YAKIMA, Wash. -- Juan Felipe Herrera’s Facebook page is public, and it is wonderful.
On it Herrera, the U.S. poet laureate revered for the depth of his wisdom and precision of his observation, is just a guy. He splashes around the beach with his grandchildren. He mourns the death of his beloved dog. He documents his travels. He throws his arms around friend after friend in photo after photo.
This is the man tasked with being the public face of American poetry, with giving voice to our many pains and few ecstasies. But this is not a man of gilded pages and ivory towers. This is a man whose parents were migrant farmers, a man who grew up in California’s counterculture with the Beats and the Chicano rights movement as prime influences, a man whose Twitter handle is @cilantroman.
Herrera, who will make three public appearances in Yakima next week — including a free public reading at the Capitol Theatre on May 16 — is the first Latino U.S. poet laureate.
And he’s a poet for the people.
“He’s inclusive,” said Dan Peters, who operates Yakima’s poetry publisher, Blue Begonia Press. “He speaks a language that doesn’t feel like you need a Ph.D. to understand it. ... The first thing is his style of presentation; he’s kind of a performance poet. He’s a dynamic speaker and maybe not what people expect when they think of a poetry reading.
“For a general audience that’s sometimes uncertain of how to react to poetry — people who are new to poetry — it allows them a way to get excited about it.”
Perhaps more than any U.S. poet laureate before him, Herrera is dedicated to spreading poetry on the street level, said Tod Marshall, a Gonzaga University professor and poet laureate of Washington state.
“He’s kind of an idol in that arena, for bringing poetry to the people in that way,” Marshall said.
Herrera’s poetry speaks to economically, culturally and racially marginalized communities and it gives other readers a glimpse at life in those communities, Marshall said. His works of prose, including short stories, young-adult novels and children’s books, do the same.
“He has often encouraged his readers to go into life experiences that are probably quite different from their own, and allowed them to be empathetic to those experiences,” Marshall said.
All of which is not to imply that Herrera’s work is less intellectually rich, less serious or less capital-I “Important” than the other acclaimed poets to have served as the nation’s poet laureate — a list that, going back to when the title was U.S. “consultant in poetry,” includes Robert Frost, William Stafford, Robert Penn Warren and Rita Dove.
The poet laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress. James H. Billington appointed Herrera.
“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 in a 2015 news release announcing the appointment.
“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.”
What makes Herrera stand out from his predecessors is that he freely mixes the high-minded with the everyday, Marshall said.
“Unfortunately sometimes in contemporary American culture academia kind of separates poetry from everyday life,” he said. “That doesn’t need to be the case. And with Herrera, it’s not the case.”
His visit is funded in part by a collaborative U.S. Department of Education grant shared by Yakima Valley Community College and Heritage University and will be presented as part of the YVCC Diversity Series.
That is fitting, because cultural identity is a significant theme in much of Herrera’s work. And his heritage as the child of migrant laborers is shared by thousands in the Yakima Valley.
“His poems challenge reductive notions of identity,” poet and Central Washington University English professor Terry Martin wrote in an email comment for this story. “His experimental hybrid art (part written, part oral, part English, part something else altogether) addresses immigration, reflects on Mexican-American experience, and illuminates our larger American identity.
“I think it’s wonderful that he’s going to be visiting our valley. He’s singing soulful songs our community needs to hear.”