@ the Crossroads—A Sudden American Poem
RIP Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police
officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith,
Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—and all
their families. And to all those injured.
Let us celebrate the lives of all
As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths
Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace
& chanted Black Lives Matter
Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect
Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,
Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke
Before we return to the usual business of our days, let us know their lives intimately
Let us take this moment & impossible as this may sound—let us find
The beauty in their lives in the midst of their sudden & never imagined vanishing
Let us consider the Dallas shooter—what made him
what happened in Afghanistan
flames burned inside
(Who was that man in Baton Rouge with a red shirt selling CDs in the parking lot
Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm
& a continent-shaped flood of blood on his white T who was
That man prone & gone by the night pillar of El Centro College in Dallas)
This could be the first step
in the new evaluation of our society This could be
the first step of all of our lives
Copyright © 2016 by Juan Felipe Herrera. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 10, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
"To write, but what? How? After a feverish penciled attempt with deep ideas, a poem-agenda of sorts, I stood up and walked away. What about the actual people shot dead? To know them, this was the key—I wanted to know them, the poem longed to know them. Too often we forget them in a rush to 'say something.' All of them? Yes, yes. I had to include all of them, otherwise the poem could not be attained, humanity, the core of the poem, had to be the inner goal. After a new draft and new lens, a larger question came into view, 'Can we take a leap into a new way of living with each other?' First, and most necessary, still, was to take a full moment and truly acknowledge the people on their last day."
—Juan Felipe Herrera
Juan Felipe Herrera
Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California, on December 27, 1948. The son of migrant farmers, Herrera moved often, living in trailers or tents along the roads of the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California. As a child, he attended school in a variety of small towns from San Francisco to San Diego. He began drawing cartoons while in middle school, and by high school was playing folk music by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.
Herrera graduated from San Diego High in 1967, and was one of the first wave of Chicanos to receive an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship to attend UCLA. There, he became immersed in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, and began performing in experimental theater, influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez. In 1972, Herrera received a BA in social anthropology from UCLA. He received an MA in social anthropology from Stanford in 1980, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990.
Herrera’s interests in Indigenous cultures inspired him to lead a formal Chicano trek to Mexican Indian villages, from the rain forest of Chiapas to the mountains of Nayarit. The experience greatly changed him as an artist. His work, which includes video, photography, theater, poetry, prose, and performance, has made Herrera a leading voice on the Mexican American and indigenous experience.
Herrera is the author of many collections of poetry, including Every Day We Get More Illegal (City Lights, 2020); Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015); Senegal Taxi (University of Arizona Press, 2013); Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008), a recipient of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award; 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971–2007 (City Lights, 2007); and Crashboomlove (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), a novel in verse, which received the Americas Award. His books of prose for children include Lejos / Far (Candlewick, 2019), Jabberwalking (Candlewick, 2018), which won an International Latino Book Award; Upside Down Boy (2006), which was adapted into a musical in New York City; and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box (HarperCollins, 2005), which tells the tragedy of 9/11 through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl.
Ilan Stavans, the Mexican American essayist, has said:
There is one constant over the past three decades in Chicano literature and his name is Juan Felipe Herrera. Aesthetically, he leaps over so many canons that he winds up on the outer limits of urban song. And spiritually, he is deep into the quest that we all must begin before it is too late.
In a profile of Herrera in The New York Times, Stephanie Burt wrote:
Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed.
Herrera has received fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, he received the L.A. Times Book Prize’s Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. In 2021, he received the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement & Service presented by the Northern California Book Awards.
Over the past three decades, Herrera has founded a number of performance ensembles, and has taught poetry, art, and performance in community art galleries and correctional facilities. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and served as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at CSU-Fresno.
In 2015, Herrera was named poet laureate of the United States, for which he launched the project La Casa de Colores, which invites citizens to contribute to an epic poem. Herrera is professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno and UC Riverside. He also holds honorary degrees from California State University, Fresno, Skidmore College, and Oregon State University. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2011 to 2016.
Date Published: 2016-07-10
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/crossroads-sudden-american-poem