“A Way to Attain a Life without Boundaries”: The Poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera

Tim Dean is a Professor of English. He teaches ENGL 101, Introduction to Poetry. 

In anticipation of US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s visit to Urbana-Champaign, the students in ENGL 101 (Intro. to Poetry) read some of Herrera’s work and shared their thoughts about it with me. Herrera manifests widely disparate influences in his writing and he works in many different genres—short fiction, prose, children’s literature—but we read him as a poet. The students appreciated how his Mexican-American heritage lends Herrera’s poetry a distinctive voice and perspective. “Herrera gives his audience a view of American culture and norms from the point of view of an outsider with a different background,” observes sophomore Haleigh Weszelits. “He is not afraid to address controversial topics and use his life experiences in his poems,” adds sophomore Alana Weitz, who praised Herrera’s “unique view.”

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

One example that sparked lively commentary from the students was “Blood on the Wheel,” a poem from Herrera’s 1999 volume, Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream. This book’s title evokes the American dream that has drawn immigrants since the nation’s founding, but “border-crosser” evokes also the hot-button politics of the US-Mexican border (Herrera is the son of migrant Mexican farmworkers). Discussing “Blood on the Wheel,” junior Bianca Claudio observed that this incantatory poem “is about the hard work that Mexican workers do that too often is not appreciated.” The poem “creates emotions of guilt and empathy through the use of vivid descriptions and repetition of the word ‘blood,’” Bianca explains.

Blood inside the quartz, the beauty watch, the eye of the guard
Blood on the slope of names & the tattoos hidden

“Herrera describes the workers’ blood that goes into creating the luxuries that many people are able to enjoy (such as watches, diamonds, and theatres), as well as the blood that goes into making everyday items such as coffee and pins,” Bianca comments. The poem’s kaleidoscope of images reveals the unexpected—beautiful as well as violent—sites of blood. Senior Olivia Morrison notes the poem’s “strong sense of violence.” Laborers’ blood goes into the making of products that, in the United States, tend to be taken for granted. Yet, at the same time as Herrera conjures ethnic specificity in the poem, he “emphasizes that though cultures have different traditions and lifestyles, blood is a substance that flows through everyone, interconnecting them in ways that they may be unaware of,” argues Haleigh Weszelits. Blood may join as well as divide us.

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border

Many students felt that the power of Herrera’s writing lies in his capacity to speak to the reader or listener independently of ethnic categories. “One can make a strong connection and identify with Herrera’s words,” says junior Jennifer Flannery, an Elementary Education major who read Herrera’s novel Calling the Doves (about a migrant farmworker’s childhood) in her “Literature for Children” course at the University of Illinois. Freshman Amy Tomazin comments on the way that “his poems really pull you in deeper because of how they slowly develop in such precise details.” Amy loves how Herrera’s poem “Water Water Water Wind Water” doesn’t have any punctuation. “To me it was like the wind and water flowing, because there really is no end to the wind and water as they move about the earth.”

Speaking of the poem “Exiles,” freshman Lauren Hanouw said, “After reading this poem, I felt deeply moved and began to reflect on my own heritage … I am taking the influences of Herrera and using them in my own life.” One of his earlier poems, “Exiles” (from Exiles of Desire, 1983), describes how new arrivals to the United States are neither in their homeland nor yet in America but “en exilio”. The poem ends by suggesting that those who observe the new arrivals paradoxically may have lost or forfeited their own exilic status: “Where is our exile? Who has taken it?”

Questions of place and belonging, so central to Herrera’s work, are made more vivid and yet complex by his art. Freshman Jen Lee picked out the poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings” to encapsulate what Herrera regards as the promise of poetry.

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries

Several students noticed how easily Herrera switches between English and Spanish in his poetry—far more easily than anyone crosses between the US and Mexico, for example. Linguistic border crossing is one of Herrera’s specialties.

The mixing of languages and idioms is particularly striking in Herrera’s spoken-word poetry, much of which is collected in 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border (2007). Sophomore Taylor Dugas, who has some experience with spoken-word traditions, admires how, in “Punk Half Panther,” Herrera combines languages and cultures:

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

Such poems need to be heard, not merely read on the page. Inspired by the performative dimension of Herrera’s poetry, students such as Ronald Oliver found clips on YouTube of Herrera performing his work, some with musical accompaniment. It may be that Herrera’s poetry is best appreciated live. We are fortunate indeed that IPRH is bringing him to the University of Illinois for an evening of live performance.

Juan Felipe Herrera will be at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Thursday, April 28, 2016. Herrera will read his work at 7:30 p.m., in the Alice Campbell Alumni Center. A book signing will follow the event. Learn more about Herrera’s visit at the IPRH website

Herrera’s visit is supported by IPRH, the Chancellor’s Inclusive Illinois Lecture Series, the Departments of English and Latina/Latino Studies, the Trowbridge Seminars in American Culture, and the Robert J. Carr Visiting Author Series Fund.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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