FIRST LATINO U.S. POET LAUREATE: JUAN FELIPE HERRERA

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BY DR. NEO   GUTIERREZ
MARCH 2016
Recently I was reminded of an incredible   artistic feat by Juan Felipe Herrera.  He is the only Latino to be U.S.   Poet Laureate, the highest honor possible in that artistic   field.
According to Wikipedia, on the artist’s  background:

Son of farm workers María de la Luz Quintana and Felipe Emilio  Herrera, Juan Felipe Herrera lived from crop to crop and from tractor to trailer  to tents on the roads of the San Joaquín Valley and the Salinas Valley. Herrera  graduated from San Diego High School in 1967 and received the Educational  Opportunity Program scholarship to attend the University of California, Los Angeles[7] where he received his B.A. in Social  Anthropology. Later, he received his Masters in Social Anthropology from  Stanford University, and his Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the  University of Iowa. In 1990, he was a distinguished teaching fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After serving as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at California State University, Fresno, in 2005,[8] Herrera joined the Creative Writing  Department at University of California, Riverside, as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair.[9] He also became director of the Art and  Barbara Culver Center for the Arts, a new multimedia space in downtown  Riverside.

Herrera resides in Redlands, California with his partner  Margarita Robles, a performance artist and poet. He has five  children.

In a  report in June of last year   Colin Dwyer informed us:

Poetry readers, prepare yourselves for a passing of the   laurels. The Library of Congress announced in the wee hours Wednesday that the   next U.S. poet laureate will be California writer Juan Felipe Herrera. He will   be the first Latino poet to be appointed to the position.

“This is a mega-honor for me,” Herrera said in the   announcement, “for my family and my parents who came up north before and after   the Mexican Revolution of 1910 — the honor is bigger than   me.”

A poet of Chicano descent, the 66-year-old has spent just about   his whole life on the West Coast. Born to a family of migrant farmworkers,   Herrera bounced from tent to trailer for much of his youth in Southern   California, eventually going on to study at UCLA and Stanford. Years later, he   stepped out of the state to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, before — you   guessed it — returning home to California.

His introduction to poetry, however, came much earlier — from   his mother.

“She used to recite   poems kind of spontaneously,” he told NPR’s Audie Cornish. “Something would   move her, and then she would just break into a poem that she remembered from   her childhood. My sister, my grandmother and my mom came up on the train to   Juarez, Chihuahua [Mexico], and then across the border to El Paso, Texas, with   those early rhymes and songs and poems.Along the way, Herrera has been prolific — so prolific, in   fact, that few seem to agree just how many books the man has written.   (Some say 30, others 29, and the Library of Congress says   28. We’ll just put the number at “dozens.”) Those works include poetry   collections, novels in verse and plenty of children’s books. Across this body   of work, the shadow of California, and his cultural heritage, has loomed   large.“I’ve worked throughout California as a poet; in colleges,   universities, worker camps, migrant education offices, continuation high   schools, juvenile halls, prisons, and gifted classrooms,” Herrera told the campus newspaper at the   University of California, Riverside, where he taught creative writing. “I   would say [I’ve been] from San Diego all the way to Arcata and throughout the   valleys … for the last 40 years.”The   role of poet-in-chief isn’t entirely new to Herrera. Beyond his teaching   duties at UC Riverside, he served a two-year stint as California’s poet   laureate, from 2012 to 2014. He’s the first Latino poet to have assumed that   role in the state’s history.
The U.S. poet laureate’s   one-year term doesn’t carry a
lot of prescribed   responsibilities — “the Library keeps
to a minimum [its] specific   duties,” according to the
announcement — but past   laureates have often
embarked on projects to advocate   on behalf of the
form and to widen its audience.   And if there’s
anything to be gleaned from   Herrera’s past, it’s that
Herrera likely will be active in   the new position, too.

In a conversation with the journal Zyzzyva,   Herrera set out a mini-manifesto of sorts for the role of the writer as   teacher.

“These days I think   it is good to be in society — to wake yourself up in the throng and mix of   people on sidewalks, subways and cafeterias — so teaching writing keeps me at   the root of things: new voices, new experiences and new ways of meditating on   life and the planet,” Herrera said. “Both are extremely   essential.”

“Poetry,” he said, in an interview two years earlier with The   Los Angeles Times, “can tell us about what’s going on in our lives, not   only our personal but our social and political lives.”

Herrera is expected to step into the position this fall with   the National Book Festival in September. He will succeed Charles Wright, the   current U.S. poet laureate. No word yet on when they plan to exchange their   poetic licenses.

But, if you’re new to Herrera’s work, don’t just trust me with   your first impression. Below, you’ll find Herrera himself, in a poem excerpted   from his 2008 collection, Half   of the World in Light:

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further, let     me tell you what a poem brings, first, you     must know the secret, there is no poem to     speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries, yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me     telling you this, instead of going day by     day against the razors, well, the     judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example,     from the outside you think you are being     entertained, when you enter, things     change, you get caught by surprise, your     mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold standing still in the middle of a storm, a     poem, of course, is always open for     business too, except, as you can see, it     isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you     can play, you can even join in on the     gossip—the mist, that is, the mist becomes     central to your existence.

Excerpted     from Half of the World in     Light: New and Selected Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera. Copyright     2008 Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted with the permission of the University of     Arizona Press. 

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