In 1984 the San Francisco Bay Guardian—a progressive weekly—published a poem titled “Autobiography of a Chicano Teen Poet.” It’d been awarded First Place in its annual poetry contest that year. Here’s how it began:
I am a downtown boy, handcuffed
when I was eleven
for being accomplice to armed robbery.
I speak shoe-shine parlour brown and serve
as the only usher in Club Sufrimiento 2001
You can call me Johnny B. Nice.
The speaker in this irreverent 33-liner goes on to invoke Thelonious Monk and Janis Joplin, making, at one point, reference to “Inferno Street.”
It’s my senior year in high school. This is my first experience with Juan Felipe Herrera.
At UC Berkeley two years later, I’m a staffer for the Berkeley Poetry Review (BPR). One day, in the magazine’s office reading slush, I opening an envelope stuffed with Herrera’s poems—two would soon grace our pages. After the issue is out, we ask him to read in a series we hold on the grounds of the University Art Museum at the Swallow Café on Sunday afternoons. He graciously agrees.
And yet I can’t pinpoint with precision the particulars of our unequivocal first meeting. Instead, I remember sitting in a metal folding chair in San Francisco, Francisco X. Alarcón in the audience with me. We’re relishing Juan Felipe Herrera’s solo performance at Small Press Traffic (SPT). At the time SPT was located on the corner of 24th and Guerrero—a five-minute walk from my house, the one I grew up in. Or I’m in a café on 24th, below Mission just off Capp, sipping coffee with him and his wife, Margarita Luna Robles. We’d gotten to know each other, it seems, had become amigos. I remember buying, then devouring, Arte Público Press’ edition of Exiles of Desire at Modern Times Bookstore on Valencia right around that time, as well, 1986 or so.
But it was Facegames, published in 1987 by As Is/So&So Press that would become part of my personal canon. Here’s something I never tire of reading, from that book:
I am dressed for the occasion.
My lover’s torso of enigmatic jade haunts you,
My grandmother’s last wish stalks
the plateaus where the night watchman lives.
Look at me
and the ravenous soldiers I break bread with.
Little silver boy,
guide me into the multi-night.
I’m trying to recall what I liked about this piece. I remember loving that last line (“guide me into the multi-night.”) but lacking a tidy logic of why. This was the kind of poet he was for me: simply, Juan Felipe was a blast to read. The term “non sequitur” wasn’t part of my vocabulary then, and so I wouldn’t have been able to ponder its brilliant use here, in this collage-of-a-poem. Re-reading it today, I suspect my sensibilities registered Herrera’s subtle use of slant rhyme between these seemingly disparate stanzas—echoing sounds gluing this wordscape into place. “Inferno St.” was one of the 10 poems from Facegames, which had 42 in all, that found its way into Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009.
Let me resuscitate another poem from Facegames—one which did not make the 10-poem cut, but which I view as a companion to “Inferno St.” and which I also remember delighting in:
for Picazzo, Pancho “Big Man”, Rodrigo and “El Piloto”
I have tried to rule the world many times, alone
and in congregations.
I do it best when I get dressed up.
See my camouflage pants rolled up to the calf?
My lime green Greek shirt
puffed out like a chile relleno,
to check the stray mind
and my orange-black shoe laces tied
around my ankles for the would-be connoisseur of male
and female gesture.
All you have to do is discover a pageant;
raise up your left hand,
then run fast,
bring it in like hara-kari & tumble on the soft belly
of the earth;
and a so-what all over your Brown self!
If “Inferno St.” hints at something ominous–where wishes can stalk, where soldiers are ravenous, where one may need a switchblade, Herrera is light-hearted here, in “Quazar,” while still whimsically foregrounding fashion and fashion’s casual accoutrements (“an ear cuff//to check the stray mind”). And yet it was that last line that struck a particular chord in me during this time when I was seeking out other Latino/a poets to read:
and a so-what all over your Brown self!
I should mention, by the way, that “Autobiography of a Chicano Teen Poet,” the piece I opened this reflection with, was part of Facegames, as well.
In 1989 a Santa Cruz-based publisher, Alcatraz Editions, put out AKRILICA, Juan Felipe Herrera’s dazzling dual-language collection: the poems, written in Spanish, were translated into English by a team of four translators, along with the author.
20 years later, Carmen Giménez Smith and I would form a partnership between Noemi Press and Letras Latinas. We’d seek to publish Latino/a writers whose aesthetic proclivities were more, shall we say, outside the box—in other words: defying expectation. When it came to brainstorming what to call this new series, we thought about the work, and we thought about the trajectory…of Juan Felipe Herrera. And then we remembered that singular collaborative small press volume: AKRILICA, and we had the name, as homage, of our new series.
I continued, of course, to follow Juan Felipe’s work post AKRILICA, admiring its ambition, variousness, and scope. But these early volumes have always held a special place for me. I suspect this has mostly to do with when I encountered them, those formative years.
And yet a scene, a physical space I associate with with the first phase of my formative years (1984-1989) managed to find its way into a poem of Juan Felipe’s from in a much later book, Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler from 2002, when I was an MFA candidate at Notre Dame. There’s this endearing series titled “Undelivered Letters to Victor”–a reference, I assume, to Victor Martinez that really caught my eye for its personal undertones. # 9, in particular, let off the page:
Undelivered Letters to Victor
I want to rock in Tede Matthews’s America and his Hula Palace–remember Tede Matthew’s? Ted out-gay talking about Nicaragua, doing the reading series at Modern Times? Ted working hard through AIDS, through pain and the end, with gaunt face, febrile fingers, and starry eyes? Ted’s drawn face calls and his clear eyes peer through me. Battles, missions, random intersections, chaos, time and culture boosters, explosions; I want writing to contain all this because we contain all this–is this closer to what you mean by saying we are Americanos? Is this your mission? You know, Victor, I am going to say it–no more movements, nothing about lines or metaphors or even about quality and craft, you know what I mean?
When it came time, in 2006, to ask someone to write the foreword to, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007), who else could I ask?
“The Sweet Vortex of the Singers” by Juan Felipe Herrera reads, naturally, like a text that only he could have written. Let me pluck a paragraph and you’ll see what I mean:
“In this vortex of creation, congestion, and notation, many artists, writers, subjects, things, and places are in gestation: Darío, Madrid, Montale, Beijing, Apollinaire, and Cendrars make cameo appearances, juxtaposed with metros, Hamas, and Mediterranean tides and further navigations of the poet’s speakers in fluid and borderless urban nations and cafés stumbling into loss and illuminations. Lorca rolls in wet and delirious and Nicaraguan. Terms repeat in tumbao rhythms, and pregnant fruit is sliced and devoured—bodegas, explosions, rooftops, and bullets. Prada, Gucci, and Havana drip into the body-flask, this abyss of letters.”
Since the appearance of Rebozos of Love (Tolteca Publications, 1974), Juan Felipe Herrera, author of some twenty books, has distinguished himself as a poet, performance artist, children’s book author, teacher, university professor, and cultural activist for the last—do the math—forty years.
While his more recent distinctions include the aforementioned National Book Critics Circle Award (2009), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2010), election to the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors (2011), and designation as the Poet Laureate of California (2012), I would argue that during the first twenty or so years of his literary trajectory, he pretty much flew under the radar, where mainstream recognition outside of California is concerned. It’s only been in the last ten or so years that his work has gained the national critical attention and acclaim that it merits.
And so what does it means for Juan Felipe Herrera to be named the Poet Laureate of the United States?
For starters, he’s part of that vital tradition in American letters—the trenches—made up of writers who publish with small independent presses.
His work, in essence, deploys a poetics of play, unbridled linguistic play. It’s also a poetry of deep empathy toward the people that populate his poems. And to quote Rigoberto González, the added value of Herrera’s oeuvre is that it offers “an important timeline of Chicano political history and social activism” in the United States.
His persona embodies an exuberance that will resonate and connect, I predict, with the men, women and children he will come into contact with during his term (s) as this nation’s Poet Laureate.
I don’t think I speak for myself only when I say that his selection is a long overdue gesture that acknowledges artistic communities that are often overlooked by establishment gatekeepers.
In this sense, Juan Felipe Herrera’s U.S. Poet Laureateship, like no other in my view, will feel, fully, like the People’s Poet Laureateship.
He shared with me, recently, that when he was introduced to the Head of the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, who’d been informed of his designation, she said to him:
“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time.”