U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera on Poetry, Progress and his California Roots

U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera is seen at at the California Unity Poem Fiesta on the UC Riverside campus in October 2014, which celebrated the end of his term as California poet laureate. | Photo: Carlos Puma for UC Riverside.

The idea of crossing borders -- erasing the boundaries between countries, cultures and classes -- crops up repeatedly in the work of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. In his own life, the Fresno resident and former UC Riverside professor said, he's moved "from silence into presence, from witnessing into performance," and, most recently, from the farm fields of California's Central Valley to the national stage.

Herrera, 66, officially takes over his duties as the nation's first Mexican-American poet laureate this month. "I'm very honored and humbled," said Herrera, who will present a reading of his work Sept. 15 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month.

On June 10, the Library of Congress announced that Herrera, who served as California poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, would receive the nation's highest honor in poetry. (He succeeds Charles Wright in the U.S. poet laureate post.)

The news was greeted with approval by the likes of former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, who called Herrera "the elder statesman of Mexican American poetry," and Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, who predicted the award-winning poet would "bring an enthusiasm and electricity to the role of poet laureate that is sure to spark new and wider interest in the art form among people of all ages."

For his part, Herrera said his new role "means openness to so many new audiences -- (especially) Latinas and Latinos -- and a way to build on the beautiful work of past U.S. laureates... I will be inviting all people to participate."

Gov. Jerry Brown swears in Juan Felipe Herrera as California poet laureate in 2012. | Photo: Office of the Governor.
Gov. Jerry Brown swears in Juan Felipe Herrera as California poet laureate in 2012. | Photo: Office of the Governor.


The only child of migrant farm workers, Herrera spent much of his youth on the move, growing up in a series of Southern California cities that included Escondido, Ramona, San Diego and Vista. Just 29 days after he was born in the San Joaquin Valley town of Fowler, "We hit the road again. That's what you do when you're farm-working," the poet said, living at times in a one-room house his father had built on top of an old U.S. Army truck.

Instilled with a love of songs and storytelling by his mother, Herrera said his creative development was further shaped in the agricultural fields. "I noticed the kindness of hard workers, the joy in small things and the rich colors of dreams, and the stories out in the open under the moon and at dawn," he said.

Herrera credits an elementary school teacher with helping him literally find his voice. But his path was clear from an early age.

"I was always listening to music. I was always doodling and making cartoons and checking out books on [Marc] Chagall or [Henri de] Toulouse-Latrec," he recalled. "I had my guitar, my harmonica. [I was[ writing songs, writing poems, putting groups of theater together... And I never veered from that."

While studying social anthropology at UCLA, Herrera became immersed in the Chicano civil rights movement and the experimental street theater scene. Graduating in 1972, he earned a master's degree from Stanford University in 1980 and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1990.

Herrera taught at Fresno State University from 1990 to 2004 before serving as chairman of the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He retired from that position in May, and moved back to Fresno to be closer to his family.

The poet, who has published more than a dozen poetry collections as well as books for children and young adults, said he continues to be influenced by his California migrant roots. "Their stories... their courage and pioneering spirit [are] inspiring and move us to bring about change for the better, for them and for all [people]," he said.

Herrera recently shared his thoughts with Artbound about his upbringing, his creative process and his new position as U.S. poet laureate.

Juan Felipe Herrera interacts with students at UC Riverside. | Photo: Carlos Puma for UC Riverside.
Juan Felipe Herrera interacts with students at UC Riverside. | Photo: Carlos Puma for UC Riverside.

How did having a solitary, nomadic childhood shape your development as a writer?

It gets to you, always being by yourself. But then it makes you go out. I used to get out of the apartment -- this was in San Diego -- and I would just walk all the way down to the waterfront and gawk at all the little stores, little jewelry shops and arcades and bus stations.

I just floated around that entire area by myself. I'd take off for an hour or two hours until I'd hit a dead end or I said, "Okay, it's time to turn around." So I'd turn around and come back... until I finally made it back home... I walked almost like a little explorer or an astronaut, venturing out into space.

It's good because you notice a lot of things, and they impress you. I was impressed with streets and cars and people and trees and canyons and... candy and clothes and pawnshops. That's a lot of good material for a writer.

I hauled back all that material in my head. Then I'd scribble something down or draw or doodle.

How did you channel your observations into poetry and the spoken word?

That all started back in third grade. My teacher, Mrs. Sampson, invited me to sing in front of the class, and that was when I started my performance career.

Then I got into choir seriously in middle school. I noticed I was just too frozen. I was like, "Geez, I'm having a hard time saying anything. I want to speak." ...I thought speaking was the greatest thing in the world. People making speeches, I thought they were just magic. [I decided] "I want to be up there like that."

Juan Felipe Herrera makes a point during the 2013 Poetry Out Loud competition. | Photo: California Arts Council.
Juan Felipe Herrera makes a point during the 2013 Poetry Out Loud competition. | Photo: California Arts Council.

How did you figure out that poetry was the way you were meant to express yourself?

I never really thought about writing. It was kind of like, "Well, that's what I'm doing, but what's a writer? Is that some guy in some office somewhere?" I didn't know what that was. My friends would go, "I want to be a writer," and I'd go, "Oh wow, man, but what is that?"

I never looked at it as something to focus on, to study, because I was just doing it, filling up notebooks with writing. Sometimes I'd read them. Sometimes I'd keep them. Sometimes I'd throw them away. But it didn't matter because I could just grab another notebook and fill it up again.

To this day, sometimes I'll go, "What did I do with that poem? Oh well. I'll just write another one."

Not every writer has that attitude.

You've got to have it because otherwise you'll get stuck. "Oh God, I'll never write again. I threw my best poems away." You threw away some good poems, but you've got a billion more to go.

Does the role of national poet laureate come naturally for you? How does it feel to go from Fresno to the world stage?

It's like you're riding in a fast car, but all the sudden you're riding in a Ferrari... Or it's like you're walking out in the open but all the sudden you're walking through this dense, rich rainforest. All of the sudden, it's a very different place.

You're no longer in your room staring into a computer... You're literally, very literally, standing in the middle of the entire United States and everybody is there for you. You are there for them. You're also standing in the middle of the world, because everyone is always connected to the United States and we're always connected to everyone else.

If you're not aware of that space, you better get aware of it quick. Because everything you say is in that extra big space now. It echoes back and it bounces around. It gets published. It gets mentioned.

You need to think about writing poems that cover a larger space, a larger page... This is a role where addressing the world is at the center of what you're doing.

U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera speaks at a UC Riverside commencement ceremony on June 14. | Photo: Carlos Puma for UC Riverside.
U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera speaks at a UC Riverside commencement ceremony on June 14. | Photo: Carlos Puma for UC Riverside.

How did your experiences as California poet laureate help prepare you for this position?

It's very similar. As soon as you get appointed as laureate of the state... immediately you changed right then and there. Right then and there you go, "Okay, I have to think differently. I have to move differently."

Every one of those things stretches your mind and your writing and your way of seeing yourself. That's the role of poetry. The idea is to expand this until you are able to embrace the entire state.

What was the inspiration behind your latest project, "Casa de Colores" ("House of Colors")?

I wanted to have a banner, a symbol... a place where I could put the ingredient for the project or projects I want to initiate for the United States. I thought "Casa de Colores" feels good, sounds good, looks good. It's like a little rainbow.

What will "Casa de Colores" entail?

The spoken word movement is really big so I thought I'd call on young people to put their poetry together in spoken word ensembles, and do it as groups. That's one thought.

Another thought is working with high schools. It's always good to write what you're going through no matter where you're at... Those students are very creative and filled with great energy and extremely intelligent, so the idea is to offer some kind of medium for input.

I think singing poems would be great for elementary school students. That's another idea. I have a whole list of them.

I want people to translate poetry into another language, or translate [poems in] their home language into English. I want to promote the bilingual and multilingual cultures that we are.

I've also got a one-word project which is kind of odd: "Write one word that will end violence." Just one word. You don't have to write a whole complicated sonnet. Then what I could do is collect those words and turn them into poems, into dances, into paintings, into chorales, into songs. But we need those words.

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How do you engage young people with poetry?

Young people are very easy. All you've got to do is be friendly. That's about it. Let them be who they are. If you can, be you. Be friendly. If you don't feel like being friendly, then wait until you're friendly another day and come back. [If you] bring a project that's new and exciting for you. It's going to be new and exciting for them.

How do you connect with adults?

The same way. You're always coming into a new space. You walk into somebody's space, their world... [If you come in] like the big poet of the world, like you've got everything together, that's not going to work. [If] you come in like a super professor from a super university, that's not going to work.

But if you just come in and be you, good old peanut butter sandwich you... that's a great beginning.

I have a funny bone, so I like to be [funny] with my audiences. But I can also be really serious.

Then I listen to them and I thank them and I acknowledge them. There's a lot of openness, friendliness and acknowledgement, and truthfulness... With those four ingredients, you can't go wrong.

As the first Mexican-American U.S. poet laureate, you're not only an ambassador of poetry. You're also an ambassador of the Latino community. How do you approach that responsibility?

I approach it by saying that I'm here for everyone. I approach it by saying that we need to promote poetry and writing from all groups -- and when I'm talking about Latino writing, I also make that emphasis.

There's a lot of writers [out there]. But we need to see the materials. We need to see the photographs, the writing, the journals... The Latino literary archives need to be seen. They need to be heard, and they need to be displayed.

Everybody needs to be seen and brought out. Times change. They change really fast. In one split second, we need to rethink everything... From one second to the next, we have to rewrite a new definition of poetry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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