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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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21st U.S. Poet Laureate Visits Minnesota State Mankato

Juan Felipe Herrera visited through the University's Good Thunder Reading Series.

2017-09-14
Trey Mewes, Mankato Free Press, 9-14-2017

When Juan Felipe Herrera’s father wanted to learn English, he would buy a word for a penny.
As a demonstration, Herrera pantomimed his father asking one of his coworkers what an object with pages, binding and words on the page meant. The coworker would ask for money, according to Herrera, and his father would fling a penny at him or her.

Of course, the coworker would tell Herrera’s father what to call a libre in English.

“Boooooooooooooooooook.”

Herrera’s audience laughed at his tale Wednesday night, as they watched him and the Aktion Club Theatre Poets at work inside the Elias J. Halling Recital Hall at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Herrera, the former U.S. poet laureate, is in Mankato this week as part of the Good Thunder Reading Series.

“We have gold and diamonds here,” Herrera said of Mankato and its efforts to be an inclusive, diverse and positive community. He said he was struck by how much work the community did for its people, and held Mankato up as a model for other communities working on inclusion and artistic expression.

Herrera, 68, was the 21st U.S. poet laureate and has toured the country for years discussing poetry and getting involved in community arts projects.

That’s how Diana Joseph, director of the Good Thunder Reading Series, first heard of him. Joseph thought Herrera would jump at the chance to visit and perform with the Aktion Club, a special needs performance and arts group.

It took more than a year’s worth of planning to bring Herrera to Mankato, and it seems Herrera was worth the wait. 

“We just feel so happy and grateful for Aktion Club Theatre Poets to work with him,” said Wilbur Neushwander-Frink, community organizer for ARC Southwest and director for the Aktion Club.

More than a dozen poets bared their souls on the stage, pontificating on the evils of pink, proclaiming their love, or mourning their parents. They cried, they sang, they laughed, they smiled, and they shared a piece of themselves with the audience.

“I thought it was a really good evening,” said Kyle Crnkovic, a member of the Aktion Club. “It was really nerve-wracking at first.”

Crnkovic wrote a rather personal poem inspired by his upcoming 10-year anniversary with his fiancee this Friday. He declared his love for her, telling her how he felt complete around her and missing a part of himself when she was away.

“I wrote this basically just to show how much I love her in as many words as I could,” Crnkovic said.
Herrera kept up with some of Mankato’s finest, holding his own by reciting some old poetry, some new, a few borrowed phrases and even a verse filled with blue, pink and multi-colored sea shells in a group poem at the end of the night.

Yet Herrera also emphasized inclusion, and celebrating community and love. He talked about how people he speaks to now remind him of peaceniks back in the ‘60s who care about issues like the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and the U.S.’s tougher stance on immigration.

In one of Herrera’s recent poems, “Poem by Poem,” he talks of spreading love after terrorist acts, disasters and mass shootings. “Poem by Poem” focuses on the murder of nine black people shot and killed inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, and how by spreading love and poems “we can end the violence/ every day/ after/ every other day.”

Herrera isn’t looking for people to understand the deeper meaning of the work, however. He just hopes people spread their poems of love throughout their communities.

“It’s a community dance,” he said with a laugh. “If you understand the poem and analyze it, you’re doing too much.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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