June 15, 2023
Juan Felipe Herrera edited by Francisco A. Lomelí and Osiris Aníbal Gómez presents the distinguished, prolific, and highly experimental writer Juan Felipe Herrera. This wide-ranging collection of essays by leading experts offers critical approaches on Herrera, who transcends ethnic and mainstream poetics. It expertly demonstrates Herrera’s versatility, resourcefulness, innovations, and infinite creativity. This book includes an extensive interview with the poet and a voluminous bibliography on everything by, about, and on the author. The chapters in this book offer a deep dive into the life and work of an internationally beloved poet who, along with serving as the poet laureate of California and the U.S. poet laureate, creates work that fosters a deep understanding of and appreciation for people’s humanity. Below read an excerpt from the book.
The Chicano Cultural Poetics of Juan Felipe Herrera: The Artist as Shaman and Showman
By Rafael Pérez-Torres
“I write in my notebook with the intention of stimulating good conversation, hoping that will also be of use to some fellow traveler. But perhaps my notes are merely drunken chatter, the incoherent babbling of a dreamer. If so, read them as such.”
– Matsuo Basho Narrow Road to the Interior
Juan Felipe Herrera spins out a whirlwind of creativity and expression. A writer with a voracious curiosity, an absurdist humor, and a showman’s flare for style, he is also an artist who uses his craft to inspire deep human emotion as a pathway toward greater insight and understanding – what in some spiritual and philosophical contexts is called illumination. His poetry moves in multiple modes and directions. These movements may have contributed to a notable dearth of critical study addressing the critical and cultural significance of the broad aesthetic palette – incantatory, comical, improvisatory, anecdotal, hallucinatory, theatrical, minimalist, parodic, cosmic – Herrera employs. His profusion of styles may confound critics who seek to capture the qualities of this quicksilver poet in a circumscribed way. Much of his work appears spontaneous or extemporized, and this may add to the difficulties in developing an effective critical approach to his work. A broader critical focus may afford a perspective on his poetry and how it often relies on affective responses in order to achieve both aesthetic surprise and pleasure – aspects of a showman’s brio – and suggest a transformative moment that invites reflection on the spiritual dimensions of human impermanence – a shaman’s transformative incantation.
His dynamic poetry restlessly seeks to delight and transport the reader as it generates a Chicano performative cultural poetics. Improvisational and even elusively experimental, Herrera’s artistry comes into sharper focus if we consider the manner that it forms a performative cultural poetics. This term is one Herrera employed to describe the work of Latina/o writers and thinkers who for decades have sought to shape new cultural formations. Their work draws from devalued forms of knowledge to help generate a decolonial consciousness. Herrera recognizes those artists and activists who through their artistry and performances have given us, “long lost and abandoned ancestral concepts that we can envision and apply in one way or another, along with a Mexica performative cultural poetics that we have been attempting to build in the U.S.- Mexico borderlands since the Indigenista cultural revolution of the first half of the twentieth century” (“Foreword to the New Edition” xiv). Herrera identifies (and identifies with) a Mexicano-Chicano-Latino cultural performativity as a component of decolonial cultural activism. It is this sense of transformative performance that informs and drives his own restless artistic creation that echoes and evokes and conjures other forms of knowledge.
The present discussion considers the double role of Herrera as poet: as showman, playing aesthetic slights of hand, and as shaman, using language for spiritual and emotional transportation and transformation. The poetry employs linguistic and poetic forms as part of a performance meant primarily to generate an awareness of shared human suffering and, consequently, connection. Poetry makes evident that this suffering often results from long colonial legacies and continuing inequities related to state power, patriarch, and nationalism. As such, it demonstrates a decolonial impetus as it aspires – often employing experimental aesthetic form – to enact a type of cultural, spiritual, and emotional transformation. His vast, eclectic, and restless poetic output generates a performative cultural poetics premised on three central compositional elements: 1) acknowledging and honoring a sense of origin; 2) recognizing the social and even physical materiality of language; and 3) pursuing and encouraging a growth of consciousness. His poetic concerns thus resonate with a reclamation of suppressed knowledges and repressed languages (often associated with Mayan, Mexican, Huichol, and other Meso- American Indigenous practices) to experiment with dialogue and dramatic re-enactments (an association with his early involvement in theater) to invocations of language as a medium for incantatory powers. They all serve to generate an enveloping performativity. Throughout, Herrera serves as a kind of postmodern conjurer. The emphasis on play and performance, on the poet as protean creative force and sideshow entertainer, undergirds much of Herrera’s poetry and asserts his commitment to a Chicano performative cultural poetics.
His poems at times suggest a literal script – indicating setting, actors, and audience – that draws the reader into becoming a creative participant in a poetic enactment generated through the language on the page. As his poetry crosses aesthetic and national and philosophical borders in a variety of ways, it performs a decolonial crossing of signification and positionality – an enactment of a performative cultural poetics – in order to resituate the role of reader in relation to the poem. The poet acts through language to create the poems and, simultaneously, to prompt his readers to conjure themselves into an awareness of greater human connection.