Today, Fresno poet laureate Lee Herrick interviews Juan Luis Guzmán, the organizer of this year’s LitHop. The festival is this Saturday, April 29th! Our coverage of the upcoming event can be found here and here and here.
You are organizing this year’s LitHop. How did that come about, and what, if anything, has been exciting during the planning stages?
Last year, I was a reader at LitHop and I was able to experience how transformative the event was for the city and for the participants. I have been a reader for similar events in larger cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles but never in Fresno. There was a sense of magic to the fact that this was happening here, at home in Fresno. When Lee announced last year that he had reached the tough decision to not run the event again in 2017, I was a little heartbroken for the city and for the writers who were already looking forward to the next round. I may have written something like someone should step up and take over to make this happen again on his Facebook page, but I never expected that the “someone” would be me! Nonetheless, I felt fortunate that Lee would trust me with this event and I knew I had the experience and the support network we would need to do the work. So, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, all in the name of poetry. One of the most exciting things for me during the planning process was receiving and reading through the many proposals that were submitted to the planning committee. The event will be incredibly diverse in voices and genre and the participants did a great job of finding the best ways to present their work. It has been an immense labor of love, and I know all the work we’ve put into the event will be worth it, not only for the 150+ participants, but for the public as well.
What are you most looking forward to at LitHop 2017?
There’s a lot to look forward to. As director, I’m looking forward to enjoying the result of a lot of planning on the part of a very hard-working committee. As a reader, I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with some amazing writers. As a community member, I’m looking forward to sharing in a day filled with the written word. I’m especially excited to share this day with those people in the public for whom literary readings are a new or rare thing. There’s so much power in the literature and experiencing a reading in person can potentially save a life. I really believe that. We received such an overwhelmingly positive response to LitHop 2016 and my hope is that we continue to touch people’s lives through the written word.
Your work as a director and actor in various theater productions is well-known. Do these roles relate to the writing of poetry?
Absolutely. Working in theater has made me more aware in my poetry. I can look toward a piece I’m working on and actually consider how a poem is like a play, how the writer is the director. I’m attentive to entrances and exits; the way a character enters a scene is the same as the way a reader enters a poem, or the way a word begins and ends a line. I think of stanzas as scenes, consider what to illuminate in the ways that I figure lighting for in a particular moment on stage. Actors have props, poets have language. And there’s always the audience, right? I so appreciate how fortunate I am to be a working artist and I’m constantly looking for the ways these art forms create bridges and paths toward each other.
What social justice issues or contemporary issues in society bother you the most? To what extent do these views enter your poetry or your favorite writers’ poetry?
Well, there are many. I’ll be really honest and say that it’s been a struggle allowing these issues into my poetry. Any injustice in society has the potential to break a poet down. In our country alone issues of LGBTQ rights, issues of immigration and deportation, labor inequities, issues of race and prejudice, they’re so ugly I had never wanted them to enter the space of my writing for fear of pollution. After the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, however, something changed. I learned that this was not the way I should approach issues of social justice, that, on the contrary, I alone control the effect these subjects have on me and my writing. I wrote a poem for Orlando. I wrote a poem for the missing 43 of Ayotzinapa. Little by little I’m allowing my writing to go into these places I hadn’t dared entered and my writing—my world, really—is better for it.
What are you working on now?
You mentioned my work in theater and I’m currently serving on the Selma Arts Council where I do a lot for community arts work for the Selma Arts Center. I’ve got a number of projects in the works with them now, including a proposal to establish a community-based writing program for the youth in the surrounding areas. In addition to my work as a professor at Fresno City College, I’m also working hard to complete my first full-length manuscript, a collection of poems. And even though LitHop 2017 is still days away, you might’ve guessed that the wheels are already turning for LitHop 2018.
Juan Luis Guzmán earned an MFA from CSU, Fresno. His work has appeared in several literary journals including Pilgrimage, Huizache, Assaracus, [PANK], and BorderSenses. A member of the Macondo Writers Workshop and a graduate fellow of CantoMundo, Guzmán has also published a series of interviews with writers for publications like Poets Quarterly and the Letras Latinas Blog. Guzmán lives in Selma, CA where he serves on the Selma Arts Council, and he teaches at Fresno City College. He is the director of LitHop 2017.
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