Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, connects with high school students by sharing poems
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Juan Felipe Herrera is this year’s U.S. Poet Laureate, and Borah had the honor of welcoming the inspirational literary icon in the auditorium Feb 2. Students and teachers shared a fascination with the poet’s way of balancing humor and impact.
The Poetry Foundation recognizes Herrera as a representative for Hispanic Americans being the first Latino Poet Laureate. As the son of an immigrant farm worker, he is seen as a symbol of the immigrant population as well. Herrera serves as a voice for the minority demographic by transforming their stories and struggles into poetry.
Upon hearing of his arrival, reactions ranged from anywhere between disbelief and excitement. Language arts teacher Michelle Harmon said she couldn’t believe someone like the Poet Laureate would come to a school that didn’t hold much recognition.
“How often does that happen?” Harmon questioned, referring to the small number of famous guest speakers that present to the school.
Some students didn’t even know much about the poet, or what role the Poet Laureate plays in the literary world. A few English classes had at least a brief introduction to the poet’s work, which is where most students received the majority of their information. Senior Kelsey Rowles said all she knew about Herrera was that he wrote dark, politically charged poems.
“I didn’t really know what [a Poet Laureate was] beforehand,” senior Noah Reyes said while introducing the poet on stage. Reyes explained that his lack of familiarity with the author did not affect the impact his poetry conveyed.
Both students and teachers said they were mostly impacted by the connection Herrera made to his audience. The poet started his presentation talking about his experience as the son of an immigrant, already gaining a connection with those in the audience who immigrated to America themselves.
“We [Borah] have been working with immigrants for decades,” librarian Jennifer Boyd said.
The majority of Herrera’s poems are race-related as well as immigration-related, and with the diversity of Borah, it was not difficult for the audience to understand his message. In fact, the first poem he read was titled “America, Stop Deporting Us,” and the mixture of hot button issues with a humorous tone kept the students engaged with his recitation.
Not only did Herrera make a cultural connection with the students, but also verbally connected with them. Within the first three minutes of his presentation, he had the audience repeat after him, allowing them to introduce his own poem before reading it. Considering there were about 800 audience members in the auditorium, having them interact spiked the energy and set a constant mood for the rest of the presentation. Herrera used this callback method throughout his presentation.
“It was really interactive, and I feel like that’s really important when it comes to art,” Rowles said.
Harmon said he had a childlike demeanor as well, which benefitted Herrera with connecting to his young audience. She was surprised that the poet received such a positive reaction when he asked for the students to repeat his lines. Rowles even mentioned the main difference between the poet and his poems were how comedic he presented himself.
“I loved how energetic Juan was; he really brought the poetry to life,” senior Elizabeth Barnett said. Barnett is one of the students who introduced Herrera onto the stage.
Herrera’s lively execution achieved what some English teachers may joke would be an impossible task; the Laureate made the students interested in poetry. Herrera explained his pieces with interesting anecdotes about the inspiration behind it. Senior Diddo Alber said she enjoyed “looking into the mind of a poet” and the thought process behind such a renowned person.
“He kept poems from being unreachable and hard to understand,” Boyd said.
Harmon added, “Poetry is like music, sometimes you have to listen to it before you can understand it.”
Overall, Herrera’s message was clear: every person, regardless of background or appearance, is connected by the fact that all are human, and that everyone must learn from each other.
“It’s cool to see a different point of view, but also feel the same connectedness that we all have because we’re all human,” Barnett said.
After his visit, Herrera sent a letter to Borah, thanking the school for its participation and energy. Herrera said out of all the schools he has presented to in the last 47 years, Borah was number one.
“Every single student in every single seat literally was standing up together, so concerned, so filled with inspiration, so filled with joy and intelligence and hope that I felt a collective human dream had come true,” wrote Herrera.
Before the his presentation, Herrera talked with a group of Bridge students along with a few others, and gave an abridged version of what the rest of the school heard. Atkins explained that many of the Bridge students were nervous to talk to the poet, but the atmosphere changed after Herrera started sharing his story.
“Watching their demeanor from being really nervous to asking questions and laughing was probably my one of my favorite things,” AP Literature teacher Pamela Atkins said.
Herrera’s visit would not have been possible without the help of Boyd and Atkins.
Boyd explained The Cabin Literary Center, a local writing organization in downtown Boise, receives grants from its program Readers and Conversations for national authors like Herrera to speak at different venues and schools. The program rotates among schools depending upon the match between the visiting author and the school’s corresponding audience, but according to Boyd, it just made sense to bring Herrera to Borah.
“They [Readers and Conversations] thought we were a good match because of our diverse everything–not just refugees, but also our AP programs, our social-economic differences, AVID, everything else that makes us Borah,” Boyd said.