U.S. Poet Laureate's work focuses on multiculturalism, social issues

<p>Juan Felipe Herrera has served at U.S. Poet Laureate since 2015.</p>

Juan Felipe Herrera has served at U.S. Poet Laureate since 2015.

Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st United States Poet Laureate, spoke about why he values art and poetry at a reading event Thursday.

Held in the Rubenstein Library, the event focused on multiculturalism in the modern age and also included question session with Herrera. Herrera read selections from several of his recent works, poems which he said provided a glimpse into his mixed heritage. During an introduction, Walter Mignolo, William H. Wannamaker professor of literature, explained that Herrera’s poems are linked to his ethnicity and nationality.

“Every American culture has its own voices and thinkers,” Mignolo said. “Toni Morrison is Afro-American, Walt Whitman is European American, Maxine Hong Kingston is Asian American and Juan Felipe Herrera is Latino American.”

Several of the poems Herrera read throughout the evening discussed multiculturalism in modern society, including “Senegal Taxi” and “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.” Other readings took on related social issues, addressing global topics such as the consequences of war on refugees and recent accusations of police brutality.

“We really are doing this to bring about more openness,” Herrera said. “It’s such a real issue.”

Katherine Owensby, a first-year in the Power of Poetry FOCUS program, said that Herrera’s readings helped her better understand what she had learned in class.

“It was a really interesting experience getting to take all the concepts and come and see this and realize how much of an impact the way he read it has,” Owensby said. “At least in the content, it’s so relevant right now. I think it’s all the more important that this is our Poet Laureate right now.”

Herrera’s poems often switched between English and Spanish, which he said reflected his mixed heritage.

Herrera explained that the inspiration for some of his work came from his childhood experiences, growing up as the son of migrant farm workers in Northern California.

He later attended the University of California at Los Angeles and went on to earn his master’s in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Expanding on his studies, Herrera served as the chair for the Chicano and Latin American studies department at California State University at Fresno and joined the creative writing department at the University of California at Riverside in 2005.

In 2012, Herrera was appointed as the California Poet Laureate and was promoted to United States Poet Laureate in 2015.

Now in his second term as United States Poet Laureate, Herrera has retired from his Riverside position and focuses more on outreach and raising awareness for the arts.

Some of the poems Herrera read took on a lighter tone, such as “Jackrabbits, Green Onions & Witches Stew,” which he said helps his poetry appeal to a younger audience.

Herrera explained that artistic subjects such as poetry and music can serve as an important form of expression and can also carry a message for today’s society.

“Poem by poem, we can end the violence every day after every other day,” he read, reciting from his book “Notes on the Assemblage.”

For Cecilia Barja, a political activist who attended the event, Herrera’s message avoided lingering on the political details and instead focused on the bigger picture.

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“I think he went beyond politics,” Barja said. “It’s not about what place you stand. I think it is just a human way of understanding what migration is about. It was a daily chapter in human life and their struggles.”


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