As a child, Juan Felipe Herrera learned to love poetry by singing about the Mexican Revolution with his mother, a migrant farmworker in California. Inspired by her spirit, he has spent his life crossing borders, erasing boundaries and expanding the American chorus.
On Wednesday, Herrera becomes the first Hispanic American to serve as poet laureate of the United States.
“I’m looking forward to a whole new world — and a new me,” Herrera said from his home in Fresno, Calif. “The times now seem to be evolving with voices of color. All voices are important, and yet it seems that people of color have a lot to say, particularly if you look through the poetry of young people — a lot of questions and a lot of concerns about immigration and security issues, you name it, big questions. All this is swirling in the air.”
In a statement released Wednesday morning, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who selected Herrera, said that his poems “champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”
Herrera, 66, brings an extraordinarily diverse artistic background to the position. He has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including “Half of the World in Light,” a dazzling selection of his verse and prose poems that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also worked as an actor, playwright and musician, and he has published award-winning fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. His vast body of work demonstrates that — as he once wrote — poetry “is a way to attain a life without boundaries.”
While calling Herrera “the elder statesman of Mexican American poetry,” former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia points to the significance of his connection to a younger generation. Herrera is “the first U.S. laureate whose work has emerged from the new oral traditions that have been transforming American poetry over the past quarter-century,” Gioia says. “He can write traditional poems for the page, but many of his poems are designed primarily for spoken delivery. His work is performative, and communal. In this sense, Herrera speaks powerfully to younger poets and audiences.”
And Gioia notes that the new poet laureate “looks at the world not from the top down but from the bottom up.” It’s an approach Herrera articulated more than 30 years ago in a collection called “Exiles of Desire” when he spoke of “another idea of audience: the conquered, the unkempt, the wounded, the forgotten, the dreaming.”
Other colleagues and fellow poets offered similarly high praise for Herrera and his capacious work, which embraces influences from Walt Whitman to César Vallejo, from the Chicano Movement to the Beats.
Francisco Aragón, director of Letras Latinas at the University of Notre Dame, applauded the energy and formal experimentation of his poetry. “The variousness of his work is breathtaking,” Aragón said. “There’s no poetic strategy he hasn’t deployed. At heart, his is a poetics of play — multilingual and linguistic shenanigans — but invested with deep empathy for the people and subjects who populate his poems.”
Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, emphasized that Herrera is no dreamy lyricist cloistered in an ivory tower. “Juan Felipe is someone who believes that poetry can make a difference in people’s lives and communities,” she said. “He will 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.”
Although the position is largely ceremonial, laureates are free to use the pulpit at the Library of Congress to pursue whatever initiatives they like. Herrera already knows what themes he’ll focus on.
“I’m here to encourage others to speak,” he said, “to speak out and speak up and write with their voices and their family stories and their sense of humor and their deep concerns and their way of speaking their own languages. I want to encourage people to do that with this amazing medium called poetry.”
In his most recent book of poems, “Senegal Taxi,” about children caught in the violence of Sudan, Herrera repeatedly cries: “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” That’s an imperative close to his heart.
“Waking up is the biggest thing,” he said. “I’m a political poet — let us say a human poet, a poet that’s concerned with the plight of people who suffer. If words can be of assistance, then that’s what I’m going to use.”
For readers unfamiliar with his poetry, Herrera recommends starting with “Laughing Out Loud, I Fly”, a 1998 collection written in English and Spanish for young people. “I did a lot of experimental work in that,” he said. “I was inspired by Picasso. I had a great time. It’s a 3,000-color kite.”
Herrera, who has degrees from UCLA, Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, recently finished a two-year term as the poet laureate of California and is teaching at the University of Washington. His year-long tenure as the 21st U.S. poet laureate will begin when he participates in the National Book Festival on Sept. 5 and presents a reading of his work at the Library of Congress on Sept. 15.
“My mother would be so happy,” Herrera said of his appointment. “She’d be clapping. Maybe crying. And dancing.”