Wagner College’s 2020 commencement speaker will be former United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Mexican American to hold that post.
He will speak at the commencement exercise scheduled for Friday, May 15 on the Sutter Oval.
Herrera was named the 21st United States poet laureate in 2015. In his statement of choice, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Herrera’s poems “contain Whitman-esque multitudes that champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective” that serve to illuminate our larger American identity. Herrera grew up in California as the son to migrant farmers, which he has commented strongly shaped much of his work. A Washington Post article says that, “as a child, Herrera learned to love poetry by singing about the Mexican revolution with his mother, a migrant farm worker in California. Inspired by her spirit, he has spent his life crossing borders, erasing boundaries and expanding the American chorus.”
Herrera is the author of more than thirty books, including collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels and picture books for children. His collections of poetry include Notes of the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015), Senegal Taxi (University of Arizona, 2013); Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008), a recipient of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007); and Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse (University of New Mexico, 1999), which received the Americas Award. In 2014, he released the nonfiction work Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (Dial), which showcases 20 Hispanic and Latino American men and women who have made outstanding contributions to the arts, politics, science, humanitarianism, and athletics—a magnificent homage to those who have shaped our nation. His children’s book, Jabberwalking, focuses on turning your wonder at the world around you into weird, wild, incandescent poetry. His latest collection of poetry is Every Day We Get More Illegal (City Lights, in press).
The Boston Review wrote about Notes on the Assemblage, saying “U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera appeals to Americans and artists. Herrera’s forceful poetry speaks directly and powerfully, like the address of a leader rousing his battalions to action. … He forces us to confront society and its paradoxes. His summons links unadorned, unforgiving description with figurative language. ... Herrera also obliterates the passive relationship between a work of art and its observer. He is intimately concerned with what art does, ‘it follows you passes you dissolves ahead of you where / it is waiting for you when you get there you will not / know it until you see that it is seeing you seeing you.’ The stakes of this engagement for our communal body are viscerally felt: ‘we are not what we thought—it is / not who we were or / what we want to be.’ ”
His books of prose for children include: Jabberwalking (Candlewick Press, 2018); SkateFate (Rayo, 2011); Calling The Doves (Children’s Book, 2001), which won the Ezra Jack Keats Award; Upside Down Boy (2006), which was adapted into a musical for young audiences in New York City; and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box (HarperCollins, 2005), which tells the tragedy of 9/11 through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl.
From 2012 to 2014, Herrera served as California’s poet laureate, appointed by Governor Jerry Brown. As the state poet laureate, Herrera created the i-Promise Joanna Project, an anti-bullying poetry project. Joanna was an elementary school girl who was bullied and killed in an afterschool fight in Long Beach. The first half of the project asks students to send in poems about experiences and effects of bullying. The second half of the project is to take action in preventing bullying. Herrera hopes to collect the poems and publish it as a book in the future. Other projects included Answer Cancer with a Poem, Show Me Your Papers, and The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.
Influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez and his own immersion in the Chicano civil rights movement, Herrera writes passionately about social issues. Herrera is also a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth. His work has been known to cross genres, even into opera and dance theater. While 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Borders chronicles Herrera’s involvement with spoken word and street movement performance troupes across the nation, his attention to language-centered texts can be seen in Half of the World in Light. While calling Herrera “the elder statesman of Mexican American poetry,” former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia points to the significance of his connection to a younger generation. Herrera is “the first U.S. laureate whose work has emerged from the new oral traditions that have been transforming American poetry over the past quarter-century,” Gioia writes in the Washington Post. “He can write traditional poems for the page, but many of his poems are designed primarily for spoken delivery. His work is performative, and communal. In this sense, Herrera speaks powerfully to younger poets and audiences.”
Herrera has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the University of California at Berkeley, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2016, he was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the 36th L.A. Times Book Prizes. Herrera was elected an Academy Chancellor in 2011. He was educated at UCLA and Stanford University in Social Anthropology, and received his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and served as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at CSU-Fresno. Herrera recently retired from the Creative Writing Department at U.C. Riverside. He lives in Fresno, California with his partner, the poet and performance artist, Margarita Robles.