JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: From limited-English speaker and Migrant Farm-Worker to United States Poet Laureate
A year ago this month, the United States Library of Congress announced the appointment of former California Poet Laureate (2012-2014), Juan Felipe Herrera, to the position of national poet laureate, the highest honor awared to poets in these United States.
Herrera’s body of work is a reflection of the Mexican-American experience and is also representative of much that immigrants and migrants the world over have in common including the efforts and adjustments made along a path often leading to distinguished contributions to their communities and adoptive countries.
In announcing the appointment, James H. Billington – Librarian of Congress (1987-2015) – said of Herrera …
I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original—work that takes the sublimity and largesse of Leaves of Grass and expands upon it,” Billington said. “His poems engage in a serious sense of play—in language and in image—that I feel gives them enduring power. I see how they champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”
Herrera is the first Hispanic poet to serve in the position. Herrera said …
This is a mega-honor for me, for my family and my parents who came up north before and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910—the honor is bigger than me. I want to take everything I have in me, weave it, merge it with the beauty that is in the Library of Congress, all the resources, the guidance of the staff and departments, and launch it with the heart-shaped dreams of the people. It is a miracle of many of us coming together.”
Herrera has authored some twenty-eight books of poetry, novels for young adults and collections for children, including Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (Dial Books,2014), a picture book showcasing inspirational Hispanic and Latino Americans.
Herrera was born in Fowler, California, in 1948. As the son of migrant farm workers, he moved around often, living in tents and trailers along the road in Southern California. He attended school in a variety of small towns from San Francisco to San Diego. In 1972 he was graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology. He then attended Stanford University, where he received a master’s degree in social anthropology. In 1990 he received a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Enter the Void
Sit on the embankment,
a dust fleece, there is a tidal wave ahead of me.
It will never reach me. I live underground, under the Dead Sea,
under the benevolent rocks and forearms and
mortar shells and slender naked red green
so much black.
this could be a train, listen:
it derails into a could.
excerpt on the conflict in the West Bank from Half the World Is Light, New and Collected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008)
Herrera has published over a dozen poetry collections, including Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems , which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Latino Book Award. He is also a celebrated young adult and children’s book author. His honors include the Américas Award for both Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box and Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse, as well as the Independent Publisher Book Award for Featherless / Desplumado, the Ezra Jack Keats Award for Calling the Doves and the Pura Belpré Author Honor Award for Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes and for Laughing Out Loud, I Fly.
For his poetry, Herrera has received two Latino Hall of Fame Poetry Awards, a PEN USA National Poetry Award, the PEN Oakland / Josephine Miles Award, a PEN / Beyond Margins Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Stanford University Chicano Fellows.
Herrera has served as the chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at California State University, Fresno. He has held the Tomas Rivera Endowed Chair in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside, where he taught until retiring last year. He is currently a visiting professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. Appointed in 2011, he serves as a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets.
Juan Felipe Herrera’s Poet Laureate Project is La Casa De Colores or “the House of Colors” …
a house for all voices. In this house we will feed the hearth and heart of our communities with creativity and imagination. And we will stand together in times of struggle and joy. The website includes two features:
“La Familia (The Family) is an opportunity for you to contribute to an epic poem of all our voices and styles and experiences that will run the span of my Laureateship. By contributing to La Familia, you will be part of my family—and all our words will be seen and our voices be heard, throughout the nation and beyond.
“El Jardín (The Garden) is a special place where I will share my experiences with curators at the Library of Congress. Peek into the Library’s wealth of materials, such as: Pablo Neruda’s “España en el Corazón,” given to him by soldiers—the pages made out of their clothes turned to pulp; a letter the folksong pioneer Woody Guthrie wrote on the back of a dust jacket to Alan Lomax; a silkscreen by Yolanda M. López, on the courage of “Mujeres Trabajadoras”—women workers. I hope you will be as inspired by them as I am, and you can take the treasures of El Jardín with you—in heart and with pen.”
Herrera will begin serving his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate this September. His Amazon page is HERE.