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 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, Herrera joined the Creative Writing Department at University of California, Riverside, as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair. 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.
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.
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.