Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday Muse: New California Poet Laureate

This award is for all the young writers who want
to put kindness inside every word throughout the state,
because kindness is the heart of creativity.
~ Juan Felipe Herrera to UCR Today*

California's new Poet Laureate is Juan Felipe Herrera. His two-year appointment, requiring confirmation by the state senate, follows the term (2008-2011) served by Carol Muske-Dukes, profiled here.

In discussing his selection, Herrera indicated that he would like to initiate a writing project on bullying, describing it as "a big, painful issue [for which] poetry is suited just perfectly. . . ."**

Information about the California Poet Laureate position is included in my post of August 16, 2010; that post also includes Resources specific to California poets.

* * * * *
A poem [offers] a way to attain a life without boundaries.
~ Juan Felipe Herrera

California's first Hispanic writer to serve as Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948) has published more than two dozen books — not only poetry collections but also plays, short stories, novels for young adults, and children's books. Among his most recent collections of poetry are 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007  (City Lights Publishers, 2007) and Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008), winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award. His novel-in-verse Crashboomlove (University of New Mexico, 1999) received an Americas Award.

In addition to being a poet and translator, Herrera is a visual artist, photographer, videographer, and performance artist, and he actively and compassionately advocates on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth.

Singled out for his use of the anaphora, a literary device that allows many lines of a poem to begin with the same word(s) or phrase (as in Herrera's title poem in 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border, which uses "Because" at the start of every line); for his gift at creating imagery carrying multiple associations and meanings; for his dense mixture of details (names, places, histories, things with which to construct complex, sometimes sprawling poems) and voices; for his style, energetic pacing, versatility and willingness to experiment; and for his unapologetic narratives about the difficulties and contributions of Mexican Americans, Herrera draws inspiration from his own past. He did not, he says, "start out to be a speaker, or a writer or much less, a poet or professor. Quite the contrary, my beginnings were at the margins of society, where promise-stuff is elusive and rarely reaches fruition — in the fields of California, as a campesino child of farm workers."*** Herrera, whose voice is never more authentic than when it declaims the personal, is the son of migrant farm workers.

As he notes on his Website, Herrera is an avid experimenter. Among the forms he has worked are sonnets, sestinas, free verse, Floricanto chants, "Jazzoetry", and spoken word and performance, video, choreo-, and sound poems.

One of Herrera's most oft-quoted poems is "Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings", included in Half of the World in Light. From the outset, in the most matter-of-fact voice, Herrera seeks to de-mystify the mystery that is poetry:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, [. . .]

Note the punctuation use. With one exception in the next-to-last line, where a long dash appears, Herrera uses only commas until he concludes with a period the final 17th line, all the while pushing us along an arc of connections that speak both to what a poem is not and, ultimately, what a poem is:

[. . .] a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn't exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

There's a wonderful sense in this poem of wandering around, and of finding oneself through the drifting, and by risking.

Herrera's poems, often unpunctuated and presented in lower case letters, detail stacked upon detail, are striking for their imagery. Consider these lines, for example:

[. . .]
His eyeteeth clap like his family
for an encore of southwest earth [. . . .]
~ "A Certain Man"

[. . .]
Armanda, my aunt whose hair has always look like
gold dust,
a fleece, [. . . .]
~ "Crescent Moon a Cat's Collar"

across the desert rushing
the geraniums conference with crows
speak about giant exiles fox-trot
from Alabama poultry plants in festival aprons [. . . .]
~ "Busman"

Herrera's poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Beltway Poetry QuarterlyBOMB Magazine, The Cortland Review, Granta, Platte Valley Review, and other literary publications, and has contributed to such anthologies as Poetry of the American West (Columbia University Press, 1999), Sing (University of Arizona Press, 2011), Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers and Artists (University of Texas Press), and The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007).

Currently holder of the Tomas Rivera Endowed Chair, Department of Creative Writing, University of California/Riverside, Herrera is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Montalvo Society, University of California/Berkeley, Breadloaf Writers' Conference, and Stanford's Chicano Fellows. Other honors include PEN's 2009 Beyond Margins Award (for Half of the World in Light), Latino Hall of Fame Poetry Awards, and PEN West PoetryAward, and election to the Board of Chancellors, Academy of American Poets (2011).


All Poetry Quotations © Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo Credit: University of California/Riverside

* Quoted in "Juan Felipe Herrera Is California's First Latino Poet Laureate", Huffington Post, March 22, 2012

*** "Living the Promise", Speech at University of California/Riverside, 2009

"Governor Brown Appoints California Poet Laureate", Office of the Governor, March 21, 2012

"Juan Felipe Herrera Appointed California Poet Laureate", Los Angeles Times/Books, March 22, 2012

Juan Felipe Herrera Selected Poetry Collections: SkateFate (Rayo, 2011), Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives (City Lights Publishers, 2001), Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler (University of Arizona Press, 2002), Giraffe on Fire (University of Arizona Press, 2000),  Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (University of Arizona Press, 1998) Note: Half of the World in Light on GoogleBooks

Juan Felipe Herrera Poetry Online: "Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings", "Grafik", "I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph", "Iowa Blues Bar Spiritual",  "Punk Half Panther", "War Voyeurs", and "[Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way]"All at Poetry Foundation; "Everyday We Get More Illegal" (Audio Clip), "tomorrow I leave to El Paso, Texas", and "You & I Belong in This Kitchen", All at Academy of American Poets; "La Muerte (Death)" at Woodland Pattern Book Center; "She Wants the Ring Like He Wants the Suit of Scars/But" at PEN American Center (Audio); Selections from Half of the World in Light at PEN American Center; "El Angel de la Guarda (The Guardian Angel)" at J's Theater; "Luz" at The Cortland Review (Audio Included); "Canada in English" and "A Capella" at Democratic Underground; "Fuselage Installation" at The American Poetry Review; "Everyday We Get More Illegal" at Platte Valley Review; "Half-Mexican" at Granta; "Busman" at Beltway Poetry Quarterly; "In the Cannery the Porpoise Soul"and "Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings" at Traditional Mexican Culture; "Arizona Green (Manifesto #1070)" on FaceBook (Poets Responding to Arizona SB 1070); "Mission Street Manifesto" in Poetry of the American West on GoogleBooks; "A Certain Man" and "The Poetry of America" at Xican@ Poetry Daily

"Apartment Heritage", Essay by Juan Felipe Herrera at Paper Tigers

Stephen Burt, "Punk Half Panther", The New York Times, August 10, 2008 (Book Review)

Jerard Fagerberg, SkateFate (Review), City Paper, March 2, 2011

Lisa Alvarado, Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera at La Bloga

Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera at Here on Earth | Radio Without Borders, April 8, 2008

Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera at Words on a Wire, October 2, 2011 (Radio Interview)

2008 NBCC Awards Ceremony with Juan Felipe Herrera and August Kleinzahler (A 2009 video interview appears at GalleyCat.)

Papers of Juan Felipe Herrera c. 1970-1998 at Stanford University

Below is a performance and lecture by Juan Felipe Herrera:

Additional Selected Videos: Juan Felipe Herrera at the Ruskin Art Club, Los Angeles (2007); Juan Felipe Herrera Reads from Half of the World in Light (2009); Juan Felipe Herrera Interview, University of California/Riverside (UCR Scenes from a Classroom Series); Juan Felipe Herrera Reads from SkateFate

Juan Felipe Herrera on FaceBook and LinkedIn

Poet Laureate Blog


Hannah Stephenson said...

I saw him read in LA...he was so engaging and endearing!

I liked learning about his bullying project, and thought about Shane Koyczan's Stickboy:

Kathleen said...

I always love learning more about our poets laureate from you!!