Having come up through open mics, local workshops, live readings, and a lot of self-study, it feels great to hear National Book Critics Circle Poetry Award winner Juan Felipe Herrera give praise to grassroots education. It’s also great to have such an elder share his thoughts on what happens after grassroots. Barb has some more detailed thoughts about his Poetry Foundation feature but I’d like to add that this balanced approach between what poets can gain from open mics and academic workshops has historically been the best way to attain prominence in US Poetry.
I’m directing this incredibly obvious statement not to the academic community but to the grassroots community because even though examples like Herrera abound the prevailing belief in open mic communities is that academic intervention doesn’t enhance your art but detracts from authenticity. This is the reason we have the subcategory of “spoken word,” a poetry that aspires to be more than talk on an open mic but doesn’t require the polish of a workshop. And who does this label serve? Does it help the open mic cafes where poems, styles, and themes become repetitive because of lack of rigor? No. Does it help academic institutions where issues of mechanics, relevance, and notoriety become all consuming because of lack of diversity? No.
I’m not saying that Herrera’s path is the one true path. I don’t think a singular path exists. But there are paths that have been laid out by poets of various backgrounds who seek relevance in various communities, to ignore those paths is foolish. To go on a long journey unprepared, without maps or provisions, is the quickest way to get nowhere. I’m glad that there are poets like Juan Felipe who not only know the path but are happy to share it with whoever will listen.
Video courtesy of Galley Cat