“I’m drawn to voices that speak for all of us,” says UCLA alumnus Juan Felipe Herrera, who was named U.S. Poet Laureate in June. To prepare for his year as the nation’s top poetry consultant — and the first Latino to hold the post — Herrera has been listening to as many people as he can.
“Before I set my goals,” he says, “I want to hear from tweens who don’t yet know who they are; soldiers, who have a lot to get off their chests but no outlet; women, men, teenagers, Africans, gay middle-schoolers. I want to be a global poet, a universal poet.”
The Fowler, Calif., native spent his first six years in migrant worker camps in the San Joaquin Valley. He finds inspiration in the ideas he hears expressed by other people in such situations: “I want to tell the big story through the people at the very edge of society,” he says.
When the recently retired UC Riverside professor’s appointment was announced, he said, “This is a mega-honor for me, for my family and my parents, who came up north before and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910; the honor is bigger than me.”
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who made the appointment, likened Herrera to Walt Whitman, calling him an “American original” whose poems “engage in a serious sense of play.”
It was Herrera’s mother who ignited his love of language, even before he could read. “She read to me — poems, stories, riddles, word games — whatever she could find,” he remembers, “and I loved the sound — the tone, the beauty and the warmth.”
But although many of his teachers praised his writing and encouraged him to keep at it, he planned to become a social worker. “I knew that social workers helped families like mine, so that’s what I wanted to be,” he says.
He attended UCLA on an Educational Opportunity Program scholarship and majored in social anthropology, graduating in 1972. He chose the same field for his master’s at Stanford (although he later earned an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop). But while living in the Bay Area, he found inspiration among the Beat poets of North Beach and a new wave of Latino poets in the Mission District, and began publishing his work.
Those influences are apparent in his writing, which moves between styles, forms and genres. His 30 books include more than a dozen poetry collections, as well as prose, short stories, young adult novels and children’s books. In September, he published his latest collection: "Notes on the Assemblage." In 2013 and 2014, he served as California’s Poet Laureate, the first Latino in that post as well.
Herrera is looking forward to his work at the U.S. Library of Congress and hopes to develop some interactive projects for the “beautiful people of the U.S.” He also would like to create some programs in translation, including in sign language for the hearing impaired, “to help us understand the prism of language in our country."