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A House for All Voices

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By Kristen Hardy '17

Published Jan 19, 2016 8:00 AM


U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Filipe Herrera ’72 invites the nation to come together to create an “epic poem.”

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Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. Poet Laureate. Photo by Ted Catanzaro '84.

Juan Filipe Herrera ‘72 became U.S. Poet Laureate in June, the first Latino to hold the post. From that platform, he is now inviting all Americans to unite with him to raise the regard for poetry throughout the nation.

The only required duty of the Poet Laureate, who serves for one year as the country’s official poetry consultant, is to give a reading to open the annual poetry series at the Library of Congress and a lecture to conclude the series. Beyond those responsibilities, he is free to cultivate an appreciation for poetry in the U.S. as he sees fit.

Herrera seeks to grow a greater interest in poetry not just through his own work, but also by giving others a platform for theirs. For his tenure, he has developed a project called “La Casa de Colores,” or “The House of Colors,” which he describes as “a house for all voices.” There are two parts to this project. The first, titled “La Familia,” seeks to compile a poem brimming with the voices of many different Americans. Herrera identifies one theme per month and accepts related poetry submissions from the public, then makes his selections and presents a compilation of the work. No authorship is ascribed, and the poem changes in style and structure fluidly. Herrera aims to create an “epic poem” that encompasses the diverse experiences of the nation.

In announcing the theme each month, Herrera also offers stylistic recommendations. For the theme of “Let me tell you what peace can bring,” for example, he instructed poets to “use Anaphora (repetition), use clear images too so we can see your kind of peace, so we can taste it too and feel it — and perhaps together we can put our peace into action in these troubled times.” He lays out guidelines to ensure that the finished poem will retain unity and coherence, though composed of many unique voices.

The second part of Herrera’s project “El Jardín,” is a collection of videos that feature him exploring primary sources from the Library of Congress with a curator. Sources are chosen to inspire, and might include letters from folksong pioneer Woody Guthrie, or Literatura de Cordel — small pamphlets of poetry from Brazil that are sold and spoken in the marketplaces. Herrera writes a poem of response to accompany each subject, and encourages the audience to draw inspiration from the sources and write their own poetry.

Herrera aims high in his Laureateship to capture the spirit of diversity that is American life by giving everyone the chance to be a part of his finished product.

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