When he was young, Juan Felipe Herrera wanted to be a public speaker. "I dreamed of standing in front of an audience and giving these long speeches," he explains by phone. But then he discovered poetry, and the color of the world changed. "People talk about seeing things through rose-colored glasses, but I started seeing things through poetry-colored glasses."
On April 9, Herrera will be awarded the L.A. Times Book Prize's 2015 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. "You've written poetry, prose, children's books, young adult books and even plays," I ask him. "Is there something you haven't achieved that I don't know about? Did you climb Mt. Everest?"
"N'ombre," he says. "I didn't, but I did recently climb Mt. Chilaquiles."
We laugh. I had caught Herrera just as he was waking up from a nap. There's a slight rasp in his voice, and when I apologize for interrupting his rest he laughs again. "No worries, man. It's good to hear you, hermanito." He wants to know what I've been up to since we saw each other in January at Cal State L.A.'s Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, what I'm writing, if I'm still commuting between L.A. and Fresno. I tell him I'm good and remind him that we're supposed to talk about his role as our country's poet laureate and about his Kirsch Award.
Herrera, who was born to migrant farmworkers in Fowler, Calif., in 1948, is the U.S. poet laureate. From 2012 to '15, he served as poet laureate for California and counts a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry among his list of honors.
He has written more than 30 books, including the poetry collections "Notes of the Assemblage" (2015), "187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border" (2007) and "Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse" (1999). His many books for children and young adults include "Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes" (2014).
When he graduated from UCLA in 1972 with a degree in social anthropology, Herrera set his sights on a career in social work while pursuing a master's degree at Stanford. Eventually he wound up in the Bay Area entranced by activism and poetry. After turning 40, Herrera attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, part of a long academic career — he retired from his post as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair at UC Riverside last year.
"Orale pues," he says. "Let's talk."
He says the Kirsch Award is meaningful because it signifies recognition from a place that has shaped so much of his understanding as an artist and activist. "It's nice to be getting this award from the L.A. Times. I started back in the '60s. I'm humbled to be representing those who are no longer with us. I'm talking about people like Luis Omar Salinas, Francisco X. Alarcón, and Gloria Anzaldúa. It's in that spirit, hermano. There's so much creative energy out there that we need to tap, and I accept this award in honor of those voices we have yet to hear from too."
Herrera's position as poet laureate has afforded him an opportunity to encounter some of those unheard voices from across the nation. "I'm a primordial vago," he jokes of his travels. "I'm wearing a zoot suit and carrying a basket of elotes and tamales wherever I go. My visits have allowed me an opportunity to experience the explosive creative energy Chicanos and Chicanas are producing. Students approach me and ask, 'How do I identify myself?' I tell them that things are blurring more now. We are many things. Young raza are interested in figuring out who they are, and they're very interested in activism."
As someone whose early life was spent following the annual piscas up and down the state with his family, Herrera's no stranger to the struggles of the undocumented. His experiences have shaped his role as the nation's first Mexican American poet laureate, giving it a uniquely Chicano sensibility.
"But," I ask, "I'm interested to know what Californio sensibility you think you're offering as U.S poet laureate that no one else has?"
"I bring the borderlands soul," he says. "I bring the bilingual, indigenous, gospel and mural life from Southern California. I bring my early days in San Diego and Tijuana. I bring Alurista, Yolanda Luera, Jorge Gonzalez and the Chicana Women's Collectives. I bring jazz straight from Thelonius Monk at Shelly's Mannhole in L.A., the civil rights fever from UCLA and L.A. and East Los. I bring marches, rallies, demonstrations all pouring into my life and writing. I bring Oscar Zeta Acosta and el Teatro Chicano. I bring S.F., Bay Area, tropicalizations, international and Central American culture, life and social-change poets and peoples and landscapes. I bring Alejandro Murguia, Roberto Vargas, Nina Serrano, Jack Hirschman and so many writers collectives, and jazz pioneers like Francis Wong, Genny Lim, gay and lesbian poets and collectives in Haight-Ashbury and the Castro districts. I bring Steve Abbot, Tede Matthews and Karen Brodine. I bring a multicultural scene of all colors. San Diego, Tijuana, L.A. and S.F. were my libraries, my workshops, my poetry tutorials and volcanoes from 1956 to 1985."
We talk about the talismanic power of cilantro — on Twitter, Herrera is @cilantroman — and I recall taking him for tacos near my mother's house in Colton and cruising up and down Agua Mansa Road in my Honda as I showed him the geography of my first novel years ago. I was kicking up all kinds of crazy old espíritos back then, I say.
He remembers that experience. "It was all opening up for you. I was fortunate enough to see it."
When I ask if he can pinpoint the moment when it all opened up for him, he says there are too many. "But I have to say," he adds, "I was part of the lineup of readers at the first Festival de Flor y Canto in 1973. It was one of the largest gatherings of raza writers and artists. It went on for three days. There I was with all these heavyweights. We were at USC, and I took the stage and read. So I'm going back to that campus to accept the Kirsch. Imagine it?
"What a trip, no? Full circle y todo."
Espinoza's latest novel is "The Five Acts of Diego León." He is visiting associate professor and interim director of the bilingual MFA in creative media and literary arts at Cal State Los Angeles.