The Library of Congress announced last week that Juan Felipe Herrera, a son of migrant farmworkers whose writing fuses wide-ranging experimentalism with reflections on Mexican-American identity, will be the next poet laureate.
The appointment is the nation’s highest honor in poetry and also something of a direct promotion for Herrera, who was poet laureate of California from 2012 to 2014.
“I feel like I’m on one of those big diving boards,” Herrera, 66, said by telephone from his home in Fresno. “I was on a really high one already, and now I’m going to the highest one.”
“It’s a little scary,” he added. “But I’m going to do a back flip and dance as I go into it.”
The appointment of Herrera, who will succeed Charles Wright, comes as the country is debating immigration, a recurring subject of his work, which has been collected in “Border-Crosser With a Lamborghini Dream” and “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.”
But in a statement explaining his choice, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said Herrera’s work contained Whitman-esque multitudes that illuminate “our larger American identity.”
“I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original, work that takes the sublimity and largess of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and expands upon it,” Billington said. “His poems engage in a serious sense of play.”
Herrera was born in Fowler, California, in 1948, and spent his early years living in tents and trailers in farm communities around Southern California.
In middle school, he said, he overcame his shyness and joined a choir. “It was part of my secret project of becoming a speaker,” he said. “I was so afraid.”
By high school, he said, he was “playing around with sentences.” When a friend showed him a book by the Russian poet Boris Pasternak, he was hooked. “I wanted to write poems like that.”
At the University of California, Los Angeles, Herrera studied anthropology and threw himself into the Chicano rights movement and experimental theater. He moved to the Bay Area and joined the Beat ferment, often teaming up with a cadre of poets who were active in the Mission District of San Francisco.
By the time he landed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned his MFA in 1990, he was already over 40, with four small press books to his name.
“He’s a poet who really started in the trenches,” said Francisco Aragon, director of Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.
Herrera’s earliest work is marked by intense surrealism. “Any poem that said, ‘Hello, I’m here, how are you?’ was one I didn’t even want to read,” Herrera said. “I wanted to fly with symbols and metaphors and see trees in the shape of flying saucers.”
The work of Allen Ginsberg, among others, showed him he could do both. “He was really talking to people at the same time as he was creating these amazing parades of images,” Herrera said.
Herrera’s more than a dozen books of poetry, many of which are represented in “Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems” (University of Arizona Press, 2008), show him wandering all over the map, both in style and subject matter.
“He’s always trying to get outside what he’s already done, line by line, poem by poem, book by book,” said Stephen Burt, a professor at Harvard who has written about Herrera’s work. “He’s really unpredictable in the best possible way.”
Herrera’s work often carries a topical charge. In the poem “Everyday We Get More Illegal” (2011), he writes:
Yesterday homeless &
w/o papers Alberto
left for Denver a Greyhound bus he said
where they don’t check you.”
His work also confounds any neat border between the written and the spoken. The collection “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” published in 2007 by City Lights, gathered nearly three decades worth of verse intended primarily for oral performance.
Herrera, who recently retired as a professor at the University of California, Riverside, said he would use his new position to encourage young poets, and nonpoets, to find their voices. He also plans to get some of his own writing done.