk to a manuscript. I create a manuscript starting with the first page when I walk in…when I walk out I’m done. The manuscript is done; all I have to do is type it.
K: Where did you get your inspiration for your latest book of poems, “SkateFate?”
JFH: I wrote an e-mail to a friend of mine and he and I [wrote poems to each other]. My friend Julie Klien…said that I should write a book of just those e-mails. I said to myself, ‘Yeah, write a poem wherever you go.’ And a publisher from HarperCollins was there and goes ‘Yeah! Why don’t you write a book with that idea.’…So I started writing with that idea only…Then, a gay student got shot in a school in Oxnard. I said to myself, ‘this thing is just poems, poems, poems, but who’s the speaker?’ I decided to dedicate that book, those works, those voices in those poems to him.
K: Do you have any advice for young writers? What advice would you give to help them out in their writing process?
JFH: I would say to write as freely as you can and be a friend to yourself. [We create] such a high-end craft or career, or world and we tend to feel like, ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’ It’s an intimidating thing, so I would say bring writing down to the level of a bowl of beans. Bring it down to the level of a nice home-cooked meal, sit down, and just write whatever you’re feeling and thinking and seeing. Or just put your hands down on a paper and see whatever words come out and follow that. It’s all about being kind to yourself and plain acceptance …Don’t think you cannot do it. Include everything. Whatever comes to mind put it on paper. Acknowledge others, and acknowledge everything. Write freely and then you can come back and stretch the line, shorten the line, add numbers…Like Marvin Bell says, no one knows what a poem is and there’s no problem with that.
K: Do you believe that you have to have natural talent to be a great writer? Or can someone become a great writer simply through hard work, practice and personal experience?
JFH: Well, the natural talent [we all] have is being alive. Just really get in touch with being alive, not just rolling through space like a ball of hamburger. Which means you’ve got to let go of everything. You’ve got to let go of what you should do, what you did, what you can do, what you have, what you don’t have, what you want. You’ve got to let go of all of that. That’s not being alive. Once you find the life in your life, everything is yours. It’s going to be hard letting go of everything. It’s going to be hard letting go of ‘What should I write?’ ‘Do I know how to write?’ ‘Can I write?’ ‘I don’t know how to write’…these big institutions that push us around in a way, that suck us in and spit us out… you’ve got to let go of that…you already have the talent. Drop everything else except your life as it is and then just move your hands around, or move your brush around, or move your mic around. If that’s too weird and too abstract, then just write down what people are saying…Or just walk down the street without any intention to write, without anywhere to go, without anything to do, and you’re going to notice everything come alive. When you notice everything come alive, you’re going to notice what the heart of poetry is. If you walk around [thinking] ‘I’ve got to get over here,’ ‘I’m being late,’ and ‘I should have dressed better,’ and ‘I need some money’…then, there’s no room for creativity. You’ve replaced it with fossils…put the fossils aside and let your life come through. Otherwise you’re going to clutter yourself up. All that talent you have, it’s not going to come out because you’ve already filled up your life with non-life…and it’s all we’ve got.