What does a poet laureate get paid for? We asked Lee Herrick — California’s next one
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Nov. 30. I’m Ryan Fonseca.
As I read this month that Gov. Gavin Newsom had appointed Fresno resident, writer and professor Lee Herrick to be the state’s 10th poet laureate, I wondered: What exactly does a poet laureate get paid to do?
So I reached out to ask him.
“Each poet laureate, typically, is asked to advocate for poetry, educate and bring poetry to as many communities as he or she or they can,” he told me. “That can take the shape of readings or talks ... in everything from a grade school to a university to a prison to a book club — and everything in between.”
The state Senate needs to sign off on his appointment, but once that happens and he signs the oath of office (possibly by email), Herrick will begin his two-year gig as our state-sanctioned wordsmith. He’ll be the first Asian American to hold the position.
Herrick was born in South Korea and adopted by a white family when he was 10 months old. He was raised in California, initially in Danville, and later settled in Fresno with his wife and daughter. The 52-year-old teaches at Fresno City College and in the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Reno, at Lake Tahoe.
I asked him what he wants to accomplish in the new role. He told me about his platform, dubbed “Our California,” which he hopes will “bridge poetry with social justice and civic engagement organizations” across the state.
“It’s a way for those folks to meet the poetry community and, vice versa, to bring those groups in conversation,” Herrick explained. “And hopefully, through those conversations, continue to make improvements in their communities through literacy, poetry, activism and engagement.”
Herrick said the diversity in California makes it an ideal place for poetry.
The sound of communities, the accents, the flavors, the history, the music, the dreams of immigrants and refugee and working-class communities —that’s where my mind and my poems often want to go.
Here’s more of my conversation with Herrick about his upbringing, the appeal of poetry and why he wouldn’t want to write it anywhere else. (The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What about poetry sets it apart or makes it unique for this kind of role?
Lee Herrick: Poetry can be a succinct but also an expansive way to celebrate an occasion or an event. I remember when the Bay Bridge was rebuilt ... the poet laureate at that time read a poem at that opening.
Often, people will have a poem as part of their wedding. Or sometimes it’s read at someone’s memorial service after a death. Sometimes people include it at a graduation or any other number of really significant moments in people’s lives.
I also think that it’s accessible. ... You just need your imagination, something with which to write, and something that you want to say.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, but take California’s plan for a bullet train. Is that something you can see yourself marking with a poem?
I would happily do that! Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing for poets to write an occasional poem, they call it, and this is also difficult for me [chuckles]. But I would absolutely be honored.
I do hope it’s built someday. We’ve got the beginnings of it here in Fresno. But who knows if it’s ever going to be finished.
How does your heritage and upbringing inform your art?
I was the only person of color in my family. At times that was isolating, I realized as I got a little older — and luckily, my family was open and receptive to my growing awareness of race and difference and racism.
Even from a young age, I noticed the nuances of race. I noticed when someone would recoil hearing a Spanish accent — even slightly. I noticed when somebody would be uncomfortable around a Black male or other microaggressions that I received regularly —being told I “speak American well”... or am I a math major.
Poetry is a place to put all of those questions, all of those emotions, all of that anger that I often felt growing up — and also a lot of confusion about my identity and the circumstances of my adoption and all of those things that I think poets and other artists can relate to.
What about California stands out to you and makes it a good environment for poetry?
One of the first places I go to — and I don’t know how unique it is to California — is the amazing, passionate and compassionate teachers that I’ve had throughout my life. I feel like the educators here transform lives. They changed my life.
Also — and I hope it doesn’t sound too negative — but it would be the traumas and the troubles of the state’s history and present. The Fresno Fairgrounds here was one of the sites of a Japanese internment camp. I was just reading about 1849 and 1850 when we became a state — the 31st state — how many people of color were denied claims to the gold. That, quite frankly, inspires me to write. It might be trouble and trauma, but those are things of poetry in my mind.
The young people that I teach and the people doing the work — whether it’s with language or access or opportunity or anything else with social change. The innovation of the state is deeply inspiring and often fuel for poetry as well.
There’s nowhere else I’d want to be a poet. It’s joyful to me.
Does this position come with any perks? Can you skip the line at the DMV? Do you get a complimentary express lane transponder?
[Laughs] I would love perks like that! My sister and brother-in-law jokingly made me a crown ... that they wanted me to wear for a photo. That was fun.
It does come with a stipend, which I’m still not sure what that’s going to be. But no other perks. But now you’ve got me thinking of all the things I would gladly accept [laughs]. Free tacos!
And now, here’s what’s happening across California.
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