June 11, 2015
Juan Felipe Herrera is “going to do a back flip” into his new Poet Laureate appointment
by Taylor Sperry
Yesterday the Library of Congress appointed Juan Felipe Herrera as the Library’s 21st Poet Laureate.
Former Librarian of Congress head James. H. Billington said in his announcement:
I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original—work that takes the sublimity and largess of “Leaves of Grass” and expands on it . . . His poems engage in a serious sense of play—in language and image—that I feel gives them enduring power. I see how they champion voices, traditions, and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.
A son of migrant farmworkers who came to California from Mexico, Herrera is the first Latino to hold the position. “I’m looking forward to a whole new world,” he told the Washington Post. “The times now seem to be evolving with voices of color. All voices are important, and yet it seems that people of color have a lot to say . . . a lot of questions and a lot of concerns about immigration and security issues, you name it, big questions. All this is swirling in the air.”
Herrera is a master of many forms. In his work—which, in addition to poetry, includes plays, songs, and books for children and young adults—he tackles issues of identity and politics, combines verse with prose, English with Spanish, and, as Jennifer Schuessler writes for the New York Times, it “confounds any neat border between the written and the spoken.” Former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia calls his poetry “performative and communal;” the Poetry Foundation says it “brims with simultaneity and exuberance, and often takes shape in mural-like, rather than narrative frames.”
For the past two years Herrera has been California’s poet laureate. Of his new appointment he said, “I feel like I’m on one of those big diving boards. I was on a really high one already, and now I’m going to the highest one . . . It’s a little scary, but I’m going to do a back flip and dance as I go into it.”
Juan Felipe Herrera reading his poem “Five Directions to My House” as part of Poet-to-Poet, the Academy of American Poets’ educational project for National Poetry Month in 2014.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.