Juan Felipe Herrera Launches ‘The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World’

California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera kicks off 2-year collaborative project; calls it a 'rolling wave of poetry'

Juan Felipe Herrera holds up the first installment of his project, "The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity  in the World.” Photo credit: Carrie Rosema.

Juan Felipe Herrera holds up the first installment of his project, "The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World.” Photo credit: Carrie Rosema.

California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera today kicked off his two-year poetry project, titled “The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World.” The project will seek out submissions of poetry — in the form of words, phrases or stanzas — from everybody.

“I’m going to invite everyone to write a line, a word, a phrase, a stanza – a poem if you want—on unity. All views are welcome — all languages, all styles,” the University of California, Riverside poetry professor explained. “We’ll collect them in some manner — in a website, or via Twitter, add them on each other; we’ll have a rolling wave of poetry for two years!” he added. With infrastructure and digital help from organizations such as the Inlandia Institute, the poems would then be broadcast on digital billboards throughout California.

The highly animated Herrera announced the project at the Citizens University Committee (CUC) breakfast meeting, held at the UCR Extension Building. As he explained the project, he urged the attendees to repeat the words after him.”Poets have to vocalize!” he said.

“Oh my, oh gee! Chihuahua! We can do it!” the audience chanted along to Herrera’s lead.

The first-ever Chicano poet laureate hopes that “The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World” will expose everybody — not just Californians — to poetry. After two years, Herrera will collate all the submissions and turn them into a multimedia installation at Capitol Park in Sacramento.

“As we go out, while we’re shopping, talking, eating, thinking, combing, getting ready to go to the john, take a break … people are going to see that billboard. And everyone will go ‘Ahhh…unity! That’s exactly what we need!'” Herrera said.

Juan Felipe Herrera with development officer Wanda Scruggs. Photo credit: Carrie Rosema.

He compared “The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World” to a renga — the 1000-year-old Japanese form of shared writing between many collaborators. Why unity? “Unity means different things to me,” Herrera said. “[It means] less violence, more togetherness and harmony — and all the things we feel in our lives that we wish we had more of,” he added.

After explaining the project to the CUC members, he asked the audience to write their thoughts on unity on a piece of paper, which he collected after the breakfast meeting. These submissions are to be the first installment of “The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World.”

Herrera is the son of migrant farm workers; he arrived at UC Riverside in 2005 as the Tomás Rivera Chair in Creative Writing. He earned his bachelor’s degree from UCLA and holds master’s degrees from Stanford and Iowa. He has published numerous volumes of poetry, prose, theater, children’s books and young adult novels, including “Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems” which received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award. He was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, and has received the Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, and the UC Berkeley Regent’s Fellowship.

At the breakfast meeting, Herrera also discussed other projects he’s working on. One is a musical about two women who were radio stars in the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso border area during the 1930s and 1940s. One of them, Eva Amezcua, 96, lives in Riverside. Herrera is using his interviews with her as the basis for the musical.

Herrera is also working on “I Promise Joanna,” an anti-bullying letter-writing project inspired by 10-year-old Joanna Ramos. Ramos died after getting punched in a bullying situation in her Long Beach elementary school. “Students are going to write those letters, because when we express, someone’s going to listen. Something’s going to change,” he said.

To take part in Juan Felipe Herrera’s project, you can post your entries on the Facebook page here.

 

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