Juan Felipe Herrera 101
For Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Chicano to be named US poet laureate, migration is both his biography and a major component of his poetic style. The child of migrant farm workers, Herrera grew up following harvests from San Diego to San Francisco, and his writing has likewise displayed a remarkable range. Over the course of his career, Herrera’s incantatory, distinctly varied poems have consistently innovated, crossing and recrossing the borders between poetry and prose, English and Spanish, activism and art. As critic Francisco A. Lomelí writes, Herrera represents “a one-person vanguard in constant movement” who in each successive book “[blazes] new paths of expression.” Here’s a look at eight poems by Herrera that span his career.
“In the Cannery the Porpoise Soul”
In this early poem, porpoises—longtime casualties of commercial tuna fishing—represent exploited laborers and their spirit of resistance. The poem’s slippery syntax and dreamy imagery work against the oppressive ordering of nets and quotas, canneries and documents. Read allegorically, however, the poem’s ending paints a bleak picture: the porpoise’s soulful struggle does not bear out a “porpoise sea,” acknowledging that “policy” often overpowers “rolled sleeve salt.”
[Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way]
A sharp contrast to “Cannery,” the sinuous lines of this Whitman-esque pastoral from Herrera’s first book celebrate the labor and landscape of Herrera’s youth. Strongly influenced by Alurista, whose 1971 bilingual poetry collection Floricanto en Aztlán was a landmark for the Chicano Movement, Herrera’s poem moves fluidly between Spanish and English. Herrera also invents his own lingo: in the poem’s penultimate line, he combines maize and Aztlán to form maiztlán, linking, in a single word, the agricultural work of Chicano migrants to Amerindian heritage and folklore.
A much different idea of immigrant existence emerges in this poem from Herrera’s second book, Exiles of Desire. Borrowing images (as well as words) from the painter of the The Scream, Herrera depicts a stream of refugees who are not at home in their homelands or in their adopted nations. What’s notable here is not so much Herrera’s evocation of these exiles as his position relative to them: the speaker is not an immigrant but a native, and his final, surprising question bears witness to the complexities of citizenship and belonging.
This powerful poem, also from Exiles of Desire, was written at the height of state-sanctioned killings in El Salvador. As Herrera considers the roots of war, readers begin to wonder if war’s origins are primal (“the wisest hunter”), classical (“the most stoic example”), or modern (“the neutron ray”). Is war motivated by economics, politics or, most chillingly, aesthetics? War is a kind of theater, Herrera suggests, in which actors and audience members both wear “the mascara of bondage” and beauty—that most poetic of values—can support the “calibrated murder” we witness there.
Like all the work in Herrera's massive, groundbreaking collection Akrilica, “Grafik” was originally composed in Spanish, then translated into English. But this unsettled (and unsettling) poem also plays in the space between two other languages: the literary and the visual arts. Herrera treats the page like a canvas: words spill across it or cohere into lurid portraits. But Herrera, whose work is often ekphrastic or multimedia, also adopts the persona of a graphic artist to raise questions about the relationship between ethics and poetics. Who or what deserves to be visible? When is representation “criminal,” a form of violence, and when is it “the only thing that counts”?
“Iowa Blues Bar Spiritual”
In many of his poems, Herrera’s first person isn’t terribly personal: his speakers are often costumes he’s trying on, the bearers of philosophical musings, or ecstatic singers of a time or place or culture. But in this poem, selected by Charles Simic for Best American Poetry in 1992, Herrera plays himself. Describing one raucous, rainy night at a bar in Iowa (where Herrera earned his MFA in 1990), Herrera paints a fevered picture celebrating a single moment taken, seemingly, straight from the poet’s life. He remembers his friends, calls out to the band, and dreams of opening an ice-cream shop.
“Punk Half Panther”
This swaggering ode to California street culture is a perfect example of what poet Sesshu Foster called Herrera’s “rock-and-roll surrealism.” The poem brims with references from Tupac Shakur to The Terminator as Herrera pays homage to his “barriohood” by picking up its “day-glo” slang and pan-cultural “froth.” It is also an effervescent literary tribute; dedicated to Allen Ginsberg, whose work Herrera discovered in high school in San Francisco, the poem rumbles with the same wild energy as the beatnik idol’s Howl.
“Blood on the Wheel”
In this relentless, mesmerizing poem, blood serves as a sonic refrain and a link between injustices ranging from domestic abuse to exploitative labor to American militarism. As critic Stephen Burt has observed in his poem guide, the poem draws readers into this web of violence, asking near its conclusion, “Could this [blood] be yours?” First published in Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream, Herrera also included the poem in his 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, a collection of “undocuments” that testifies to his 40 years as an activist artist and a community builder.
“I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph”
Though grounded in Chicano experience, Herrera’s work often takes a global view of politics. This 2008 poem, for example, finds the poet at the beach, considering “the gray-white bells of rubble” that toll across the ocean in Gaza, Israel, and Syria. The titular picture taking is ironic, a ploy to draw readers' attention. “Pretend I came to swim, I am here by accident,” Herrera writes, building a cover story for those powers who would prefer we forget the common struggles that “cut across all borders.”
“Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”
This recent ars poetica gracefully epitomizes Herrera’s abiding elusiveness. The poem’s opening lines set readers up for something more direct and discursive than the complex, elliptical meditation it ultimately delivers. “There is no poem / to speak of,” Herrera declares, then compares poetry to a “mist,” “the alarming waters” of a storm, and a mall. If poetry, for Herrera, is tricky, indefinite, and evanescent, these qualities also render it an essential place of play and “a way to attain a life without boundaries.”
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.