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Juan Felipe Herrera Becomes The First Latino Poet Laureate Of The United States

Born the son of migrant farmworkers, he now has the country’s highest honor in poetry.

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Juan Felipe Herrera, the author of 28 books of poetry, novels, and most recently “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes,” will become the first Latino poet laureate of the United States, the Library of Congress announced Wednesday.

Herrera will succeed Charles Wright in the country’s highest honor in poetry. Herrera was the poet laureate of California from 2012 to 2015.

“I feel like I’m on one of those big diving boards,” he told the New York Times. “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.”

Immigration is a common theme in Herrera’s poetry, which includes his collection “Border-Crosser With a Lamborghini Dream,” and “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.”

In addition to his collections of poetry – “Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Latino Book Award – Herrera is a celebrated young adult and children’s book author.

“His poems engage in a serious sense of play – in language and in image – that I feel gives them enduring power,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement, calling Herrera a “an American original. ”I see how they champion vices, traditions and histories, as well as cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”

Herrera was born in California in 1948 as the son of migrant farm workers. He moved around a lot as a child, living in tents and trailers. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology. He received his master’s degree from Stanford University and in 1990 received a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

He retired as professor at the University of California, Riverside, this year and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Washington, Seattle.

“I write while I’m walking, on little scraps of paper,” he told the Times. “If I have a melody going, I can feel it for days.”

Other poets to have held the position include Natasha Trethewey, Phillip Levine, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

Here are a few of Herrera's poems:

19 Pokrovskaya Street

My father lights the kerosene lamp, his beard bitten, hands

wet from the river, where he kneels to pray in the mornings,

he sits and pulls out his razor, rummages through a gunnysack,

papers, photos of his children in another country, he cries a little

when he mentions his mother, Benita, and his father, Salomé,

who ran a stable in El Mulato, Chihuahua, eyes cast down

then he points to the mural on the wall, the red

angels descending to earth, naked mothers with bellies giving birth,

lovers in wrinkled green trousers, and a horse with the figures

of children laughing on its back, a goat floats across the night,

a flank of tawdry farmers unfurl into a sparkling forest moon

where elegant birds sit on snowy branches, here is

a miniature virgin where the yellow flames light up the village

one dancer carries fishing poles and easels with diamonds

and other jewels as colors, my father is silent

when he sees these things cut across my face.

Excerpted from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera.

Copyright ©2008 Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arizona Press. This material is protected from unauthorized downloading and distribution.

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,

let me tell you what a poem brings,

first, you must know the secret, there is no poem

to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,

yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,

instead of going day by day against the razors, well,

the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket

sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from

the outside you think you are being entertained,

when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,

your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold

standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,

is always open for business too, except, as you can see,

it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into

the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,

you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,

the mist becomes central to your existence.

Excerpted from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera.

Copyright ©2008 Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arizona Press. This material is protected from unauthorized downloading and distribution.

Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at maryann.georgantopoulos@buzzfeed.com.

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