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U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera Wraps Up Project With Chicago Students

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U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera, named United States Poet Laureate in 2015 by then-President Obama. Herrera is the first Chicano to be named to the post, created in 1936.

Jason Marck

Juan Felipe Herrera, the United States poet laureate, has been working with dozens of 9th grade teachers from Chicago Public Schools during the 2016-2017 school year. The goal was to find new ways to teach students how to write and appreciate poetry. 

One of the methods? 

“Cutting the room into pie shapes and triangles and lanes of yarn,” Herrera said. “And then you pin up — with Post-Its for example — words that come to you.” 

“You come back to your table with a group, and put something together, together.”

Herrera, America’s first Chicano poet laureate, spoke with Morning Shift’s Jenn White about the project, the importance of poetry in the classroom and the sometimes-divisive language present in the public sphere. Below are highlights from their conversation.

On the effect of reading poetry in a classroom

Juan Felipe Herrera: Just yesterday, I heard that just coming into the classroom being a male was very odd and great for the male students. Because they’ve never seen a “man” come in and read a poem. And this was, I think, one of our military schools in Chicago. And I hadn’t thought of that. So just coming in and having someone — a woman, a man, a trans-poet come in — and read a poem and stand up and voice themselves, is beautiful for the students. To hear poetry flowing from our people into our classroom. They think and they notice and they observe and they appreciate.

On redefining the meaning of his family’s poverty during childhood

Herrera: I grew up in the migrant fields of San Joaquin valley in the California desert, which is the agri-business center of the United States and contributes to the world economy. The farmworkers live with very few resources, and that’s how we lived. … A giant army truck my father got at an auction, a one-room house built on top of a car he found, and that’s how we moved around. So I never had one place. We never had any resources other than a couple of chickens in the backyard. 

But what we did have was a lot of heart and a pioneering spirit. I want everyone to think of their families as pioneers through time. It’s hard to continue, it’s hard to break through, it’s hard to survive, and it’s hard to maintain a sense of love. Sometimes it changes. It gets even more difficult, and yet we push through and we make it through these barriers. And we all have these barriers. So when I look back I go, “We weren’t poor” — we didn’t have resources, that’s true — but we weren’t a poor people. We were pioneers. 

On the importance of affirmation at an early age

Herrera: I had to break through those early traumas of feeling worthless and filled with shame. My third grade teacher Ms. Lilia Sampson played gospel in her classroom. She said, “I want you to come up to the front and sing a song.” I said, “I can’t do it.” “Come on up Juan.” I got up there. “Sing a song. I’m right here with you.” And I did. And then she said, “You have a beautiful voice Juan.” And I said, “There’s no way I do. I can’t. I don’t.” “You have a beautiful voice.” So the rest of my life I worked on that. And I share that with others. And I tell others the same thing. And that’s what we’re doing here in Chicago. 

On today’s sometimes-divisive rhetoric

Herrera: Words are very important. Very significant. We can either push people back and brutalize them with language or we can lift them up and ask them to share their stories and their songs and their riddles and rhymes — and just their natural, beautiful voices — to bring about positive growth in our community, and in their lives and their neighborhoods. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment.

For poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera, visit the Poetry Foundation here.

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