Silver City, NM- It was a big day at Western New Mexico University! Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States, was visiting. As Dr. Jack Crocker had put it, WNMU was now the most literate place in the Southwest, due to his presence. Now, there was a common question that I heard when telling people he was visiting and that was: What’s a Poet Laureate?
The Poet Laureate is designed to basically preserve art and creative works and ensure that they continue to be practiced in the United States. His main focus is, of course, poetry. Also, the duties of his office will occasionally have him writing or selecting a poem for the President to recite at an event or special occasion. He also sends his works to parts of the country that experienced some sort of tragedy, such as Boston after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing or Sandy Hook Elementary after the shooting.
Juan Felipe is the 21st person to hold the title of Poet Laureate in the United States, and is also the first one to be Latino. He was going to give a lecture at Light Hall Auditorium, followed by a book signing and then a small, private reception afterwards. Thanks to some strings pulled by the chair of the Humanities Department and the writer in residence, JJ Wilson, I was invited to the reception, which was both a great privilege and a tremendous honor.
Juan Felipe was a very friendly person. He was laid-back, good-humored and radiated a warm and positive energy. At the lecture, Juan Felipe read a few poems from his newest book Notes on the Assemblage and spoke about experimenting in art. He also took the time to speak to everyone that brought a book for him to sign, and he always seemed to know just what to say to make that person feel good about themselves. Speaking with him briefly a profound impact on my friend Marissa, (not my story to tell) and later had one on me.
I had the chance to speak with Juan Felipe in person at the reception as we were getting food. We’d spoken very briefly before the lecture and he knew that I was in charge of a news publication at the university. He spoke to me about the art that is found in journalism and in reporting the truth. I likened it to poetry in a sense, considering that both a poet and a journalist need to be skilled in finding something interesting to write about based on their surroundings. A journalist needs to find “the story,” while a poet needs to find some sort of beauty or even just an emotional center to something.
From this small talk came something more meaningful. I told Juan Felipe what it was that originally made me want to become a writer. That it started many years ago, in an onion shed.
I’d always enjoyed reading and writing, but I’d never considered it as a viable career. Instead, I was working at an onion shed, which was essentially a big warehouse filled with onions. I spent endless hours peeling onions, bagging onions, picking up onions…. It was terrible. Considering the intense heat and the amount of misery in that warehouse, it was probably as close to Hell as I’d ever been.
After quitting that job, I made the decision to take some classes at the Western branch in Deming. At the very least, it would increase my job opportunities.
One of the first academic papers I had to write was a personal narrative, so I wrote about my time at the onion shed. Upon reading the paper, my instructor told me that I was a gifted writer and a natural storyteller, and suggested that I consider an English major. That’s how it all began.
Now, years later, I was telling this story to the Poet Laureate of the United States and thankfully he wasn’t totally bored. Instead he was amused that my inspiration came from an onion shed of all places and was pleased that someone had noticed whatever skill I had and had nursed it and fed it. He spoke about how it is important that we do this with others who are creative.
This made me think about some things. When I first took over this publication last year, it was dead in the water. One of the key things that brought it back was student participation. Since September 2015, The Mustang has had five English majors write for it, not counting myself. There has also been one English minor and one graduate student who completed an undergrad in English. All of them now have professional writing experience.
Not only that, since September 2015 we have had several Non-English majors try their hand at writing. Monique Willis, Claudia Osuna, Linzy Granger, Kaity Ellis, Bre Aker and Gabby Begay have all contributed articles to The Mustang, something I’m not sure would have happened without being given the opportunity. In the case of Monique, Kaity and Bre, they wrote standard Associated Press format newspaper articles, something that their majors wouldn’t require them to do. The others wrote editorial-style narratives. While it seems like it would be fairly easy, taking a collection of personal thoughts, ideas, opinions, and experiences and turning them into something readable without being a boring shaggy dog story actually requires a lot more skill than you’d think.
Thanks to The Mustang and the policy I’d put in place, all of these students had the opportunity to write something and try something new. As long as I’m editor, any student can have this opportunity.
When I told Juan Felipe about this, he replied that I was giving back. It was a circle: originally I had come to Western and had been encouraged to take up writing, now I was doing the same for others. This made me feel good about what I do.
There are times where I hear about past Mustang incarnations and how controversial they were or how political and I wonder how people will reflect on mine. Will it be looked back upon as boring? Will it be seen as that time the old Mustang Newspaper tried to go digital? Worst of all, would it even be remembered at all?
Realizing that the defining trait for this incarnation is giving any student the opportunity to be a writer, even if it’s just for one article, really put these worries to rest. Not only does it give young people more opportunities to try new things, but it also encourages and spreads the artistry of the written word in a sense. Juan Felipe helped me realize that what I do, and what The Mustang does, is important and it was a good feeling.
Sorry if this editorial seems a bit self-congratulatory, but this was the impact talking to the Poet Laureate for those brief moments had on me. Like a great poet, Juan Felipe was able to find that spark of goodness and beauty in every person that he spoke to that evening and highlight it. He did it with me, he did it with Marissa, and he’s probably done it with so many others. Meeting Juan Felipe Herrera, the author, poet and activist, was truly inspiring and is an experience that I will never forget.