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First Latino U.S. poet laureate rides 'inspiration tsunami' to 2nd term

by Reuters
Friday, 15 April 2016 19:38 GMT

By Sara Catania

April 15 (Reuters) - Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino U.S. poet laureate, who this week was appointed to a second term, said poetry fans provided an "inspiration tsunami" for a year in which he shepherded a crowd-sourced epic poem and addressed high-profile tragedies.

Herrera is a lifelong activist and child of California migrant workers, and his work since he was first awarded the country's highest honor in poetry has touched on the San Bernardino massacre and the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail after a police stop.

"If you're going to embrace the people with poetry nationally, it's a good thing to write about tragedy," Herrera said in a phone interview. "The poem likes to be with people at times of difficulty."

Rob Casper, the head of the Poetry and Literature Center for the Library of Congress, praised Herrera's deft handling of potentially divisive material.

"Juan Felipe has this ability to speak of difficult things that in other hands might divide us," Casper said in a phone interview. "That's what makes him a great poet."

Herrera, 67, is not the first poet laureate to tackle political themes, but he's the first to blend heavy subject matter with lively public appearances, Casper said.

Herrera's poetry "readings" invariably include an ample dose of audience participation, including singing, call and response, and even composition.

The poem for Sandra Bland, a black woman found dead in a Texas jail cell in July following her contentious videotaped arrest, was created as a group project in the form of a corrido, a ballad style from the Mexican-American border region often employed to narrate tragic tales based on true events.

Herrera, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Book Critics Circle Award, has also gingerly ventured into the digital age. His Twitter handle is the playful @CilantroMan, and the public can contribute to La Familia, his crowd-sourced epic poem, on the Library of Congress website. (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/casadecolores/familia/)

References to the modern digital obsession and the influence of technology on how we experience trauma wind through his work.

"Even though you have a video/ It may not save you," he wrote in the corrido for Bland.

In December, after 14 people were massacred by an Islamic State-inspired couple at a government office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, Herrera wrote a poem that included the line: "in the shattered corners we heard you even though/we were lost in the complex tears of the digital screen." (Reporting by Sara Catania; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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