Friday, March 23, 2012

California's New Poet Laureate + Poem: Juan Felipe Herrera

Congratulations to California's new Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera (1948-). This week Democratic Governor Jerry Brown appointed the long-time social and arts activist and professor at the University of California, Riverside, where he holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing. Herrera has published 28 books of poetry, fiction, and children's literature, and received the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection Half the World in Light, just one of the many honors he has earned over the years. Herrera is the first  Latino poet ever to hold this post, and he described it this way to the undergraduate newspaper UCR Today: "This award is for all the young writers who want to put kindness inside every word throughout the state, because kindness is the heart of creativity."

Rivera is the son of campesinos who worked San Joaquín and Salinas Valleys in California, and this upbringing provided the material for much of his early poetry, which he began publishing after attending UCLA, Stanford, and the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. As I noted when I wrote about and featured a poem of his during National Poetry Month last year, his work covers a broad range of styles and forms, sometimes melding Spanish and English, though it is often colloquial in tone, frequently tinged with humor, and always attentive to the resonances of everyday life and people, sometimes effortlessly bringing profound cultural and spiritual dimensions to the fore. It is in this regard quintessentially American, and nourishes a rich tradition of such poetry going back centuries.

The poem I chose last year, which fascinates me, "El ángel de la guarda" (The Guardian Angel), uses one of the oldest rhetorical devices, anaphora, or repetition of initial words or phrases, to build towards a powerful conclusion. In honor of his new post, I think it's about time to feature another poem by him, which I have borrowed directly from the blog of the very fine poet Barbara Jane Reyes. (Do read her take on Herrera too.) This poem is about poems and poetry themselves, though it is, like all his work, about life.

Congratulations to Juan Felipe Herrera, and enjoy!


for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

Copyright © 2008 Juan Felipe Herrera, from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. All rights reserved.

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