Juan Felipe Herrera Is America’s New Poet Laureate
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No high-ranking official has appeared on a balcony to pronounce it, but America has a new poet laureate. Hailing from Southern California, 66-year-old Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Latino poet to be appointed to the position. Perks of his new title include a $35,000 stipend, and the honor of joining the ranks of such hallowed former laureates as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, and Robert Lowell.
Herrera is an exceptionally eclectic wordsmith. His works frequently combine Spanish and English, and run the gamut from sonnets to litanies to protest poems to children’s book, from San Francisco’s Mission District to the San Joaquin Valley to Darfur. Educated at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Herrera spent ten years teaching at UC Riverside, and from 2012 to 2014 was poet laureate of California.
As de facto orator in chief, Herrera will arguably command the ear of the people more than any other poet in America. It seems like the perfect fit for a man who once stood on street corners in San Diego “with poems sticking out of my hip pocket, asking people if there was a place I could read poems,” and who is committed to tradition of oral performance that undergirds poetry. Says Herrera, “The audience is half the poem.”
For a taste of what the new poet laureate has to offer, here is a sample poem:
“I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph”
I am merely posing for a photograph.
Remember, when the Nomenclature
stops you, tell them that — “Sirs, he was posing
for my camera, that is all.” . . . yes, that may just work.
clear, hazel like my father’s, gaze across the sea, my hands at my side, my
legs spread apart in the wet sands, my pants crumpled, torn, withered, my
shirt in rags, see-through in places, no buttons, what a luxury, buttons, I
laugh a little, my tongue slips and licks itself, almost, I laugh, licks itself
from side to side, the corners of my mouth, if only I could talk like I used
to, giggle under moonlight, to myself, my arms destitute, shrunken, I
hadn’t noticed, after so many years sifting through rubble stars, rubble toys,
rubble crosses, after so many decades beseeching rubble breasts — pretend I
came to swim, I am here by accident,
My face to one side.
Listen to gray-white bells of rubble, the list
goes on — the bones, hearts, puffed intestines,
stoned genitalia, teeth, again I forget how
to piece all this together, scraps, so many scraps,
lines and holes.
The white gray rubble light blinds me,
wait, I just thought — what if this is not visible,
what if all this is not visible.
Listen here, closely:
I am speaking of the amber thighs
still spilling nectar on the dust fleece across Gaza,
the mountains, the spliced wombs across Israel, Syria.
The amber serums cut across all boundaries,
they smell incense, bread, honey — the color
of my mother’s hands, her flesh, the shrapnel is the same color
the propellers churn.