The poet known for sending out a rallying cry to "orange and lemon carriers," "chile pepper sack humpers," and "tomato pickers", Juan Felipe Herrera will be named poet laureate by the Library of Congress on Wednesday. Herrera, who has a seriously impressive résumé, will be the first Mexican American poet laureate of the United States — and he's more than earned the honor. Don't be surprised if his words change the way you see yourself and the world — because like all great poetry, they will.
Herrera's is a voice with a distinct message: he a writer engaged in a poetic revolution. Having been compared to icons like Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, and Oscar Zeta Acosta, Herrera isn't afraid to get political. He's written about U.S./Mexico border crossings and migrant workers, Hurricane Katrina and "build[ing] a sweat lodge in front of Bank of America." He grew up the son of migrant farm workers who moved frequently across that same landscape immortalized by The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. His poetry speaks to a community of people with hardworking hands, survivors' spirits, and resilient hearts, and is acutely aware of the spaces in this world where some people are welcome, and many others are not.
In addition to being inspired by his mother — an immigrant who sang him songs about the Mexican Revolution, and his father — who taught him the art of bird calling, Herrera also credits his experiences living in what he considers "three distinct Californias," with influencing his poetry. When speaking with CSU-Fresno about his rural upbringing in the San Joaquin Valley, and his later experiences in San Diego’s Logan Heights and San Francisco's Mission District, and Herrera said:
...all these landscapes became stories, and all those languages became voices in my writing, all those visuals became colors and shapes, which made me more human and gave me a wide panorama to work from.
Those few lines alone prove the cravability of his writing, right? The New York Times cites Herrera as as writer you wish to hear read aloud, for his rhythmic, intelligent, and often bilingual use of language.
The anticipated announcement that Juan Felipe Herrera will become America’s new laureate makes you wish the job still entailed writing ceremonial verse, commissioned in bygone days for events like the openings of bridges or the deaths of fine old soldiers. Mr. Herrera is a poet you’d like to hear declaim from the National Mall.
In face, Herrera often shares his poetry as performance art. His work includes poetic opera, a children's play, dance theater, and art activism supporting migrant and indigenous peoples, and at-risk youth. His interest in blending poetry and performance art began early. In a recent interview with the L.A. Times, Herrera said:
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. The audience is half of the poem.
Herrera, who has more than a dozen collections of poetry currently in print, along with a number of short stories, YA novels, and children's books, recently served as California's poet laureate, from 2012-2014. His awards and accolades are numerous, including: a PEN West Poetry Award, the Americas Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate will begin this September.
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