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My California: Three Questions for our State’s New Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera

By Barbara Jane Reyes

On March 21, 2012, the Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown issued a press release, reading:

SACRAMENTO – Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today appointed Juan Felipe Herrera to the position of California Poet Laureate.

Mr. Herrera, 63, is the author of twenty-eight books and currently serves as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. He was a professor and chair of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno, from 1990 to 2004 and a teaching assistant fellow at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa from 1988 to 1990.

Herrera’s work has received wide critical acclaim including numerous national and international awards. In a 2008 review of his work, Stephen Burt of the New York Times wrote, “All life, all art, involves boundaries, if only those of birth and death. Some poets keep us conscious of those boundaries; others, like Herrera, discover their powers by defying them. Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed.”

As a California poet, I was beyond thrilled. As a Pinay, immigrant, and multilingual poet of color, reading the news was an emotional experience. Juan Felipe Herrera has been a tremendous influence on my poetry and career as an author, but more importantly, he has been a tremendous force in the way I work and teach in our intersecting communities.

The Harriet staff reported on March 23, stating the much-needed obvious, “Remarkably, Herrera will be the first Hispanic [sic] writer to serve in the post.” What took this state so long, I also wanted to know. The press release goes on to state,

The son of migrant workers from Mexico, Mr. Herrera earned a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Arts in Social Anthropology from Stanford University and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. He was elected to the Board of Chancellors for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 2010 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry in 2009.

In addition to Herrera’s impressive list of accomplishments to date, perhaps it’s Governor Brown’s well-known liberalism, the perfect confluence of factors, that enabled this to happen now. Indeed, a couple of years ago, during the Schwarzenegger administration, with a group of poets including Oscar Bermeo, Ching-In Chen, Javier O. Huerta, Craig Santos Perez, and Matthew Shenoda, we nominated Herrera for the position, so very wary of how our then-governor would read such unabashedly political poetry, in which “political” means that the poet continues to directly and critically engage state and federal border policy, as evidenced in his poems, “Everyday We Get More Illegal” (audio | text), and “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border”:

But you know what? No matter now. It’s done, and this appointment is so well-deserved. Perhaps this will change things; at least, I can hope it does. I was privileged to have this brief exchange with Herrera.

BJR: So, first off, congratulations again on being named California Poet Laureate. Where were you when you got the news? Did Jerry Brown call you? How did it go down?

JFH: I was driving my seven year old Civic down 210 about to roll onto the offramp to 91West when the phone rang. It as Tere Holloman from the Appointments Office. She congratulated me and told me that I had been appointed as California Poet Laureate. Of course, I still needed to be sworn in by Governor Brown and confirmed by the Senate. A short call. Then I ambled toward campus a little shaked – it was hard to believe. A week or so later I was in Sacramento as a co-judge for the California Arts Council’s High School Out Loud Recitation state championship. Seconds after Corbin Gomez won, I ran to the Governor’s office and was sworn in.

BJR: Given California’s history of mean-spirited legislation towards immigrants, non-English speakers, and people of color — for example, props. 187 and 209, apparent in the title of your book, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border (City Lights Publishers, 2007) — how do you bring poetry that is unafraid to be political and multilingual to the Californian mainstream?

Good question. Of course, the mainstream has many currents. And that’s the key. Many voices, many communities, many languages, many traditions and points of view. I am interested in being inclusive and in this wider circle I am interested in calling on people to tell their story through verse. Many, if not all of our stories, lives, have faced conflict, challenges – poetry is a way to share. It is not as easy as it sounds because it takes focus, honesty and a willingness to show ourselves to others we do not know. This is the most political thing we can do – to be brave about our lives and be willing to step into a wider neighborhood of lives, to be part of the polity, the city. The questions of color, language, race and class have a lot to do with how we compound suffering in the lives of others based on distorted criteria. Poetry can breathe through these hard perceptions and conceptions of what is right, good, and meritorious, and just maybe provide a little more humanity to make things better, softer, freer, more equitable. Poetry is a potent anti-fear spray.

BJR: Given your own history of collaboration and performance with artists in various disciplines, who are your ideal back up band, supporting cast, and co-stars?

JFH: My consistent performance ohana family is Margarita Robles, Genny Lim, Jimmy Biala, Francis Wong, John-Carlos Perea. It changes every day. Co-Stars and Supporting Cast: You don’t know how many amazing (I think you do) poets I have met recently at UC-Riverside — let’s see, Rachelle Cruz, David Campos, Michelle Lin, Angel García, Holly Giglio, Stephen Ellis, Kamala Puligandla, Jesus Leyva, Ivy Chen… Poetry is so alive I can’t believe it. Everywhere I turn there is a poet writing a masterpiece. My great poetry familia in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angleles, Fresno — what would I do without them, they are part or me and my poetry. All of California, from fields to the cafeteria.

Fresno is the place to be this weekend, for events featuring and honoring Juan Felipe Herrera:

An Evening with Juan Felipe Herrera | Saturday, Apr 28 4:00p to 6:30p | at Leon and Pete Peters Educational Center, CSU Fresno, Fresno, CA

Chicano Writers and Artists Association/Arte Américas/Pákatelas present: A Reception for Juan Felipe Herrera | Saturday, Apr 28 7:00p to 9:00p | at Arte Américas – La Casa de la Cultura, Fresno, CA

I’m going! Are you?

I will leave you with this wonderful performance lecture which I love to share with my students of all ethnicities and backgrounds, “A Natural History of Chicano Literature: A Performance Lecture” from 2005, in which Herrera discusses the places from which our poetry and poetics come:

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Barbara Jane Reyes.