The poet in chief tries to capture the national mood in an epic, crowdsourced poem.
While you slept, your poet changed his printer ribbon and ate papaya with yogurt. Were you cozy under your covers? Your poet was answering email and reviewing the calendar and editing. Before dawn your poet meditated; your poet wrote; your poet administered medicine to his Shar-Pei, who is 9.
It was 45 degrees in Fresno, and under a pale winter sky, in a modest ranch house on a tidy residential street where neighbors were just starting their days, the United States poet laureate was now five hours into his. The morning’s “thick fuel mix” of writing and chores and emails behind him, Juan Felipe Herrera was about to turn his attention to the well-being of his constituency.
Herrera has been rising at 4 since well before September, when he became — appreciate the official title — the 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The 67-year-old Fresno County native is the son of farmworkers and the kind of guy who’s always squeezed half a dozen vocations into one workday: poet, yes, and also activist, performer, artist, and teacher. But September was when true poetry insanity began.
To understand the life of the country’s presiding poet, picture an elegant writing desk lit by a single candle. Now erase that image and replace it with a paper-strewn, ulcer-inducing landscape: legal pads, letters, business cards, a stray note here, a stray note there, a momentarily silent phone, small travel bags of the sort you grab for the umpteenth flight that year. Herrera always carries an apple and a protein bar when he’s on the road, so often do signings and other events blow through dinner. Much of his writing happens on airplanes. Some months he’s home for just one day.
Ostensibly the poet laureate post exists to give our premier poets more time — and a $35,000 stipend, none of which your taxes pay for, by the way — to write. But over the years, appointees have commonly taken on auxiliary projects, too, generally geared toward reminding us to care about poetry. So it was that Herrera dreamed up “La Casa de Colores,” essentially a communal national epic poem. Every ordinary, nonlaureate American over 13 would be invited to submit up to 200 characters’ worth of verse to an ever-expanding tapestry of words. Each month would bring a new theme, and the whole thing would live on its own Library of Congress webpage, a scrolling, alt-Twitter barometer of our national mood.
In the first two months, more than 30,000 words’ worth of mood poured in (Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? Pfft — 3,000 words). As with any crowdsourced creation, the results are a mix of memorable (“Mary/Maria / floating thru barn yardage / watering flowerful prosthetic windows”) and familiar (“Displaced, they came with nothing but hope packed up in burlap sacks”). But the poem’s real value may be psychic more than literary, and perhaps never more than on mornings like this one.
The November 13 terror attacks in Paris had taken place a few days earlier, and the death of Nohemi Gonzalez, the 23-year-old California State University, Long Beach, student gunned down in the 11th arrondissement, had particularly shaken Herrera.
So, just as with past tragedies — Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombing — he got to work. “This is where Poetry Man comes in,” he said with a somber chuckle. On the Sunday after the attacks, at a large candlelight vigil for Gonzalez, Herrera’s “Nohemi — a Song for Paris” was read aloud by California State University Chancellor Timothy White: “We light Nohemi a candle / the candle waves across the stars.”
Herrera felt other Americans might need an outlet for their grief and bewilderment, too. As it happened, they had one. Pushing some papers aside, he opened his laptop and composed an email to the head of the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress. Could that month’s “La Casa de Colores” theme, Language Weavers, be changed to focus on the terror attacks?
Herrera closed his computer and looked out his office window. He’s a cheerful man with playful eyes and a gray, grandfatherly mustache. But his appointment has coincided with dark days, and not just in Paris. Mass shootings are now regular events. Police violence seems relentless. The top Republican candidate for president had risen on a tide of jarringly overt racism. In a week, protesters in Texas would gather outside a local mosque carrying rifles.
The Library of Congress refers to the poet laureate as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” It does not specify how that lightning rod should handle bolts of bigotry, fear, and rage. On this morning, Herrera’s TV was blaring from the living room. The voices of cable news anchors filtered in, inane words about the terror attacks and the implications for America. The solemn remembrances had passed; now was the time for xenophobia. The logistics of keeping Syrian refugees at bay were debated, calling to mind other recent spasms of intolerance: equating Mexicans with drug traffickers and rapists, discussing the feasibility of a national Muslim registry, and so forth.
Against all this there was suddenly something absurd and impossible and lovely about a messy, obscure communal poem. Like the anchors intoning from the living room, “La Casa de Colores” sought words for whatever inchoate burdens roiled the country. But it had rules for its words.
“A poem must have half a cup of humanity in it,” Herrera said. “If you’re just attacking, if that’s all it is, you’ve killed the poem. We want the roots of the tree that was chopped and singed and burned. We want your story, not just your rage. We want to get ahold of this thing.”
The poet shook his head — at the voices on the TV or at Paris or at the fact of living in these times — but then he smiled and seemed to revert to a more philosophical baseline. In several months someone else will become the poet laureate, and Herrera will go back to being a civilian. No more protein-bar dinners or living in airports or, for that matter, getting to see the Library of Congress’s Braille foreign-language poetry division if he so desires. What will an average day be like, post-laureateship?
He thought a moment.
“I’ll just go out and see what the sun is like or go buy socks, see what that is like.”