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Juan Felipe Herrera Paints Portrait Of America In New Poetry Collection

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Juan Felipe Herrera is an artist and educator and activist and a former U.S. poet laureate. The poems in his latest book are urgent and haunting, like this one - "Border Fever 105.7 Degrees."

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: (Reading) Why do you cry? Those are not screams you hear across this cage. It is a symphony, the border guard says. There's a girl up ahead made of sparkles. Is she me, or is she dead? On the custody floor, 105.7 degrees, where do I go? Where do they go? Where do I go to breathe no more? A lost flame, a firefly dressing for freedom, where did she go?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juan Felipe Herrera reading from his new collection of poems called "Every Day We Get More Illegal." He's joining us today from Fresno, Calif. Welcome to the program.

HERRERA: Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be here. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you come to write this? Tell me about the journey, the conceit of this book.

HERRERA: Well, you know, this theme of the border, of being a migrant, of being cut away in two pieces, perhaps in many more pieces - you have Latin America. You have the Caribbean. You have Mexico, in my family's case. It's a painful story for migrants today, as we know about the migrants from Honduras and from Central America recently. Families and children and mothers and child, fathers and daughters just being split apart. So that's where I'm coming from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about the imagery in your writing. There's the wall, the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Another image linking these poems in this collection is the firefly, which you use to symbolize the migrants themselves. Why that particular reference?

HERRERA: Well, you know, at a young age - well, it must - high school, I bumped into Rabindranath Tagore's book called "Fireflies." And they're short poems, and they're beautiful poems. So I kind of remember that. And I said, wait a minute - the firefly is an interesting little thing, you know? It lights up, and the lights go out, and it lights up. It's kind of like a magical winged being. So I like that, too. And it's also a very fragile being, a firefly - very fragile.

Anyways, that's how that's how things come together when you're writing, as you know. I didn't really intend for the migrant to be a firefly. But it's all right - you know? - because the sun goes up, and the sun goes down, and people have to travel at night and find light somehow and travel during the daytime and find more light. Or maybe there's very little light in the daytime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to ask you about providing your own light amid the darkness of suffering and loss because that is a thread throughout this book. And you also include very strong moments of hope. Can you please read your poem "America, We Talk About It?"

HERRERA: Yes. "America, We Talk About It."

(Reading) Summer journals - August 8, 2007. Every day of the week. It is not easy. First I had to learn. Over decades - to take care of myself. Are you listening? I had to learn. I had to gain, pebble by pebble, seashell by seashell, the courage to listen to my self, my true inner self. For that I had to push you aside. It was not easy. I had pushed aside my mother, my father, my self in that artificial stairway of becoming you to be inside of you. After years, I realized perhaps too late there was no way I could bring them back. I could not rewind the clock. But I did - I could do one thing. I could care. Now we are here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you draw a distinction between being American and finding your true self?

HERRERA: (Laughter) Well, they're two different things (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain that.

HERRERA: Well, you know, there are so many myths. You know, right now, what's going on, as you know, in the national discourse, especially in the top tier, we have many versions of America. You know, there's fake America. There's real America. There's fantasy, mythological, manipulated, you know, hacked America. There's an America of power, the center of power where we feel we don't even need an identity. You know, we don't talk about identity. We're at the center. But then these lands that we stand on in this place that we call America are also ancestral lands for migrants. So they're not necessarily coming to another country, even though at the surface, that is true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to just ask you about this particular moment because I think the overwhelming thing that I do get from this book is pain. I mean, you have borne witness to a lot of pain over the past few years. And this is a collection of poems about a very particular moment for Latinos and for immigrants in this country. What would you like to leave the reader with?

HERRERA: That pain can transform into joy and happiness and a sense of being, of positive being. Also, we have to feel the pain. You know, we cannot turn away and live in a fantasy. A lot of that is going on also in the United States. Those in power - they don't want to talk about the real migrant experience. They're just policies that get passed that rip us apart, and they move on. Migrants aren't separate from anyone else, and everyone else is not separate from the migrant experience or the Black experience or women's experience or LGBTQ experience.

Migrants are brave. They're pioneers and strong - imagine 2,000 miles through the streets and through the mountains and through the tough roads and getting all the way to the border in Tijuana - San Diego border. So they're strong. They're brave. And they believe in making it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Juan Felipe Herrera, an artist, educator, activist and writer. He's also a former U.S. poet laureate.

Thank you very much.

HERRERA: Thank you - been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEL T'S "WAY HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.