Lightning-Bolt Laureate

For Juan Felipe Herrera, poetry is action. In full color.

September/October 2016

Reading time min

Lightning-Bolt Laureate

Photo: Tomas Ovalle

Juan Felipe Herrera sits in a vacant suite of offices at California State University in Fresno. Around him, the bland, sand-colored furniture, circa 1990s, has been stripped of phones and computers—it’s the business equivalent of a ghost town. 

But not for long. Herrera, an emeritus professor here and at UC-Riverside, is also the U.S. poet laureate; he’s planning “a new kind of lab” to mark the start of his second term in September. This space at Fresno—he calls it the Laureate Lab—will explode into colors, images, words. “We’re going to put paint on the wall itself. Big giant poems on the wall,” he says. He also envisions “conversations, voices, a singing choir, but mostly hands and bodies and voices—and breaking into the internet. It’s one big question mark.”

Since his initial appointment as PLOTUS in 2015, Herrera, MA ’80, has added color to everything he’s touched. With his history of activism and performance, the son of migrant workers has created new venues for unheard voices—notably his La Casa de Colores website with its monumental epic poem La Familia (The Family) composed of online submissions in English and Spanish by hundreds of people from all walks of life. 

“He is a grassroots poet in the best sense of the term. His poetry has grown out of a direct relationship with an audience—a particular audience that has mostly been excluded from literary poetry,” says fellow Latino Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who has succeeded Herrera as California’s poet laureate. “The connection he has made between English and Spanish speakers has the special energy of a deep traditional barrier being broken.” 

Gioia, ’73, MBA ’77, calls Herrera’s poetry “performative, communal and dynamically bilingual.” In a YouTube video in 2010, Herrera reads his “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.” Each line begins with “Because,” and that looks monotonous on the page, but Herrera gets the exuberant audience to shout out “Because!” at the beginning of each line as he recites. It works. His comic gestures are quick, fluid and agile; his trademark hat becomes a prop. He skips and move lines around as he reads. 

Why can’t Mexicanos cross the border?
Because Operation Wetback took care of us in the ’50s
Because Operation Clean Sweep picked up the loose ends in the ’70s
Because one more operation will finish us off anyway
Because you can’t deport 12 million migrantes in a Greyhound bus
Because we got this thing about walking out of everything
Because we have a heart that sings rancheras and feet that polka

And then he does his own little jerky-style dance away from the podium, to applause. This kind of audience participation might feel forced and corny to traditionalists, but Herrera may be redefining what “mainstream” means in poetry, anyway. 

Herrera hails from Fowler, Calif., about 10 miles from where he lives now in Fresno. His father, born in 1882, left Chihuahua at the age of 14 on a train bound for Denver, carrying little more than boiled corn and a hard tortilla, a quarter-inch thick. War and revolution made and reformed the borders around him. He finally found himself on the American side. He became “a cowboy, a ranch hand, any hand you wanted,” says his son. Herrera’s mother came from the tough Tepito barrio of Mexico City and had a U.S. green card. She was in her 40s when she gave birth to her only child in 1948; his father was 66. 

As migrant workers, they moved with the crops from town to town, with five or ten dollars in their pockets. She told him of splitting apricots for drying on a ranch during her pregnancy. Herrera remembers planting and watering corn as a 5-year-old. It was a hardscrabble life, but not all bad—better than the locked-down urban neighborhoods they later moved to, where “no one was even throwing a baseball,” he says. Herrera remembers the enormous sense of community when the trailers circled and a neighborhood formed. His mother was a partera, a midwife who helped comfort women in pain, rubbing olive oil on their distended bellies. 

Herrera’s poetry was born in her example: “Whenever she felt an inspiration, a lightning bolt, she would stand up and recite a poem, and what we call in Spanish declamación, where you kind of sing out. You shout out. You do your own home-style spoken word, and you lift your arms, and you wave your hands, and you bend your body, and you get this interesting look on your face as if you’re announcing to the community the coming of a new season,” he explained in an interview last year.  

Herrera told of another seminal moment, during his inaugural reading at the Library of Congress last September. He had been punished in first grade for speaking Spanish, and second grade wasn’t much better. In third grade, his teacher, Mrs. Sampson, asked him to come to the front of the class and sing a song. He did, but her response to his performance had to be translated into Spanish for him. “You have a beautiful voice,” she said. The remark changed his life.

Herrera followed the story with a dramatic flourish: He pointed to the front row, where 94-year-old Leyla Sampson was seated. 

Herrera’s heritage made other claims on him. With the help of an educational opportunity program, he went to UCLA; as a 21-year-old anthropology major, he heard about a nearly extinct ethnic group in southeastern Chiapas. Although the remote community was known to a few anthropologists and archaeologists, no Chicano had been there, Herrera says.  “I immediately had an awakening—‘I have to go.’ It was a deep, soulful response to do something for 250 Lacandón Mayas, who are part of who I am.”

Chicano studies and cultural centers were new at the time, Herrera notes. He wanted to “do something original”—with interviews, photographs, artifacts—“to bring about some kind of awareness in the United States.” At the same time, he was trying to find “a new way of doing political theater and a new way of doing poetry.” He thought, “Wait a minute. Let me get back to my cultural roots and see what poetry is like there.” 

With funding from UCLA’s Mexican American Center, he set off to the Mexican lowlands with a classmate, an experienced videographer. They packed old Army fatigues, machetes, mosquito nets, anti-viper first aid kits, Vietnam tropical combat boots, plenty of 16mm Ilford film and top-notch camera equipment. “It was a great idea, a timely idea, a perfect idea. Conceptually, a triple A-plus. Did we know how to go about it? C-minus,” he says.

Herrera is the author of 30 books of poetry, noels for young adults and collections for children. His Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008) received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In Mexico, “we hired a Harrison Ford kind of guy—a piloto,” says Herrera. It was straight out of a 1940s film: a man in khakis and a crumpled shirt writing with a half-pencil on a tiny desk, in a dark office that had his name in black letters on the door’s frosted-glass window. He agreed to make the trip for 100,000 pesos.

The Cessna landed in the rain forest and tore off a wheel. The piloto patched it back together, and then the small plane disappeared into the sky, as Herrera watched. He found himself in the jungle, among little huts and local elders who were willing to talk. He listened to their stories of “eco-piracy”—slash-and-burn farming, deforestation by loggers and “chicleros,” who stripped the forests to make Chiclets gum from the sap of the chicle trees. They told him of the destruction of the wildlife and the rape of the local women. 

“The situation was immense, immeasurable,” Herrera recalls. Until his visit, “No one had really gotten on the ground and said, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Bananas. I’d like to share a tortilla with you.’” Later, he wrote: “To read about their ‘way of life’ and spew Chicano ‘azteca’ poetry jive was blasphemy, and to assign the oppressed Maya the honorable position of ancestors was a cultural crime—if I did not take action.” 

He continued his studies in social anthropology when he came to Stanford in 1977, though the lure of poetry and performance was already beginning to exert a powerful counterpull. Stanford Libraries now has the poet’s archives, which include the documentation for his life-changing trip to Chiapas—reel-to-reel tapes, audiocassettes of interviews and about 45 minutes of the rush prints of the film. 

When he published Mayan Drifter in 1997, Publishers Weekly hailed it as a classic of Chicano literature, and something more than a memoir: “this is not a straightforward sociological report; and if language reflects its user, the reflection here is not the neat one of a mirror but rather one that glitters, pulses and flows like a likeness in a river. . . . This work is filled with ironies, and he constantly questions his own place as poet, lost son and possible cultural imperialist.”

When asked in a 1992 radio interview if he was motivated by anger, he replied, “Oh yeah. I’m angry. I definitely am. Anger is my oyster. Anger has been my anvil, and that’s where I  have forged myself.” He would write it, scream it, walk it out. Anger was friend and unwelcome guest: “I eat it every day, or I spit it out every day,” he said.

That was a quarter-century ago. Things change. “I don’t want to be that guy,” he says in his Fresno office. He wishes instead to write lines as “clear as possible without turning into a lollipop poet.” His new directive:

I want to write of love
in the face of disaster. 

He writes of our borderlands—cultural, historic, economic. “Juan Felipe is a very learned poet who has refused to abandon his roots among the poor,” says Gioia. “He knows what he’s doing. He writes in English with one foot in Spanish.”

In a time especially riven by political, economic and social divides, such generosity and largeness of spirit is a big statement. Recalling the way Herrera integrates Mexican, Mexican-American and street cultures, San Juan Ridge writer Kate Dwyer says, “He makes me want to swim in that water. He does it without making me feel hated.”

That may be his biggest legacy.

Cynthia Haven has written for numerous literary publications. Her book on French theorist René Girard is forthcoming.

What Do Poet Laureates Do?

• The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is a one-year appointment by the Library of Congress “based on poetic merit alone” and carries a stipend of $35,000. Reappointments are not infrequent.

• To support poets’ own pursuits, required duties are minimal: opening the library’s literary season in the fall; closing it in the spring; planning special events and suggesting authors to participate in series activities.

• Many incumbents create projects to broaden poetry’s public reach. Robert Hass (1995-1997), PhD ’76, started a national student poetry contest called River of Words. The Favorite Poem Project of Robert Pinsky (1997-2000), MA ’65, PhD ’67, featured readings and recordings by aficionados across the country. Billy Collins (2001-2003) brought a poem a day to high school classrooms via their intercoms.

• Some former laureates (called Consultants in Poetry prior to 1986): Robert Frost, Howard Nemerov, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joseph Brodsky, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, W.S. Merwin, Natasha Trethewey.

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