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.
Photos: Paint This Desert