Juan Felipe Herrera's Latest Is a "Blue-Cheesy" Triumph of Poetry & Storytelling

The former Poet Laureate of the United States reveals deep truths while discussing his latest collection for young people.

Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2015 to 2017, has penned a dazzling guide to writing and living poetry. JabberWalking (Candlewick, Mar. 2018) pulses with the delightful rush of being on the move—traveling to the ends of the solar system and back. Deep within that twinkling, boundless energy is Herrera's softer musings on the importance of careful observation and a willingness to be open to others and oneself—or, to borrow a bit of Herrera's language, to listen and feel one’s sparrowlike heart. SLJ was honored to interview the poet about this latest triumph.

This book is a masterly exercise in line crafting and image building, in poetry, prose, storytelling, memoir, history, art, observation, and so much more. How long has JabberWalking been in the works? The artwork throughout the book was so magnetic. Did you create it specifically for this project?

The process of writing Jabberwalking took less than a year. Of course, I have been drawing and doodling and cartooning since middle school. I actually thought of undertaking a cartoonist career in eighth grade during Mr. Warner’s class assignment at Roosevelt Junior High in San Diego. The art was another thing. At first, wanting to explore digital apps, I downloaded a couple and created about 30 pieces. The palette knife was most effective. However, in the end, the handheld Japanese bamboo, pipe-size fountain pen with super-black India ink was ideal. Finding the medium and ink was the challenge. As they say, the “book wrote itself.”

Unbridled imagination and structure were the key. The question of structure was paramount. This was not going to be a blah-blah book. The goal was to keep the page turning and to derail the story as much as possible—without losing the story. For students, I felt I had to take the story to new heights as often as possible since I also wanted readers to move the writing. The challenge here was the brief life of the line. You often have to dip the quill into the ink.  A rough look also suited the book. Artists like William Kentridge and Max Beckmann, masters of black paint and raw edges, are a couple of my heroes.

Maybe Jabberwalking did not take so long to accomplish because I truly wanted to share just a few Jabber Walking techniques that I knew by heart—after all, that is how I write. New media, new approaches, soaking in art, community, and society.

There is also such a skillful use of wordplay and design and typography. I could easily imagine segments being performed.

Love your idea of performance. Let’s do it! Wordplay and thick, akimbo descriptions, muscular physicality, [and] tactile and sensory language were most pleasing for this project. Society is a rush of infinite textures.

Throughout JabberWalking, you raise the question of what writing can do for the world and for young people. Do you hope teens will recognize that poets are historians; they are community builders and record keepers.

It is most important for me to encourage youth to orient themselves to the world and to participate in society—writing is a most effective way, since it is connected to reading and to speaking and listening. And your Voice, Mind, and Heart. Writing is not words on paper at all. Not a bit. As Allen Ginsberg said, it is “Mind breath.” And it lasts for generations. A time-bender, a space traveler. Think on that. And it is a canoe of kindness, so that you and others, all of nature, can survive the storms ahead.

Each letter you jot down is a piece of history. Literally, history is at your fingertips. Each word is a person, too, by the way. If an inanimate thing such as a corporation can be a person, then, for sure, a word can be a person, too—except, much more intimately. Why? Because it contains your ideas, breath, heart, body, [and] blood-pulse and it is related to all the people who have given you that word. In Chinese calligraphy, the novice practices with a poem of the ancient calligraphers of the fifth and sixth centuries, for example. Not merely to learn the correct manner of the quill, but to know and meet the person and their totality—such is writing—an incredible link of and for humanity.

Be a record keeper, have more than one mind—your mind, and your record-keeping mind on the screen and on the paper. How magnificent. First, you must experiment; second, you must continue. Third, all this will be revealed to you in time. How nice.

I sometimes have to pause when reading a poem because my heart swells too much. Does this happen to you?

If your heart does not swell, you better check, because—you may not be alive.

Do you have a poem or collection that you return to again and again?

Tadeusz Rózewicz’s “The Survivor” is one of my favorite poems. This Polish poet, [who] was born after Poland regained its independence, was concerned with the Holocaust and most concerned with the persecution of innocent peoples. A direct, plain language is key, he said. To create “ornamental” verse is not applicable when your poem addresses cruelty upon fellow human beings. This is close to my views on writing. Then, on other writing tasks, I apply another set of ideas and materials at hand—for the poet in the road. For our friend, the Jabber Walker.

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