A totally Californian poet laureate

Wearing jeans, green sneakers, a hipster straw bowler and a Buddhist symbol around his neck, the new poet laureate of California opened his weekly poetry workshop at UC Riverside with stretching and breathing exercises.

“Let’s detox our cluttered academic brain. That’s what the poet does,” said Juan Felipe Herrera, 63. “People call it daydreaming, detoxing our minds and taking care of that clutter. It’s being able to let in call letters from the poetry universe.”

Herrera then launched into poems by Federico García Lorca and other 20th century masters and had students recite their own compositions for group critiques.

Preparing for the works of Raul R. Salinas, a pioneer in Chicano literature, he took the 16 young poets to a campus lawn, where they recreated the swaggering gait of a 1940s zoot suiter.

Herrera would like to make the entire state a democratic, virtual poetry workshop. He envisions a gigantic communal poem to be passed around the Internet over the next two years so writers at high schools, colleges and community centers can add their own lines.

It’s tentatively titled “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem in the World on Unity.” Herrera describes it as a “nice, juicy, long poem, a multidimensional poem that talks about what we are all facing, from as many traditions and cultures and places.”

Another of his brainstorms is something called Planet X, videotaped poetry by young people about the world they want to live in.

“It’s like a golden key,” said Herrera, the son of migrant farmworkers and the first Latino to serve as the state’s poet laureate. “I’m carrying a California key in addition to my car keys. And I really want to use it ... to promote the poetry of California.”

In his own free-form work, he mixes English and Spanish in writing about immigration, Chicano identity, love, wars and California geography.

In “Mexican Differences Mexican Similarities,” Herrera writes:

You dance on the floors we mop the floors

You sleep in hotel beds we make the hotel beds

You’ve got the law on your side we got history on ours.

And later:

You wonder about the universe we wonder about the universe

You wheel grandmother to the home we wheel grandmother to the home

You ride the BART to nowhere we ride the BART to nowhere.

Other of his works are more elusive. “Inside the Jacket” portrays an old tailor embroidering a coat with “a venom lacing/a serpent feverishly winding out of the earth/wrapping around the furniture, into the ceiling.”

In his “Love After the Riots” collection, a poem titled “3:45 am” describes “a blackened sky with a little boy & girl rustling/ their feet in the silk. A vigil. Floating pillows,/crushed bedposts, open night-cream jars.”

For years, the post of laureate was an informal, often lifetime honor with few defined responsibilities. A 2001 law turned it into a rotating two-year appointment; governors choose from three finalists suggested by a board of experts.

The laureate is paid $5,000 a year “to bring the poetic arts to Californians and to California students who might otherwise have little opportunity to be exposed to poetry.”

One of Herrera’s predecessors, Al Young, drove the length of California giving readings in rural towns. Another, Carol Muske-Dukes, established a student-friendly print and online guide to writing and memorizing called the “Magical Poetry Blimp.”

Herrera assumed the post in March. Just before administering the oath, Gov. Jerry Brown sought the poet’s help in understanding T.S. Eliot’s difficult 1922 masterwork, “The Waste Land.”

“I said, ‘If you understand all of it, you’ve gone too far,’” Herrera recalled. “‘Perceive it, be moved by it, inquire about it. Just inquiring about it is understanding.’

“Poetry,” he continued in an interview, “can tell us about what’s going on in our lives, not only our personal but our social and political lives.”

Herrera’s writings are frequently autobiographical, telling of his childhood in the San Joaquin Valley and San Diego, his life as a Chicano rights activist in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and his world travels.

As a teenager, with his elderly father dying of diabetes and the family often subsisting on welfare, he dived into the poetry of Lorca, Artaud, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti at San Diego’s secondhand bookstores.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s from Stanford University, both in anthropology, and worked as an arts center director and bilingual education consultant, all the while writing, performing and collecting grants.

He later received a master’s in creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught in Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American studies department for 15 years. In 2005, he was appointed to UC Riverside’s Tomas Rivera endowed chair in creative writing.

He is the author of more than 20 books, including narratives for children and young adults (“Calling the Doves” and “Upside Down Boy”) and a career-spanning anthology, “Half of the World in Light,” which won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Herrera was given a hero’s welcome at Fresno State by more than 100 fans who turned up to hear him read. Accompanied by four percussionists and a soprano saxophonist, he delivered a performance that seemed more a joyous bilingual beatnik show than an academic poetry tutorial.

With conga drums popping, he danced around the lectern, flipped his hat into the air and acted out scenes from 1950s Mexican western movies, playing both male and female parts.

He read a new poem about the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona public schools, “Don’t Ban our Books Cuz I’ll Ban Your Tomates,:”

Cuz we’ll ban your lechugas & your grapes

Like we did in ’68 at Safeway.

We’ll even ban your roses like we did in ’64

In MacFarland & then what you gonna do for Valentines?

He went on:

Let us sit together in America

& have an ensalada & frijoles & salsa fresca

& red soul rice

You don’t know how good it is

On a round table sun carved, face to face

Hand to hand eye to eye heart to heart.

That night, a reception in his honor was held at the Arte Americas cultural center in downtown Fresno. Fellow poets read works influenced by Herrera, and admirers toasted him.

Cynthia Guardado, a graduate student who is president of Fresno State’s Chicano Writers and Artists Assn., said Herrera’s appointment could attract a wider audience to poetry, especially among Latinos.

“He’s exactly what we need, a voice we can look forward to,” she said. “I think he represents a vast amount of California and the literary culture in the Latino community.”

Herrera says his zest for performance stems from childhood experiences. His first-grade teacher punished him for speaking Spanish, at the time his only language. In third grade, a performance artist was born when a gentler teacher persuaded him to sing “Three Blind Mice” in front of class and praised his voice.

Since then, he said, he has refused to be “that guy who got whipped because he didn’t speak English.”

Herrera lives in Redlands with his wife, writer Margarita Luna Robles. With their children grown, his daily regimen includes writing, meditating, dog-walking, reading and teaching. “Maybe I’m just a calm dude who likes to be alone in a little room in the middle of nowhere with my dog, putting words on paper and talking to myself,” he said.

An upcoming book is a poetic narrative about African orphans trying to escape genocide. Also in the works is a musical based on the lives of two elderly sisters who were Chicano singers in Texas border towns in the 1930s.

Herrera talks about the joy he wants Californians to feel when writing or reading poetry. “Amazing things can happen when you are just going for the poem, when it’s just pure. You may be living just on saltines, but you are giving all your life to this, and great things can happen.”