“The fire that appears again and again in Herrera’s poetry exists to illuminate, to make beautiful, to purify.” —New York Times Book Review
“Aesthetically, Herrera leaps over so many canons that he winds up on the outer limits of urban song. And spiritually, he is deep into the quest that we all must begin before it is too late.” —Ilan Stavans
“Waking up is the biggest thing. I’m a political poet — let us say a human poet, a poet that’s concerned with the plight of people who suffer. If words can be of assistance, then that’s what I’m going to use.” —Juan Felipe Herrera
In 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed the 21st United States Poet Laureate, the first Mexican American to hold the position. In his statement of choice, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Herrara’s poems “contain Whitman-esque multitudes that champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective” that serve to illuminate our larger American identity. Herrera grew up in California as the son to migrant farmers, which he has commented strongly shaped much of his work. A Washington Post article tells the story that “As a child, Herrera learned to love poetry by singing about the Mexican Revolution with his mother, a migrant farmworker in California. Inspired by her spirit, he has spent his life crossing borders, erasing boundaries and expanding the American chorus.”
Herrera is the author of thirty books, including collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels and picture books for children. His collections of poetry include Notes of the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015), Senegal Taxi (University of Arizona, 2013); Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008), a recipient of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007); and Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse (University of New Mexico, 1999), which received the Americas Award. In 2014, he released the nonfiction work Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (Dial), which showcases twenty Hispanic and Latino American men and women who have made outstanding contributions to the arts, politics, science, humanitarianism, and athletics—a magnificent homage to those who have shaped our nation.
The Boston Review wrote about Notes on the Assemblage, saying “U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera appeals to Americans and artists. Herrera’s forceful poetry speaks directly and powerfully, like the address of a leader rousing his battalions to action…he forces us to confront society and its paradoxes. His summons links unadorned, unforgiving description with figurative language….Herrera also obliterates the passive relationship between a work of art and its observer. He is intimately concerned with what art does, ‘it follows you passes you dissolves ahead of you where / it is waiting for you when you get there you will not / know it until you see that it is seeing you seeing you.’ The stakes of this engagement for our communal body are viscerally felt: ‘we are not what we thought—it is / not who we were or / what we want to be.’”
His books of prose for children include: SkateFate (Rayo, 2011); Calling The Doves (Children’s Book, 2001), which won the Ezra Jack Keats Award; Upside Down Boy (2006), which was adapted into a musical for young audiences in New York City; and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box (HarperCollins, 2005), which tells the tragedy of 9/11 through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl.
From 2012-2014, Herrera served as California’s Poet Laureate, appointed by Governor Jerry Brown. As the state Poet Laureate, Herrera created the i-Promise Joanna Project, an anti-bullying poetry project. Joanna was an elementary school girl who was bullied and killed in an afterschool fight in Long Beach. The first half asks students to send in poems about experiences and effects of bullying. The second half of the project is to take action in preventing bullying. Herrera hopes to collect the poems and publish it as a book in the future. Other projects included Answer Cancer with a Poem, Show Me Your Papers, and The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.
Influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez and his own immersion into the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, Herrera writes passionately about social issues. Herrera is also a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth. His work has been known to cross genres, even into opera and dance theatre. While 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Borders chronicles Herrera’s involvement with spoken word and street movement performance troupes across the nation, his attention to language-centered texts can be seen in Half of the World in Light. While calling Herrera “the elder statesman of Mexican American poetry,” former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia points to the significance of his connection to a younger generation. Herrera is “the first U.S. laureate whose work has emerged from the new oral traditions that have been transforming American poetry over the past quarter-century,” Gioia says. “He can write traditional poems for the page, but many of his poems are designed primarily for spoken delivery. His work is performative, and communal. In this sense, Herrera speaks powerfully to younger poets and audiences.” (Washington Post)
Herrera has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the University of California at Berkeley, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2016, he was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the 36th L.A. Times Book Prizes. Herrera was elected an Academy Chancellor in 2011. He was educated at UCLA and Stanford University in Social Anthropology, and received his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and served as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at CSU-Fresno. Herrera recently retired from the Creative Writing Department at UC Riverside. He lives in Fresno, California with his partner, the poet and performance artist, Margarita Robles.
Juan Felipe Herrera is the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States (2015-2016) and is the first Latino to hold the position. From 2012-2014, Herrera served as California State Poet Laureate. Herrera’s many collections of poetry include Notes on the Assemblage; Senegal Taxi; Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, a recipient of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. He is also the author of Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse, which received the Americas Award. His books of prose for children include: SkateFate, Calling The Doves, which won the Ezra Jack Keats Award; Upside Down Boy, which was adapted into a musical for young audiences in New York City; and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box. Herrera is also a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth.
NOTES ON THE ASSEMBLAGE (Poetry, 2015)
Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States and son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in the migrant fields of California. Notes on the Assemblage brims with the exuberant vision and hard-won wisdom of a poet whose life and creative arc have spanned chasms of culture in an endless crossing, dreaming and back again.
PORTRAITS OF HISPANIC AMERICAN HEROES (Nonfiction, 2014)
This visually stunning book showcases twenty Hispanic and Latino American men and women who have made outstanding contributions to the arts, politics, science, humanitarianism, and athletics. Gorgeous portraits complement sparkling biographies of Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, Ellen Ochoa, Roberto Clemente, and many more. Complete with timelines and famous quotes, this tome is a magnificent homage to those who have shaped our nation
SENEGAL TAXI (Poetry, 2013)
“While reporters can give you the what, when, and where of a war, a poet with the enormous gifts of Juan Herrera can give you its soul. He does this by giving us the voices of both sides. The Janjaweed, who boast about their horrible deeds, and those who are their victims. Among them children with no father, no mother, no food, and no water.”—Ishmael Reed
“I wish I could find the words to tell you the story of our village after you were killed.” So begins Senegal Taxi, the new work by one of contemporary poetry’s most vibrant voices, Juan Felipe Herrera. Known for his activism and writings that bring attention to oppression and injustice, Herrera turns to stories of genocide and hope in Sudan. Senegal Taxi offers the voices of three children escaping the horrors of war in Africa. Unflinching in its honesty, brutality, and beauty, the collection fiercely addresses conflict and childhood, inviting readers to engage in complex and often challenging issues. Senegal Taxi weaves together verse, dialogue, and visual art created by Herrera specifically for the book. Stylistically genre-leaping, these many layers are part of the collection’s innovation. Phantom-like televisions, mud drawings, witness testimonies, insects, and weaponry are all storytellers that join the siblings for a theatrical crescendo. Each poem is told from a different point of view, which Herrera calls “mud drawings,” referring to the evocative symbols of hope the children create as they hide in a cave on their way to Senegal, where they plan to catch a boat to the United States. This collection signals a poignant shift for Herrera as he continues to use his craft to focus attention on global concerns. In so doing, he offers an acknowledgment that the suffering of some is the suffering of all.
SKATEFATE (Young Adult Prose, 2011)
Lucky Z has always lived on the edge—he loved to skateboard, to drag race, to feel alive. But things have taken a turn—he’s living with new foster parents and a tragic past. An accident changed everything. And only his voice will set him free.
HALF OF THE WORLD IN LIGHT: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Poetry, 2008)
For nearly four decades, Juan Felipe Herrera has documented his experience as a Chicano in the United States and Latin America through stunning, memorable poetry that is both personal and universal in its impact, themes, and approach. Often political, never fainthearted, his career has been marked by tremendous virtuosity and a unique sensibility for uncovering the unknown and the unexpected. Through a variety of stages and transformations, Herrera has evolved more than almost any other Chicano poet, always re-inventing himself into a more mature and seasoned voice. Now, in this unprecedented collection, we encounter the trajectory of this highly innovative and original writer, bringing the full scope of his singular vision into view. Beginning with early material from A Certain Man and moving through thirteen of his collections into new, previously unpublished work, this assemblage also includes an audio CD of the author reading twenty-four selected poems aloud. Serious scholars and readers alike will now have available to them a representative set of glimpses into his production as well as his origins and personal development. The ultimate value of bringing together such a collection, however, is that it will allow us to better understand and appreciate the complexity of what this major American poet is all about.
CRASHBOOMLOVE: A NOVEL IN VERSE (Poetry/Fiction, 1999)
In this novel in verse—unprecedented in Chicano literature—renowned poet Juan Felipe Herrera illuminates the soul of a generation. Drawn from his own life as well as a lifetime of dedication to young people, CrashBoomLove helps readers understand what it is to be a teen, a migrant worker, and a boy wanting to be a boy. Precise and profound, CrashBoomLove will appeal to and resonate with high school readers across the country.
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.
– from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems
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