Poetry in the Park 2016: US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Added on by Melody Santiago.

I am vibing on this perfect South Beach weather, and the even more perfect vibe among the people gathering in Soundscape Park in front of the New World Center next to Lincoln Road, all waiting for the start of Poetry in the Park. The manicured lawn sprouts a lovely, colorful carpet of diversity: young and old in all shades of the human rainbow; families of all shapes, sizes and sexual identities (Pride was happening just a few blocks away); pets and their people, even some in matching finery. They all congregate amiably, enjoying the breezy weather, waiting for the main event.

A pair of fit, friendly girls named Cari and Lee, weave in and out of the growing crowd, passing out free, healthy snacks from the Kind Company. With each snack, they hand out cards redeemable for another free Kind bar. The catch? That you hand the card to someone you observe performing an act of kindness—a sweet way to pay it forward, so to speak.

At around 7:55, a countdown appears on the 7,000 square-foot wall of the New World Center building, alerting the crowd to gather around and take their spots on the lawn for the main event. Part of the Mary and Howard Frank Plaza, the wall is regularly used by the City of Miami Beach to project outdoor movies in the evenings for local residents. As the larger than life clock ticks down to 0, the crowd hushes in anticipation. They are not disappointed. The presentation, includes readings from artists like poet Tere Figueras Negrete, a winner of the 2013 #ThatsSoMiami contest. Later, Miami’s favorite band Afrobeta, sing a song specially written for O, Miami last year.  The crowd is now pumped for the featured artist, our nation’s first Hispanic Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. 

He first appears onscreen—or rather, on wall—in a mini documentary chronicling a class he led with the children of Poinciana Park Elementary school in Liberty City. I don’t know whose excitement was more infectious, his or the children in the video, as he led them through a lyrical world involving the power of clouds and poetry. When he finally took to the cinematic stage to read his work, he keeps the crowd mesmerized with his lyrical stylings and intimate banter. He inspires the audience, both in the film and in the park, to participate in this lively performance. 

Perhaps the highlight of the evening is Felipe’s performance of the poem, “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.” The poem, he explains, was written in response to California Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative which aimed to cut medical, educational and other services to undocumented immigrants in the state. Herrera makes it an interactive affair, requesting that the audience shout out, “Because,” before he reads a line from the litany, such as, “Because the CIA trains better with brown targets,” Because! “Because the North is really South,” Because! “Because you, as a European corporation, would rather visit us first.”

As I ride the bus home from the event, a man, tired and agitated from his hotel cleaning job (judging by his dusty uniform) on Miami Beach, is short the 25 cents he needs to complete his fare and go home. The bus driver lets him on anyway. When I get to my stop, I handed him my Kind card, give him a brief explanation of what it was all about, and went on my way.

All photos by Gesi Schilling. 

All photos by Gesi Schilling. 

Clidiane Aubourg is a writer living in Miami, Fl. She will be contributing blog posts for O, Miami Poetry Festival 2016.