I don’t want his job. Not writing poetry on demand. Writing poetry is hard enough but deadline poetry makes my head spin, burn and hurt.
Juan Felipe Herrera can do it with a pinched nerve in his neck that is making his life miserable right now. Herrera, who recently polished off a poem for new CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny for her investiture on May 3, is the only U.S. poet laureate (2015-2017) ever from the valley (born in Fowler), as well as the only Latino. He has written poetry for more than 50 years, taught poetry to all but the recently departed and probably them too, still gets up every day in his home in Fresno, taps the keys and goes into the “poetry crouch.”
Zelezny and Herrera knew each other from Fresno State when he was the poet laureate and she was the provost. His poem for her investiture — “a week-long ceremony which honors a pursuit of knowledge and a rite of passage from one leader to the next” — has a Bakersfield twist in that it references Merle Haggard.
“I’ve just started listening to him,” said the 70-year-old Herrera. “He sings from his inner heart and the core of his bones.”
Heart, core and bones — Herrera has been there. Been there, in both his own poems and those he’s written for graduations, speeches and installation of presidents. He has fashioned an approach to writing deadline poetry that keeps him relatively sane, his blood pressure relatively stable and his creative juices relatively in flow.
“I try to write the day I get the assignment and do a fast early watercolor of the poem,” Herrera said. “Then, I have time to fill in the details, add some cool words and sprinkle in some magic.”
His goal is not to overcook the poem but make it as accessible and attractive to his audience as he can and still have it mean something. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Most of us could do it if we were grounded in the visual arts like Herrera is, had embraced the world of letters and greeted the world through the eyes of the son of migrant farmworkers who lived their early days “in tents and trailers in small farming towns throughout the San Joaquin Valley.”
While embracing, greeting and grounding, Herrera has piled up achievements. After graduating high school in San Diego, Herrera earned a BA from UCLA in social anthropology, threw himself into experimental theater and the Chicano civil rights movement, got an MA from Stanford and later an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Herrera taught Chicano and Latin American studies at Fresno State and then later creative writing at Cal State Riverside.
Herrera has published more than 20 books, collections of poetry and essays and children's books. "Calling the Doves/El Canto de las Palomas" (1995), won the 1997 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for children’s literature. Herrera won the PEN West Poetry Award in 2009 for "Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems."
If writing and teaching weren’t enough, Herrera has acted and directed in bilingual theater and performance and co-founded a number of theater ensembles.
'Rise' to the occasion
However, there is this pinched nerve in his neck from years of travel so Herrera is shifting gears and spending more time at home with his family, which includes, in addition to wife Margarita Robles, three sons, two daughters, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, students at Fresno State as well as elementary school classes he visits.
Herrera still writes three hours a day by "splashing the words on the page, moving his hand across the margins and if it’s not working, keep moving."
Herrera moved, splashed and kept moving for his old friend Dr. Lynnette Zelezny in celebration of her investiture with his new poem “Song to Rise,” which is excerpted here with his permission:
“Remember Merle Haggard
Remember Buck Owens
Remember Dolores Huerta
“Set me loose, Set me free
“Sí Se Puede, Yes we can!
Dolores Huerta says
“Rise from above rise from below
we are one it is all the same
you & me
Oil town strugglin’
Desert trail ramblin.’"