Visiting UW professor becomes nation’s first Latino poet laureate

Juan Felipe Herrera, a visiting professor at the University of Washington in spring quarter, was named poet laureate of the United States on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Blue Flower Arts.)
Juan Felipe Herrera, a visiting professor at the University of Washington in spring quarter, was named poet laureate of the United States on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Blue Flower Arts.)

Juan Felipe Herrera, a visiting professor in the University of Washington’s American Ethnic Studies program, was announced as the 2015-16 U.S. poet laureate by the Library of Congress on Wednesday.

Herrera, who has written more than a dozen poetry collections, is the first Latino poet laureate of the U.S., according to the Library of Congress.

Herrera, in a prepared statement, said the national appointment was an honor.

“This is a mega-honor for me, for my family and my parents who came up north before and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910—the honor is bigger than me. I want to take everything I have in me, weave it, merge it with the beauty that is in the Library of Congress, all the resources, the guidance of the staff and departments, and launch it with the heart-shaped dreams of the people. It is a miracle of many of us coming together,” he said.

The poet, who has been the poet laureate of California, taught two classes in the American Ethnic Studies program this spring, including American Ethnic Literature. He recently retired from the University of California at Riverside.

Herrera was born in central California and was the son of migrant workers who originated from Mexico.

He told The Daily of the University of Washington that he began school speaking only Spanish, and has been heavily influenced by his mother’s storytelling and his life in a migrant family of farmworkers.

“I’ve always loved to write stories about people,” Herrera told The Daily earlier this year. “I’ve written stories about my parents, farm workers whose stories never left the household. That brings me a lot of happiness, to talk to really good people, people who have had a tough life.”

The Librarian of Congress James H. Billington praised Herrera and his poems Wednesday in a statement.

“I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original—work that takes the sublimity and largesse of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and expands upon it,” Billington said. “His poems engage in a serious sense of play—in language and in image—that I feel gives them enduring power. I see how they champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.

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