For the second time in five years, a Fresno poet has received the nation’s highest honor for his field. Former Fresno State professor Juan Felipe Herrera is the new Poet Laureate of the United States. Herrera grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and was influenced by both the beat poets and the Chicano movement of the 1960’s. He joins the late Philip Levine as the only Fresno residents to hold the national honor.
In this interview Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero chats with Herrera about his life, poetry and future.
In September Central California native Juan Felipe Herrera will become the first US Poet Laureate of Latino descent. He hopes to give voice to Hispanic people across the US and globe.
HERRERA: “I am very humbled and very honored. I want to use it for the benefit of others. I know I’m going to write nonstop and I want to change my writing. I know it’s gonna change because of a much bigger audience. I’ll be listening to many, many voices.”
The 66-year-old grew up south of Fresno in the town of Fowler. As the son of farmworkers he hopes to create a poetry project during his term that incorporates the lives of people of every color and background.
HERRERA: "My mother would recite [poetry] to me as a child and sing songs together. Mexican Revolution songs. So her voice in a way is in my voice."
There was a key moment in Herrera's history that fueled his writing. In high school his friend declared that he was a Chicano. For decades Herrera's pondered the meaning of the word. Today he has an answer.
HERRERA: "To me it means like a cinnamon tsunami. A big powerful wave of creative energy of many creative individuals who want to bring about positive change through their writing and expressive creativity."
Herrera has written dozens of books, taught as a professor at multiple universities and served as California’s first Latino poet laureate from 2012 to 2015. His duties begin in the fall.
Odd to be a half-Mexican, let me put it this way
I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the question of the half
To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing
One could say only Mexican
Then think of pyramids – obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with
Flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts – these are not Mexican
They are existences, that is to say
Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum
Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees
What is the other – yes
It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles
European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect
Better to think of Kant in his tiny room
Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time
Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation
Concerning the way light bends – all this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half-being
How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your life-long project, that is
You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half
Mexican, then the half against itself.
FIVE DIRECTIONS TO MY HOUSE
1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance
2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds
3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor
4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets
5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now
6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six.