In the Studio With Juan Felipe Herrera: So Much to Say

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Herrera says he composed his very first radio poem during an interview with The California Report's Scott Shafer.  (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

He’s the second U.S. poet laureate to come out of Fresno and the second to walk into KQED’s Central Valley Bureau to record an interview with the San Francisco office.

Four years ago it was Philip Levine. Now enter Juan Felipe Herrera.

Herrera says he usually wears colorful clothes. But today he’s dressed in black pants, black shoes, black shirt. A local photographer didn’t want his lively garb to take away from the shape and essence and expression of his face. So Herrera first wore the black clothing for an outdoor photo shoot, standing in front of warehouses with graffiti, the poetry of the street. He says his son had to go out and buy him a couple of black shirts -- Herrera didn’t have any.

But the black works. It makes room for the canvas that is his face, ever changing in response to what he sees or hears, his eyes twinkling, noting possibility everywhere. He sits down for his interview, headphones on, a microphone in front of him.

Herrera drafting his poem.
Herrera drafting his poem. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Scott Shafer, the host of The California Report Magazine, asks Herrera if he brought a poem to read. Herrera checks his pockets and looks around as if he might find one in the air. He asks for a sheet of paper and a pen. And even as he talks with Shafer, he starts writing. At first, it seems like he is just recalling a poem from memory, but then it’s clear he’s crafting a new one. He tells Shafer he’s good at doing two things at once.

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Clearly, he is.

Later, he says the poem started that morning, when he took his dog for a walk. He saw two birds on a barbed wire fence, and the image stayed with him. He’s an observer and a listener too. If you tell him something, he may repeat what you say as if he’s really taking it in, mulling it over for consideration.

He even considers his appointment: U.S. poet laureate. He asks me and Central Valley Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha what we think it really means. We suggest that it gives him a platform, the chance to let the disenfranchised have their voices heard, especially here in the Central Valley where there’s so much anguish, pain and poverty.

“There’s so much to say,” I tell him, and he repeats it like a poem: "So much to say. So much to say."

And then he takes that phrase and runs with it, fanning out from something small to something big and whimsical and full of humanity. Soon, we have an idea: a school bus with the words "So Much to Say" boldly printed on the side and poems written by children splattered all over the bus.

Herrera says he’s bewildered by social media and the press that camped outside on his lawn when the announcement of his appointment was made. His dog is mad at him, he says, because of all the chaos, all the people in the house, the phone constantly ringing. He makes a face to resemble his dog, sulking.

Herrera's poem was inspired by two birds he saw while walking his dog earlier in the morning.
Herrera's poem was inspired by two birds he saw while walking his dog earlier in the morning. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

“He’s probably writing poetry in the corner to deal with it,” I say.

Herrera doesn’t miss a beat. “In couplets,” he adds.

“Cutlets,” Sasha says.

He likes the play on words. “Cutlets and couplets, cutlets and couplets,” he says.

And then, somehow, there’s a new image: The dog is sitting on the bus that reads "So Much to Say." And the dog is writing poetry with the children.

“Cutlets and Couplets,” Herrera says again, laughing. “Cutlets and couplets.”

This article was originally published on June 12, 2015.