Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Chicano Poet Laureate of California (Ironic, considering the State of California was originally part of the massive Las Californias territory of Mexico). Like another Festival Poet, Benjamine Alire Saénz, who lives very close to the geographic border between the United States and Mexico, Herrera writes from a perspective acutely aware of the significance of that border in our times and its nonexistence for centuries in the lives of his ancestors. Like Saénz, Herrera is a writer constantly crossing borders.
For a brief introduction to this poet who defies easy categorization, listen to his reading of “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border” at the Ruskin Art Club in Los Angeles:
From the first seconds we are aware of Herrera’s engagement with his listeners. This is a poetry reading in the age-old call-and-response tradition: The audience is not passive, but participating. Herrera is no artist living in an isolated ivory tower. For him, the poet must be engaged with the community, and must be willing to speak for those in the community who can’t speak for themselves.
We can see in this one reading that Herrera is passionate about social issues, clearly believes politics have their place in poetry, and that poetry is a democratic art that invites interaction, and a performance art meant to be heard aloud, that relies on the connection between speaker and listener as in the ancient oral tradition.
But labeling him a populist poet, political poet or performance poet would be too limiting. The son of migrant Mexican farm workers, Herrera spoke barely any English when he entered school. He started out with an outsider’s relationship to English and its literary traditions, and this has given him a very flexible approach to his adopted language. He credits great teachers and endless hours at the free local library with changing his life by introducing him to art, music and literature from many cultures, and giving him the confidence to find his own voice.
Herrera came of age in 1960’s, and that great era of artistic experimentation inspired his lifelong enthusiasm for challenging the borders between styles, forms, schools and genres. He went on to earn his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with poets as diverse as Jorie Graham and Gerald Stern, and today, even in his most accessible work, a touch of the influence of the great Spanish surrealists often appears.
As dedicated as he is to education, art, social and political causes, Juan Felipe Herrera is one of those poets who understands that poetry is too important to take himself too seriously. Along with his passion for this art, we get the additional gift of his wonderful sense of humor.
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