soviet dirigible stamps

I met Juan Felipe Herrera around 1988. Ruben Martinez, Lindsey Haley and I drove to San Jose in my little white pickup truck to participate in a Flor y Canto commemoration of the series of floricantos that took place throughout the 70’s. Flor y Cantos were Chicano literary festivals JFH participated in with heavy hitters of the day, like JFH’s former roommate Alurista, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Jose Montoya, raulrsalinas, and that whole first wave of Chicano writers (of whom JFH is sort of like a champion, because he’s the LAST ONE STANDING). Ruben and Lindsey were invited to participate in the Flor y Canto and I went along as their driver. We drove to San Jose where JFH had a house with his partner, the poet Margarita Luna Robles and their kids. We participated in Flor y Canto readings at Casa Zapata at Stanford, where both JFH and my wife had gone to college. Afterwards we went to JFH’s backyard with JFH grilling green onions, nopales and chiles and passing them out in tortillas to everybody, exclaiming about the importance of Nino Rota’s music for Fellini movies. He played selected tracks for us on a boombox, while we listened intently. We’d driven 300 miles north for this, both Ruben and I busy in L.A.’s Central American solidarity movement. Ruben shook his head later, asking me, what do you make of all this? I don’t know where Ruben and Lindsey went, but I ended up going with JFH to his son’s soccer game, and that night I slept in the back of my pickup across the street in the camper shell. The next day I wandered into the house a little stiff and groggy—but apparently I’d brought a cassette recorder, so I interviewed JFH while he drove to San Francisco, which took maybe an hour or so in a green and white lowrider classic car straight out of a Frank Romero painting, plying JFH with all the questions I could think of about Chicano literary history.

In 1988, it seemed totally possible that this generation of great Chicano writers would pass by unpublished or unknown, just like the generation of outstanding Chicano movement muralists. In the 1980s, no corporate New York presses published Chicanos. First Maxine Hong Kingston and then Sandra Cisneros a few years later would break through that wall, open up the whole U.S. market. But in 1988, it seemed likely that a whole generation of West Coast writers of color like Jessica Hagedorn, Alejandro Murguia, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Omar Salinas, Jeff Tagami, Ntozake Shange, Cherrie Moraga and Ana Castillo would only be known by the rest of us in small circles, like friends, with their books published by tiny presses in small editions, like Lorna Dee Cervantes’s Mango Press or Ernesto Padilla’s Lalo Press, which published JFH’s atomic hand grenade of a book, Exiles of Desire, as well as the first edition of Michelle Serros’s Chicana Falsa, which started her career. Who has ever seen a copy of JFH’s Exiles of Desire? Why not? It’s such a brilliant book, the literary equivalent to Asco’s work in Los Angeles at the same time. Why were those editions limited to a few hundred copies sold out of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco or Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica or Bookworks in Albuquerque. In those days, who knew any of those books, those presses, or those writers but a few of us? So many voices went unheard, so many lives were silenced, and outside of outposts like Ishmael Reed’s Yardbird, there was no certainty that “multicultural” literature would be allowed to live. In the interview with JFH I asked him about all those literary scenes from Austin to Fresno, from the Taos Poetry Circus and the Bisbee Poetry Festival, from Barrio Logan to the Mission District. JFH was a mover and shaker everywhere he went; he knew about all those scenes; he’d performed with Culture Clash and teatros, on pyramids and stages in Mexico, coffee shops and college campuses across the U.S. for hipsters and Chipsters, pochos and campesinos, for anyone and everyone.

For me, that’s one of the beautiful, essential things about JFH. That’s why he’s a master. Poets like JFH are senseis for the rest of us writers. JFH will bring the poetry to anyone. He will lay it at the feet of everyone. When I met him, JFH was teaching poetry in Soledad prison. We drove past it on highway 101, and he talked about what he did there. He didn’t tell the prisoners, you’re a convict, you’re despised and feared—no poetry for you. He ran the same writing exercises he used with college students. He is not going to say, what, you’re a little kid? No poetry for you. He didn’t say, you’re a farmworker from Oaxaca, barely speak Spanish? No poetry for you. You’re a woman who works day and night, trying to keep your family alive? No time for poetry. You’re from a lost generation, a lame suburb, some mysterious fate? No poetry for you. No! You might be a ghost, a spirit, a raven, a nahual, some unformed being not yet emerged from the air. JFH still has a poem for you! JFH will bring it. Look at JFH’s books. Spanish, English, poetry, prose, novellas in verse, children’s books, memoirs, young adult books, performance pieces, articles, interviews, JFH went there! He does not say, here’s my poem, I don’t know who you are but maybe if you can rise to it, you might be able to read it. Instead, he gets out there, he hits the road, he shatters his own poetry into dust and puts the powder in a  little paper sack or a folded paper; he takes it to people wherever they are and says, “This is ours—this is our poem we’re making.” He’s not theorizing a democratic poetics, the political poetry of a public intellectual. He’s doing it; he’s been doing it for forty years. He’s a sensei.