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Former US Poet Laureate reflects on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

BY: CRISTÓBAL MCKINNEY 

When former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1988, he was in his early 40s and had been writing poetry seriously since he was 16. He came with two children in tow and rented a house near Burlington and Johnson streets in Iowa City. To help pay the bills, Herrera pawned his guitar, which one of his instructors—the noted poet Marvin Bell—later helped him recover.

Herrera describes himself in the Workshop as being “thirsty and hungry, without knowing it.”

“I picked up so many ways of writing,” says Herrera, 68, who was named the country’s 21st poet laureate in 2015 and passed the title to Tracy K. Smith in June 2017. “All the books I’ve written after 1990, all of them used what I learned in the workshop.”

Seven people who earned graduate degrees at the University of Iowa have served in the position of U.S. poet laureate; Herrera is the latest. He is the first Latino to hold the position and is the child of migrant farm workers in central California. He has served as California Poet Laureate, among many other fellowships, awards, and honors. He has published collections of poetry, as well as children’s books in prose, and has also produced video, sculpture, music, and theatrical performances.

Before 1985, the position of U.S. Poet Laureate was known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Fifty-two poets have held the position since it was created in 1937, but only 22 have been called “poet laureate.” In addition to Juan Felipe Herrera, six of those were educated at the University of Iowa.

William Stafford (1970–71) earned a PhD from the UI in 1954.
Mona Van Duyn (1992–93) earned an MA from the UI in 1943.
Mark Strand (1990–91) earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1962.
Rita Dove (1993–95) earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1977.
Philip Levine (2011–12) earned an MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1957.
Charles Wright (2014–15) earned an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1970.

Having had a robust artistic career before becoming a student in the Workshop, Herrera describes his time in Iowa City as the second of three major phases in his writing life.

The first began in the seventh grade when he “got serious” about his creative pursuits. This phase includes his life as an activist poet in the Chicano movement of the 1960s.

Herrera considers the Workshop to be the second phase of his writing life, a bridge between the writing from his early life and the writing he does now.

He refers to three of his instructors—Marvin Bell, Gerald Stern, and Jorie Graham—as “a triad of magnificence that I hugely learned from,” and says the Workshop gave him time to “focus on the page” and develop a new aesthetic, or “tool kit,” to complement the one he’d developed through years as an activist poet.

“When I walked out of there, I had this new tool kit that I didn’t have before,” he says. “When you put both tool kits together, for me, that was the greatest joy—it’s like you have two secret formulas all of a sudden.”

The third phase began, he says, when he became the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2015.

The first and third phases mirror each other. As an activist poet in the Chicano movement, Herrera traveled often and visited cities along the West Coast, throughout the Southwest, and in Mexico and Cuba. His writing at that time, he says, wasn’t “a sitting-down project.”

“You’re on the streets, and you’re at readings,” says Herrera. “It has that kind of fluidity and earthiness.”

Herrera continues to write while in motion. In February, he returned to the University of Iowa to give a reading of his latest work, some of which he wrote on a scrap of cardboard during his flight from Atlanta, Georgia. (He has publicly speculated that he wrote his first poem on the back of a Valentine’s Day card.)

One difference between his early and current writing, he says, is that his writing during the Chicano movement was tailored to his audiences on the West Coast and in the Southwest, whereas his writing now has a national and international audience. This large stage has influenced him to write “poetry in the most hyper-accessible forms.” He describes this position as “anti-ornamentalist” in a manner similar to that of the post–World War II Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz.

“I don’t want (my readers) to come to me; I want to go to them,” says Herrera. “I really want my poems to walk to them, and all they have to do is shake hands.”

Another echo from Herrera’s early writing life is his continued interest in responding to current events and the communities affected by them. While attending the University of California, Los Angeles, in the late 1960s, Herrera became involved in the farmworkers’ movement and wrote poems about and in response to the issues affecting farmworkers and migrant communities.

“I just don’t like knowing that these terrible things are going on and I’m over here writing about a hat,” says Herrera. “I just feel that I’m cutting myself off from society if I don’t respond to what’s taking place in society.”

While poet laureate, Herrera has written in response to national events, such as in 2016 when he published a poem just days after a campus shooting at UCLA. He says that a former roommate of one of the victims thanked him and told him the poem now hangs on the wall of their dormitory.

“I want to orient my poetry in that direction,” says Herrera. “It’s not a major publication, it’s a people’s publication: poetry on the wall.”

Herrera is easy to talk to. At readings, he takes time to speak with everyone. The lines of people waiting for him to autograph a book are long and often take hours to dissolve. He thinks of poetry readings as a “reading village” and enjoys the community aspect of it—so much so that he often asks his audience to repeat passages of poetry in a call-and-response format.

“I don’t really just want (it) to be me reading. I want all of us to be reading,” he says. “I don’t just want the audience to be the listener and I’m the speaker. I want all of us to be speakers and listeners…I like the delight of voices, and I like—and I want—people to enjoy their voices.”

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Photo: Tomas Ovalle