In the third grade, Juan Felipe Herrera, the United States poet laureate, thought of himself as "Mr. Back Row." The idea of standing up in front of a large group of people and speaking out loud was not something he longed to do.
As a son of migrant farmworkers who was still learning English, he preferred to sit in the rear of the class and not draw any attention.
His teacher, Mrs. Sampson, changed all that with five simple words. After hearing Herrera sing a simple song, Sampson told him, "You have a beautiful voice."
At the time, Herrera didn't know exactly what the teacher had said to him, but he soon learned the meaning of the words "beautiful voice." And more importantly, he began to search for what made his voice unique and how he could use it to help others.
"So, it became the puzzle," said Herrera, "…it became my life quest of figuring out my voice. Detangling it. Getting on with it and then turning it around and encouraging others with the same phrase."
Herrera spoke on Thursday, Sept. 15, in the Trabant University Center. His visit was part of UD's Latino Heritage Month Extravaganza.
The Center for Black Culture organized the lecture with support from HOLA, Campus Alliance de La Raza, Chi Upsilon Sigma Latin sorority, Residence Life and Housing, the Department of English, the Division of Student Life and the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program.
Herrera said he believes people have the power to bring about social change through sharing their unique experiences in their own beautiful voices.
Much of his recent work has centered around the acts of violence in our society. Poetry, in Herrera's view, helps us heal.
"That's what we can do with our poems," he said. "People see the poems that we write for those that have been hurt, and it will make a difference."
In an excerpt from his poem titled, "i Will Lov U 4Ever, Orlando," which was written in response to the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub earlier this year, Herrera read:
"Who is going to brush my arms up against the sky hermanito/who is going to shake my hips against the wavy light hermanita/who is going to leap rounder than these tumbler bullets striking tu y yo/who is going with the woman flying out the narrow crystals you & me/toward the flooded yellow-green exit/who is going to kiss kiss her metallic wounds sharpening/& catch her body twist & face down/at the Pulse — lov"
Herrera's presentation was part lecture and part recitation. During some of his readings, he included portions where he engaged the audience in an echoed response which made them part of the poetry.
At one point, he pulled out a piece of cardboard with notes he had jotted down during the day and developed a poem. At the podium, he read the notes, fitting them together like a puzzle made of random, unrelated pieces.
Prior to Herrera's talk, Delaware's 17th poets laureate, twin brothers Al Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha, presented a spoken word performance. According to the Library of Congress, Delaware's "Twin Poets" are the first co-laureate appointments at a state level.
Sharing selected poems from their body of work, Mills and Chukwuocha demonstrated their unique poetic structure and delivery method, which often includes one poet's line being finished by the other. The connection between the brothers is evident during their performance.
Herrera said he believes that poetry not only has the power to heal, but also has the power to help people examine their lives and plan a path forward.
"Maybe that's what it's about? Maybe finding our first step in the rest of our lives," Herrera said. "Maybe that's what the twin poets are doing up here in their reading. Helping us find the first step in the rest of our lives."
"Maybe what we are after in every moment is a new evaluation of what's going on – of ourselves and what's really going on. About caring and having that flame in our hearts that pushes us to care," he said.
Herrera's appointment as the U.S. poet laureate confirmed what Mrs. Sampson knew all along. Herrera does indeed have a beautiful voice – a voice that sings and echoes across the large groups of people he addresses each year. He no longer thinks of himself as "Mr. Back Row." As the nation's poet, he stands center stage delivering his message for everyone to hear.