While the music and art festival took over downtown Las Vegas, Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States, visited Clark County Library and other corners of Southern Nevada to show how words are beautiful.
With the way he can move an audience to repeat his words with the cadence of church-goers, Juan Felipe Herrera makes the alternative moniker for Poet Laureate of the United States, PLOTUS, fall a little short. His quiet style, and mastery of language and performance, can convert the unbelievers of poetry and prose. It almost reflects the aura of a certain guest from the Vatican who was visiting the other side of the country. Let’s nickname this poet laureate PLOPES.
Herrera’s day in Las Vegas, the first visit to Nevada by a standing U.S. Poet Laureate, began at McCarran Airport. Clark County officials welcomed him and his electric blue hat with a key to the Strip and designating September 26 Juan Felipe Herrera Day. It was also the first time Herrera met members of the team that arranged for the visit, Bruce Isaacson, Clark County poet laureate; Patrick Gaffey, cultural program supervisor for Clark County Parks and Recreation; Angela Brommel, Nevada State College Director of Arts & Culture Initiatives; and poet Lee Mallory.
The afternoon writers workshop at Clark County Library was Herrera sharing his process for writing. It’s about storytelling, Herrera said answering questions with rhythm and timing that made the mid-size stage feel like a small corner of a coffee house. That comfort with performance had former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia say that Herrera is “the first U.S. laureate whose work has emerged from the new oral traditions that have been transforming American poetry over the past quarter-century.”
"How do you start?" asked someone in the audience. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a big tablet, said Herrera while bringing one out and flipping the pages. “I like the ones with different colored paper." Then he took ideas from some of the just over 67 people in attendance, jotted down random words and numbers, showing how they can write anywhere on the page. Then he connected the jumble into a short poem. But the real trick is to "just write, and write, and write,” he advised the writers. “I don’t know anyone who is a poet for just a week.”
The evening reading at Nevada State College capped a week-long dedication of two new buildings on campus. When introduced by Bart Patterson, president of NSC, it was noted that with the appointment from Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, Herrera will be the first federal official to step in the new 250-seat auditorium. When Herrera approached the podium, he was welcomed with a standing ovation, enthralled the room with the story of his beginnings, then jumped into his readings, many from Notes on the Assemblage, his U.S. poet laureate release. From that, in his ode to friend José Montoya, the artist and writer who passed away in 2013 (and father to RIchard Montoya of Culture Clash), Herrera shows there are thick connections between the Chicano traditions of literature and art.
Herrera also allowed himself to be sidetracked by other poems in a stack of papers that more of his writings. During the one hour and 20 minutes of reading a mix of light and dark, many sprinkled in Spanglish, he gave a brief respite from words by playing his harmonica.
His work wasn’t done. Herrera met with the audience at a reception and book signing, carefully connecting with each person until the line was gone. Then he said his goodbyes and left for his hotel for some sleep before a very early morning flight. That had Juan Felipe Herrera Day end during the last hour of September 26.
The working papers of Juan Felipe Herrera, on stage at Clark County Library.
Above: Briana Gonzales asks Herrera to sign her program. "Which color would you like?" asks PLOTUS. The young poetry fan picked blue. Below: Local poets were in the house for Herrera's reading at Nevada State College.
Herrera plays his harmonica in between one set of poems during his reading at Nevada State College. He invited everyone to join him as a writer of poems under the title "Blue Hat Desperados."
Reception and book signing after the U.S. poet laureate reading at Nevada State College.
NOTE: Bruce Isaacson, Clark County Poet Laureate, lead the charge for this visit from Juan Felipe Herrera. For the event, Paint This Desert was noted as a sponsor. I was mentioned in the introductions as the instigator for the Clark County Poet Laureate program, which was very kind. But since shout-outs are being passed around, I would like to thank the Creative Capital I Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. Without their support during 2014, being available for last minute commission meetings that helped the Clark County Poet Laureate program move forward would have been difficult.
Photos: Paint This Desert
Above: Stephen Hendee created sculpture for the celebration of 30 years of public art programming in the City of Las Vegas.