Ever heard of the U.S. poet laureate? You're about to — on Wednesday, poetry lovers were greeted with the news that Juan Felipe Herrera was named U.S. poet laureate, the first Latino to be conferred the position of the nation's official poet.
A little-known but prestigious position honoring only the finest poets in the nation, Herrera — who is of Chicano descent — succeeds Charles Wright as the American poet laureate. In the announcement, the bilingual Mexican-American said: "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."
James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress who was in charge of Herrera's appointment, said that Herrera's work illuminated "our larger American identity," adding:
I see in Herrera's poems the work of an American original — work that takes the sublimity and largess of [Walt Whitman's] 'Leaves of Grass' and expands upon it. His poems engage in a serious sense of play.
Herrera, 66, is the son of migrant farmworkers who lived in tents and trailers around Southern California as a child. Herrera eventually attended UCLA under the Educational Opportunity Program and completed his master's in social anthropology at Stanford in the 1970s. Later, he entered the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop for a master of fine arts in poetry.
Formerly the poet laureate of California until 2014, Herrera's appointment comes at a time when the nation is mired in a debate about immigration reform. Last year, President Obama exercised his executive power to push through a change in policy that would allow up to 4.9 million undocumented immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation. However, in February, a federal judge ordered those changes to be halted. Now, the federal appeals court is hearing a request for a stay on the earlier decision; sitting on the court are two of the three most conservative judges in the court.
The timing of Herrera's appointment, then, is apt. Immigration is a recurring theme in his work, collected in books like Border-Crosser With a Lamborghini Dream and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border.
A prolific writer, Herrera has published 28 books of poetry and novels, and is a prominent author of children and young adult books. He told The New York Times of going from poet laureate of California to that of the U.S.:
I feel like I'm on one of those big diving boards. I was on a really high one already, and now I'm going to the highest one. It's a little scary. But I'm going to do a back flip and dance as I go into it.