(June 9, 2015) — For the second time in five years, a former Fresno State professor earned the nation’s highest poetry honor when Juan Felipe Herrera was named the 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2015-2016 today.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced the history-making, one-year appointment that begins when Herrera participates in the National Book Festival on Sept. 5 and presents a reading of his work at the Library of Congress on Sept. 15. The choice is based on poetic merit alone and has included a wide variety of poetic styles.
Herrera, a native of Fowler and the son of migrant farm workers, is the first Latino to serve as U.S. poet laureate and the second with Fresno State ties. The late Philip Levine, professor emeritus of English who died in February, served as the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012.
“I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original — work that takes the sublimity and largesse of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and expands upon it,” Billington said in his statement. “His poems engage in a serious sense of play — in language and in image — that I feel gives them enduring power. I see how they champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”
Herrera, 66, was a professor in Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American Studies Department from 1990 to 2004 serving as department chair his final two years here before accepting a position at the University of California, Riverside where he was the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing until his retirement in May. He is currently a visiting professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington but also resides in Fresno.
Last year, Herrera finished a two-year term as the poet laureate of California and is the first Latino accorded both the state and national honors.
“This is a mega-honor for me, for my family and my parents who came up north before and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 — the honor is bigger than me,” said Herrera, who succeeds Charles Wright as Poet Laureate.
“I want to take everything I have in me, weave it, merge it with the beauty that is in the Library of Congress, all the resources, the guidance of the staff and departments, and launch it with the heart-shaped dreams of the people. It is a miracle of many of us coming together.”
Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro, himself a Valley native who is the first Latino president of the University, said Herrera’s appointment is an American success story.
“Juan Felipe has been a great inspiration for students and writers and this distinction provides a platform for many more to benefit from his creativity and talent,” Castro said. “This demonstrates that dreams can be achieved when we make higher education accessible to all communities. I know the extended Fresno State community throughout the world is enjoying this journey with @Cilantroman.”
@Cilantroman is Herrera’s handle on Twitter and a reference to his use of symbols and metaphors to bring his work to life.
Dr. Victor Torres, president of the Fresno State Latina/o Faculty Staff Association, recalls Herrera’s popularity with students who were “drawn to him because of his humility, despite being a highly-acclaimed poet and author.”
He called Herrera a great mentor who inspired Torres and others to work to their highest potential. And he credits Herrera with fueling creative student ventures such as Teatro TORTILLA and the Chicano Writers Association.
“His teachings and his published work, informed by his own experience, validated their personal experiences as farm workers or children of farm workers,” said Torres, who also served as chair of Chicano and Latin American Studies. “He has an uncanny ability to connect with students and had a huge following. I know they are thrilled for him for receiving this national accomplishment and honor.”
Accolades have been pouring in to Herrera on his Facebook page. One former student recalled how he hired her for graphic design work on one of his books.
“His poetry is like his personality: colorful and thoughtful,” wrote Virginia Madrid-Salazar, a 1995 Fresno State graduate who worked in public relations in Fresno and is now studying law. “I often read his books to my kids and always recall how fun he made any interaction.”
Library of Congress press release 06/10/1 (BIO info)
California poet laureate press release (03/22/12) – bit.ly/FSN-CalifPoetHerrera
New York Times
Los Angeles Times