Donald Munro

He’s the new U.S. poet laureate: Hear Juan Felipe Herrera roar

Juan Felipe Herrera makes his debut as the 21st U.S. poet laureate during a news conference at the 2015 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 5, 2015.
Juan Felipe Herrera makes his debut as the 21st U.S. poet laureate during a news conference at the 2015 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 5, 2015. Library of Congress

Poets aren’t pop culture stars, though it’s fun to contemplate an alternate universe in which Juan Felipe Herrera has 35 million Twitter followers and Kim Kardashian flies coach.

For poets, however, there is a particular honor that can help penetrate the thick, hazy fog of disregard that often seems to blanket the intellectual arts: being named poet laureate of the United States.

People with no interest in poetry – and perhaps even an aversion to it – sit up and take notice. Everyone understands the significance of a national honor, especially when the recipient gets to hang out in the nation’s capital, meet important people and make speeches in such grand buildings as the Library of Congress.

Herrera, who was born in Fowler and is a proud resident of Fresno, is basking in the attention.

So is Fresno, which with two U.S. poet laureates in a handful of years – Philip Levine served from 2011-12 – deserves to strut a bit.

Herrera was named the nation’s first Latino poet laureate in June. (Officially the title is Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and he’s the 21st since Congress revised the name of the honor in 1985. Prior to that, a similar title was bestowed annually since 1937.) But the term didn’t start until September.

And he has big plans.

“I’m loving being here,” he says in a call from Washington, D.C.

With the gregarious and enthusiastic Herrera in the driver’s seat, early indications are his ride as poet laureate could be a scorcher. He’s going to crank open his sun roof, blast some tunes and have a merry time speeding down the road.

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, the poet will give his inaugural reading at the Library of Congress. (Though it is called an inaugural event, there is no actual swearing-in ceremony.) It will be the library’s kickoff to Hispanic Heritage Month, and he will read a “corrido,” a Mexican ballad that Herrera describes in this incarnation as a way to “announce the news of the day, a people’s story in their terms.” The corrido will be created in a library workshop.

Certainly not the kind of work you’d find in a long-ago poetry anthology.

He made clear his intentions to stir things up a bit in his first official act last weekend. In an appearance at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, Herrera announced a project called La Casa de Colores. It includes an invitation to Americans to contribute verses to an “epic poem” about the American experience.

Crowd-sourced poetry? In the hands of a master, it could be incredible.

The poem, titled “La Familia,” will unfold with a new theme each month posted on the library’s poetry and literature blog, and contributors will be encouraged to make submissions. (Like any high-tech endeavor, things are running a little last-minute, and the library will only say the going-live date for the project is “mid-September.”) Herrera will compile and shape the contributions into a finished product.

Chances are that Herrera will be able to use his new poetry bully pulpit to reach new audiences. Being the first Latino in the position is sure to spark interest from the media. And Herrera, who taught at Fresno State from 1990 to 2004, has a powerful personal success story to share, which can be enticing for journalists.

As an only child of migrant farmworkers, he got degrees from UCLA, Stanford and the University of Iowa. As a poet, writer and performer, he’s racked up numerous honors, including a National Book Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Latino issues will be represented in other ways during his term as well. For example, he will headline a poetry event at the National Portrait Gallery on Jan. 23 in conjunction with a new exhibition about United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta.

In between official appearances, Herrera plans a busy travel schedule giving readings across the country. When you’re named poet laureate, your stock in the poetry world obviously rises, and he’s in high demand. His schedule is so busy that he’ll only be home to Fresno for a few days through the end of October.

His laureate project will take a lot of time, as well. At this point he’s still not quite sure what all the monthly themes will be or just how the final project will fit together. As we talk, I can tell that the sense of possibility and improvisation ahead is a sign he’s luxuriating in the creative process.

At the conclusion of his eight-month term in April, he envisions gathering together a poetry choir or spoken-word ensemble at the Library of Congress to make the whole project sing.

If your idea of poets is that they labor in solitary reflection, their words silently landing on the page, Herrera is out to bust that stereotype. He sees his project as big, boisterous and bursting with the viewpoints of all kinds of Americans.

His Casa de Colores, he says, should be a house of all voices.

This is one poet laureate who doesn’t believe in hushing you at the library – even when it’s the Library of Congress.

Who knows? With his poet laureateship as a platform, he can extend his reach. Herrera, whose Twitter username is the festive @cilantroman, boasts almost 2,000 followers. He only needs approximately 34.98 million more to catch up with @KimKardashian.

What a wonderful universe that would be.