Juan Felipe Herrera, the new U.S. poet laureate, thanked a lot of people during his inaugural reading Tuesday night. But then he took the audience back to 1958 and described a woman in Burbank, Calif., who put him on the path to Washington.
Herrera, a child of migrant farmers, had been punished in first grade for speaking Spanish; second grade, he sighed, was another “brutal year.” But in third grade, he had Mrs. Sampson. One day, she asked him to come to the front of the class and sing a song. Nervous and self-conscious, he sang “Three Blind Mice.” His friends had to translate Mrs. Sampson’s assessment into Spanish for him: “You have a beautiful voice.”
“It changed my life,” Herrera told the rapt audience at the Library of Congress. He has spent years trying to realize what Mrs. Sampson meant, and now he tells others, “You have a beautiful voice.”
Then, in a miracle that seemed entirely in harmony with the evening, Herrera pointed to the front row of the auditorium and introduced the 94-year-old Leyla Sampson.
If there were any doubt, Herrera, the first Mexican American U.S. poet laureate, made it clear Tuesday night that he’s bringing a new sense of wonder and drama to the position. His inaugural reading was infused with humility and graciousness, but it was also an elaborately choreographed event informed by his years as a teacher and activist.
Herrera recalled being so poor when he attended UCLA that he carried his books in a cardboard box with a rope around it. He arrived in San Francisco in the late 1970s thinking he’d “conquer the poetry scene.” He acknowledged with a laugh, “We didn’t conquer anything, but that was okay because it meant we made a lot of friends.”
While describing that early life in California, Herrera interspersed his reminiscences with poems from his many collections, starting with “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way” from 1970. But usually he didn’t read his poems so much as perform them. “Are You Doing That New Amerikan Thing?” involved a collection of hilarious poses and voices, all delivered with masterful timing. During his rendition of “Saturday Night at the Buddhist Cinema,” he got the well-heeled Washington crowd to yell back: “We want the Tuna! What about the Tuna?”
Other poems, such as “Almost Living, Almost Dying” and “Exiles,” about “women, men, children cast out from the new paradise,” demonstrated the deep sympathy and sorrow in Herrera’s work.
About halfway through the presentation, he brought guitarist Juan Díes to the stage to play a ballad — a corrido — about Sandra Bland, an African American woman who died in a Texas prison after being arrested after a minor traffic violation in July. As Díes played, Herrera translated the Spanish lyrics, which had been composed during a workshop at the Library of Congress on Tuesday as part of the library’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Recalling the many international influences on his own work, Herrera played a haunting clip of Pablo Neruda reading “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” — just one of the innumerable treasures in the library’s audio collection.
Herrera concluded the evening’s presentation by reading one of his own incantatory poems that ended, like magic, with these lines:
“If I stood up wearing a robe in front of my familia and many more on the high steps of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and read out loud and signed my poetry book like this, ‘Poet Laureate of the United States of America,’ imagine what you could do.”
What a trip — and it’s just beginning.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.