Poetry, Tacos, Fiesta!

UC Riverside celebrates California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and unity poem project Oct. 9

fiesta logo

Music, food and lots of poetry are planned for the California Unity Poem Fiesta on Oct. 9, an event that will celebrate Juan Felipe Herrera’s successful term as California Poet Laureate.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – When Gov. Jerry Brown named UC Riverside professor Juan Felipe Herrera the California Poet Laureate in 2012, the new poet-in-chief wasted no time in identifying a project that would span the length of the Golden State and his two-year appointment.

That project – “The Most Incredible & Biggest Poem on Unity in the World” – and Herrera’s successful poet laureateship will be celebrated during the California Unity Poem Fiesta at UCR on Thursday, Oct. 9, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. near the ARTS building. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP by Oct. 1 to specialevents@ucr.edu. Complimentary parking will be available in Lot 24.

Highlights of the event include booths with hands-on poetry activities; readings of excerpts from the 170-page unity poem by students from Bethune Elementary School in Moreno Valley and other contributors; UCR’s Mayupatapi ensemble performing African-Colombian music; and free tacos for the first 500 guests. Speakers will include Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox; Stephen Cullenberg, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences; Andrew Winer, chair of the Department of Creative Writing; and Herrera.

The California Unity Poem Fiesta is sponsored by the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Partners in the event are UC Riverside Advancement, the Inlandia Institute, the University of California Office of the President, the California Arts Council, The California State University, and Cal Humanities.

bay bridge

Juan Felipe Herrera wrote a poem and participated in chain-cutting ceremony celebrating the reopening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.Photo courtesy of Caltrans.

California is fortunate to have had Juan Felipe Herrera as the state’s poet laureate, said Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, which compiles a list of nominees from which the governor selects the California Poet Laureate.

“Juan Felipe is an extraordinary human being who embodies the spirit of our great state and our communities through the art of language,” he said. “As poet laureate, he has inspired countless Californians, young and old, through his social consciousness, and his kindness and generosity.”

Herrera, whose parents were farmworkers, was appointed by Gov. Brown in March 2012 to serve as California Poet Laureate for a two-year term that ends this month. The position, established in 2001 by the Legislature, is intended to spread the art of poetry from classrooms to boardrooms across the state, and to inspire and educate all Californians about the poets and authors who have influenced the state. A primary goal of the poet laureate project is to introduce poetry to students who might otherwise have little exposure to the literary form, a challenge Herrera relished.

“It’s been a quite a journey,” the poet said, recalling visits to dozens of schools and colleges throughout the state, fiestas in agricultural communities, public libraries and museums, rural literacy projects, dedication ceremonies for a new park in Los Angeles and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a UCLA commencement ceremony (his alma mater), and a Low-Rider Laureate Parade in San Francisco.

Herrera’s spontaneity is legendary and served him well in encounters with thousands of Californians in the last two years, from wiggling schoolchildren cheering a quick riff on a harmonica, to adults shouting “Guacamole!” during poetry readings delivered in a call-and-response style.

“The Most Incredible & Biggest Poem on Unity in the World” grew out of conversations with students at UC Riverside, where Herrera is a longtime professor of creative writing.

“They liked the idea of a poem about unity,” he explained.

Herrera was already soliciting contributions for the unity poem when 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in December 2012. He turned to social media and the Academy of American Poets, where he serves on the board of directors, seeking poems of support for Newton children, families and teachers.

“It was time to reach out and write about the out-scape, not just the in-scape,” he explained. “People were hurting. A word can heal a human heart.”

Newton was followed by the Boston Marathon bombings, a deadly typhoon in the Philippines, and shootings at a Seattle school and a Jewish cultural center in Kansas City.

“Massacre after massacre,” Herrera said. Each time, he solicited poetry to unify a grieving nation and world. “That kind of took over the unity project, the need to support those who were hurting in the language of poetry. I really believe in poetry that is social, that is community-centered, and that is part of a positive healing process. We can put our arms around someone who is far away and alone, or at home, at school, on the street, in times of crisis. We are poets, and that’s what we do.”

Gov. Brown swearing in Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera is sworn in as California Poet Laureate by Gov. Jerry Brown in this 2012 photo. Photo courtesy California Arts Council

Contributions to the 29,880-word poem take the form of a few words, individual sentences, complete poems, raps, group poems, and songs. Herrera invited everyone he met to contribute, from schoolchildren and teachers to farmworkers and UC President Janet Napolitano.

Early in his poet laureateship Herrera took on school bullying and launched the i-Promise Joanna project with the help of UCR’s Gluck Fellows Program of the Arts, an arts outreach program funded by the Gluck Foundation. The ongoing program uses poetry to help children find a voice to communicate the hurt experienced as bully or bullied, and encourages them to stand up to bullies.

An activist poet who was associated with the Chicano literary movement beginning in the 1960s, Herrera said the experience as California Poet Laureate changed him.

“This wasn’t just about me,” he said. “It was me and everybody. It was me and California, me for California, California waiting for me. I had to make sure I was more open and inclusive than I had been. My poetry changed. It became more accessible and more conversational. Poetry needs to be as accessible as a newspaper and a tortilla. It has to be flavorful and tasty, and it has to be available immediately. It has to come from the heart. Poetry teaches you to expand your heart and give it away.”

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-7847
E-mail: bettye.miller@ucr.edu
Twitter: bettyemiller

Additional Contacts

Juan Felipe Herrera
E-mail: juan.herrera@ucr.edu

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