Juan Felipe Herrera teaching a poetry workshop in 2010.
As Carolyn Kellogg reports in The Los Angeles Times, “on Wednesday, the Library of Congress named [Herrera] U.S. poet laureate. When he begins his tenure in September, he’ll be the first-ever Chicano poet laureate, writing and speaking in both English and Spanish. Herrera’s parents, both migrant farm workers, came to California from Mexico in the early part of the 20th century.
[Herrera] traveled up and down the state as a child and attended UCLA with the help of the Educational Opportunity Program for disadvantaged students. Although he got a master’s degree at Stanford in the 1970s in social anthropology, what he really wanted to do was write. In 1988 he went to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a master of fine arts in poetry.
Now 66, Herrera is a master of many forms: long lines, litanies, protest poems, sonnets, plays, books for children and young adults, works that combine verse and other forms. Lately he has turned his gaze outward, with 2013’s collection, Senegal Taxi, focusing on Darfur. But his career started closer to home, with poems that often casually combined Spanish and English, uniting the languages of his youth. In Blood on the Wheel, he writes:
Blood in the tin, in the coffee bean, in the maquila oración
Blood in the language, in the wise text of the market sausage
Blood in the border web, the penal colony shed, in the bilingual yard …
Typically, the U.S. poet laureate does a few official readings and beyond that is free to create his or her own programming during the year. The modest honorarium, $35,000, doesn’t go far, and some poets use the time to write, advise the library on matters of poetry and explore the collections. Others leverage the media to spread the word about poetry; Natasha Trethewey, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, partnered with PBS NewsHour on the series Where Poetry Lives.
Herrera, who lives with his wife in Fresno, retired from UC Riverside in March, where he taught creative writing for a decade. He recently concluded his two-year term as California’s poet laureate, traveling to hidden corners of the state and showcasing young poets’ work in various media. Along the way he created a massive, multi-contributor unity poem and a number of popular live readings, catching the attention of key players in Washington.
‘I think people heard about what he was doing as California poet laureate in ways that you don’t always hear about what state poets laureate do,’ says Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. ‘That was really exciting to see. He speaks poetry in a way that I think is super-inspiring…. He’s the kind of poet who gives you permission to love poetry, to be excited about it, to be energized by it. To think that it’s something freeing and fun but also relevant to the issues we face, the challenges we have; to understanding the world we’re in.’”
An excellent and exciting choice – we will all be richer for it.