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Poet laureate visits Notre Dame

| Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Institute for Latino Studies and the Office of the President presented a poetry reading and moderated question-and-answer session with Juan Felipe Herrera, poet laureate of the United States, in DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night.

Herrera was appointed a national poet laureate by the Library of Congress in 2015 and served as poet laureate of California from 2012 to 2015. He has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Americas Award, and the Robert Kirsch Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The event began with opening remarks from University President Fr. John Jenkins and Francisco Aragon, associate professional specialist for the Institute of Latino Studies, and a performance of Herrera’s multi-voiced poem “The Soap Factory,” directed by film, theatre and television professional specialist Siiri Scott.

“Over lunch on Capitol Hill, Herrera wondered aloud what a performance of his multi-voice poetry would look like,” Aragon said. “So Notre Dame put together this performance for him.”

The piece was performed by graduate student Luis Lopez-Maldonado, senior Cassidy Leyendecker, freshman Dawn Russell, senior Jean Carlo Yunen Arostegui and graduate student Susanna Velarde Covarrubias, who were all clothed in white shirts and blue jeans.

Herrera performed poems both in English and Spanish, such as “Almost Living, Almost Dying,” “Soldier in the Empty Room” and “Border Bus.” He said artist Fulgencio Lazo, clouds and fruit flies have all been inspirations for his works. 

“Poems just kind of happen, and then we have to free fall into them,” Herrera said.

Herrera also said current events — such as the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Pulse nightclub shooting in June and the Black Lives Matter movement — inspire his poems.

“I just felt like I had to respond,” Herrera said, when asked if he felt a duty to write about such issues. “When you hear the word ‘writer,’ you should hear the word ‘human being.’ As a human being and a writer, you can offer a poem in a time of need.”

For the final piece of the reading, Herrera had the audience repeat after him as he read different lines from an assortment of poems he chose by opening up to random pages in his poetry collection.

From a young age, Herrera said he was interested in words, partly because his mom often broke out into poetry. He began looking in Reader’s Digest’s “Word Power” to improve his vocabulary.

“My teachers at school thought I was crazy,” Herrera said as the audience laughed.

Herrera also talked about the differences between writing poetry in Spanish and English.

“I want to feel like a guitar, and I’ll write in Spanish. I want to feel like trumpets and brass, and I’ll write in English,” he said. “If I’ve been writing too long with one, I’ll take a break and write with the other.”

When faced with “writer’s block,” Herrera said there is one topic that he can always pull inspiration from.

“Freedom,” he said. “Remember you are free, and there will always be something to write about.”

Drawing attention to how poetry is changing in the current day — referencing the development of spoken word and the integration of new oral traditions — Herrera said the creative space that inspires poetry will always exist.

“We need poetic moments to solve problems,” he said. “The world will always need that which creates poetry.”

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