New U.S. Poet Laureate Dances with Life, Poetry, Teaching

Juan Felipe Herrera at UW AES spring 2015
Juan Felipe Herrera with three of the students in his creating writing class; from left: Virginia Fausto, Annel Garcia, and Linda Quijosa.

Juan Felipe Herrera, newly named poet laureate of the United States, describes his UW students as “great — hard workers and talented.” In turn, the spring quarter visiting professor had great impact on them through a teaching style that goes beyond the syllabus and approaches writing and poetry from eclectic perspectives, with all senses engaged.

“On the first day he gave each of us a piece of construction paper and asked what comes to mind when we feel it, what noises it makes when we shake it. He challenges us to keep sight of our surroundings and be alert to our thoughts,” says Virginia Frausto, who  graduates on June 12 with a major in AES and political science.

As an only child of migrant workers, Herrera grew up in California’s San Joaquín Valley, developing a passion for people and their stories. While a student at UCLA in the late 1960s, he immersed himself in that era’s roiling, transformative sociopolitical issues, and in literature, music, public speaking, and theater, all reinforcing expression and interaction. Those interests led him to Stanford for a master’s degree in social anthropology.

“I hadn’t thought about being a poet or writer,” Herrera recalls, “until one night I found myself dancing with a beautiful woman in the middle of the street. An entire sidewalk of poems appeared — standing, singing, dancing.”

From then on, life itself, the human condition, profound social events, and the most humble aspects of daily surroundings inspired poetry. “Anthropoetry,” he calls it, adding that “anthropology is turning into poetry and so are the social sciences.”

This approach infused his AES classes in creative writing and comparative American ethnic literature. In the latter students read novels and nonfiction about difficulties experienced by youth of Japanese, Chicano, and African heritage. Course assignments included taking the perspective of one character and writing a letter to another, performing a skit on section of a novel, and expressing their ideas in art.

In the creative writing course, students imagined a conversation with a poet they admired and wrote their own poem with similar structure and language. One morning they abandoned the classroom and found spots on campus to observe people walking, talking, or absorbed in cell phones or laptops. What do you sense about them? What does the backpack look like? The trees? What’s on the table? Find a perspective; write a poem. Each also made a book of poems incorporating collages and color, even glitter. “The idea is to give them experiential projects and space to create. We are artists and poets, so language becomes art, not just a device or mechanical thing,” Herrera says.

“He made us all channel our inner child, and showed us that life is beautiful and we can’t take it all too seriously,” Fausto says. “We are so used to being one way, and he challenged us to get out of that box.” And to write 40 poems over the quarter.

The Library of Congress on June 10 announced Herrera's two-year appointment as the next U.S. Poet Laureate, beginning in September. He is the first Latino to hold this prestigious position. "We feel incredibly fortunate that Juan Felipe spent this spring quarter at AES, at the pinnacle of his career," says Lauro Flores. "He made a deep impression on everyone, especially his students, and we congratulate him on this great honor."  

Herrera has authored 28 books ranging over poetry, short stories, fiction, and children’s literature. Among his honors are several national book awards and prestigious fellowships. Most recently he won the Pura Belpré Honor Award for works for children and youth celebrating Latina and Latino heroes in recent history and the present. His latest book is nonfiction for young readers: Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes. Herrera recently retired as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and for numerous art, poetry, and performance workshops in diverse community settings, and was poet laureate of California from 2012 to 2014.

Herrera first visited Seattle in 1979. “I love the Northwest and wrote my head off here. I’d go to Green Lake, and to Suzzallo Library with my fine-tip mechanical pen, and write poems for Exile of Desire. And with Lauro Flores and friends I went fishing on Puget Sound.” While at UW this spring, Herrera wrote poems for a new book on the theme “What We All Dream Of,” encouraging people to think about how to support communities in the face of tragedy. Past, present — and the future too — bridged by love of poetry and people.

Read the New York Times article on Herrera's appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate:

A June 10 article on the website includes his peom "Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings":

This June 10 article describes what Herrera envisions for his tenure as poet laureate, and also mentions the UW.

Read more about Herrera’s early life and his work in a profile in The Daily: