This interview between two leading lights of Fresno’s cultural scene is part of our ongoing coverage of the upcoming LitHop festival – this Saturday, the 29th! Other stories can be found here and here.
Juan Luis Guzmán: As the founder of LitHop, how would you describe the purpose of the festival, and what do you think it has brought to the community?
Lee Herrick: I had envisioned LitHop for over 15 years, and it finally came together last year. One main purpose of LitHop is to bring together a wide range of writers in a variety of public venues for a walkable, fun, literary experience. I wanted it be free for attendees, diverse in its offerings, and well run. I envision it as a form of literary democracy in action. I also believe that literature, poetry, and the experience of hearing it live is important and has many positive effects for a community. There are people who drive from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and many of them stay overnight, which is new, I think, for a literary event in Fresno. I heard from so many people last year that it was an exciting event, and I know this year will be, too. It’s one day where people buzz around and talk about which readings they went to and which ones they’re going to next. It’s a full, fun day. My goals were modest, but it has exceeded my wildest expectations. Last year, we hoped we get get 15 or 20 events. We had almost 40. Organizing one poetry event is a large task but 40 in a single day is a whole different level. This year there are even more. It’s exciting.
I said in another interview about LitHop that writing and words can often serve as a salve from the everyday noise of the world. After I said that I realized that writing can also be the match that ignites the fire that burns it all down. In your perspective, what’s the power of words, especially in our current political landscape, and how do you think LitHop acts as a channel for the people who write these words?
Writing is born out of fire that makes it way out of our bodies. It has always been essential in any era, country, or political climate, and this one is no different. If the writer is authentic and present in his or her time, it is difficult to not care about injustice. LitHop’s structure brings together four writers for each reading, so there is automatically a thematic thread to each reading, which fosters community. There are over 40 readings this year, so LitHop is also a channel to meet, hear, and connect with over 150 writers. The more that like-minded writers can connect, the better. It’s also important to hear new voices and learn, which I also hope LitHop provides.
LitHop was created during your tenure as poet laureate of Fresno. Very recently you gave your final reading in this capacity. What has it meant for you to serve as Fresno’s second poet laureate, and what’s the current state of poetry in our community? Any favorite moments you experienced as poet laureate?
It has been a thrill and an honor to serve as Fresno Poet Laureate. I’ve been so moved by the people I’ve met. I’ve been part of many events: around a dozen poetry readings where I brought together poets at the Fresno Arts Council, a reading after the Orlando shooting, International Women’s Day March, book clubs, Poetry Out Loud, and twice at a state prison where men serve life in prison sentences, among many other events. The prison readings were incredibly difficult, moving, and rewarding. Each audience and event has been very special, but one that stands out to me at the moment is meeting the Amezcua family, whose nine year-old son died in a car accident. He donated his organs through Donor Network West, and I was asked to write a poem for the family. So much of my laureateship has been about meeting incredible people through poetry.I think the current state of poetry in Fresno is very strong and getting stronger and more diverse with each passing year. It would take me a long time to mention how many great books have come out in the last few years. But Fresno poetry is thriving.
What was your favorite LitHop 2016 moment and what are you most excited about for LitHop 2017? Do you hope for many more LitHop event after this one? What do you hope is the future of this festival?
I have so many favorite moments from LitHop 2016. The whole day was full of them. Truly. But one of my favorites was how Juan Felipe Herrera interacted with the kids after they read his poem before his headline reading at the Fresno City College auditorium. It was a packed theater with over 700 people, and to see the kids, including my daughter, excited and on stage with the United States Poet Laureate was very memorable for me.I hope LitHop can live on for many years. I am so grateful that Juan Guzman, my good friend a colleague, has taken on the huge task of organizing it this year. I want to keep LitHop’s main qualities in tact—free, diverse, walkable. I want it to remain literary and not turn into a music festival or something else that others already do, such as Rogue Festival. I can see it growing, but I want to be realistic with the growth. Each year, we’ll learn something new and continue to bring it to the community, I hope.
I imagine you are at work on multiple projects today, both in the writing work and beyond. What are a few of the projects you are currently working on?
I’m pretty busy. I just got back from the New Orleans Poetry Festival, where I was a featured reader, and I’m judging a poetry contest for a university, and I’m always writing blurbs or working on other invited projects. I’m revising a new poetry manuscript titled What I Hear and Mistake for My Heart, which I’ll be sending around to publishers soon, and I’m writing new poems about photography, art, and media images and racism from the Korean War. This is also my twentieth year teaching full-time at Fresno City College, and I’m looking forward to teaching a social justice writing class in the fall that I just created. It’s been a busy but wonderful year.
Lee Herrick is the author of two books, Gardening Secrets of the Dead and This Many Miles from Desire. His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, including The Bloomsbury Review, ZYZZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (2nd edition), One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form, and Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, among others. Born in Daejeon, South Korea and adopted at ten months old, Herrick lives in Fresno, California and teaches at Fresno City College and in the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College. In 2015 he was named poet laureate of Fresno.
Tomorrow, we turn the tables, and Herrick interviews Guzmán!
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