A bilin­gual flow for the new U.S. poet lau­re­ate

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Carolyn Kellogg

Walk­ing past a row of books in a li­brary, 21-year-old as­pir­ing poet Juan Felipe Her­rera was stopped short by a ti­tle: “Snaps.” The book was the de­but col­lec­tion by Vic­tor Her­nan­dez Cruz.

“I opened it up, started read­ing those po­ems,” Her­rera re­calls 45 years later. “Puerto Ri­can bilin­gual English style and lan­guage and voices. The word­play, im­pro­vi­sa­tion, it was amaz­ing. That cat­a­pulted me. I never for­got it.” In 2012 he found him­self sit­ting with Cruz as chan­cel­lors of the Academy of Amer­i­can Po­ets in New York City.

Now he’s join­ing an even more pres­ti­gious club: On Wed­nes­day, the Li­brary of Congress named him U.S. poet lau­re­ate. When he be- gins his ten­ure in Septem­ber, he’ll be the first-ever Chi­cano poet lau­re­ate, writ­ing and speak­ing in both English and Span­ish.

Her­rera’s par­ents, both mi­grant farm­work­ers, came to Cal­i­for­nia from Mex­ico in the early part of the 20th

cen­tury. He trav­eled the state as a child and at­tended UCLA with the help of the Ed­u­ca­tional Op­por­tu­nity Pro­gram for dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. Although he got a mas­ter’s de­gree at Stan­ford in the 1970s in so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy, what he re­ally wanted to do was write. In 1988 he went to the pres­ti­gious Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop for a mas­ter’s in po­etry.

Now 66, Her­rera is a mas­ter of many forms: long lines, lita­nies, protest po­ems, son­nets, plays, books for chil­dren and young adults, works that com­bine verse and other forms. Lately he has turned his gaze out­ward, with 2013’s col­lec­tion, “Sene­gal Taxi,” fo­cus­ing on Dar­fur. But his ca­reer started closer to home, with po­ems that of­ten ca­su­ally com­bined Span­ish and English, unit­ing the lan­guages of his youth. In “Blood on the Wheel,” he writes:

Blood in the tin, in the cof­fee bean, in the maquila oración

Blood in the lan­guage, in the wise text of the mar­ket sausage

Blood in the bor­der web, the pe­nal colony shed, in the bilin­gual yard …

“He is not con­sciously am­bas­sado­rial,” says Stephen Burt, pro­fes­sor of English at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. “He doesn’t stop to ex­plain things so peo­ple who aren’t Latino will un­der­stand them; he just does what he does. And trusts, cor­rectly I think, that the lan­guage and the emo­tional tra­jec­to­ries of the char­ac­ters or the bits of nar­ra­tives in the po­ems will fas­ci­nate you enough that if you’re in­ter­ested and you don’t get the ref­er­ences, then you can go look them up.”

Typ­i­cally, the U.S. poet lau­re­ate does a few of­fi­cial read­ings and be­yond that is free to cre­ate his or her own pro­gram­ming dur­ing the year. The mod­est hon­o­rar­ium, $35,000, doesn’t go far, and some po­ets use the time to write, ad­vise the li­brary on mat­ters of po­etry and ex­plore the col­lec­tions. Oth­ers lever­age the me­dia to spread the word about po­etry; Natasha Trethewey, who served as U.S. poet lau­re­ate from 2012 to 2014, part­nered with PBS News Hour on the se­ries “Where Po­etry Lives.”

Her­rera, who lives with his wife in Fresno, re­tired from UC River­side in March, where he taught cre­ative writ­ing for a decade. He re­cently con­cluded his twoyear term as Cal­i­for­nia’s poet lau­re­ate, trav­el­ing to hid­den cor­ners of the state and show­cas­ing young po­ets’ work in var­i­ous me­dia. Along the way he cre­ated a mas­sive, multi-con­trib­u­tor unity poem and a num­ber of popular live read­ings, catch­ing the at­ten­tion of key play­ers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“I think peo­ple heard about what he was do­ing as Cal­i­for­nia poet lau­re­ate in ways that you don’t al­ways hear about what state po­ets lau­re­ate do,” says Robert Casper, head of the Po­etry and Lit­er­a­ture Cen­ter at the Li­brary of Congress. “That was re­ally ex­cit­ing to see.

“He speaks po­etry in a way that I think is su­per-inspiring. ... He’s the kind of poet who gives you per­mis­sion to love po­etry, to be ex­cited about it, to be en­er­gized by it. To think that it’s some­thing free­ing and fun but also rel­e­vant to the is­sues we face, the chal­lenges we have. To un­der­stand­ing the world we’re in.”

Con­nect­ing to peo­ple through per­for­mance is cru­cial for Her­rera. “I used to stand on the cor­ner in San Diego with po­ems stick­ing out of my hip pocket, ask­ing peo­ple if there was a place where I could read po­ems,” he re­calls. “The au­di­ence is half of the poem.”

Amer­ica has had po­ets lau­re­ate since 1986 (be­fore that, it was called the con­sul­tant in po­etry). In its nearly 80-year his­tory, the po­si­tion has been held by such po­ets as Robert Penn War­ren, Robert Low­ell, Robert Frost, El­iz­a­beth Bishop, Joseph Brod­sky and Rita Dove. Be­cause Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams, whose mother was Puerto Ri­can, never served be­cause of Cold War pol­i­tics, Her­rera will be the first Latino to hold the po­si­tion.

The ap­point­ment is an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the im­por­tance of Span­ish and bilin­gual cul­ture in Amer­ica.

“We’re be­ing rec­og­nized in a very pow­er­ful and im­por­tant way,” says Luis J. Ro­driguez, au­thor of the mem­oir “Al­ways Run­ning” and cur­rent poet lau­re­ate of Los An­ge­les. “Juan Felipe, poet lau­re­ate of the United States — this is sym­bolic of how im­por­tant our lit­er­a­ture, our sto­ries are.”

To­mas Ovalle For The Times

AS CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S poet lau­re­ate, Juan Felipe Her­rera put on popular live read­ings.

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