March 19, 2014

California, Meet Your Laureate: Juan Felipe Herrera

Things California is known for:

Smog (it's getting much better, I hear)
San Francisco hills and street cars
Coveted HOV lane stickers
City Lights Books
Humboldt County

Just to name a few. But how about a state poet laureate position, with its origins dating back to the summer—that sweet, sweet summer—of 1915. Yes, the year Alexander Graham Bell inaugurated—along with assistant Thomas Watson, AT&T President Theodore Vail, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—the first transcontinental telephone service.

Although the title wasn't officially recognized by the state until 2001, someone's been dropping enjambments and cruising the Big Sur coast of the Golden State for 99 years, declaring, "I am the poet laureate."

In fact, in 2001, the state had some rather bold declarations to make itself regarding its state of poetry:

"It is widely acknowledged that the ability to read is essential to the acquisition of a good education and to increase the prospects of a productive life and that general literacy among our people is essential to our reputation in the community of nations."


"The arts generally have been shown to have a positive impact on the ability of our children to learn, to create greater interest in academic programs, and to enrich and enliven the great cultural heritage of California."

Sounds good.  

"California's poets have long been acknowledged as among the most prestigious in the nation, and include numerous Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and other significant award recipients, and at least three United States' Poets Laureate. California's poets also come from every ethnic, religious, and geographic region of the state, and have often provided a great source of inspiration to their communities, students and other young people, and the people of California generally."

I'll leave that up to the other states to discuss.

California has had eight poets hold the title of state laureate, official or not.

Ina Donna Coolbrith (1915-1928)
Henry Meade Bland (1929-1931)
John Steven McGroarty (1933-1944)
Gordon W. Norris (1953-1961)
Charles B. Garrigus (1966-2000)
Quincy Troupe (2002)
Al Young (2005-2008)
Carol Muske-Dukes (2008-2011)

And now we have number nine: Juan Felipe Herrera (2012–2014).


Your projects are very much about the people of California—encouraging them to submit poems and highlighting other California poets. Is this how you would define the job of a poet laureate?

Yes, encouragement, inspiration, participation, interaction, communication, response to our multiple realities—all this and more is at the core of creative life, of a buoyant horizon of and for our communities in challenging times. Creating for all more than creating for-myself is the orientation for an effervescent society and for literature itself.

Courtesy UC-Riverside

Thinking about your story,  what do your experiences add to your appointment as a poet laureate?

They add roots beginnings, migrant, hands-on earth life simplicity. This is a good thing. We need to touch the ground of our being. And it just happens to be a ground that is directly related to the earth, its care, its animals, it laborers, and their care for all of us. We need to think about our ever-increasing and devouring ingestion of our environment, its flora and fauna and peoples. We cannot continue as is—we have already passed the breaking point. As laureate, I encourage all to reflect on how to make life better, with heart-words and group creativity.

According to the Library of Congress, California holds the honor of establishing the first poet laureate position in the U.S. (albeit "unofficial"). What does that title say about the state of poetry—both where it’s come from and where it’s going—in California?

It says that California is Califor the arts—arts are the oasis of our collective imagination and wellspring of new ideas, relationships, fresh and radical investigations; without these we are robots, work-ants, and dying drones without the honey of life.

Where are we going? Ask the children who fingerpaint, ask the muralists who, with the community, add color to immigrant story panels. And ask the new young poets, who speak of Kiev and its human ashes. You can get to a lot of sincerity, truth, and big mind with a brush and a pen.

Has your poetry changed in any way since your installment? Or, have you changed your thoughts on poetry in any way? Has it confirmed anything for you?

Yes, yes, and yes. My poems have become wider, more accessible, and more socially interconnected. I have dedicated city parks (Grand Park, Los Angeles), a bridge (East Span of the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge), and the new State Library, for example. In each one of these poems, visits, projects, I have had to embrace the workers, their style, the audiences, the actual environments and idioms, as best as I could. My readings have reached out to a much broader California than the one I have traveled in the last forty-plus years as a poet—Napa winery workers and radio DJs, City Hall, LA, Watsonville flower vendors, high schoolers and folklorico dancers, Salinas Spoken Word youth and UCLA anthropology graduation assemblies.

I am more relaxed about my poems. Poems need to be just as relaxed as a head of lettuce. Then everyone can make a sandwich and have a picnic.

What’s one thing that you didn’t know about being a state poet laureate that you know now?

It takes you to all the stars—all the people. And it requires a lot of spinach juice to maintain energy, focus, and instant writing on trains, planes, buses, and in cafeterias.

You need to keep your poetry chops sharp—people, students, professors, and city council presidents, reporters in English and Spanish ask you some heavy-duty literature questions.

What are some of the projects you have going on through your website?

LoWriter of the Week: Human beings with a poem that I highlight every week.

I Promise Joanna: Make a promise to stop bullying at your school—with poetry, art, and your voice. (Joanna Ramos was an 11-year-old fifth-grader who died after a fight.)

 —Unity Project: Send me a phrase or poem on unity to promote unity for all.

Please send poems, inquiries to Thank you!

Interview by David Svenson

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