One of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington’s last official acts before his retirement in October was to announce the appointment of Juan Felipe Herrera as the Library’s 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2015-2016. With that announcement, a historical milestone was reached. Herrera who succeeded Charles Wright as Poet Laureate is the first Hispanic poet to serve in the position. The distinction is not lost on Herrera. He explained, “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.”
Herrera began his duties this fall, participating in the Library of Congress National Book Festival on Saturday, September 5 and opening the Library’s annual literary season with a reading of his work at the Coolidge Auditorium on Tuesday, September 15.
“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.”
The new Poet Laureate is the author of 28 books of poetry, novels for young adults and collections for children, most recently “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes” (2014), a picture book showcasing inspirational Hispanic and Latino Americans. His most recent book of poems is “Senegal Taxi” (2013).
Herrera was born in Fowler, California, in 1948. As the son of migrant farm workers, he moved around often, living in tents and trailers along the road in Southern California and attended school in a variety of small towns from San Francisco to San Diego. In 1972, he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology. He then attended Stanford University where he received a master’s degree in social anthropology and in 1990, received a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Herrera has written over a dozen poetry collections, including “Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems” (2008), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Latino Book Award. He is also a celebrated young adult and children’s book author. His honors include the Américas Award for both “Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box” (2005) and “Crashboom-love: A Novel in Verse” (1999) as well as the Independent Publisher Book Award for “Featherless / Desplumado” (2005), the Ezra Jack Keats Award for “Calling the Doves” (1995) and the Pura Belpré Author Honor Award for both “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes” and “Laughing Out Loud, I Fly” (1998).
The Poet Laureate is selected for a one-year term by the Librarian of Congress. The choice is based on poetic merit alone and has included a wide variety of poetic styles.