Dear Mr. Juan Felipe Herrera,

Well your poem is really about someone who I consider to be one of the most influencing people from our times. Muhammad Ali is someone who I have been spreading knowledge about ever since I was in the 4th grade. When we were in the 4th grade, we had to do a hero's project and spread knowledge about someone who we think made a difference and I chose to do it on Muhammad Ali and this poem brought me back so many memories to me that I thought were interesting. He is someone who made me have confidence in myself and made me love myself for who I am. Being a muslim, I always felt as if I was below others, it affected me most when I was younger. Kids around me would make terrorist jokes about me and my family and my culture, I would just have to laugh along with them because I would not want them to see how hurt I really get once they made their ignorant comments. Muhammad Ali was someone I saw was proud of his religion and he did not care what anyone else’s opinion on his religion was. That gave me strength and I know it probably gave strength to many others all around the world. I love the unique and intriguing way you set up your poem and wrote it. It really goes to show that sometimes, you have to see the piece of artwork to truly understand it. Also, the statements in the parentheses make me feel as if I am talking to the author of the poem directly and that helps me a lot because it makes me feels as if the author and I are connecting. Or maybe it is just because I am relating to the situation. Also, I had a question for you. I did not quite understand why you had the words fall and stand. It kind of complicated me because I know there is a meaning behind it and I have been so mind boggled to figure it out. That is one of the main reasons I wanted to write to you. Besides that, my absolute favorite part of your whole poem was when you ended it with “it’s gonna sting like a bee” at the end of the poem and it is put in the parentheses. Like you are clearly warning the reader. To add even more meaning to it, that is one of Muhammad Ali’s most famous lines ever. This was a great way to relive his memory after his death in the last year. Thank you for writing poems like this to inspire young writers like myself and keep doing what you are doing because you are doing a very good job. Hope to hear from you soon.


Mays Landing, NJ

Dear Saba,

Muhammad Ali—yes, a giant in our lives. A hero, as you say, mine too. And you are right, like all heroes, he gave you and me confidence. It was not easy, he sacrificed the most precious thing in his life to be that “hero,” his boxing life and his “champion” identity as people saw him in the sports world and in society at large. Suddenly, he became a disliked man, for announcing his new name and his muslim identity and beliefs. As you say, he was not afraid of speaking his mind and heart, against all odds, including his career. He was concerned with humanity. With you and me, all of us.

I am glad you gained confidence by his example, and that you began to cherish who you are and your way of life—being a muslim. Yes, you are right—in these times some people find it easy to bully and speak negatively about muslims. This is not right. All of us must stand together for respect, peace and unity. We must “bust out/ of our shakin’ vaulted poor thinkin’ self (oh yes!) and change!” Sooner or later, the reality and strength of humanity will knock us out and down we go.

You pay close attention to the key particles of the poem, the words. Excellent, excellent. And I see that you also closely examined the parenthesis! My favorite things—because you can say things you probably won’t say in the rest of the poem, you can add another dimension, voice, world. Don’t you absolutely love this?  It is like having two poems in one! And your are right again—maybe you get to peek into the author behind the paper. Then there is the ending of the poem—the hardest part.

Ending the poem is dangerous. If you end it too soon the poem loses its power because it never had a chance to fully develop and stop on its own terms—and you never found its truth, its question, its mystery. If you pass the end and keep on, the poem gets tired and turns into cottage cheese. It loses its tension, its form, it spirit. There was only one ending to this poem. And it had to be in Ali’s own voice and his tough warning if you did not respect his truth (perhaps our collective truth too), his great poetic ability to say it like it is—right?

Thank you for inspiring me to continue writing for young people, and to stand up for my dignity and humanity—and yours.

Juan Felipe
Poet Laureate of the United States 2015-2017

read more dear poet letters 2017