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Juan Felipe Herrera: Poet Laureate of Aztlan and America

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Juan Felipe Herrera was just announced this week as the new United States National Poet Laureate. In the 80 years that America has had this post, he is the first Chicano to be selected. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Herrera, looking back on his long career and celebrating his remarkable legacy.

From 2012 to 2014, Herrera served as the California Poet Laureate. He is a true Californian with deep roots in all three of the state's biggest regions: he spent many of his formative years in San Diego's Barrio Logan, attended college in Los Angeles at UCLA, and came into prominence as a poet in San Francisco's Mission District during the 1970s.

Herrera was born in Fresno County within the San Joaquin Valley in Central California in 1948 and attended high school in San Diego. He attended UCLA as an undergraduate, earned a Masters at Stanford, and then an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

As much as the word "Pioneer," is used in this era, Juan Felipe Herrera is one of the few poets in America that the term applies to. The great Los Angeles poet Sesshu Foster has known Herrera since 1988. Foster told me that among the first wave of Chicano writers from the early 1970s, like Alurista, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Jose Montoya, and raulrsalinas, Herrera is "A champion, because he's the last one standing." Herrera has published 28 books, including several with great presses like City Lights, Curbstone, Temple University, and the University of Arizona Press. His next book will be published by City Lights later this year.

Herrera has also worked as a professor at the University of Iowa, California State University at Fresno, and most recently at the University of California at Riverside, from where he just retired in March. A number of friends of mine studied with him at Riverside, and some of their stories will be shared here. I have also seen him read in person, and his charismatic presentation is among the most dynamic deliveries of poetry I have ever witnessed. Furthermore, his down to earth persona humanizes the craft and warmly encourages others to share their work alongside him.

Herrera came of age along with poets like Lorna Dee Cervantes and others mentioned above. There were a number of important poetry collectives and events in the 1970s that signified the rise of the Chicano Poetry movement. One of them was the Festival de Flor y Canto de Aztlan, held at USC in November of 1973. "Flor y Cantos were Chicano literary festivals Herrera participated in with heavy hitters of the day," says Sesshu Foster, who first met Herrera in 1988 in San Jose, at a poetry event commemorating these mythical Flor y Canto literary events.

Foster had always been an aficionado of Chicano poetry. He ended up interviewing Herrera the day after the Flor y Canto commemorative reading, as they drove together from San Jose to San Francisco, "which took maybe an hour or so in a green and white low-rider classic car straight out of a Frank Romero painting," Foster recalls. He asked Herrera everything he could think of in regards to Chicano poetry history. "I asked him about all those literary scenes from Austin to Fresno, from the Taos Poetry Circus and the Bisbee Poetry Festival, from Barrio Logan to the Mission District," says Foster. "Herrera was a mover and shaker everywhere he went; he knew about all those scenes; he'd performed with Culture Clash and teatros, on pyramids and stages in Mexico, coffee shops and college campuses across the U.S. for hipsters and Chipsters, pochos and campesinos, for anyone and everyone."

Juan Felipe Herrera performs his poetry accompanied by guitar at Flor Y Canto in 1973
Juan Felipe Herrera performs his poetry accompanied by guitar at Flor Y Canto in 1973. | Photo still from YouTube video, posted by USC Libraries

As the years went on Foster and Herrera would both become widely published and the two became good friends. But back on that first occasion of their meeting, according to Foster, "it seemed likely that a whole generation of West Coast writers of color, like Jessica Hagedorn, Alejandro Murguia, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Omar Salinas, Jeff Tagami, Ntozake Shange, Cherrie Moraga, and Ana Castillo, would only be known by the rest of us in small circles, like friends, with their books published by tiny presses in small editions, like Lorna Dee Cervantes's Mango Press or Ernesto Padilla's Lalo Press, which published JFH's atomic hand grenade of a book, 'Exiles of Desire,' as well as the first edition of Michelle Serros' 'Chicana Falsa,' which started her career."

"Exiles of Desire" was one of Herrera's early books and is considered a touchstone of Chicano poetry. One that Foster calls "the literary equivalent to Asco's work in Los Angeles at the same time." In these early years, Foster says, you could find Herrera's work only in places like City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Midnight Special in Santa Monica, or Bookworks in Albuquerque. These bookstores, in fact, were some of the only places in the country you could find multicultural literature. "In those days, who knew any of those books, those presses, or those writers but a few of us? So many voices went unheard," says Foster, "so many lives were silenced, and outside of outposts like Ishmael Reed's 'Yardbird,' there was no certainty that 'multicultural' literature would be allowed to live." Moreover, Foster notes, "In 1988, it seemed totally possible that this generation of great Chicano writers would pass by unpublished or unknown, just like the generation of outstanding Chicano movement muralists. In the 1980s, no corporate New York presses published Chicanos."

Herrera has built his career year by year, book by book, in a very organic fashion. In addition to poetry books, he has composed volumes in both Spanish and English, prose, theater, novellas in verse, children's titles, memoirs, and young adult books. Writer Ruben Martinez blurbed, "Aesthetically, he leaps over so many canons that he winds up on the outer limits of urban song." Herrera was so busy working in the public that he did not get his MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop until he was 42.

In addition to teaching on the college level, he has spent many years teaching in art galleries, community centers, and in prisons. Foster says, "JFH will bring the poetry to anyone. He will lay it at the feet of everyone. When I met him, JFH was teaching poetry in Soledad prison. He didn't tell the prisoners, you're a convict, you're despised and feared -- no poetry for you. He ran the same writing exercises he used with college students. He is not going to say, what, you're a little kid? No poetry for you. He didn't say, you're a farmworker from Oaxaca, barely speak Spanish? No poetry for you. You're a woman who works day and night, trying to keep your family alive? No time for poetry. You're from a lost generation, a lame suburb, some mysterious fate? No poetry for you. No! You might be a ghost, a spirit, a raven, a nahual, some unformed being not yet emerged from the air. JFH still has a poem for you! JFH will bring it."

Longtime Chicano activist and former director of Self Help Graphics, Tomas Benitez, shares similar sentiments. Benitez told me of a few afternoons he spent with Herrera in Pasadena during 2012. They were together with writing students from an after school writing program at La Pintoresca Park in Pasadena, and later on that day with students from Pasadena City College. "He was a wonder to watch," remembers Benitez, "able to capture the attention of the high schoolers within minutes and to inspire them to write their work and share with the rest of the crowd after hearing him read his stories. By the time he was done they didn't want to let him go. Then we dashed over to the PCC campus and he read to a capacity crowd of older students and again was as dynamic in his quiet way, speaking to them at a different level but with the same plain truth he had used earlier in the park."

The following week Benitez was with Herrera at the Crawford Family Center in Pasadena. Herrera not only presented a suite of poems to the crowd, he shared his platform with the young students from the week before. "Imagine being a new young writer and being invited to the stage by the Poet Laureate of California," says Benitez. "To come up and join him and read your poem! He is a writer but also a teacher and a wise elder. He had everybody at Crawford write a little something too and took all their ideas to add to his unending poem for peace."

V Zamora, Juan Felipe Herrera, Mike Davis, myself, and Tom Lutz | Photo: Mike Sonksen
V Zamora, Juan Felipe Herrera, Mike Davis, myself, and Tom Lutz | Photo: Mike Sonksen

Several of the recent articles about Herrera's new appointment as United States National Poet Laureate have cited this "Poem for Peace," mentioned above. Herrera has been encouraging poets to write their own unity poem that will eventually contribute to what he calls, "the most incredible and biggest poem on unity in the world." It is this democratic spirit of poetry that he shares that has allowed him to touch so many people with his work. He makes everyone feel involved with the process. Tomas Benitez told me that, "When he came to the Crawford for the event, he had written a poem about being at La Pintoresca and being at PCC the week before, AND about being there at the venue in the moment he was reading his poem. He even threw in some stanzas for me about my baseball poem, a call and response if you will. I was so touched he had bothered and amazed at how he put it all together. In that moment he was our village Griot, the chronicler of his life and the lives around him. He is a warm man, genuinely a peace maker, and he writes with an old soul that is generations deep yet alive with an ever evolving vision of the world."

His students at UC Riverside have also told me similar thoughts. Former students of his from Riverside, like V Zamora, KCET contributor Vickie Vertiz, Angel Garcia, and Rachelle Cruz have all lauded his encouraging demeanor. When I saw Herrera read at UC Riverside in February, he called up Vertiz to read during his set. He also read a poem he had composed just days before that was dedicated to Kenji Goto, the Japanese journalist killed by ISIS. The audience was filled with many of his students, including V Zamora.

"The way that he gently guides students through the process of writing poetry is unlike anything I have ever experienced," Zamora says. "His ability to tap in to the creative mind and help you break down the barriers between yourself and your work is uncanny. I could go on but the truth is it wouldn't do justice to describing the sheer joy that I feel when I think of the times that I've had in his presence. Studying under him left me changed as a writer and more importantly as a human being."

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Among Herrera's many books, the most Los Angeles-centric is "Love After the Riots," from 1996, published by Curbstone Press. Fifty-three short poems combine to one extended poem that documents a Chicano Los Angeles couple over an 11-hour period as they travel across the rioting city during the 1992 Uprisings. Packed with vivid images, the work captures the spirit of 1992: "Rome sparkles by the flames/of the Harbor Freeway. /A camera flashes across/South Central L.A." Citing specific streets and the chaos of Southern California, his understanding of contemporary Los Angeles and America at large transmits clearly in the work.

One of Herrera's best known books is "187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border," published by City Lights in 2007. This 350-page tome contains not only poems, but fragments, manifestos, and performance pieces. Tom Lutz, the UC Riverside Professor and founder of the Los Angeles Review of Books, says, "'187 Reasons,' more than anything he has written, is his autobiography." Compiling work from 1971 to 2007, pieces like "A Day Without a Mexican: Video Clip -- May 1st, 2006, Mass Demonstrations, L.A. City Hall," "Don't Worry, Baby," How to Enroll in a Chicano Studies Class," "Mission Street Manifesto," "Listening to Santana," and "Logan Heights & the World," detail his life's journey and last 40 plus years of poetry and activism.

Herrera's many years of great work have brought him to this point. The fact that it has all culminated into him being the first Chicano to become the United States Poet Laureate is truly fitting. Over the years, his work has continued to evolve and he has now won over 50 awards, fellowships, and honorable mentions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to his outstanding poetry, it is his commitment to the people at large that has further secured his legacy.

Sesshu Foster offers one more final word on Herrera: "He does not say, here's my poem, I don't know who you are but maybe if you can rise to it, you might be able to read it. Instead, he gets out there, he hits the road, he shatters his own poetry into dust and puts the powder in a little paper sack or a folded paper; he takes it to people wherever they are and says, 'This is ours -- this is our poem we're making.' He's not theorizing a democratic poetics, the political poetry of a public intellectual. He's doing it; he's been doing it for forty years. He's a sensei."

Congratulations to Juan Felipe Herrera for becoming the new United States Poet Laureate. Salute to this titan of American and L.A. Letters.

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