The event: Fresno’s Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st poet laureate of the United States, was back in town Tuesday with the Fresno State Chamber Singers to reprise the closing concert at the Library of Congress that marked the end of his term.
The man of the hour: Herrera has a special knack when dealing with official occasions and the various rituals afforded an artist of his stature. He knows how to never underplay the dignity of a ceremonial moment. He can come across as refreshingly relaxed and informal, but there’s a certain gravitas and authority there, too, a reflection of his ability to get along with the establishment but also give it a bit of a hard time. On this evening at the university’s Concert Hall, he’s dressed in a casual bone-colored sports jacket, bright plaid shirt and a cheerful white hat.
The format: Most poets treat a reading as something to do in a single voice. Herrera wanted a choir. Benjamin Boone and Kenneth Froelich, both Fresno State music composition professors, teamed up with the poet, setting the words to music. Then the university’s Chamber Singers, under the direction of Cari Earnhart, brought the resulting songs to life at the Washington, D.C., concert. “This is a dream that I had as a child,” Herrera tells the audience before the Fresno event begins. “It’s about standing up, facing the people, giving a voice to the people.”
The aw-shucks childhood memory: One of the program’s songs, “Mrs. Lelya Sampson Said,” is dedicated to an elementary school teacher of Herrera’s. The child of migrant farmworkers, Herrera spoke little English during his first years in school, and he became very hesitant to say anything in class. One day Mrs. Sampson called him up to the front of the room, he tells the audience, and told him to sing a song. Any song. “I picked ‘Three Blind Mice,’ “ he says.
The tribute: Boone wrote three songs on the program to Herrera’s poetry, but one used the words of Mia Barraza Martinez, a Fresno State graduate student who was killed in an accident last year. Herrera wanted to make her spirit part of his closing concert. The resulting “Ms. United States,” which includes lines about a feisty Martinez parading down Blackstone Avenue proclaiming “I am Fresnito,” is a catchy and compelling, upbeat number that is given a heartfelt rendition by the Chamber Singers.
The most touching moment: After the 2015 massacre in Charleston, S.C., Herrera wrote the poignant “Poem by Poem” in memory of the nine people who were killed. “It’s an offering,” he tells the audience before the song. “You can send a poem out, and it will comfort someone.” The poem’s last lines, “Nine drops honor them, wash them, stop them / Oh, stop them from falling,” seem to hang in the air at the end, a wrenching conclusion.
The big finish: In “The Road,” with music written by Froelich, Herrera pauses for an extended spoken interlude, slowly building in intensity until the “poet of the people” is unveiled in full form. “I am the molcajete,” he exclaims — isn’t that Spanish/Nahuatl word for a mortar and pestle just delicious to say? — and it’s as if we’re in a word kitchen with Herrera, as he chops and stirs and mixes together his own inspired take on life. As he recites the last line of the section, “Give me a word for love,” he waves his hands in front of him, like a priest or a shaman providing his blessing. And I do feel blessed: for the cathartic moment, for the beautiful singing, and, more than anything, for what Herrera has brought to his community and country.
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