The Day I Met the US Poet Laureate


There are ordinary days and there are those days—those surprising impossible days that pick us up in an ill humor and set us down a better place.  March 11, 2017 started as a grumpy day. As my husband and I headed out to the fabled Tucson Book Fair I was not like myself. Normally I would have been full of excitement and energy, but I had just gotten of an airplane the night before and I was not fully here yet.

We set out early, far too early for my taste, parked at the Poetry Center and walked to the Social Sciences Tent where Juan Felipe Herrera was to read at 11:30. As people began to leave the tent around 11:00, I threaded my way forward and snagged two seats in the front row. The tent quickly filled up behind us and many people were left standing on the fringes in the sun. Perhaps, I noted we were not too early at all.

Suddenly there he was at the edge of the stage, smiling and shaking hands with people as they came to him. My mood immediately lifted and a smile began to form at the corners of my mouth.

The generosity of spirit Juan Felipe Herrera brought with him into the tent began to clear my head. Someone handed him a Mason jar of water with tulips. He held it tightly and began to sniff the flowers. After he was introduced, he sat the jar on the podium (above which only his head was visible from the front row) and quickly moved out into the open in front of the mic. There only a few feet away from me he began to speak.  He invited the audience to participate in his poems by asking them to recite back to him one line at a time, some in English and some Spanish. It reminded me of Kirtan, a form of shared recitation I have experienced done at yoga retreats. It was musical, it was spiritual, it was enchanting.

Herrera is small of stature, but immense of heart When asked during Q & A, “As poet laureate what touched you the most”? He replied, “the total experience.” Since the election, he said, “audiences are communities with a lot of care and concern—oceans of love, oceans of joy, oceans of being together.”  When asked about the wall, he replied, “Our stories are wall detergent.”

Late in the afternoon my husband and I had the privilege of providing transportation for Juan Felipe from the Festival to the Arizona Inn. In front of the pink wall of the inn, he graciously put his arm around my back embracing me for a photo.  Herrera said in an interview for the Washington Post (by Joe Heim), “My role is to remind the American people that they have the most worthy, significant, beautiful, brilliant voice.”  Who can be in the presence of such a man and not be changed for the better?