Juan Felipe Herrera Named U.S. Poet Laureate

Former California Poet Laureate to embrace hope as a theme during his term

Juan Felipe Herrera in front of a mural

Juan Felipe Herrera, who was named U.S. poet laureate Photo credit: Carlos Puma, for UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — University of California, Riverside poet Juan Felipe Herrera, whose passion for poetry delighted Californians of all ages during a two-year appointment as the state’s poet laureate, has been named United States poet laureate.

The one-year appointment of Herrera as the nation’s 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry was announced today by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

“I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original — work that takes the sublimity and largesse of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and expands upon it,” Billington said in a written statement. “His poems engage in a serious sense of play — in language and in image — that I feel gives them enduring power. I see how they champion voices and traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”

Juan Felipe Herrera being congratulated.

Juan Felipe Herrera is the second U.S. poet laureate with UC Riverside ties. Photo Credit: Carlos Puma, for UC Riverside

Herrera, who retired in March as a professor of creative writing at UCR, will participate in the 2015 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 5. His inaugural reading as poet laureate will take place on Sept. 15.

He is the second U.S. poet laureate with a UCR connection. Billy Collins, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, earned his Ph.D. in English from the university.

UC President Janet Napolitano said, “Juan Felipe Herrera did the University of California proud as a student and professor, he did California proud as the state’s poet laureate, and he’ll do the nation proud as America’s poet laureate.”

UC Riverside Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox said he was delighted by Herrera’s appointment.

“For the last two years, Juan Felipe Herrera has brought his love of the written and spoken word to audiences across California as our state’s Poet Laureate, delighting and inspiring them with the beauty of poetry,” Wilcox said. “Now, he will do the same for people across the U.S. We are so pleased at this latest recognition of Juan Felipe’s talents and proud of his many years of teaching at UC Riverside.”

Herrera will return to the UCR campus on Sunday, June, 14, as the keynote speaker at one of the university’s seven commencement ceremonies. The ceremony will be webcast live.

Typical for him, the news of his appointment prompted an outpouring of gratitude: to Billington and others at the Library of Congress, the UC Riverside community, his students and faculty colleagues, residents of the Inland Empire, the California Arts Council, and Gov. Jerry Brown, who named him California Poet Laureate in 2012.

“This appointment as poet laureate of the United States wouldn’t have been possible without being at UC Riverside, the California Arts Council and Gov. Brown,” Herrera said. “We are all poets, and this is for all of us.”

The son of migrant farm workers, Herrera is known for chronicling the bittersweet lives, travails and contributions of Mexican Americans. He joined the UCR faculty in 2005 and was the Tomás Rivera Chair in Creative Writing until he was named the state’s poet laureate.

As California’s top poet Herrera traveled throughout the state, encouraging the inner poet in children and adults, from urban schools to rural community fiestas, from university poetry readings to children’s museums. One of his most ambitious projects during the two-year appointment was “The Most Incredible & Biggest Poem on Unity in the World,” a 170-page poem to which hundreds of Californians contributed. The poem debuted in October 2014 at the UCR Unity Fiesta, which celebrated Herrera’s tenure as the state’s poet laureate.

Herrera said he’s considering something similar in his new role, and the theme could be influenced by a class of fifth-graders in San Marcos, Calif. The children participated in an American Academy of Poets program and contacted Herrera about a poem he had written, “Jackrabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew.”

“I was on a Skype interview with the class yesterday and they shared a poem they’d written about hope,” he said. “I was extremely moved by that. I want to develop a number of projects, and I hope to have hope in the middle of it. I want to experiment a lot, and encourage interactivity, people writing and speaking in their own way. I’m still shaping it. I am inspired by the poetry of hope.”

Recalling the hard lives of his parents and their love of storytelling and music, Herrera said he knows they would be proud of his newest honor.

“Think my father would play the harmonica and smile, and would stand up and embrace me, something he would usually leave to my mom,” he said. “I think this would move him very much. I still play the harmonica because of him. I think my mother would do a polka dance to a Carlos Santana beat, and would put her head against my heart. If there were a poet laureate robe of the U.S. I would put it on my mother and father.”

Herrera has published numerous volumes of poetry, prose, theater, children’s books and young adult novels, among them “Portraits of Hispanic Americans” (2014), “Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems” (University of Arizona, 2008), which received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, the International Latino Award in poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has been elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, and has received the Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, and the UC Berkeley Regent’s Fellowship. Other honors include the Breadloaf Fellowship in Poetry, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Fellowship, the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Hungry Mind Award of Distinction and the Focal Award.

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