Poetry fans and Fresno boosters alike, get ready for “Poet Laureate: The Sequel.”
Juan Felipe Herrera, the nation’s first Latino poet laureate and an avid proponent of Fresno’s burgeoning poetry scene, was reappointed to a second one-year term Wednesday by David Mao, the acting Librarian of Congress. The announcement was made in Washington, D.C., at the official closing lecture in Herrera’s first term.
In a statement, Mao said, “We look forward to seeing what Juan Felipe Herrera will accomplish in his second term, and we know he will continue to inspire and educate with his warmth, enthusiasm, and creative genius.”
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Reached by phone Tuesday on a train headed to Washington for the event, Herrera – gregarious even in the thralls of public transportation – said he was honored and grateful to get more time in the position.
“There’s a lot more work to be done,” he said. Then he laughed, which anyone who has attended one of his readings knows is a common occurrence. “It’s a lot of work. Maybe I did too much!”
Not all poets laureate get a chance to serve two years. Only eight have done so since 1986. Herrera follows previous multiyear laureates such as Natasha Trethewey, Kay Ryan, Ted Kooser and Billy Collins.
Philip Levine, the other Fresno poet receiving the poet laureate honor, served from 2011-12. He died in 2015.
Herrera will spend his second term continuing to work on some of the innovative projects he started in his first term, including a crowd-sourced online initiative titled “La Casa de Colores,” and he’ll begin a new one for children, tentatively titled “The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon.”
First and foremost, he will continue to connect with Americans from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds, something he’s done in a flurry of readings and lectures as poet laureate.
During his first term, he traveled from the strawberry fields of Watsonville to the halls of the greatest universities in the land. He was also gracious with his time by returning to Fresno for poetry readings and appearances. The connection between him as poet and the thousands who have thronged his readings hasn’t just been a one-way street, however, he said.
His poetry, which can be playful but also hard-hitting in terms of social-justice issues, is often raw and electric. It is shaped greatly by his own background as a child of migrant farmworkers.
While sharing his culture, he has stretched his own literary horizons these past eight months, he said. He discovered Pakistani poetry written in Urdu, shared songs of the Dominican Republic and absorbed insights about Kahil Gibran’s “The Prophet” from Arabic speakers. He’s deepened his appreciation of African American poetry and wowed a group of Chinese scholars with his enthusiasm for Taoist verse.
“My sense of poetry has expanded,” he said. “The walls that I thought were solid, they came down really fast.”
Officials at the Library of Congress first broached the possibility of a reappointment a couple of months ago.
Lee Herrick, Fresno’s poet laureate and an organizer of the upcoming LitHop 2016 on April 23 in the Tower District, which will feature Herrera as keynote speaker, isn’t surprised the poet laureate was asked to stay through a second term.
“Many things impress me about his first term, but the most impressive is his indefatigable energy and spirit,” Herrick said. “Whether it is a reading at the Library of Congress, an event at a small college in the Midwest, or a two-hour conversation with local poets in the Tower District, he is one of the most giving, energetic, and spirited poets I have ever known. He radiates energy and love.”
The news of Herrera’s reappointment is sure to pump up Fresno’s literary scene even more. LitHop will feature more than 140 writers across all genres in a day culminating in Herrera’s reading at the Fresno City College Old Administration Building auditorium.
The sure-to-be packed hall will be an extension of the enthusiasm Herrera has met – and will continue to meet – as U.S. poet laureate.
“It’s a particular shock to the body to see 700 people packed into an auditorium for a reading,” he said, recalling recent stops across the country in such cities as Milwaukee, Las Vegas and Albuquerque, N.M. “The best thing is meeting people who are beautiful and happy because they’re excited about poetry.”