Juan Felipe Herrera, child of Mexican-American migrant workers, schooled at UCLA and Stanford, native Californian and outgoing state poet laureate, frequent visitor to Santa Cruz (last year he was here for an appearance at Cabrillo College and was interviewed at the KUSP studios by “Poetry Show” host Dennis Morton and me), one of the most original and creatively energetic writers alive, has been named United States poet laureate by longtime Librarian of Congress James Billington. It is a brilliant parting shot from the retiring librarian, a shot in the arm for Latinos nationwide, and a shot of high-octane health juice for American poetry.
Juan Felipe, a friend of mine since 1980 when we met at the home of Fernando Alegría, then chair of Stanford’s Spanish and Portuguese department and Juan Felipe’s professor, has long been known as one of the top Chicano poets, but far more than that he is a truly international, multicultural, multilingual voice of tremendous inventiveness, artistic scope, theatrical panache and political wit. A dazzling performer and improviser, he can make up a poem on the spot and speak it aloud — I’ve seen him do this — as if it were all in a day’s work, which in fact it is.
Herrera’s great range of styles, tones, formal innovations, moods, attitudes, musical and rhythmic moves, his militancy and his comedy, his compound ironies and poignant insights give him a working canvas of big dimensions, and he fills it with amazing images and colors and emotions and associations. Though he has made his living teaching in universities — he’s recently retired from an endowed chair at UC Riverside — he is anything but an academic poet. While he is clearly in the modernist tradition and experimental in his radical poetics — he has been called “a rock ‘n’ roll surrealist” — he is also a people’s poet, a populist, an entertainer and a joker. He is indeed a bard without borders.
Herrera is a gust of fresh air for American poetry because he is such a master of his written and spoken medium that he can break all the rules and get away with it, switch genres and languages in the middle of a sentence, do whatever he wants to and pull it off with the grace of Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik turning a double play. His writing is both balletic and athletic, light on its feet and heavy-hitting in its depth of themes and intensity of feeling — it is funny and tragic and in constant and unpredictable motion.
Juan Felipe’s authentic humility is rooted in his sense of community, and while he has a completely distinctive individual voice (influenced by Walt Whitman and Woody Allen and Allen Ginsberg and César Vallejo and Al Pacino and Carlos Santana and Frank O’Hara and countless other creative models from every form of art), he understands that he also speaks for and represents the aspirations of others — not just workers or immigrants or Latinos but anyone alive enough to listen — and wants to encourage them through poetry to envision what he calls in one of his poems “a life without boundaries.”
Juan Felipe Herrera has lived such a life and it is testimony to the power of unleashed imagination that he will soon be poet laureate of the United States.
Stephen Kessler is a Santa Cruz writer whose latest book, a translation, is “Forbidden Pleasures,” by the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda.