Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way
O, Miami Welcomes the Poet Laureate of the United States
Juan Felipe Herrera
New World Symphony Hall
Friday, February 5, 2016
The urgent beauty of Juan Felipe Herrera’s voice has traveled far.
Our poet laureate learned his first words from parents who toiled in the fertile soil of the San Joaquin Valley. But Herrera breathes the air of the whole world. His imagination moves with such speed, he takes flight with such breathless wordplay, in a vortex of such incredible emotion—jokes, joy, anger, cool witness, sacred invocations—that I can’t imagine the moist earth of any place has had the time to dry on the bottom of his shoes.
I first heard first Herrera’s name, heard his poems, in, of all beautiful, broken places, Jerusalem. Many, many years ago.
It was about this time of night—after dinner, the sky was darkening—and I was sitting with some young filmmakers, musicians and artists at a café on the hills of Mishkenot, a beautiful neighborhood that looks out over Mount Zion and the walls of the ancient city.
We were all there for the Jerusalem Film Festival. Everyone was talking about how good it was for us to be gathered from so many parts of the world.
Then a young Palestinian writer said the feeling reminded her of “a real American poem.” That was a surprise.
Some people groaned. Some people rolled their eyes. But then the young writer, whose name I’ve forgotten it was so long ago, recited Herrera’s gorgeous, famous poem, “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way.”
She pronounced both the English and Spanish beautifully, better than I could:
tranquilos in fields of blossoms
tranquilos with the rain en la mañana
When she finished, she looked at me and asked, “Do you know him?”
Well, 25 years later, as of an hour ago over dinner, I can finally say, “No, but I’ve met him. And, damn, he’s cool.”
I remember that night in Jerusalem because I remember the striking things that young Palestinian writer said about Herrera and about American poetry.
She said a real American poem is a poem that doesn’t stand still in one language. A real American poem is a prayer because it admits there’s been so much American sin. Everybody sins, she said. But a real American poem can admit to that sin and believe poetry can do something about it. A real American poem is about strangers coming together and creating hope.
If ever there is a time when we need people to come together, it is our time.
Juan Felipe Herrera has said that poetry gets invented “en las fronteras.” At the borders.
That word –frontera– comes from the Latin word for our foreheads, the fronts of our faces, where people can look at us and tell whether or not we’re telling them the truth, whether or not we have a sense of decency and shame, whether or not we are looking them in the eye.
“Temprana estrella on our forehead,” says our poet laureate!
So the poetry of the borders—the poetry of different languages, different histories, different colors—is the poetry of us gathering together, forehead to forehead, face to face.
It’s why Herrera always says, “The audience is half the poem.”
Poetry is an encounter. And since it takes place on the frontier, Herrera says poetry is the work of outlaws, “being on the margin and working with others to bring about change.”
Are we strangers? Are we family? Do we see ourselves in the faces that greet us? Do we come to the border with open arms? Or do we trap ourselves inside illusions, within walls of fear and words of hate?
Or maybe, as Herrera says in the wonderful title of one of his books, maybe we can be a “Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream.”
These are the questions—the Lamborghini included—of the human condition, of course. But there’s also something fundamentally American about them.
The first three words of our founding document are “We, the People.” It’s always seemed to me that those three words—the first three words of the American experiment, the American promise, the restless dreams of every Americans—those three words demand three other words.
“We, the People” always means asking “Who are We? “
We are defined by countless journeys –forced or free—that, for centuries, people of different creeds and colors, hopes and scars have taken to gather here.
So here we are. Face to face with one another—in respite from our constant motion.
Who better to gather with, who better to gather our nation together as Poet Laureate, than this writer of an unstoppable story of witness and hope—who pulled up here with me tonight not in a Lamborghini, but in a Dodge Caravan?
Who better than this truth-teller and activist of street and soul—who always wears a cool hat and a huge smile—and, tonight—damn, who can beat that?—is wearing a cilantro corsage? Fresh! Come up and smell it!
“Let us gather in a flourishing way,” Juan Felipe Herrera beckons us.
O, Miami, please welcome him!