When teens are faced with boredom, bullying or feeling bad about themselves, they can reach for one of the most powerful tools they have — their words.
Teens can express themselves in poetry, finding that hero inside and learning to work together, said California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, who is presenting bilingual workshops at many area high schools this week. He will address the Chautauqua Poets and Writers tonight at Ashland High's Mountain Avenue Theater.
An author of many books of poetry and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside, Herrera was raised in Central Valley farmworker camps by uneducated parents and went on to earn a master's degree, he told a Phoenix High class Wednesday.
Who: California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera
What: Chautauqua Poets and Writers event
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Ashland High's Mountain Avenue Theater, 201 S. Mountain Ave.
Tickets: Cost is $15; available at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., and Bookwagon, 1654 Ashland St., in Ashland
Bidding students to complete his sentences and let words flow, Herrera told how, as a kid, he focused on the pain but gradually learned to live with the positive things of life. He noted his parents were pioneers who fled the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, carrying little more than a small bag of groceries and paying someone a penny a word to teach them English.
"But your generation is different," Herrera told Phoenix students. "You love words, always texting and on Facebook, tap, tap tap. You may not think of yourselves as poets, but you're doing it every day. Like my mom and dad, you are making a new life and are pioneers, but you will do it together. The age of going it alone is over."
After reading from his poems on the horrors of Darfur and the bullying death of an 11-year-old named Joanne, Herrera noted, "There's too much violence going on. Life just can't be about you, one person. With that pioneer spirit, you can do a lot. All you have to do is write and big changes will happen."
Herrera got students participating by loosening them up with series of random words: "Peaches, potatoes, a-squared plus b-squared equals guacamole ... when you liberate yourselves and let the imagination go, then poetry happens ... when vengeance boils in your brain and you want to get someone back, bring your voices together!"
"We're so lucky to have this opportunity," said English teacher Kelly Singleton, "maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance for kids to aspire, especially the Latino population. The message is to express yourself, no matter how you do it.
"Students are often blocked from what they really want to say — and poetry lends itself in ways they don't normally get to do," she added.
Herrera told the students he "grew up on the road and at ranchos, only speaking Spanish. I was afraid of my voice. I was always out in the hall saying, 'What's goin' on?' But I learned to honor my voice. I don't know how I got into poetry. I was surprised it happened. There was a scholarship. I got into UCLA. Someone supported me ... and that's what I'm doing here for you. Use your brilliance, your energy, learn research skills and write!"
In an interview, Herrera said the purpose of poetry is to give everyone a tongue. It allows people to reach out, not just into the stories and experience of the Latino people but — in the age of increasing globalization — into all languages, stories and people.
"What I do is encourage youth to continue having creative lives, all their lives, and believe in themselves and stay 100-percent positive," Herrera said of his workshops. "I mention their potential role in the 21st century is very expansive, going beyond the four walls we know now, becoming much more aware of the world's languages and cultures and generating more of what's positive."
In work with teachers, he congratulates them and guides them to acknowledge young people and make writing accessible to kids who seem to dislike it at present.
"I'm here to assist and encourage and talk about my experience, so as to inspire them to a positive life," he said. "Being poet laureate, my world became bigger and my role exploded to a larger sphere. My message for everyone is the same as my message for the Latino community, that you have a beautiful voice to promote unity and to know your voice is precious. It's all you have to communicate with the world — and your time is now."
Herrera is noted for composing poems on the spot. Asked to write lines for his visit here, he said, "Then our voices run like Bear Creek / Let our hearts flow into the Rogue River / So that all can breathe / and sing in each other's light."
He will work with performing arts students today at Southern Oregon University, then with public and private school teachers and SOU students.
Tonight's Chautauqua event at AHS begins at 7:30. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., and Bookwagon, 1654 Ashland St., in Ashland.
On Friday, Herrera will talk to students from five area high schools and both colleges in the AHS library.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.