Brown names state’s first Latino poet laureate

Gov. Jerry Brown today named Juan Felipe Herrera as California Poet Laureate, the first Latino ever to hold the title.

Juan Felipe HerreraHerrera, 63, of Redlands, is the author of twenty-eight books and now serves as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside. He was a professor and chair of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno, from 1990 to 2004 and a teaching assistant fellow at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa from 1988 to 1990.

In a 2008 review of his work, the New York Times’ Stephen Burt wrote, “All life, all art, involves boundaries, if only those of birth and death. Some poets keep us conscious of those boundaries; others, like Herrera, discover their powers by defying them. Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed.”

Upon his receipt of the PEN Beyond Margins Award in 2009, the University of Arizona Press wrote, “For nearly four decades Juan Felipe Herrera has documented his experience as a Chicano in the United States and Latin America through stunning, memorable poetry that is both personal and universal in its impact, themes, and approach. Often political, never fainthearted, his career has been marked by tremendous virtuosity and a unique sensibility for uncovering the unknown and the unexpected.”

The son of migrant workers from Mexico, Herrera earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Arts in social anthropology from Stanford University and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. He was elected to the Board of Chancellors for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 2010 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry in 2009.

This position requires confirmation by the state Senate, and the California Arts Council provides an annual stipend. Herrera is a Democrat.

Herrera is the eighth person to hold the title of California Poet Laureate since 1915. From 1915 through 2001, the title was unofficial and held for the rest of the recipient’s life, bestowed by the California Arts Council. The Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 made it an official post with a two-year term; the governor chooses a nominee from a list of three candidates provided by the council.

Follow us after the jump for a sample of Herrera’s work…

“Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings” (Juan Felipe Herrera, 2008)

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, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, 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.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • If poetry goes back to its roots it will find the voice of political agitation. A voice we need right now.

  • RR senile columnist

    Yeah, T.S. Eliot loved the masses.

  • Elwood

    “T.S. Eliot loved the masses.”

    Like rats’ feet over broken glass

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    If TS were alive today, he’d gladly write in praise of the 1 %.