Goodbye. . . . Hola!
That was the scene Wednesday night at the Library of Congress where lovers of literature gathered for the final lecture by U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. But then came the happy news that Herrera, the first Hispanic poet to serve in the position, has been reappointed for a second year.
“In his first term as laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera traveled the country championing poetry,” Acting Librarian of Congress David Mao announced. “We know he will continue to inspire and educate with his warmth, enthusiasm and creative genius.”
For Herrera, the award-winning author of more than two dozen poetry collections and books for young people, the second term will provide an opportunity to build on the success of several ongoing projects, including his “La Casa de Colores,” an epic poem composed of online submissions from people around the world.
Asked what he’s most proud of from his first year, Herrera laughs and says, “That I survived!”
Poets laureate define the job however they’d like; for Herrera that has meant lots of travel and doing what he loves most: listening to people tell their stories. “Every place I go, I meet people and gain new insights,” he said in an interview. “I just notice everybody loving poetry and writing — new ideas and tender hearts, radically different points of view about writing that I really haven’t thought about.”
He recalls meeting two young people, in particular, while giving talks around the country. One was 11-year-old Sarita Sol Gonzalez, whom he met in Albuquerque. The other was 12-year old Elena Medina, in Chula Vista, Calif., who said she was worried that she wasn’t learning enough to get ready for college. When Herrera asked her if she ever wrote poetry, she recited one she’d written about her grandfather. Elena’s poem, Herrera said, contained “a philosophical reflection about how all of us are impermanent. It was just a solid poem where she really touched base with wisdom.”
Working with the Library of Congress, Herrera made arrangements to bring both girls and members of their families to Washington so that they could participate in his lecture Wednesday night. That’s a groundbreaking move for a poet laureate, but a typical gesture for Herrera.
Looking to his second term, Herrera said he’s considering launching “a superhero story for children” that they could help write chapter by chapter online. He’s also determined to find some way to reach out to young people with special needs. “I know that we don’t hear from everyone,” he said. “I definitely want to get people who are not usually called in or mentioned.”
That’s essentially the theme of Herrera’s life and work.
The poet laureate typically serves one year in the honorary position, which carries a stipend of $35,000. But several popular poets have served multiyear terms, including Natasha Trethewey, Kay Ryan, Ted Kooser and Billy Collins.