Abstract Over nearly two-years, from September 2015 to April 2017, I conducted an extended interview with Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States. The timing of the interview corresponds to the period from just after James H. Billington—the then Librarian of Congress—appointed Herrera as the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate to just weeks before Herrera completed his second term in office. Our interview ranged across many subjects from Herrera’s early life; his overcoming shyness and finding his voice in English as well as Spanish; his time as an anthropology student in the sixties at UCLA leading teatro troupes in Southern California; his intellectual coming-of-age at Stanford; his time as a poet/activist in San Francisco’s Mission District; his attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and its effect on his poetry and career; his friendships and poetic influences; and his work with students around the nation. Finally we discussed how he saw his role in the culture as the first Latino Poet Laureate of California, and as the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States. The accompanying essay, describes Juan Felipe Herrera’s poetic development, detailing his influences and affiliations, and put into a wider sociopolitical and literary context his aesthetics and multilingual experimentalism within the emerging alternative canons of North American poetry. The essay contains several close readings of Hererra’s poems, examining the poetic strategies deployed in his work. I examine affinities in Herrera’s poems with poets ranging from Alurista, to Allen Ginsberg to Pablo Neruda. Juan Felipe Herrera has long been a creative force. A hemispheric poet of the Americas, he has been reinventing himself—and American literary culture—over four decades through his poetry, stories, visual art, teatro and mixed-media performance, music, and charismatic and broadly optimistic personality. He is a magnet for language—words stick to him. He sprinkles his conversation rapid-fire with bursts of border “Spanglish,” academic English, and even “Cholo”/“Gangsta” street dialects. Many of his best poems are composed of the same heteroglossia, which is ever-present in his speech. It is his signature poetic voice. In a statement quoted in the New York Times, James H. Billington, former Librarian of Congress, says: “Mr. Herrera’s work contain[s] Whitman-esque multitudes that illuminate ‘our larger American identity.’” Billington goes on to observe that he sees “in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original—work that takes the sublimity and largess of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and expands upon it. . . . His poems engage in a serious sense of play” (Schuessler). In Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (1999), Herrera’s acclaimed poem “Punk Half Panther” refers to his “. . . Poesy mad / & Chicano-style undone wild” (16-17). The poem demonstrates, at mid-career, the capaciousness of Herrera’s aesthetics and the instinctive improvisatory verbal play that was becoming a characteristic vehicle for Herrera’s free-spirited aesthetics and deeply embedded sociopolitical vision. Here is a sample of the poem: Meet my barriohood, meet me with the froth i pick up everyday & everyday i wipe away with ablution & apologia & a smirk, then a smile on my Cholo-Millennium liberation jacket. No motha’, no fatha’, no sista’, no brotha’. Just us in the genetic ticktock culture chain, this adinfinitum, clueless Americana grid of inverted serapes, hallucinations of a nation, streets in racist Terminator coagulation. (27-37) In conversation, Herrera speaks his own hipster dialect: a rich mélange of bop-infused idioms and West Coast urban pop-culture colloquialisms, mixed with a San Francisco Mission Street bilingual vernacular, Chicano “Caló,” and post-hip-hop aphorisms. He might sign off on an email as “Wan” (as youngsters, my sons called him “Wonton”), “J.P. Morgan,” or “Yonah Felipe.” He tweets under the handle Juan Felipe Herrera@Cilantroman. His own inclusive brand of mixed rural and urban American dialect fuels many of his poems. He refers to his breakneck schedule as two-term US poet laureate as being back on a “steamroller.” The language that he speaks, and sometimes improvises with in front of an audience, is as playful and improvisatory as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. In the last twenty-four months, Herrera has given more poetry readings, performances, and lectures than most poets do in two lifetimes. He has read his poems to thousands in major college lecture halls and civic centers, as well as to small MFA workshop classes, high school assemblies, and groups of elementary school students and teachers. He has spoken to teacher conventions, conferences for social service agency employees, and even to groups of local government employees. During his two terms as US poet laureate, it would sometimes seem he was in more than one place at a time. He has brought poetry to more people than any previous laureate, with perhaps the exception of Robert Pinsky. However, Herrera’s audiences include more people of color, reflecting the increasing diversity in the nation. Audiences cannot get enough of him, just like his students at Foothill College; Southern Illinois University, Carbondale; California State University, Fresno; and the University of California, Riverside. As a poet laureate and a university professor, Herrera has brought many people into poetry’s orbit, many of whom were non-poets who could relate to Herrera’s personal narrative. Many showed up at his appearances just to hear and maybe talk with the first Latino poet laureate of the United States rather than get tips on how to get their work published. Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California, a tiny, Latina/o-majority town outside of Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He is the only child of migrant farmworker parents who came to the Central Valley for work picking grapes and other crops. After crisscrossing the valley, living in migrant camps, Herrera spent his childhood mostly in and near San Diego, where for a time he lived in a makeshift trailer that his father built in a decrepit pickup truck. His father was born in a small village in Chihuahua, Mexico, across the river from El Paso, Texas. His father was sixty-six when Herrera was born, and his mother was forty. His father immigrated to the United States in 1896 through El Paso and then walked all the way to Denver, Colorado, looking for work along the way. His mother immigrated later, at the end of the Mexican Revolution, coming north from a sprawling barrio in Mexico City called Tepito. Herrera was part of the first generation of Mexican Americans to be offered Education Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarships to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the 1960s. At UCLA, he got caught up, like so many others, in the general ferment of the 1960s. Herrera, who began singing folk music in San Diego coffee houses in high school, found that university life at UCLA facilitated his artistic ambitions and bohemian lifestyle. He also discovered the Chicano Movement, in which he would energetically participate. His immediate contribution to the movement was as a visual and performance artist and as an actor and founder/director of Teatro Tolteca. Before finishing his degree in social anthropology at UCLA (1972), he formed his own teatro troupe that specialized in incendiary experimental theater and producing bilingual “happenings,” featuring an eclectic array of music, percussion, traditional folk, and experimental dance. As the troupe’s notoriety grew, they were invited to perform at cultural events in Los Angeles and Southern California and were eventually invited to perform in Mexico City. Herrera’s poetry emerged from the crucible of the 1960s and 1970s Chicano Movement and internationalist literary movement in San Francisco. While still at UCLA, Herrera’s poetic chops were increasingly on display. As active as he was in teatro and performing music and making visual art, he became more serious about the possibilities of channeling his cultural activism through poetry when he came to the Bay Area to attend Stanford in 1977. In San Diego, Herrera’s high school friend and compadre, Alurista, was already becoming a leading voice in the Chicano Movement through his landmark poetry collection, Floricanto en Aztlán (1971). It is important to remember this transformational period in American literary history, especially in San Francisco’s Mission District. This largely Latina/o and immigrant neighborhood south of Market Street was soon to become the epicenter for poetic innovation, theater performance, and visual art, rivaling the legacy in poetic culture of other celebrated San Francisco neighborhoods, such as North Beach in the 1950s and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. These are the neighborhoods where underground and homemade cultural innovations and increasing inclusiveness challenged and ultimately changed the American literary establishment. The Mission scene in the mid to late 1970s, at the time San Francisco’s most vital literary underground, was internationalist in spirit—infused with poetry from Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution—and broadly multicultural. In June 1979, Herrera’s Mission Cultural Center cofounders, poets Victor Vargas, Alejandro Murguia, and Nina Serrano, traveled to Nicaragua. Herrera lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in the late 1970s while completing his MA in social anthropology at Stanford. Also living in the Mission in those years were a number of other young Chicana/o and Latina/o writers, including Fernando X. Alarcón, Tina Alvarez, Victor Hernández Cruz, Victor Martinez, Alejandro Murgía, Nina Serrano, and Robert Vargas, among others. Cruz and Martinez became important influences on the poems Herrera was writing in those days, poems that would be collected in his second book, Exiles of Desire (1983), his first book to receive national attention. Herrera quickly became a leading figure in the vanguard of writers and artists who were central to the emerging Chicana/o and Latina/o cultural movements. Along with Murgía, who became its first director, Herrera helped establish El Centro Cultural de la Mision in 1977. After finishing his work at Stanford, Herrera became increasingly involved with the Mission District literary community, first as part of the Pocho Che publishing collective, which disbanded by 1980, and then with the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade, a collective named after the Salvadoran poet, journalist, and literary activist. Herrera’s poetry was fueled in these early years by leading teatro troupes through Mexico and across the Southwest and by the profusion of cultural influences swirling around the Mission, what he refers to as “getting tropicalized.” Here is how he remembers the swell of cultural fusions from those days in the Mission District: Tropical peoples stripped of their homelands—purple corduroys, saris, Sonora ranch hats, black shawls, pedal-pushers, sawed-off Levi’s pants, Catholic pleated dresses, khaki trench coats, flowered muslin tank tops, laundry pressed polyester slacks, maroon turbans, Club jackets, Latinx, Filipinos, Afro-Americans, Cubans, Asians and Indians. Hindi, Samoan, Tongan, Chicana and Salvadoreña talk, all in a bebop stream of “green” sounds, neon and elastic, polished, bilingual and re-souled with adolescent first generation speech play, Nicaragüense, Salvadoreño, Guatemalteco, Hondureña, Peruana, Brasileira and Chicana rap. (“Tropicalized”) Echoes of Herrera’s “tropicalized” language run through his most recent collection of poems, Notes on the Assemblage (2015). I first met Herrera and his wife, the performance artist and poet Margarita Luna Robles, in 1985 when I moved to San José to direct the San José Poetry Center and teach at San José State University. Herrera had moved to San José to teach at De Anza College and in the California Poets in the Schools program. I was at first awed and intimidated by Herrera, whose incendiary creativity had already established him as a leading literary voice in the arts community of what we still called “the South Bay.” However, he encouraged me to spend time with him, and he challenged me to learn from him about the Chicano poetry movement and about his increasingly expansive and inclusive internationalist poetics, which he had brought with him to San José from the Mission District. He and Margarita were gracious to me, and over the time that we sometimes collaborated putting together literary events, we learned from each other. I learned about Culture Clash, the satirical and sometimes confrontational performance troupe, and about his friend, the stand-up comic “Slick” Ric Salinas. Soon, Herrera became curious about the poets closer to my immediate orbit. I had been living until then in Oakland and serving as contributing editor to Poetry Flash, developing my connections via the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with established mainstream poets such as Carolyn Kizer, Lucille Clifton, and a few others in the Bay Area, whose work we covered regularly. These poets, Kizer and Clifton in particular, motivated by a commitment to social activism, were selected to serve the Academy of American Poets as chancellors to help remake that organization as more representative of the diversity of American poets. Herrera’s curiosity and voracious appetite for poetry astonishingly matched his prodigious creative output, a continuous stream of two languages pouring into his journals and sketch pads. We who knew Herrera in his San José days considered him to be our local genius. However, he was becoming increasingly restless, wanting to find a larger platform for his poetry; he was fed up with living hand-to-mouth, piecing together teaching jobs. A colleague of his at De Anza, the poet George Barlow, suggested that Herrera apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and get his MFA so he could apply for a tenure-track job. Naturally, Herrera, who had published three books by the time he started his MFA at Iowa in the fall of 1988, was offered a teaching fellowship. One of his last public appearances for the San José Poetry Center was to introduce Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, which he did by making a collage comprised of one sentence excerpts from each of Fuentes’s books. Fuentes later told me that Herrera’s introduction was the best that has been done for him in the United States. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop recharged Herrera and served as a kind of poetry finishing school for him, working under the tutelage of poets such as Marvin Bell, Gerald Stern, and Jorie Graham. While at Iowa, he enlarged his reading of poetry beyond living poets writing in English. He read European and Russian poets in translation and poets from the Anglo-American poetic canon whom he had not formally studied before. He has said in previous interviews that the experience at Iowa gave him new tools to add to his “tool-kit” for writing poems. When asked about his Iowa Workshop experience, he has mentioned learning the subtleties of line breaks from Bell and about the power of simplicity from Stern. He also found a new champion in Bell, who helped give Herrera a wider mainstream platform in a 1989 issue of Boston Review, writing that “Juan Felipe is a storyteller, surrealist, a polemicist all at once, and as a writer he goes beyond the sometimes brittle and insular thought model we are taught to recognize as poetry into an array of forms for play and politics” (6). After his time in Iowa, Herrera returned to California, becoming a professor and eventually chair of Chicano and Latin American studies at California State University, Fresno, where he also taught creative writing until 2004. Back in Fresno, his home base, the 1990s became a period of explosive productivity for Herrera. His creativity seemed limitless as he worked in a variety of forms and genres, moving back and forth—often in the same poem—between not only English and Spanish but also Nahuatl and an array of native and vernacular dialects. Herrera writes in his hybrid memoir about his travels as a Chicano to discover his family’s origins in the lowlands of Guatemala and the Yucatan: “How can we unearth the Mayan language from four thousand years of drift outside the epicenter, in the highlands of Guatemala, from its split into thirty-one distinct tongues, from its channels into Yucatecan and Cholan?” (Mayan 107). Herrera often seems to write poems driven by the twin pressures of his internal dream life and his concerns about the external world, to extend the boundaries (both physical and imaginary) of Latina/o poetics. He explores “[p]oems about refugees about chicano borderlands, about lovers in aviaries, footloose exiles on the march to a new country, hungry musicians, poems wrapped in memories of childhood. . . . [P]oems about the Americas and theft of language, about Mexicans caught inside the metropolis without bread or names or memories” (101). Surreal collages of languages and subject matter appear in many of the poems written after this trip to Central America and his time at Iowa, culminating in his recent collections Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008) and Notes on the Assemblage. Herrera also expanded into writing children’s books that featured Mexican American characters who spoke Spanish, written for readers to whom mainstream publishing had not reached out. Branching into children’s books further enlarged his readership, giving him a place in mainstream American literature. Between 1990 and 2000 he published eleven books, including two of his most important breakthrough poetry collections: Night Train to Tuxtla (1994), in which Herrera’s full range of skills is on display, and Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream, containing “Punk Half Panther” and “Blood Gang Call,” which critics consider his signature poems from his “pre-laureate” period. An example of Herrera’s growing mastery is “Iowa Blues Bar Spiritual” from Night Train to Tuxtla: . . . Another glass please, we shall dance once again, our eyebrows smearing against each other’s cheekbones, loud with a Midwest sweat, a cantata from the crosshatch amp, click it. Click it, for wild kind rain, forgiving seasons, for the blushed bread of our shoulders and thighs, this night, everyone is here. . . . (47-51) Herrera’s poem exhibits his mature voice. The poem is a hallucinatory blues spiritual in long-lined enjambed couplets that embody the ecstatic energy of a night out in an Iowa City bar. In “Punk Half Panther,” Herrera concocts an extended globalist streetwise rant, infused with echoes of Beat, punk, hip-hop, and Pachuco lingo: Lissen to the whistle of night bats— oye como va, in the engines, in the Chevys & armed Impalas, the Toyota gangsta’ monsters, surf of new world colony definitions & quasars & culture prostars going blam over the Mpire, the once-Mpire, carcass neural desires for the Nothing. i amble outside the Goddess mountain. Cut across the San Joaquín Valley, Santiago de Cuba, Thailand & Yevtushenko’s stations; hunched humans snap off cotton heads gone awry & twist nuclear vine legs. Jut out to sea, once again—this slip sidewalk of impossible migrations. Poesy mad & Chicano-style undone wild. (1-18) “Punk Half Panther” is a poem that for me represents Herrera’s improvisatory fin de siècle heteroglossic ars poetica. In such poems, Herrera is seen inventing his signature, collaged, heteroglossic style, which characterizes many of his earlier well-known poems, including works such as “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border” (1994). Another earlier poem that stands out from Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream is “Blood Gang Call.” The poem begins: Calling all tomato pickers, the ones wearing death frowns instead of jackets Calling all orange & lemon carriers, come down the ladder to this hole Calling all chile pepper sack humpers, you, yes, you the ones with a crucifix Calling all garlic twisters caught in the winter spell of frozen sputum. (1-4) This poem works as an anaphora-driven, dithyrambic performance piece, with its long Beat-inspired, Whitmanesque lines and its surrealist catalog calling up the legions of migrant farmworkers with whom Herrera identifies and whom he celebrates. Such work represents Herrera writing at the height of his powers. These collections were followed by other iconic books such as Giraffe on Fire (2001) and Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler (2002). With the publication of Senegal Taxi (2013), Herrera further enlarged his stature as a writer who crosses genre boundaries and transcends borders, following an internationalist trajectory that significantly widened his audience. Herrera, seemingly unintentionally, was beginning to discover a large niche for his poetry, growing poetically and spiritually. Given his hybrid poetics and his infusion of languages and dialects into his poems, he was increasingly becoming a voice for our times, wanting to “write of love / in the face of disaster” (“Letter” 203-04). With the publication of books for children and young readers, such as Calling the Doves / El canto de las palomas (1995), CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse (1999), and Cinnamon Girl: Letters FoundInside a Cereal Box (2005), he continued to break new ground. Of all the poets of his generation, he was beginning to seem like someone who, as Whitman and Neruda had done, was enlarging the role for poetry in the nation’s popular and literary culture. In 2005, Herrera was appointed the Tomás Rivera Chair in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, a position he held until 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown appointed him the poet laureate of California. As California Poet Laureate, Herrera traveled tirelessly throughout the state promoting the art of poetry and language, particularly in cities that have been underserved by the arts and where a large proportion of the population is Chicana/o and Latina/o. In the 2000s, despite his relentless schedule, Herrera continued to publish major works of poetry, including two volumes of selected works: 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Crossthe Border: Undocuments 1971–2007 (2007) and Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008). He also published new collections such as Senegal Taxi and the children’s books The Upside Down Boy / El niño de cabeza (2000), SkateFate (2011), and Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (2014), among others. Additionally, he was elected as a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets, a role in which he served from 2011-16. In 2015, the Library of Congress appointed Herrera United States Poet Laureate, the first Latino to be appointed to the position. As poet laureate, Herrera energetically served two terms, democratizing poetry, bringing his incendiary and socially conscious poetics to countless audiences across the nation. While serving as laureate, he created enormous, participatory online poem projects such as La Casa de Colores and La Familia, which can be found on the Library of Congress’s website. At the end of his term, in 2017, when asked by KPBS’s Gene Guerrero how he sees his poetry changing in terms of what we are seeing politically, Herrera responded: “We’re at work. We’re rubbing our hands like this and we’re at work, [we’re] writing songs, performances, murals, painting, a lot of poetry, a lot of spoken word. . . . Why is that? Because we’re human beings and we respond to what takes place in our lives.” Although Herrera had much to say off the record about the polarizing and toxic presidential politics, he carefully avoided adding to the vitriol. To the very end of his term (Herrera stepped down from the laureateship in April 2017, giving way to Tracy K. Smith), Herrera remained cognizant of the unifying role of the poet laureate, staying above the increasing din of partisan politics in his public appearances. In 2015, Herrera published his most recent and already iconic collection of poems, Notes on the Assemblage, many of which are bilingual or surreally comic, and several of which concern themselves with the border, such as “Borderbus”; or mass killings and their ramifications, such as “Ayotzinapa”; or play on his own identity, such as “Half-Mexican.” Notes addresses a much larger and more mainstream, although still diverse, audience. Yet Herrera’s poetic evolution continues to reaffirm that he is writing as a Chicano poet. As Rigoberto González writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, [Herrera’s] voice speaks to the Chicano identity, the immigrant experience, and the struggle of the Latino artist. . . . Writing as an insider, as an activist who has journeyed through the second half of the 20th century and into the present, he has remained clear-eyed and committed to his vision: chronicling the historical, cultural and political landscape of his Chicano consciousness. It is difficult to overstate Herrera’s achievement as a poet and a spoken-word artist over the last nearly four decades. As Stephen Burt says in his 2008 profile of Herrera in the New York Times Book Review, “Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed” (94). My conversations with Juan Felipe Herrera took place sporadically on Skype, email, and the telephone over a two-year period beginning in 2015, the week he was appointed to serve as United States Poet Laureate. We finished our conversations at the Poets and Writers Inspiration Conference in January 2017 at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Herrera was the keynote speaker. In July 2017, we revisited the editing transcripts of our conversations, updating and polishing them for publication and to reflect Herrera’s current activities. Now United States Poet Laureate emeritus, he operates from the Laureate Lab Visual Words Studio, an experimental multimedia space provided to him by California State University, Fresno’s Henry Madden Library, which was dedicated in May 2017. Herrera often thinks about his legacy and the future direction of poetry in the United States. When asked by Joe Hein in the Washington Post what poems Americans should be reading now, Herrera said: “Well, for sure [Walt] Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ I would also read poems by the great Chinese poet Bai Juyi. Quiet observations of nature and self. And I would read ‘Memory Foam,’ a book of poems by Adam Soldofsky. Such a quiet, personal, deep, philosophical, unflinching, peaceful voice.” Herrera has also heralded many other boundary- and genre-crossing poets, such as Ilan Stavans, whose 2018 book The Wall Herrera praises on the University of Pittsburgh Press website as “multi-voiced rebel graffities, sharp historical punctures, excavations into Gaza, Jewish, Muslim Arabic selves, Aztlán Aztec homeland rafts, U.S.A. land rights wars, feverish routes of Mexican maps, time and space warps into China, reversible kingdoms—this autobioborderless explosion across the page, mind and heart” (“Wall”). Herrera’s vast contribution to American poetry and poetics continues to expand. His newest book, Jabberwalking (2018), is a kind of hybrid poetry handbook combined with his doodling and journal entries aimed at younger readers but full of wisdom for adults. At his base, the Laureate Lab Visual Words Studio, Herrera is busy inventing new multimodal poetic forms. In an interview with Tom Uribes of Fresno State News announcing the lab’s opening, Herrera says, “The work of the Laureate Lab explores words in all dimensions and visual mediums, from painting a poem to capturing video and sound of walks across Fresno neighborhoods” (“Laureate”). Herrera continues to promote the public art of poetry in his appearances around the nation, including offering workshops in composing painted poems. The future for Herrera is to continuously engage and work with the community, with audiences as varied as children in grades K-12 to adult poets in universities and community centers. There is virtually no place where Herrera has not found people hungry for what poetry can do. Alan Soldofsky: What does it mean to you to have been the first ever Latino poet to be United States Poet Laureate? Juan Felipe Herrera: It’s kind of the very big question. At the personal level, coming from farmworking parents, it really means a lot, especially given that my father came to the United States in the 1890s. He was fourteen, born in 1882. In 1896, he ventured north on a train—just jumped a train and went to Denver, Colorado. He just left his little village of El Mulato, Chihuahua. At fourteen years old in 1896, he made it to Denver, Colorado, to start over. You know, you jump off that train, you get a bag of corn, some clothes, whatever those clothes are. You hit the streets of Denver, hit the ranches, and you offer your labor. He offered his labor from that day in 1896 until he was in his seventies. When I was born, he was sixty-six; my mother was forty. She came north at the very tail end of the Mexican Revolution; my father came before the Mexican Revolution. My mother came from the biggest barrio in the nation at the time, which is a whole other story—Tepito, in Mexico City, a big sprawling barrio. It was working class, barely hanging on to working class in a colonia, or a barrio within Tepito, called the Niño Perdido, the Lost Child. She came north with my grandmother Juanita and aunt Aurelia. The three of them came after the brothers had come up north to Juarez and El Paso to join the Army and thinking that that’s how to bring the family. Of course, there wasn’t really a border then. It was 1918, and there was no border the way we see the border today, or talk about it, or imagine it. They lived in Juarez—my grandmother, aunt, and my mom. I have a photograph of them at customs, the border station. You still had to stop and get photographed and inspected, sometimes sprayed with chemicals. I still have that photograph. Those are my origins. Imagine what a long way that is to where I’m at now. As an only child, I lived in a little trailer my father made out of wood. It was a one-room house built on top of a busted-up car he found buried in a hill in Vista, California, or Escondido, California. That was our house. So [I went] from those origins to serving as the twenty-first poet laureate of United States—the first Latino poet laureate of the United States. That’s the expanse of my journey, so my first reaction when I was named United States Poet Laureate was shock. I was stepping into unknown territory the way my father stepped into unknown territory back in 1896, and the way my mother stepped into unknown territory in Juarez, El Paso, Texas, in 1918. I did that in 2015 in a whole different way, yet oddly parallel, if that’s possible. AS: What has it meant to you to serve two terms as laureate? JFH: It has meant that I’ve been in an expansive arena twice. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people and share experiences of poetry with them. It’s what I was able to offer California when I was the state’s poet laureate. For example, as California Poet Laureate, I visited strawberry farmworkers in Watsonville; I accomplished, with the help of many, a state-wide unity poem; also a performance documentary-poem on the lives of pioneering multi-arts teatro and radio performers Cuca Aguirre and her sister Eva Aguirre. Their performances were central to the Juarez Border Arts Renaissance of the 1930s through 1960s. Also, as California laureate, I worked on “I Promise Joanna,” a statewide anti-bullying campaign for fourth graders. Of course, I visited many places all across California, which was most important. As for being laureate of the USA, one of the first things that happened was the broadcast for the Director of the Literature and Poetry Center. The first time I got there to meet him, he said “Juan, your life is going to change.” I listened to him, and as those words passed through my system, I said, “Yeah I guess so. My life is changing all the time.” But I didn’t feel any changes. I thought about it for a while, so whatever changes are going to change, I’ll let them happen. And then I went to college after college, state after state, place after place: different audiences—some small, some immense, some thousands and thousands. And because I’ve been doing presentations and readings in the open air to community people since 1970, it just got bigger and deeper. What began to happen is that I started noticing people coming to see me and to listen to me as opposed to—maybe it’s an illusion or a cartoon in my head—wanting just to know what I had to say. It’s not like, “I’m going to hear Juan Felipe, he’s got some poetry man, let’s groove on it.” It was more like, “I really want to know what you’re going to say.” Sometimes, they’d come up to ask a question. I’d say, “Yes, go ahead.” At a Q&A for example, someone asked me, “I’m an African-American. What can I do to better strategize for political resistance?” This would happen again and again and again. I began to notice the deep concerns, struggles, soul-fevers, and dreams of the people—in many ways, ignored and minimized. AS: So being United States Poet Laureate means you have a platform you can use to talk to a lot of people one-on-one through poetry? JFH: Yes, I’ve had an opportunity to talk one-on-one with people through poems. Sometimes, I write the poems right there on the spot. It’s amazing the stories, even scientific projects, that I’d hear about from members of the audience. You also discover what people are working at for a new society—those in astrophysics are working on a “pipeline to unambiguous star-systems”; those is botany are interested in the “protein functions in the genes of the fruit fly.” What does that mean? It has to do with the fact that humans, yeast, and fruit flies share the same protein function. You take it from there. Preteen Mexican youth were interested in writing stories for those “abandoned children because their parents had been deported.” Being the poet laureate of the USA means that you are the receiver of the people’s presence and experience and also a messenger of their urgent and creative outpourings. AS: Let’s talk about your origins. You were born in Fowler, California, a rural community near Fresno, and you grew up going to school, mostly in San Diego. How did you first encounter poetry? JFH: It was because of my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Lelia Sampson, from San Diego at Lowell Elementary, in the heart of the barrio, Logan Heights. Before her, I had been punished for speaking in Spanish. It was hard to speak in English anyway, knowing only Spanish and living in the outskirts of town in that little trailer. It was so radically different coming to school. So I kind of shut down when I was reprimanded and spanked. I saw a lot of other things in second grade. It didn’t stop. Remember cloakrooms? We used to have cloakrooms where we left our coats and brown paper lunch bags with leaky tomato sandwiches or sardine heads sticking out of the sandwiches. You hang up your stuff and you go to class. My second-grade teacher was even stricter than my first-grade teacher, who was heavy duty. One of my other friends, I don’t know what he did, he was sent to the very end of the cloakroom. It was a little elementary school death row. Poor guy was bleeding. He left a lot of blood on the floor. He was just bleeding in the cloakroom. That was first grade and second grade. By third grade, I shut down. But Mrs. Sampson had us sing gospel. She was very kind and really loved teaching. She called me to the front of class to sing, . . . and I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to create a relationship with me where I just kind of moved my little body up there. I went up there and faced the audience, and she asked me what song I would like to sing. I told her, “Three Blind Mice,” and then I sang. After I finished, she said, “My, my, my, you have a beautiful voice!” And that just swept away all the other stuff, swept it out of my mind, out of my body. I said to myself, “I have a beautiful voice? I don’t know what that means. I have never heard that before. Voice? That just cannot be!” So she left me with that puzzle, and I had to put together what those words meant and how it connected to me. From third grade on up until this day, that’s been my mantra, and I pass that mantra to my students. I had a chance to speak to Mrs. Sampson when I was named the poet laureate. And she said, “You used to write poems in the third grade. I noticed you like music; that’s I why I called on you to sing.” Mrs. Sampson noticed who I really was—that was the magic. AS: What do you remember about the first poems you wrote? JFH: The poems started happening in high school, probably eleventh grade in Mr. Nietzel’s Spanish 3 class. So I was writing in Spanish at that time. I was kind of echoing Boris Pasternak’s style of poetry: short poems, short lines, and doing them in Spanish. I got a couple of them published, and that was really cool. I even went to Mr. Whightman, one of my favorite teachers, and I said, “Mr. Whightman, don’t you think I deserve an A? I have a B, but you know, I was published, Mr. Whightman.” He’s like, “okay, okay, A-.” AS: Let’s skip ahead. What led you to enroll in UCLA for your undergraduate degree? Why did you choose to major in anthropology? Were you thinking of yourself as a poet back then? JFH: UCLA was all the social world I had. It was a wild—politically, culturally, and personally—a weird and wild life. And then there was the school, the classes, and the Anthropology Department. I was in social work first because I had been on welfare all my life. I thought being a social worker was the thing I should do. I wanted to [get] into the social work field for the reason of helping others and being in communities. So then from there I went to social anthropology. And I chose social anthropology because I knew everyone was talking about culture, right? Everybody. Angela Davis was at UCLA. Chicano Studies had just opened up in 1969. I said to myself, “Everyone is talking about culture.” But I really wanted to know about it. Actually, I want[ed] to go to indigenous regions in Mexico and be face to face with the indigenous realities of our culture. Rather than talking about them and writing about them, I want[ed] to hang out with them, and sit down and break bread, and film and record and interview, and bring back some of the things that they are making; some art, some stories—as much as possible. A lot of this is in the Juan Felipe Herrera Papers in Special Collections at Stanford. AS: Were you writing at the time? JFH: At UCLA I was writing nonstop. It was like being inside a Jimi Hendrix augmented chord bouncing off a Marshall amplifier. Being new to a university, I elected to live in a Chicano version of a John Belushi Animal House film. That’s one world right there. Nonstop talking and music and hanging out and you name it was taking place. Heavy-duty discussions all night long and planning to do marches and rallies and protests along with everyone else on campus. I was always doing poetry. I just loved to write, so I was writing. Given the Chicano thing, I was writing a lot of Mesoamerican-influenced kind of poems with Nahuatl terms and learning about the Toltec and the Aztec culture and the cultures before and between—the Olmecs and the Huichol, for example. So all that was very interesting for me and for all the team. The whole Latinx crew, we were all interested in that Mesoamerican time period. AS: What drew you to poetry and to poems that work as performance pieces on the stage? JFH: I remember I was kind of feverish to do something different. I remember one of the teatro groups I put together in UCLA. I said, we’ve got to stop doing this traditional Teatro Campesino model. We’ve done it, it’s great, but we have to do something radically different. We’re going to take out the plot, we are going to take out the fact that we have to have characters. We are going to bring in music; we are going to bring jazz; we are going to put in modern dance; we are going to throw images on the wall; we are going to move around and say what we need to say that way. It just so happens the group was primed for that. I just wanted to mix new elements together; I’ve always liked that. The group was called Teatro Tolteca. We did that in l971. I think it was the first time the Chicano theaters organized themselves into the National Theaters of Aztlán, TENAZ—Teatras Nacionales de Aztlán. In 1971 it must’ve been the second annual conference where the Chicano theaters presented their stuff and workshopped and got a critique. We did our fusion theater piece called In Lak'ech. It had jazz and movement and slides and sounds, and no story, no character, no centralized plot or main character. In the critique session they asked, “What’s your message, what are you saying?” And I remember I said, “That is the message.” You have to get in there and pull it out. This style is not going to give you a packaged message. You have to just jump in and let it hit you. You’re part of it and that’s as far as we are going to go. I was trying to get beyond A + B = C. AS: Can you talk about the elements of satire and hyperbole in your poems and performance works? JFH: You mean a line like we can’t cross over the border “because someone made our IDs out of corn” (9) [in reference to the poem “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border”]? At any time we might just start singing the colores. At any moment we are going to transmogrify into a mariachi persona. . . . Remember that we had forerunners, people like Jose Montoya, Alurista, and even Teatro Campesino. I may have said we wanted to move away from the style, but that style was very complex and funny, and also very picaresque and satirical, and also thrived on wordplay. All of us were blending to some degree with each other. But I really wanted to go way out there with the New York Open Theater style, an Antonin Artaud style, which was really out there. Because I loved experiment since I was in elementary school. I was always interested in mixing strange elements together, so when it came to art it was perfect. The exact perfect thing to do. AS: You have mentioned the influential Chicano poet Alurista. How did you meet and become friends with Alurista? What is his importance to you as a poet and what is his legacy for Chicana/o and Latina/o poetry? JFH: I met him in seventh grade. We were already doing things together. I lived with him in Tijuana during my visits across the border. He lived with me in San Diego because he needed a place to stay. He managed to get to San Diego to learn English and graduate in American schools. Both of us liked jazz. I had been into jazz since the fourth grade; he got into jazz in about 1966. We both participated in one of the last “coffee houses” of Southern California, in La Mesa, called The Bifrost Bridge. Those were cool times. Alurista was the vanguard. He was a person who really burned hot at the very beginning. He had all these beautiful concepts, galvanizing concepts, like the indigenous homelands concept of Aztlán. That’s from Alurista. Of course, Luís Valdez was also kind of a coinventor, but Alurista was the one who actually walked that concept all the way through, it seems, in poetry for sure. AS: What brought you back to the Bay Area, and why did you decide to continue with your education at Stanford, where you earned your MA in social anthropology? JFH: Stanford brought me back to San Francisco. At Stanford, I met Tony Burciaga in 1978, through Rina Benmayor from the Spanish and Portuguese Department, who organized a cultural tour to Cuba. Going to Cuba was another mind-bender. I told myself [that] going to Stanford was not going to be any harder than other hard times I’d been through. My UCLA experience was great, but I splattered it all over the place. At Stanford I decided I was going to study hard, go to every class, and turn in all my papers. So I did that, but I also kind of lost focus, as well. I did the classes one hundred percent, but I didn’t know what I was going to do after passing, after my orals. Renato Rosaldo, my adviser, said, “Just write your thesis the way you write your poetry.” How can I do that? I mean he was right! He had it. Every social scientist now is doing ethnopoetics. It’s been around for a while now. But back in 1979, it wasn’t around. I was interested in writing about the Latino literary movement in the Bay Area. That was my thing. I had it all mapped out, but it was just a map. When I was at Stanford, I made a choice to go back and live in the Mission District. And Francisco X. Alarcón did, too. We were buddies by then. And so we both had this ethos, feeling, chutzpah, you know; we were going to go back to the Mission and “conquer the Bay Area. Poetry is ours!” We were all revved up. I wanted to go to every bookstore and say, “Hey, I’m ready to read, where do I sign up.” That was in 1978. It was then that I began to meet San Francisco poets. I met Jack Hirschman and met Alejandro Murguía again. He was part of the group called the Pocho-Che Collective, which was Roberto Vargas, Murguía, and a good group of people. It was connected to Rene Yanez and another group of Chicano artists from Oakland. They had kind of already flourished and were kind of sweeping the dust off the floor of the Mission Cultural Center and moving on to other experiments. Heavy things were about to happen. That was the late 70s—the Central American Sandinista Revolution. Francisco, Victor Martinez, along with Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano and Tina Alvarez Robles founded the Poetasumanos Collective. That was our thing. Pocho-Che was going underground. AS: How did you come to work with Luís Valdez? What was his influence on you and your writing? JFH: I first encountered him in 1968. I was bopping around Dolores Park in the Mission District, and I saw some people hammering together some kind of stage. I was at the back so couldn’t read what the banner said. They were finishing the setup for a stage production. So, what is this? I run slowly and go, oh, “El Teatro Campesino.” Farmworkers Theater. What the heck is that? I decided I better hang out. So I sat down and watched No Le Saco Nada de Escuela (I Don’t Get Nothing from School). That was the name of the piece. Then they began. The actors were young people my age. It was bilingual, and I thought, “Wow this is tasty.” It was all about the students not getting their cultural identity reflected in the curriculum and not being able to speak English—being punished for speaking Spanish like I had been as a child. And it was about other bigger things, like educational policies, and culture, and power. It hit me hard. That’s when I first saw Valdez. I didn’t talk to him, but I saw him. I saw what a Teatro Campesino could do. l went back home, to my mother’s tiny apartment in the Mission. I said, “Hey mom, I just came back from Dolores Park and I saw this Teatro Campesino.” She asked how did I like it. I told her that I loved it, and I was going to start one of those as soon as I got to UCLA. And that’s what I did. Valdez used to give workshops, and they were tough because I was all boxed up. It was still hard for me to express myself. It took me decades. By 1971, I had formed my own theater troupe, and turned it into a multimedia theater using dance, jazz, [and] poetry, because I had seen the Open Theatre and Cafe La Mama. I didn’t want to create plays with a traditional plot; I wanted them [to be] more like a “happening.” I saw Rudy Perez’s Modern Dance Ballet, which used slideshows projected from the back and overlaid their performance with Lorca’s poetry through the speakers while they did this weird modern dance with hardhats on. So you put that together with Cafe La Mama and Farmworkers Theater, and that’s what I did. I did a fusion theater, and that’s when I got into Valdez’s workshops. He taught me to let loose. AS: You have mentioned that when you were beginning as a poet, one of the first major bilingual Latino poets you enjoyed reading was Victor Hernández Cruz. Can you talk about how you first encountered Cruz’s work and how you later got to know him when you were both living in the Bay Area? I recall that Ishmael Reed recruited you both to serve on the board of his Before Columbus Foundation. JFH: I made contact with Victor and Ishmael Reed in 1973. Victor became a great friend, a significant influence. He was a major influence for Alurista, too. Victor Cruz’s wordplay and his improvisation excited me. “You gotta have your tips on fire”—it was just his way of speaking, his Puerto Ricanness. It was all refreshing. His books Snaps (1969), Mainland (1973), Tropicalization (1976), and By Lingual Wholes (1982) seemed made for me. The writing expressed my kind of thinking. It liberated my voice and it kind of encouraged me. We loved poetry. Then one day, you see this poem or this book in front of you, and you say, “All right! I can go with that! I love this! I want to try some of it. I’m with that, too.” You kind of create a friend. He encouraged Ishmael Reed to publish me in his California poetry anthology Calafia (1979). AS: Can you say more about the significance of Ishmael Reed to you? JFH: I used to really be into his work. I remember I liked those poems from Conjure (1984) and it was like reading Cruz but from an African American sensibility. That spoke to me a lot, and I still reverberate with those early Ishmael Reed poems. There’s a lot of music, culture, power, and a sense of improvisation in those poems. I met up with myself. AS: How did the Beats become an influence for you in San Francisco? There was Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and there was also Santana’s music floating around the Mission. JFH: San Francisco tore us apart. The coffee house movement, which is part of the Beat scene, was all over the West Coast and the East Coast, for sure. So in San Diego, California, an indigenous Chicano bilingual borderlands poetics emerged with Alurista as one of the key voices. And then we had Andrés Montoya, who was one of the other major voices from the early 60 s and late 50 s in Fresno, as well, and Sacramento was going on. So we had those voices already. Then emerged Gloria Anzaldúa, who started el Mundo Zurdo [which translates as “the Left-Handed World,” a diverse multicultural reading series and writing workshop she started in 1979 after leaving San Diego for San Francisco]. So what happened in San Diego was just to get connected to the Beats. We had the last of the coffee houses. There were still vestiges of the coffee houses there in high school. This is 1964-67, [and] you still had Beat-like coffee houses where we played folk songs, sang, played harmonica, [and] sang folk songs à la Joan Baez; Phil Oaks; Woody Guthrie; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Arlo Guthrie. That’s what we had in the coffee houses, with apple cider, hot apple cider and cinnamon sticks, and a kind of a dark atmosphere where we sang off-tune with a twangy guitar, and [you] make believe you can actually play the harmonica—like me. AS: Was there Chicano poetry going on in the coffee houses? JFH: There was Chicano poetry happening in the coffee houses. Alurista was doing Chicano poetry, and I was starting to do it. I was also doing media; I was drawing with ink and throwing words and attempting to make a hybrid art with drawing, sculpture, and language, but I didn’t follow it through. That was my first big idea. Alurista then picked up the congas from the coffee houses and began to do conga. So in San Diego we had jazz, we had coffee houses, we had soul music. So what happens with Alurista? He creates Floricanto en Aztlán, his first book, which was his effort to reclaim our cultural language and our Mesoamerican history and thought and language. So in that book, Floricanto, [which translates as Flower and Song] he has Afro-American jazz; he has Jimi Hendrix, Nahuatl, and he has Mexican borderlands Spanish and Chicano talk. So he has kind of five language dialects in that one book. So I’d call that the Chicano Beat. It’s never been called that. I’d call it the beginning of the Chicano Beat movement, which was bilingual, jazzy, rock and roll, coffee house, and jazz, and borderlands, and incantatory Nahuatl, and a new bilingual Chicano poetics. But many people only see that book as a Chicano bilingual, Nahuatl thing, not really a new Beat project. AS: But the aesthetics of the scene was heading in the direction of City Lights? Or was City Lights moving more in your direction? JFH: I had been in San Francisco in 1958 as an elementary school student at Bryant elementary. Back then I roomed on 20th and Harrison Street with my cousin Vicente—who egged me on to join the Mission Branch Boys Club on Alabama Street—and my eight cousins, my mother, and uncle and aunt. Some of my cousins were “Beatniks” because we are talking about the 50s, and they were teenagers. They were like me. They were artists, as well; they painted their walls like Calder, [and] they had Calder mobiles hanging from the ceilings. They had blue walls with crazy skulls and eyes. And one of them, Tito, played Horace Silver, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, and Thelonius Monk records, a new era in jazzy Latin American sound from Fantasy Records, housed in a building which was only a few blocks away on Tree Street from where I was at 20th and Harrison. So we had the Jazz Factory just a few blocks away; we had San Francisco; we had the Chicanos. I roomed in the same room as my crazy Beatnik cousin, Tito. He was blasting jazz every day into my fourth-grade ears. So when I went to San Diego much later I had that jazz injection already. I had the Beat injections. And then back to City Lights, which I love, and later, in the 80s, Elaine Katzenberger, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Nancy J. Peters, and everybody in that group. AS: They found you, a kindred spirit. So this is really still part of the North Beach revolution. JFH: Yes. Of course, with Jack Hirschman, who is borderless, we formed and filled in all kinds of collectives together—the Roque Dalton Brigade, the Jacques Roumain Collective. We were all doing collectives. In the Mission, Poetashumanos Collective. Steve Abbott had a group out of the Haight; Tede Matthews had one out of the Castro; Nellie Wong had Radical Woman. In Poetashumanos, it was Victor Martínez, Francisco X. Alárcon, Tina Alvarez Robles, Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano, and myself. It all was a mighty moment. AS: And then there were the Salvadoran poets in the Mission in San Francisco. JFH: Right. Then the Salvadoran poets start to come in. Jorge Argueta comes in 1983, then Cecilia Güidos, Manlio Argueta—with visitors from Central America. This is key. Every region and city and nation is made of social, cultural, and familial flows—migrant movement day in, day out. AS: Roberto Vargas? JFH: Roberto Vargas was already there in San Francisco with the Pocho Che collective and Raúl R. Salinas, Janice Mirikitani, Kathy Apodaca, and Ntozake Shange. And ’78 was the year when Francisco Alarcón and I came in from Stanford. Francisco and I said to ourselves, “Let’s go to the Bay Area! Let’s ‘conquer’ the city.” Francisco and I put together a reading at the Mission Cultural Center that year. Alejandro Murguía came out with Farewell to the Coast (1981), and that’s when we reunited. I already had met him in 1971. AS: You were all publishing in small presses and DIY desktop books and posters. JFH: One-page magazines for twenty-five cents, like “Red Trapeze.” Big posters that we put on the wall. “The Mission Street Manifesto.” We had run into a printer with a mega-press South of Market—she could print beautiful 17” x 22” sheets of poetry on off-while semi-gloss Karma paper, ah yes. AS: So you could see your poems all over the Mission? JFH: Yes, we tried to get as many up as possible. California Arts Council grants kept me alive in those years. AS: When you were living in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s, you moved to the South Bay—now referred to as Silicon Valley—you taught at De Anza College in Cupertino (down the road from Apple), and you were friends with Lorna Dee Cervantes. JFH: Right. During my Bay Area years, 1977-84, in downtown, leafy, San José, Lorna was publishing her magazine Mango out of her kitchen on a Multilith press—it looked like a giant laser printer, but it was a printing press, with handsome output. Almost everyone in Poetrylandia was in touch with Lorna Dee, so when Francisco Alarcón and I were at Stanford, we connected with her easily. I had met her in Mexico City in 1974 at the Fifth National Teatro Chicano / First Latin American Political Theatre Festival. At the festival, we met fifty theater groups. Twenty were like from Chile, Salvador, Mexico City, and Peru. We all came together. We were poor. You can imagine agitprop theater, political theater, no money, so rice and beans and tortillas three times a day and conducting interviews and typing them up and printing them up on whatever Xerox kind of machine existed. Not to mention staying in abandoned stone nunneries downtown. It was close to pure. AS: Was that part of the scene with Luís Valdez? JFH: Yes, in many ways he was the lead founder of the Chicano political theater scene in the mid to late sixties with El Teatro Campesino. I had met Luís in 1971, so this event in Mexico City was largely influenced by him, at least regarding the groups from the US. By 1968, we were forming our political theater network throughout the Southwest. AS: Then you left San José to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What happened to your work when you moved to Iowa City and enrolled in the Workshop? You have talked about the importance of poet/teachers such as Bell. Who else at Iowa helped you evolve? It seems to me that after you attended Iowa, you moved into your mature style, more self-aware of the craft and tools of poetry. And you began drawing on a much wider range of literary traditions from both the Anglo-American mainstream (so to speak), as well as more diverse and obscure indigenous, Latina/o, and Latin American sources. JFH: Iowa City and the Workshop were an oasis for me. You know I’ve always loved writing, but I’ve got myself involved in so many things, and I enjoyed them all—community organizing, traveling to Mexico, the Mission District, San Francisco, LA, doing US/Mexico arts exchanges, creating theater performance. But when I got to Iowa, it was just writing and just being at Iowa and nothing else. It was the Workshop, and you sat around with a group of writers, of cohorts, and I loved them all. We all became really tight friends, and I learned from every one of them. I’m still in contact with Matt Lippman. Lia Purpura was also in that workshop. On occasion, we still talk, as well. It was magnificent because Marvin Bell assisted me in many ways—from writing to mentoring to forming a deep friendship through life. I think he was instrumental in getting me into the program. George Barlow, a former Workshop poet had invited me to attend back at De Anza College in ’87. Marvin had written good reviews of my work in The Boston Review early on. When I saw that review, and I was already in the program, I said, “Really?” I didn’t know he liked my poetry. “Is my poetry likeable?” … When you start writing in that intense environment, you don’t know if you’re going to make it or not. “Is my writing okay? Am I gonna pass? Am I crummy?” We had all those issues about “good and bad” poetry. I’m very thankful for Marvin. The things Marvin taught me permitted me to write fifteen books. And Gerald Stern, too, of course. He’s a great poet and I learned a lot from him, too. I immediately wanted to write like how he wrote; it’s very smooth, nostalgic, with a very soft, tender tone and always a deep narrative core. The things he writes about kind of take you places, and you never forget the poem. They stay with you all day and the next day. “Another Insane Devotion” (1987)—my wife, Margie, is always quoting that poem. I was a new guy after Iowa. I was a new poet. I had the torch, but I needed the fuel. I had the torch writing twenty years in California and various communities, but I needed a new ingredient, and that ingredient was because of the classes I took at the Workshop with Marvin Bell, Jerry Stern, and Jorie Graham. So when I walked out of there, I was fully shaped. In the University of Iowa library, I saw the intensity in James Joyce’s journals, the extreme language genius. I also looked at Darwin’s field notebook, and I tasted as many poetry books on those immense shelves as I could. People kept mentioning people I didn’t know. In workshop, I’d always heard names unfamiliar to me. John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, and the list goes on. Georgia O’Keefe I kind of knew. Alfred Stieglitz, I went, “Who is that?” I was always going, “Who’s that? Who’s that? Who’s that?” So I’d run and pick it up and learn about these artists and poets. Fuel, fuel. AS: You published a book called Night Train to Tuxtla in 1994, and you said one of your key concerns as a writer is to unearth the stories about Chicana/o and Latin American experience. So is that still one of your concerns after being California Poet Laureate and United States Poet Laureate? How have you been able to incorporate your interest in your experience of Chicana/os and Latina/os in your recent poems? JFH: Well, you know, that’s the way I was thinking then in the 90s before I became California Poet Laureate. What it comes down to is that I found that my lens had to become bigger. In a way, talking about the Latina and Latino experience is just a natural expression for me. Sometimes I have particular projects like the Stars of Juarez project, which was a performance piece based on Cuca and Eva Aguirre from the Juarez Renaissance of the 30s. That’s kind of a very specific project focused on two women that were singers, dancers, poets, and songwriters who were part of the root moment of what is now Latina aesthetics and Chicana poetics. That’s a very focused project. So I did that the last few years as a California laureate. But lately I’ve been talking about the Middle East in some poems, as well as writing and talking about Darfur and the Sudan in Africa. I believe in having the widest lens possible while at the same time talking about what I see taking place in the Latina/Latino community. But it’s not necessarily in a documentary approach or a “culturalist” approach. It’s more about flashes of insight that I gained at a particular moment, and then [I] include [that] in a poem as opposed to a complete story or a complete investigation—which is closer to anthropology, or “anthropoetics,” as Renato Rosaldo says in his magnificent, The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief (2013) anthropoetry collection. AS: How have you incorporated Spanish language into your work over the years? Has that changed since you have been the US poet laureate? JFH: I still enjoy doing that a lot and have a great time doing a kind of Chicana/o crossword puzzle-like presentation, playing with the words and hav[ing] the audience respond. For example, here’s a list of kitchen words: sartén, molcajete, estufa, cuchara, platillo, menudo. And I throw [out] a whole list of chiles guaje, chile jalapeño, chile japonés, chile piquín, chile chiltepín, güero. I like it because those words are usually insulated (strangely enough) on the other side of the tracks. You don’t hear sartén, molcajte, comal out here on this side of the tracks. But you probably do if you have a conversation in San Francisco’s Mission District. So I like to liberate the words. I like to have micro-liberations. So I’ll throw the words out. I enjoy that. For my poet laureate closing event, I was writing songs for the Fresno State Choir who went to Washington, DC, to sing. So I threw some kitchen words into the piece I’d been writing. I wanted to do a kind of syncopated jazz piece—with kitchen words. AS: How has your experience in teatro helped you create this kind of work? Does teatro mean improvisation for you? JFH: Oh, yeah, it’s pure improvisation; it’s voices and impersonation and word play and also teatro shticks. I was really able to get into the voices when I wrote Senegal Taxi. I even have the Kalashnikov AK-47 speak, the ants speak, the flies speak, and the children who have been killed speak. The mother speaks. So it’s a piece made out of many voices. And that comes out of the good old teatro days, and I’ve continued doing that. AS: Let’s talk some more about your position as US poet laureate as appointed by the Library of Congress. The position requires you to be nonpartisan, right? What political free speech constraints did they talk to you about when you came into office? JFH: [Laughs] In a sense I had to remind myself that being US poet laureate is a nonpartisan position. I remember Larry King saying to me on his radio show, “I understand that I’m not supposed to ask you questions about immigration.” I said, “You’re right Larry because if I get into that, I’ll be selling pencils on the street.” AS: Were you given a list of things you can or can’t do? JFH: I was able to talk about whatever I wanted as long as I would avoid answering the hot questions regarding President Trump’s stand on immigration or Trump’s statements about the wall—whatever statements Trump has made, political statements, about immigration or the terrible term illegal aliens. Whenever I got asked about that directly in an interview, I could still talk about it, but when those questions would come up, I needed to respond through my poetry. I’d say something like, “I’ve talked about this in all my poems; for example, in ‘187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.’” This is what I said. AS: So you finished your second term in the laureate position at the end of April 2017. Then were those constraints taken off you? JFH: Yeah, the constraints were off me. I served my time. Since then, I’ve been a partisan-talking guy. AS: Given that you’ve finished two terms in office, can you say something about what you think American poets should be writing about? How would you advise poets to respond to the current political climate? JFH: Everybody responds differently. A lot of writers are responding right now. As you know, we have had many publications overnight and also many politically inspired collective readings. People have held readings outside in the open air, outside particular institutions wherever they may be: LA, DC, San Francisco. Poets are expressing concerns that we all have regarding what’s happening. So after I finish my second term, I can easily participate in all that and join with the people who are responding. But I don’t have to write poems, elevated poems, and complex poems, poems with as many melodies as possible. Sometimes poems are hard for the public at large to decipher and, yet, not as hard as we think. We are part of the “public.” It just takes time for poems to inspire change. AS: Are there role models? I’m thinking about Latin American poets in particular, someone like Pablo Neruda, who was a senator. JFH: Of course, Pablo Neruda had a very public voice. He loved the miners, and the miners loved him, especially those [who] participated in the Republican Army. The army loved him so much that they tore off their clothes and turned [them] into pulp to make an edition of Canto General. They used cloth from their own trousers that they had left behind and tore it all up and mashed it and created a beautiful edition of one of his books. But his voice wasn’t ethereal; his voice wasn’t theoretical even though I’m sure it had theory in it. But he was a highly accessible guy. And also, times have changed. We do not live in a time of one great poet anymore. We live in a time of many voices in as much media as possible going in all directions at the same time. AS: Do we have a North American model for working in poetry like Pablo Neruda worked in poetry? JFH: Well you know we’ve had models, and I’m sure we have a model now. The spoken word movement is highly electrifying, and we all have different aesthetics. I think spoken word poets are mostly very young poets—they have all ages, of course—who just say it, they talk about issues directly: police brutality, for example; global warming, for example; and the human political body; and what’s called the “government.” They don’t mess around, and I think their aesthetics are explosive—open and mesmerizing and extremely social and multivocal. A lesson for us all, writers and speakers. AS: How do you see your role changing after you step away from being poet laureate? You’re not going to step away from the kind of writing you do? JFH: I want to get more into painting, more into drawing, more into nontraditional theater. I’d like to do more collaging and paper sculpturing and photo poems. I’d like to try doing something like Danny Lion does, a great photographer who has assembled photographs in a kind of star-like shape on paper. He used different photographs from different periods and different styles. And then he would kind of just juxtapose them together. Or Bob Adelman, who documented the Civil Rights Movement up-close. It all happens on its own. AS: Could you see yourself writing a kind of performance piece for being recorded as a musical piece or a Hamilton-like rock opera or something of that sort? JFH: That’s a whole different animal. I think I’m more leaning toward Philip Glass, where the music is kind of torn up and weird sonic sounds from busted up amplifiers or ambient digital weirdnesses, with language and maybe some overlays of particular narratives and voices. I’m kind of getting inspired by that. We were talking about filmmaking yesterday, and I’d like to, for example, follow a couple of characters in the street a la [Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s film] An Andalusian Dog (1929), and where they have very short dialogue. So the speakers would have very clear voices. I have written a poem called “The Border Bus,” which is a dialogue between two women speaking together on a border bus. Writing a musical is another thing, a long journey for a cross-country writer. I am more of a sprinter. AS: The poem “Border Bus”—that’s in Notes on the Assemblage? JFH: Yes. So I’d like to do more poems like that using these sonic and visual media experiments. So the visual would be very detached in some ways from the dialogue and yet remotely related. AS: You mentioned that as poet laureate one of the tasks you had to do was to write occasional poems. Sometimes you found yourself writing about questions regarding the violence happening in the country. And you were reaching out to the victims of that violence. JFH: That’s something I do. I just believe that the color of poetry is not for the writer. It’s not even for poetry itself. It’s for everyone, in particular for people in crisis. Whether you call it poetry of witness or political poetry or poetry of protest or social poetry, that’s a kind of genre-making. I’m more interested in writing something on the spot for a person or group who is the victim of a horrific event—and not being workshoppy about the poem. What I want to do is just express my feelings in a clear way in a poem to as many people as possible who will be able to read it, and not turn around and hear my readers asking, “What is he talking about?” AS: Didn’t you do that with a couple of pieces in Notes on the Assemblage? JFH: Oh, yeah. In Notes on the Assemblage, that’s exactly why I labeled it an assemblage. I didn’t structure the book in the typical current way of constructing poetry books. I literally gathered what I had on the table because in the last four years that I’ve been writing, I’ve really been on the road as California Poet Laureate and United States Poet Laureate. And there is really no time to focus, hour-by-hour, day by day, on a large threaded project. AS: Did you write occasional poems in Notes on the Assemblage? You said some of your poems were occasioned by tragedy or needing to reach out to a particular person or group. What were those poems? JFH: The very last poem for sure, which is called “Poem by Poem.” I also wrote that in Spanish. I called upon Lauro Flores, a professor of American ethnic studies and golden age Spanish literature and Chicano lit at the University of Washington, to review and work on the poems in Spanish. So this is the very last poem in the collection. It’s about the massacre of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of 2015. I wrote it about a day or two after the terrible incident. Later, family members also at the same church read it. That made it all come together and reinforced the purpose of writing for those who are hurting. AS: When you finished Notes on the Assemblage, did you feel that you had gotten to a new place in your writing? JFH: Yes, I did. I got to a place where I was dropping the novelistic approach to compose a book. I’d become very involved crossing over into writing novels with poetry to assemble them. I’d have arcs in there; I’d have deep thematic channels taking place and even characters that speak and movement of the voice as it progresses, as opposed to the early times we just had a collection of weird, wild, and ecstatic poems. I let go of all that stuff when I wrote Notes on the Assemblage. A typical collection takes time; you really have to crunch it. I’d really have to sit down for two to three hours a day consistently nonstop maybe for two weeks to have that kind of book. So what I’ve been doing has limited my focus and time available. So it changed the form and process of my writing. I’m literally writing words like “apples” and “oranges” and “bananas” and “grapefruits.” And I write them on paper and I’m done. That’s how limited my time is, so that’s changed my whole style. It’s hard to write like that because it’s just too plain. “Plain” is good. Plain means everywhere and everyone, by the way. So I’ve gone in that direction, and I’m enjoying it. It’s nothing new, either. The Dadaists did that. Mayakovsky did that. Rosario Castellanos did that. Lao Tzu, too. AS: So is there something in local politics in Fresno, or in California, that crosses your mind that you want to become actively engaged in? JFH: The “187 Reasons” poem came out of a real anger. Prop 187 meant that we couldn’t get any health services and education services. So I thought, “Is that it? What are people going to do?” Well, I had to respond. We all have to respond to inequality rationales. AS: I was thinking of two of your longer works that might have sources that you can talk about. One of them is “Punk Half Panther,” which I read as a kind of manifesto, and the other is Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler. JFH: Those are some very intense writings, the kind of writing that just grabs me and throws me against the wall, and all I can do is write. It’s a nonstop, extremely fast kind of writing, like jumping in a beat-up Chevy—just punch the gas as hard as you can and ride until the wheels fall off. AS: Do you remember when you wrote “Punk Half Panther” how conscious you were of what moves you were making in that poem? JFH: I’m never that conscious. I write unconsciously, literally. I write with one eye open, one eye closed. I speak out as I write without knowing it. AS: So “Punk Half Panther” came out of that one eye open / one eye closed? What about the persona of Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler? JFH: I don’t know. I like to write many different kinds of poems, many different kinds of personas. In that one I got too personal. It’s one of my most personal collections; I have a hard time reading those poems. Sometime people say, “I want you to read these poems,” and then I start reading, and I say, “Oh no, I’m going to have to walk on live coals. I don’t want to read these lines.” AS: So “Chile Verde” is too reflexive, and it’s emotional for you to think of as work you can recite in public? JFH: I’m surprised I wrote it. I talked in it about my father. They’re not bad things but very private things—my own inner struggles with the life I led as a child, as a teenager. It’s not a poem of blame. I’m just kind of laying out the photograph that I inhabited at that time, and then, of course, a poem is not a reality “out there”; it is art, as Li-Young Lee once told me. AS: So let me ask about where you’re living now. You’ve gone back to Fresno. Is there a reason why Fresno is such a powerful place for poetry? There are so many poets who come from Fresno: you and Gary Soto and before that Philip Levine, just to name a few. Can you talk a little about the Fresno poetry scene? JFH: It’s a good question to ask about Fresno. That’s my base, where I have my Laureate Lab, which is an experimental writing multimedia lab at the library at Cal State University, Fresno. I have two giant rooms with carving tables and a plastic wall to paint on. Fresno is just a continuous perfect storm. Living in Fresno, we had Philip Levine, William Saroyan, and the Armenian exiles, and the migrant waves of children and farmworkers—all kinds of people that come together in our area. Fresno’s a central hub of the Central Valley of California. So we have been the place that spawned people like Omar Salinas and the Chicano literary movement. Besides Phil Levine, there’ve been poets like David St. John, Christopher Buckley, the late Larry Levis, and Diana Garcia, a farmworker poet who’s popped out of Fresno. Gary Soto popped out in ’76 with his groundbreaking book, Elements of San Joaquin. And the early singers and musicians recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in the 30s. AS: Let’s talk about today’s generation that gets tagged as “digital natives.” How can poetry and the movements that we have been talking about—that came through so many different facets of these tribal groups, through poems that began to speak to one another—how can that kind of seriousness be presented in a way that’s appealing to kids that grow up on the Internet and Facebook? JFH: Well that’s a cool challenge because the notion of poetry, the notion of writing, the notion of society, and the notion of communication [are] . . . whole different thing[s] for digital natives. It’s not necessarily writing with a fountain pen like I do on a sketchbook [or] like I do using markers. That is not the thing; that’s not it. Communication isn’t, “Hey Alan, how you doing?” Even though that’s still true. It’s all digital. It’s fast. It’s cutting and pasting. It’s not face-to-face. Their tribe exists for seconds, or for ten minutes. It’s not a tribe that lasts for years in the community, in the bookstore, in coffee houses, in organizing programs and events. It’s all inside a digital network and space. We are not talking about a new style or linkage, we are talking about an entire new society with new traditions on redoing and recoding everything that has been done from start to finish. Talking is not talking anymore; it is texting. Period. Or a hashtag. AS: So how do we reproduce the kind of poetic renaissance that our generation experienced? JFH: No can do. It is being reinvented in more dimensions than we know by new generations in new spaces and cohorts. Our time has passed; that’s good. We just do what we do and flow and change. AS: How do we teach these younger folks, as well as our own cohorts, to recognize and to resist the dominant narratives of power? JFH: We must learn to resist the visual symbolic narrative of power, not just ideas in our heads that we say to someone verbally. Ideas can disappear in a split second. Those billboards don’t disappear in a split second. That media doesn’t disappear. When you go to a mall, you are imprisoned by symbolic portrayals and advertisements of violence because they’re not your culture. They are taking over our culture. That is a whole new thing—a corporate takeover. Even a potato chip bag is more redeveloped and enhanced at a higher rate than the availability of school lunches for children. You tell me. AS: You mentioned yesterday at your Poets and Writers Forum talk that part of your purpose is, as a poet and for yourself as a person, to learn not just to respond or address the audience but to be the audience. You remember Whitman said: “[T]o have great poetry, there must be great audiences” (“Notes” 1058) And I keep thinking Whitman’s job wasn’t to be a US poet laureate, but he saw himself as a consoler. He went around the hospital in DC, [and] he sat by the bedsides of the wounded and dying Union soldiers and even some Confederate soldiers. He worked in the building that is now the National Portrait Gallery. JFH: I believe in poems of consolation. This is what I think is good for all poets to do. Like for the people of Sandy Hook. A person came up to me after a reading and thanked me for the Sandy Hook poem and for other poems I read that my UC Riverside student poets wrote and sent to the families. Same with the poem I wrote for the people of UC Santa Barbara. I didn’t write it to get a response. I get more responses from poems of compassion or consolation or emergency poems, as Nicanor Parra called them. Emergency poems. I think this is a time of multiple emergencies. I think a writer for the LA Times coined the term small massacres. Small massacres call for big poetic gestures. AS: One last question. Walt Whitman wrote: “I am large . . . I contain multitudes” (“Leaves” 78). It seems odd there’s not an expanding readership for poetry with so many good poets that we’ve been talking about, writing in these communities in San Francisco, Fresno, and San Diego, coming from wider cultural backgrounds, and representing a wider range of literary styles. However, recent National Endowment for the Arts surveys show poetry’s readership is still declining. Can you comment on what you think is happening? Where is the readership, the audience, of poetry going? JFH: Well, you know, not much has changed. Poets are still the readership for poetry. We are our own audience. We’re in the academy; we are in some high schools. Gary Soto is everywhere. Margarita Engle is everywhere. We are in libraries. Libraries have expanded. Some libraries are dedicated to community activists. That’s beautiful. There are libraries in schools related to artists, and that’s great. Judy Baca Elementary School in LA, for instance [currently the Judith F. Baca Arts Academy]. So all that’s good. Poets have more exposure in media. That's good. We have more exposure on YouTube. We have more spoken-word contest winners of color—that’s good—like the Youth Laureate movement in California. But in terms of the older generation of writers, we’re literally writing for ourselves. That’s what’s taking place. What we have to do is find a way to solve that problem. However, remember, the writing has changed. The spaces for writing have changed. Language itself and its purposes, meanings, sources, speakers, and media channels have changed. In a way, poetry is taking over the world. Still, in some countries (not to be named), presidents speak of a new kind of poetics of power. Can you guess what country that is? Footnotes Muchas gracias to Vinnie D. Lopez, my graduate assistant and MFA student in poetry at San José State University, for his meticulous transcribing of the interview recordings and for assisting with the editing and fact-checking of “A Border Crosser’s Heteroglossia.” Works Cited Bell Marvin. “A Poet’s Sampler.” Boston Review, vol. 14, no. 5, 1989, p. 6. Burt Stephen. Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry. Graywolf P, 2009. Gonzalez Rigoberto. “Juan Felipe Herrera’s Global Voice and Vision.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 23 Sept. 2015, lareviewofbooks.org/article/juan-felipe-herreras-global-voice-and-vision/. Guerrero Jean. “Juan Felipe Herrera Discusses Border Walls and Poetry.” KPBS Evening News, 17 Jan. 2017, www.kpbs.org/news/2017/jan/27/juan-felipe-herrera-discusses-border-walls-and-poe/. Heim Joe. “The U.S. Poet Laureate on What America Should Be Reading Now.” The Washington Post, 2 Mar. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/the-us-poet-laureate-on-what-america-should-be-reading-now/2017/02/28/b8298586-e7dd-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html? utm_term=.e1342430b198. Herrera Juan Felipe. “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.” 1994. Herrera, 187 Reasons, pp. 29-35. Herrera Juan Felipe. “Blood Gang Call.” Herrera, Border-Crosser, p. 20. Herrera Juan Felipe. Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream. U of Arizona P, 1999. Herrera Juan Felipe. Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. U of Arizona P, 2008. Herrera Juan Felipe. “Iowa Blues Bar Spiritual.” Herrera, Night Train, pp. 120-22. Herrera Juan Felipe. “Laureate Lab: Spaces for Creativity—4 Poet Laureates at Open House,” interview by Tom Uribes. Fresno State, 8 May 2017, fresnostatecah.com/2017/05/10/laureate-lab-spaces-for-creativity-4-poet-laureates-at-open-house/. Herrera Juan Felipe. Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America. Temple UP, 1997. Herrera Juan Felipe. Night Train to Tuxtla. U of Arizona P, 1994. Herrera Juan Felipe. Notes on the Assemblage. City Lights, 2015. Herrera Juan Felipe. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. City Lights, 2007. Herrera Juan Felipe. “Punk Half Panther.” Herrera, Border-Crosser, pp. 2-7. Herrera Juan Felipe. “Tropicalized Mission Palms.” Shaping San Francisco’s Digital Archive @ Found, www.foundsf.org/index.php? title=Tropicalized_Mission_Palms. Accessed 7 Feb. 2018. Herrera Juan Felipe. “The Wall.” University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx? bookId=36765. Rosaldo Renato. The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief. Duke UP, 2013. Schuessler Jennifer. “Juan Felipe Herrera, from Farm Fields to Poet Laureate.” New York Times, 10 June 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/06/10/books/juan-felipe-herrera-of-california-to-be-next-poet-laureate.html. Whitman Walt. “‘Leaves of Grass’ 1855.” Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan, Library of America, 1982, pp. 27-145. Whitman Walt. “Notes Left Over.” Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan, Library of America, 1982, pp. 1050-75. Selected Works by Juan Felipe Herrera Akrílika. Alcatraz Editions, 1974. Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream. U of Arizona P, 1999. Calling the Doves / El canto de las palomas. Children’s Book P, 1995. Cinnamon Girl: Letters FoundInside a Cereal Box. Cotler/HarperCollins, 2005. CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse. U of New Mexico P, 1999. Exiles of Desire. Lalo P, 1983. Facegames. As-Is So & So Publications, 1987. Giraffe on Fire. U of Arizona P, 2001. Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. U of Arizona P, 2008. Jabberwalking. Candlewick P, 2018. Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America. Temple UP, 1997. Night Train to Tuxtla. U of Arizona P, 1994. Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler. U of Arizona P, 2002. Notes on the Assemblage. City Lights, 2015. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border. Borderwolf P, 1994. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments1971–2007. City Lights, 2007. Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes. Penguin, 2014. Rebozos of Love. Toltecas en Aztlán, 1974. Senegal Taxi. U of Arizona P, 2013. SkateFate. HarperCollins, 2011. The Upside Down Boy / El niño de cabeza. Children’s Book P, 2000. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States – Oxford University Press
Published: May 23, 2018
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