Thursday, February 21, 2008

Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera

Gente: La Bloga is fortunate enough to have an interview with Juan Felipe Herrera, whose life's work has been the poetry of sinew and bone, of La Raza, of people's movements and people's poetry, and whose new book was profiled in La Bloga.

But before you drink in our conversation, take a look at some info about his latest work -- a remix/compilation of truly razor-sharp and brutally beautiful writing.

And if you haven't read my review, take a look here.

From City Lights Publishers:
187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border:
Undocuments 1971-2007
by Juan Felipe Herrera
February 15, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-87286-462-7 $16.95

1. This newest book, 187 Reasons Why Mexicans Can't Cross the Border is a collection of a life's work in many ways. Some reviewers have described you as a moviemento elder statesman. What's your thoughts on that description?

Elder statesman...ha! Well, if the movimiento was still alive...Things have changed, the Chicano Movimiento probably started when Cesar Chavez went on strike in McFarland, Ca., with the rose workers in 1964 and it ended about ten years later when Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino gave its last debut in Mexico City at the TENAZ International Teatro Festival, the same year Gary Soto inaugurated his first book, The Elements of San Joaquín, which signaled a new trajectory in our poetics.Rather than a movimiento, since '74, we have streams, fugues, variations, implosions, counter-currents all at the same time.

The upside/downside?
There's no up or downside to it.

Given that, what's the importance for you in mentoring younger voices?

Mentoring is most important aspect for me. teaching and learning at the same time, expanding our thinking, and our action, our sense of community and self.

2. What do you think is the poet's responsibility to make social commentary, particularly in the current anti-immigrant (read Mexican) climate?

As a Chicano and person of color, it is part of my poetics to respond to and transform and transcend the negative, narrow and easy explanations, summations and projections of who we are. Oddly, we are perhaps the most misunderstood ethnic group in the U.S. To begin with, we are not immigrants. To end with, a Mexican is always connected to the indigenous history of the Americas.

And given your perspective, do you have a particular spin on what constitutes 'Mejicano/Chicano (a) themes?

There are no themes...they are all in flux... perhaps a most pertinent theme today is that of going beyond ethnicity and history without foregoing an activist perspective. Something is askew if only the military, corporate trade systems and the internet are global and the rest of us, in particular ethnic enclaves operate in closed communities and political segments.

3. There's been a critique swirling around concerning spoken word for a while -- that many times it ends up limiting and ghettoizing poets, particularly younger poets, who do not develop a critical grasp on other genres. Can you comment?

Spoken word has its own cultural systems, canons, genres, institutions, actors and audiences which generate its values. Academic poetry, although related, is another cultural arena and another class sector. The less borders between these is best.

Another way to put is that Spoken Word by its very nature is public, oral, interactive, spontaneous, experimental and subversive. Because of these transgressive and explosive qualities, Spoken Word thrives at the margins. Otherwise, it would be more like its fair-haired cousin, text-centered academic poetry, which lives closer to the center of the literary capitalist paradigm, more or less. The problem arises when poets begin to quote themselves and cease to speak and also, as you say, loose touch with the larger world of conversations and silences.

4. What are your ongoing sources of inspiration?

I don’t rely on specific inspiration sources. All is inspiration – twigs, people, clouds, shapes, names, words, sounds, colors and forms. Nature and culture are just two of thousands of possible channels of and for inspiration. Deep inspiration probably comes from the unnamable. That is why we want to write it, even though it is impossible.

Something like love.

5. How does your relationship to family feed your creative and personal life?

My familia provides contrast, balance and a natural and organic play of feedback to my life as a whole. This is more significant and meaningful than providing thinking-talk-feedback to my writing. Deep and sincere relationships are at the core of creative life. Without these, we are just fooling ourselves and others.

6. Where would you like to see your work evolve over the next ten years?

I just finished a writing a musical for young audiences, Salsalandia, for the La Jolla Playhouse.It is touring – with a beautiful cast and production crew – throughout the schools and communities of my hometown, San Diego. I am thrilled by this.

The play is about a White & Mexicano “blended” family and it is about loss and painful border realities. Yet, it is funny, serious -- there are songs and dances and deep journeys all in the mix. Cristian Amigo composed the music – we had worked together in Upside Down Boy, the first Latino musical for children in New York. I want to write more theatre, and also, for dance and possibly opera. Pavarotti is one of my heroes. So is Lanza – whom my mother loved. Imagine, my campesina mamá? And all the great Italian composers.

Musicals, children’s animation and opera – here I come!

7. Who are some of your favorite poets and why does their work resonate for you?

The Post War Poets of Poland and Middle Eastern Europe move me – Rózevicz, Szymborska, Herbert, Celan, Rodnoti, to name a few. Because they speak of brutality with clear boldness, wet hearts, and razor-sharp precision. We are in such a time. Our words must not get over-excited or too under-stated. We must navigate between archipelagoes of world kaos, natural beauty, suffering lives and global military order. To do this, we must be daring, tender, unyielding and precise as rain.

8. Tell us something not in the official bio.

I have always been a clown. I love solitude. The most simple things in the world move me to tears -- like clouds, mountains, an elder woman crossing the street, the voice of sincerity.

I have been a cartoonist since 8th grade. Water is my favorite drink with fresh-squeezed lime juice. I have five Sharpei dogs – Rocko, Tai, Pei-Pei, Lotus and Duddy Li.

Lisa Alvarado

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