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Juan Felipe Herrera Brings Poetry and Inspiration to Shasta College

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera, signing autographs after his presentation.

BY BOONE ASHWORTH

Juan Felipe Herrera, US Poet Laureate and activist, took to the stage of the Shasta College Theatre Wednesday evening to share a varied selection of his poems and stories. An energetic speaker, Herrera engaged the audience with a lively blend of humor, personal anecdotes, and heartfelt messages of community and creativity.

The author of thirty books, Herrera is also a former California Poet Laureate and retired professor from UC Riverside. His appearance at Shasta College came just six days after he began the second term of his tenure as US Poet Laureate.

Herrera’s appearance was arranged through a partnership between the Shasta College Foundation and The McConnell Foundation, as part of the ongoing Community Speakers Series.

Herrera began his presentation with words of gratitude and encouragement: “Everyone here has a beautiful voice. That is my message. I am here to promote and support and be with you in the creation and expression of your beautiful voice.”

He read a wide selection of his poetry, some of which came from his newest book, Notes on the Assemblage. His poems often combined English and Spanish while playing with many different rhythm and spacing techniques. At times, the poems could catch the audience off guard, either from an unexpected turn in style, or by the poet’s sly humor.

Juan Felipe Herrera speaking

“We’re always questioning things in creative writing,” said Herrera. “We want to kind of take them apart and put them back together again, like molecules. Like interesting atoms from another planet. We want to put the atoms from this planet – and atoms from that planet – together.”

Herrera shared many of his personal experiences, from his young life as the son of migrant farm workers to his recent exploration of the Library of Congress as Poet Laureate. He drifted across the length of the stage, occasionally adopting different voices as he acted out various vignettes and conversations. At one point he produced a harmonica and wove the music in with his storytelling, as a way of showing his connection with the songs of his past.

Herrera described the humble beginnings of several great creators of famous literature, saying, “We all begin scribbling. We all begin jotting. We all begin just exploring the language and words that we love.”

Herrera spent most of the evening showcasing his signature style of wit and humor. In one particularly rousing instance, he led the audience in a call-and-response style reading of a piece where he asked the crowd to chant the words of the poem back to him.

Shasta College Theater

He did not shy away from more serious topics, however. One of the longest poems of the night was written for the victims of the June nightclub shooting in Orlando, FL. Another was dedicated the memory of his friend and fellow writer Victor Martinez, who died in 2011. At one point, Herrera also told the story of one of his earliest memories, conveying the shock he felt as he watched some of his young friends being dragged out of their house and taken away by the Border Patrol.

When these moments of gravity came up, Herrera used them to convey his recurring message of compassion and unity. He emphasized the role poetry can have in helping people through times of hardship and how beneficial poetry is for both writer and reader.

For Herrera, a poem is, “like when you put your arm around your friend who’s having a hard time.”

In an interview with The Lance, Herrera offered some advice to aspiring poets.

“Be as free and experimental and wild as you can, because poetry is that place, it is the core of your explosive self. It’s not the shell of who you are, it’s the core of who you are. … Remember that poetry is a gift. It’s a gift to you and it’s a gift to others. Let that move you. Give your poem to people. Give your poem to someone who is hurt, or just give your poem to the world and it will be received.”

Juan Felipe Herrera Book Signing Line

The first Community Speaker Series at Shasta College ran from 1967-1972. It was revived in 2015, thanks to a joint effort between the Shasta College Foundation and The McConnell Foundation. The series has featured past guests such as former Secretary of Homeland Security and current University of California system president Janet Napolitano, author Rick Bass, and author Pam Houston.

The revitalized series, helmed by Scott Thompson and Nancy de Halas at the Shasta College Foundation, aims to invite speakers with a talent for inspiration and a dedication to others.

“It’s kind of our own version of Ted Talks,” said Kathryn Gessner, a writing professor at Shasta College and liaison for the guest speakers. “The question we wanted to answer is: ‘How can we improve our community? … How can we be unified?’ … Each one of our speakers has given us an idea, and gotten people actively involved here in Redding and in the larger community.”

She praised The McConnell Foundation for their support of the students of Shasta College, saying, “We are really indebted to The McConnell Foundation for being our partners in this. … This is an extension of their vision: offering something really special to the North State.”

When asked about the decision to invite Juan Felipe Herrera to speak as part of the series, Gessner said that it was an exciting “bit of serendipity.”

From left to right: Paul Calkins, Kathryn Gessner, Nancy de Halas, and Scott Thompson with the Shasta College Foundation

From left to right: Paul Calkins, Kathryn Gessner, Nancy de Halas, and Scott Thompson with the Shasta College Foundation

“We want to provide something different to the campus and community … a voice that we haven’t heard before.”

“He has high status as Poet Laureate,” said Shasta College professor Paul Calkins, who introduced Herrera before his presentation. “And also he has a storytelling manner which is extremely accessible, warm, and friendly. It’s unusual to find that combination in any speaker.”

Gessner further commented, “He has been one of the best Poet Laureates we’ve had. He has been so inspiring to so many people.”

As for the future of the speaker series, the members of the Shasta College Foundation seem both optimistic and excited about the types of individuals who could someday be brought to the campus. The consistent theme of the series is community change, as well as providing a lasting positive experience for those who attend the lectures.

Gessner believes that participants will leave the Speaker Series presentations and feel inspiration resonating within them: “We get information, we get motivation, we get ideas, and we take that along with us.”

This sentiment echoes the words of Juan Felipe Herrera: “We need freedom of thought at all times. … We need to connect on a historical, cultural level, which we have kind of forgotten, and we also need to connect on a technological level. Both. We cannot leave one for the other. … Otherwise we’re going to shrink. We’re gonna peel off like an old apricot. We don’t want to do that. There’s always new horizons.”

Juan Felipe Herrera and Margarita

Herrera and his partner Margarita Robles

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