Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

He’s the Poetry Man

University of California, Riverside professor Juan Felipe Herrera
known for chronicling the bittersweet lives, travails and contributions of Mexican Americans — was named California Poet Laureate by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012 and U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2015. He will serve a two-year term. A son of migrant farm workers, he joined the UC Riverside creative writing faculty in 2005.

What are your plans for your two-year term as California’s poet laureate?

The most important thing is to acknowledge everyone who’s working so hard in the world of words and language, which is all of us. Young people, writers, people that want to learn how to write, those in alternative schools, senior centers, gyms, clubs, the story tellers, folk singers, people in hospices, prisons, continuation high schools, gifted classrooms, poets and artists doing their bit with string basses and electric guitars, people in workshops who are working at it. Acknowledging lives and landscapes is really what a poet does. We address what’s going on in whatever way we can with these little things called letters and scripts, cuneiforms and codes. They are crystals of our voice. They crystallize our voice.

How did you react to the call giving you the news?

When I got the actual lightning bolt, my first reaction was wordless. Then I think I said “wow.” I did a 60s “wow.” For me, it’s a very big thing. This is what I’ve been doing since 1962, since middle school, when I first forced myself to be on stage because I was so afraid of speaking.

One time, you walked through the Hub, reading poetry, on a video that’s gotten popular. What’s the attraction of impromptu readings?

Impromptu readings — that’s my middle name. I enjoy the feeling of being among people and moving through them and doing poetry. I want to catch students off guard and in the open and — bang — there’s a poem. I’ve been doing impromptu and improv performances of poetry since the 1970s.

How did you get started writing poems?

My mother always played with words with me. My home library really was sayings, stories, riddles and some jokes, but not like ha-ha jokes, just kind of funny. That’s a great way to get the verbal mind nourished. My childhood was filled with verbal rhyming games.

How would you describe your UCR position?

The students here are amazing. The writers, whether undergraduate or graduate, are charting new ground. For a writing or poetry professor, it’s exciting because they are really charging ahead. I say “wow, I wish I was at the level they are when I was an undergraduate.” Some of them I wish I was just at their level now! They have different cultural experiences and languages and they are talented, very talented. You walk into a creative writing class and you are not going to see one style of creative writing. You are not going to see one style of writing poems. They’re all charting-new-ground styles. It was like me when I first started writing, even though they’re better than me. I started writing whatever I could, with whatever I could and any way that I could. And then later, 20 years later, I picked up books and tools to shape and work the poem and read and talk about the poem. But first it was just lighting the fire of poetry. That’s what students are doing here. They are lighting the fire of poetry.