Juan Felipe Herrera first encountered his voice after singing in front of his third-grade class. His teacher pulled him aside: "You have a beautiful voice."
Herrera, California's 64-year-old poet laureate, now teaches poetry workshops at the University of California-Riverside but still remembers that early brush with the rhythm of words.
"I didn't really know what she was saying, but she had compassion and kindness and generosity," Herrera said during a phone interview. "She had this whole notion of having a voice, and I dwelled on that. Now, it's all about not just my voice, but the voices of everyone."
Herrera, the son of California migrant workers, is committed to giving voice to the overlooked through poetry and prose, often mixing languages to do that. "Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems" gathers some of Herrera's writings on the experiences of Mexican-Americans. Published by the University of Arizona Press in 2008 as part of the Camino del Sol series, the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Herrera's new work, "Senegal Taxi," to be published in March, explores violence in Sudan and is part of the same series by the UA Press.
From what he calls a "fiery start" during the civil rights era and Chicano movement to more recent work directed at children and young adults, Herrera strings words together to pack a political and social punch.
"(Poetry) is the people's newspaper, the artists' newspaper, the newspaper of our consciousness," Herrera said. "It's like publishing as you walk down the street."
Herrera does not see poetry as a nail-biting, teeth-pulling art. To him, it's fluid, natural and the immediate result of life observed. For Herrera, "writing things down is secondary."
Herrera thrives on improvisation, so many of his poetry readings deviate from scripted pages.
"If you want to be serious, be hilarious," Herrera said. "If you want to be hilarious, be a bit more put-together, and if you want to goof around, then go ahead and goof around. You can never lose with that."
Poetry is a democratic art, and Herrera's recent projects, like the collection on unity, focus on involving children and teenagers. One of his collections of citizen-produced poetry will go to Newtown, Conn., to support the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Herrera hopes to bring these projects and others together through what he calls the peace room, which he envisions schools in California will set aside for students to think creatively about their life experiences and to find their individual voices.
In the 1970s, Herrera and his friends incorporated dance, jazz or puppets with their poetry readings. These days, he's taking a simpler approach.
"It goes back to what my third-grade teacher said. You can do back flips onstage, but it's the poet that sticks with the real, personal poetry that everyone can always relate to. It's the personal voice that wins out, because that's who we are."
Next Sunday in Home + Life
What's a kid to do? There are plenty of children's authors and activities at the Tucson Festival of Books.
Where to see Herrera
Juan Felipe Herrera has participated in the Tucson Festival of Books for three of the festival's five years.
This year, he'll be part of the panel discussion, "The Literature of Human Rights," and participate in a discussion called "Poet Laureate: Advocating for Poetry."
He'll also be asking Tucsonans to become part of his project, "The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World."
In it, he puts aside his own voice and asks people to wax poetic about unity. Their musings will become part of what has been called a "poetry wave" in California, with quotes pulled from the poem and posted in public places across the state.
"We all want unity in a very deep way," Herrera said. "There's no editor and no 'Yes, you're right' or 'No, you're wrong.' Everybody can jump in."
If you Go
• What: Fifth annual Tucson Festival of Books.
• When: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. March 9-10.
• Where: University of Arizona campus. Attendance and parking are free.
• What: About 450 authors, book discussions, workshops and literary activities for the entire family.
• Sponsors: The UA and the Arizona Daily Star. The University of Arizona Medical Center is the presenting sponsor. Net proceeds will promote literacy in Southern Arizona through the Tucson Festival of Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
• Bookmark it: Go to tucsonfestivalofbooks.org for more information. You can sign up to follow the festival through email newsletters.
• Social media: Follow the festival on Facebook at facebook.com/tucsonfestivalofbooks and go to twitter.com/tfob to follow on Twitter.
• Mobile: Apps are also available for iPhone, Android devices and Kindle Fire.
• Plan it out: The best way to see the authors and participate in the workshops and other activities is to make a plan. Check the March 3 Star, which will feature a pull-out section that details the event and includes a map.
Festival tips request
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Five other poets not to miss
• Karen Brennan has six books published, including her moving nonfiction work about her daughter, "Being With Rachel: A Personal Story of Memory and Survival," and her most recent poetry collection, "little dark."
• Mary Jo Bang is an award-winning poet with six books to her credit, including a translation of Dante's "Inferno."
• Richard Shelton, a Regents' Professor in the University of Arizona's creative writing department, has nearly a dozen books published, including his wildly popular "Going Back to Bisbee," which snagged him the Western States Award for creative nonfiction.
• Joy Harjo has published children's books, a memoir ("Crazy Brave") and seven books of poetry.
• Aisha Sabatini Sloan's first book, "The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White," due to be released in March, has gotten high praise. This is an emerging voice to catch so you can say, "I heard her when. . . ."
Johanna Willett is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at email@example.com