From Fresno’s poet laureate to a guard in a jury room in Selma: Lee Herrick is keeping busy these days.
When the Selma Arts Center production of “12 Angry Men” opens Thursday, Feb. 18, the cast includes an acting novice getting his first taste of the stage – but certainly not to the power of the written word. Herrick, as the jury-room guard, has just a few lines of dialogue in Reginald Rose’s classic 1950s play about a homicide case, but he jumped at the chance to be involved in a theatrical production.
We connected with Herrick in an email interview to ask him about the play and catch up on his tenure as Fresno poet laureate.
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with “12 Angry Men,” give us a brief synopsis.
A: It is a courtroom drama about a jury trying to decide the fate of an 18-year-old boy accused of murdering his father. It takes place in the jury room on the hottest day of the year in New York City, and the jurors struggle to reach a verdict. The play, which was adapted into a film that many have called one of the greatest films of all time, is a gripping story of guilt, innocence, reasonable doubt, and persuasion.
Q: What character do you play?
A: I play the guard, who only has a few lines in the entire play. The vast majority of the action is through the the other 12 actors, the jurors – and they are incredible. I am only in the play on its last three days of production (Feb. 25, 26, and 27).
Q: Have you acted before?
A: No. I mentioned casually to my friend, director Juan L. Guzman, that I wanted to have a nonspeaking role, like an extra, in a movie or play someday. A couple of days later, he told me he had a part in “12 Angry Men” that he would like to offer me. The cast is stellar. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been very rewarding. I don’t foresee an acting career in my future, but I wanted to try it, and it’s been a great experience.
Q: “12 Angry Men” was written in 1954 as a TV movie, more than 60 years ago. What do you think it has to tell us today?
A: It gives audiences a realistic view of the human nature – how we see other people in terms of guilt or innocence, how we work with other people in a pressure-filled situation, and how a jury arrives at its decisions. The play is also about convictions – not just in a legal sense, but in a moral sense: how we can stand up for what we believe in. The themes in the play are timeless and relevant today as they ever were.
Q: You’re Fresno’s poet laureate. What does that title mean? What do you do?
A: A poet laureate is appointed by a city, county, state or country. The poet represents the city, in my case, at a variety of events and is expected to bring poetry to a wider audience. I was selected by a committee of writers and community members through the Fresno Arts Council and appointed by Mayor Ashley Swearengin. In my first year, I have helped judge local high school poetry competitions, coached students for Poetry Out Loud (for the National Endowment for the Arts), and I have hosted poetry readings every other month at the Fresno Arts Council, among other things. I try to support and encourage the reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry wherever and whenever I can.
Q: What is coming up on your plate as poet laureate?
A: I am very excited about a daylong literary festival that I founded: LitHop 2016. This is a daylong literary festival on Saturday, April 23, at venues throughout the Tower District. It is free and will feature over 20 readings with four writers per reading, with a closing headline reading by United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. I believe this will be his first public reading in Fresno (his hometown) since being appointed U.S. poet laureate, which is thrilling. In addition, I will be reading with David Mas Masumoto, and a host of other acclaimed writers will be on hand, including Steven Church, Randa Jarrar and Aris Janigian. Writers from the Bay Area, Central Coast and Los Angeles will be here, joining established and exciting new writers.
I also have another “Fresno Poet Laureate and Friends Reading” at the Fresno Arts Council on Thursday, March 3, featuring James Tyner (Fresno’s first poet laureate), David Dominguez, Jessica Barret, Mary Coomes, Karen Davies, and Von Torres.
I read in New York City a couple of months ago, and I will be reading and signing books in San Francisco, Portland and Los Angeles in the next couple of months.
Q. How do you assess the current scene for poetry in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley?
A. Poetry in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley is flourishing. With roots established by the late, great Philip Levine (former U.S. poet laureate) and with the recent appointment of Juan Felipe Herrera as the nation’s current poet laureate, Fresno is a central voice in American poetry. The collective quality of poetry from Fresno is stunning. Anywhere I go in the United States, people know and admire Fresno poets. There are far too many to name, and it is an honor to be among them.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
A: I am tenured faculty at Fresno City College, where I have taught for 19 years. I also teach in a low-residency MFA (Master of Fine Arts) Program at Sierra Nevada College, on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, where I go once or twice a year to teach. I was born in South Korea and adopted when I was 10 months old. I live in Fresno with my wife, Lisa, and my daughter, Suzhen. My interests include travel (I have traveled extensively in Asia and Latin America) to anywhere there is water, eating good food, sports (I played soccer all four years of college and semi-pro club level soccer), music (live music of almost any kind), and more than anything, spending time with my wife and daughter.
I am the author of two books of poetry, “This Many Miles from Desire” and “Gardening Secrets of the Dead.” My poems have also appeared in a number of anthologies, with writers such as William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Maya Angelou. My website is http://leeherrick.com.