UC Riverside Professor Juan Felipe Herrera will be California’s first Hispanic Poet Laureate, upon senate confirmation. On March 21, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Herrera, whose work focuses on the Chicano experience—a subject that holds special significance to Herrera since he was the son of migrant farm workers. “No one is more worthy than Juan Felipe Herrera, both for this distinctive honor and for the task at hand as the California Poet Laureate,” proclaimed UC Riverside Chancellor Tim White in his weekly email. Within a week of the appointment, Herrera traveled to Sacramento where the governor swore him in.
Herrera currently serves as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair at UC Riverside’s Creative Writing Department. “I want to thank UC Riverside for such a great community of support. All the students here inspire me greatly. This award is for all the young writers who want to put kindness inside every word throughout the state, because kindness is the heart of creativity,” stated Herrera in an article by UCR Today.
According to Herrera’s personal website, the renowned poet has published 24 volumes of work including theater, children’s books and young adult novels. Herrera, a graduate of UC Los Angeles and Stanford University, has received dozens of highly prestigious awards and has seen much of his work been turned into plays and musicals. “Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed,” noted a New York Times review of Herrera’s work, as quoted in the governor’s press release.
The position of California Poet Laureate was created in 2001 and is primarily shaped by the California Arts Council. The council, which consists of 11 experts in fields such as the arts, education, and community development, are tasked with selecting candidates who would best promote and serve as an advocate of poetry in the state of California. Following his senate confirmation, Herrera will begin his two-year term and his tasks will include providing six public readings and completing a cultural project with the goal of exposing poetry to individuals of all backgrounds.
According to the California Arts Council website, the criteria for selecting the Poet Laureate depend on the achievement of scholarly excellence, the size of published work, the reputation of the poet and the willingness to partake in the cultural project. The Poet Laureate position has been vacant since September 2011 and was last held by University of Southern California Professor Carol Muske-Dukes.
“This honor reflects what we have had the privilege of seeing up close ever since he joined our distinguished faculty: namely, this remarkably gifted poet’s unique ability to connect—through his art and teaching—with everyone, regardless of their cultural or educational background,” stated Andrew Winer, chair of the Department of Creative Writing, in the UCR Today article.
Herrera’s recent accomplishments include being elected to the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors and receiving the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry.