Dear Juan Felipe Herrera,
Hello, my name is Ethan, and I go to a school for kids with learning disabilities. My literacy class is studying poetry recently. My literacy class is writing letters to poets and I am writing specifically to you, because I liked your poems most of all.
I am writing to you about your poem “Jackrabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew.” One thing that jumped out at me was that the poem was written in the way real people talk. A second thing that jumped out at me was that you talked a lot about space and vegetables. The vegetables fit in with the rest of the poem, but the parts about space didn’t fit in with the rest. Since I didn’t get some parts I would like to ask you some questions.
I have some questions for you. I’m sorry if some of them are hard to answer. Why did you decide to be a poet? What was your inspiration to write “Jackrabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew,” and to name it that? Why did you choose these words, “Dinky planet on a skateboard of dynamite,” for this specific part of the poem? Also what were you using space and vegetables to symbolize? I think the vegetables symbolize the different feelings in life you get, like sour when something gruesome happens.
I look forward to hearing back from you.
P.S. I even decided to memorize this poem of yours.
So good to hear from you! And thank you for reading, enjoying and memorizing “Jackrabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew.” Something told me you would like it. I guess that’s one of the reasons I wrote it. When I put certain words together in one sentence that usually do not go together - like jackrabbits and green onions—I get very excited and inspired. Like scientists, maybe—when they stir new chemicals into each other to see what is going to happen or— when they are looking for a new way to cure a disease.
For me one of the most enjoyable things about writing poetry is to create new things and to play with words as if I was in a giant toy store. That is why I wrote the poem. What poem can I write for young people? What words can I use that will tickle their minds and bellies? These were the thoughts that I had just as I was about to write. A secret—I love to use words in a poem that I have never used before: “Jackrabbits,” “Green Onions,” or “Witches” or “Stew.” So—it was about time I put these words on the same sheet of paper. Why a poet ? Well, that is almost an impossible question to answer.
My mom, Lucha, only went to third grade in El Paso, Texas. That was back in 1920. She memorized the poems and songs from school, just like you. And she recited them to me since I was a child. You could say that she was training me to be a poet. All her soothing words and songs brought me great happiness. My mind was full of happiness-words. And my heart was brimming with songs. By the time I was at San Diego High School in Southern California I was ready to be a 150% poet. It happened like that—from middle school to now (2015), I have been writing poetry, playing with words and experimenting with sentences like a mad scientist. “Dinky”? What is “DInky”? How can a planet be “Dinky”? And can you put it on a “skateboard”?
Well, you know the answer. I didn’t—I just wrote. Put the words down on paper and see if you can make them play together—just maybe they will tickle somebody. If we put a tiny planet on a skateboard it may fall off. I wanted you to think about taking care of our planet because it can fall off of something—our climate is not doing too well, for example. “Dinky” is another one of those words that I have never used—so, guess what? There it is. In my poem. Your poem now. What about “Space”?
Space and vegetables…. yes, they can go together because why? Because….. the universe, like our planet, contains many things. And green onions smell really good. Space is good to think about. We usually think about ourselves only. So it is time to stretch our minds… and with Space, we can stretch as far as we want because it contains our giraffes and even more galaxies..and there is still room left. What does it all mean, Ethan?
I guess all that is up to you. You are right—sometimes veggies can go sour like so many things in life… and they can also be used for compost to grow new beautiful plants and ideas and poems and letters to each other—like your letter to me and my letter to you.
You are a very intelligent student. Your letter had great questions and you noticed a lot of things that I had not seen—excellent! You even heard how the poem talks—the “way people talk.” Recently my poems do like to talk the way people talk. That way people will have a conversation with them. And I can have a conversation with them.
Your Jackrabbit poetry friend,
Juan Felipe Herrera, Chancellor
Academy of American Poets
75 Maiden Lane, NY, NY
P.S. Please say hello to your teachers for me and to all the students at your school. (And don’t forget to eat your vegetables).