Teaching Poetry Means ‘Make It Human’: Q&A with Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta
Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

This month, West Coast writers are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of California Poets in the Schools, a collective of professional poets who facilitate poetry and performance workshops in schools around the state. Each year, CPITS introduces more than 26,000 students to poetry and performance; each year, these students generate more than 100,000 poems through the program. By exposing children to poetry at a young age, CPITS teachers encourage a conception of poetry as a humane, practical, and social endeavor. They coach students in a skill they will likely use all their lives: that of studying and expressing their experiences and of making something tangible and novel in the process.

Since its inception, the organization, which began as the Pegasus Project at San Francisco State, has served half a million students, brought programs to schools in twenty-nine counties, and garnered an impressive list of volunteers. One such teacher is Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of California since 2012, who led his first writing workshop as a CPITS volunteer in the early 1970s. Since then, in addition to writing more than twenty books for children and adults, Herrera has led numerous poetry and arts programs, from El Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego to the Soledad Correctional Facility to the University of Iowa. (He currently holds a professorship at the University of California, Riverside, where he was appointed the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in 2005.) In honor of CPITS’ semi-centennial, we spoke with Herrera, a past ZYZZYVA contributor (issues No. 13 and No. 89), via email about his experiences teaching poetry.

ZYZZYVA: Generally speaking, how does teaching inform and renew your own writing?

Juan Felipe Herrera: Well, my students are brighter than me, and they are more original than me and much quicker of mind—so I am very fortunate to be in their company. I learn a lot. The shape of their poems, for example, their innovative translation approaches, their leaps into international and multicultural poetics … and their ideas.

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Z: Could you write without teaching, or does the one necessitate the other? Do you prioritize one over the other?

JFH: These days I think it is good to be in society—to wake yourself up in the throng and mix of people on sidewalks, subways and cafeterias—so teaching writing keeps me at the root of things: new voices, new experiences and new ways of meditating on life and the planet. Both are extremely essential.

Both are also equal—I write wherever I am and with whatever medium I find, and also I do not have to write. It is good to be in non-writing space where life writes bigger than you.

Z: Will you share with us one lesson plan or writing prompt you have found to be consistently fruitful with students of all ages?

JFH: Besides the cut-and-paste-your-poem at random, and besides using the form of a Mayan Huipil to write a poem as a star-shape, as a “universe blanket” that “carries” your story in order to continue the motion of the cosmos, and besides writing a poem as real box or kit, in the manner of a Fluxus art project, or using a dry wall slab to puncture it, peel it and perforate it with a nail and then translate the slab as if it was a lost monument—I would say that one of the most basic and human experiments was to simply to take a poem with immense humanity in it, perhaps a Denise Levertov poem or a poem that slowly led the poets into the suffering of an individual or animal. This was most moving. One of the poets in class had had a difficult time getting to the “poem.” She was attempting to write in a “cool” manner, an “intellectual” thing in vogue … but it was not until she used day-to-day language about a most real event—it was the trapping of a bear, I think, that ignited her back to herself as a poet—from there on, she wrote and wrote and won a scholarship. The human condition is the heart of it all.

Z: What makes this prompt—letting a poem lead you into the suffering of another living thing—so generative and interesting?

JFH: Because it brings out your humanity. It includes all of you and the bigger you—not just a concept or an architecture of line and syntax.

Z: How do you identify talent in your young students? Is “talent” for writing differentiable from “passion” for writing?

JFH: All are talented. I do not need to identify it, since all have it. All have talent because all have life, and life is so talented it begets new stars in the solar system, for example, so no need to worry.

Passion is another thing—we need to get rid of so much negative thinking and so many chores and duties and obligations—so that passion can run over us and write itself back into our life-code. Passion is non-stop delight.

Z: What is your approach as an instructor when you are faced with a passionate young writer: to actively nurture and support them, or to get out of the way of their particular genius?

JFH: The more you remove yourself from the picture the better.

Z: Finally, what advice would you give a young creative writing teacher?

JFH: Experiment every day. Let students teach your class a little bit every week and notice how your class will liven up and create new wild rings of creativity … and see what happens. Use colors, use different sizes of paper, use all four walls simultaneously, use music, use boxes of weird found objects, use magazines and cut out words, use the various poetry archives on the internet, and the international ones too, dedicate poems to families and those in pain, honor others, make it human, use performance, create poetry murals and poetry choirs, work in groups, go outside—move energy, move mind.

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