Yesterday, I learned that David Hernandez had passed away of a heart attack at the age of 66. He died in his beloved city, Chicago, on Feb. 25, 2013. (By the way, there is another David Hernandez, a poet from California, who is very much alive.)
Reading this news two months after the fact brought back vivid memories of another stage of my life, when I was fortunate enough to know David and be influenced by this fabulous poet and teacher. As I read articles about his life that included lines from his poems, his distinctive voice came back to me as well. David read his poetry with a musical lilt, even when he wasn’t performing with his band Street Sounds. When he was with the band, then the full sense of the Latin rhythms came through, but even without the band, you could hear the echoes of the music in his lines. Poetry Poetry has audio clips of several of his poems available online, including one of my all-time favorites “Why I Want to be a Real Poet.” But it’s hard to pick a favorite David Hernandez poem: every poem is a hardened gem.
Hernandez has been described as a street poet, as Chicago’s unnofficial poet-laureate (he wrote innaugural poems for Mayor Harold Washington), and Chicago’s first Latino poet (he began publishing in 1971). But I didn’t know any of those things when I met David in 1986. He was well into his second decade as a published poet, but apart from his fabulous poems, you’d never guess it to look at him or to interact with him.
I was just a kid, fresh out of college, trying to make a living in my first job at Chicago Review Press, and my good friend and college professor, Robin Metz, was running Knox Colleges’ Urban Studies program in Chicago for a semester. He enlisted me to help out with their poetry workshop. David was the real poet, I manned the coffee pot and sat in on the informal discussions. I was probably full of myself and gave too much ‘advice.’ David was always encouraging, gently prodding or exploring a poem, but mostly encouraging the other poets to explore their creativity. You see, he never treated us like students; he always treated us like artists. He could be demanding about art, but you never felt judged or looked down upon. He led by example, and his example was absolute honesty. There was no room for pretentiousness in the little church basement where we met each Saturday. He never had to lay down the law or tell us to be humble: you just knew. In part because, though he never claimed to be a great poet and even wrote ironic poems about wanting to be a ‘real poet,’ we could sense we were in the presence of a real poet.
I learned more about life and about poetry in those Saturday mornings with David than I would in many other classrooms, so I was sad when the Knox students packed up their bags and went back to campus. But I didn’t need to be. David was still around, and I’d bump into him at the Green Mill Lounge, where I’d started going to the Poetry Slams. And David never forgot who you were and never acted like he didn’t know you because he didn’t have to know you anymore. Each time you saw David, it was like no time had passed. We remained friends throughout the time I lived in Chicago, and he remains one of my absolute favorite poet friends from those days.