The City Lights Books of Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States

We continue to look back at 60 years of City Lights publishing with the works of Juan Felipe Herrera.

[update: Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States on June, 10, 2015!]


America’s legacy of multilingual, multiethnic, multi-confessional cohabitation has always been an imperfect one. We are stuck with many of the same skeletons in our national history that also haunt and scarify the people (both settlers and subject natives) of former colonial powers the world over. Nonetheless, it is a fact that the phrase “American identity” remains so difficult to define, even by those who claim it for themselves with fervor, precisely because it has always been an identity with blurred contours and no fixed form.

If America represents something new in the world and not just one more exhausted failure atop a tall refuse heap of previous empires, then that quality of distinction depends upon the sense one has that we are a nation of immigrants. All of the protagonists in this sweeping drama we call a country are, in one way or another, our fellow travelers and ancestors. They are all Americans. They comprise the network of tributaries that run on even now into some undefined future “American identity,” compiled of bliss and tragedy. The continued security and vitality of our dawning post-Imperial century is wholly dependent upon the extent to which we recognize and acclaim the polyvocal murmur of those streams’ convergence.

Juan Felipe Herrera is a poet that recognizes not only these truths but the more subtle one that underlies their obscurity, which is, simply stated, that until relatively recently most official outlets of literary production and publicity represented views that were either indifferent or hostile to that plurality of voices straining so hard to be heard from far flung corners of the nation. Despite its many shortcomings, the Internet has helped to change this state of affairs permanently and for the better. Lest we forget too soon, though, small independent publishers like City Lights have been doing their part for decades to facilitate the expression of an American identity that acknowledges its historical dimension and incorporates far more perspectives than just those of the Western Europeans who, however briefly, once composed the nation’s dominant tone.

187 reasonsHerrera’s 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007) selects from over three decades of the poet’s work, representing what Stephen Burt, in his New York Times review of the book, called “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too,” adding that “Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed.”

One of the strongest poems in the volume, “Blood on the Wheel,” expertly deploys anaphora, a form of biblical repetition that repeats the beginning of successive lines, in delivering its tirade against the inescapable nexus of violence, colonialism, and, for better and for worse, nationality. The verbal tempest of “Blood on the Wheel” refuses to let up for four pages, so I’ll quote just its opening, which gives an adequate sense of the whole:

Blood on the night soil man en route to the country prison
Blood on the sullen chair, the one that holds you with its pleasure

Blood inside the quartz, the beauty watch, the eye of the guard
Blood on the slope of names & the tattoos hidden

Blood on the Virgin, behind the veils,
Behind the moon angel’s gold oracle hair

What blood is this, is it the blood of the worker rat?
Is it the blood of the clone governor, the city maid?

Why does it course in S’s & Z’s?

Blood on the couch, made for viewing automobiles & face cream
Blood on the pin, this one going through you without any pain

Blood on the screen, the green torso queen of slavering hearts
Blood on the grandmother’s wish, her tawdry stick of Texas

Blood on the daughter’s breast who sews roses
Blood on the father, does anyone remember him, bluish?

According to Burt, Herrera’s poem “uses its unruly textures and its array of rhetorical effects (some of them linked strongly to oral performance) to become at once public and hermetic, collective and yet idiosyncratic: the poem ends up on fire with a mission that we can follow but may never entirely grasp.” Burt also smartly links the oral dimension of Herrera’s poetry to his time spent in the experimental Chicano/a music and theater scene that thrived in 1970s Los Angeles (the same scene that spawned the band Los Lobos). This was the cultural milieu in which Herrera forged his poetic sensibility as a student at UCLA, where he ended up on a full scholarship after being raised by migrant farm workers in a series of itinerant camps throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

book of livesWith this in mind, Herrera’s other title with City Lights, Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives (1999), in its intent concentration upon poetry’s relationship with visual art,  swerves away from the oral idiom of much of his other poetry. In this book, Herrera’s poems are paired with extravagant woodcuts, by the brilliant artist Artemio Rodriguez, that depict la lotería, a game of chance dating back to colonial Mexico but still popular today.

La lotería is a bit like bingo crossed with the Tarot. Players use pictograms instead of numbers and letters, crossing images off of their boards as the cantor at the front of the room pulls matching cards from a full deck. Each card also represents a mythical archetype, which has long encouraged players to divine aspects of their future from the remaining images on their boards. Many iconic images of Mexican culture, particularly Día de los Muertos motifs, originated as lotería images. Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems can itself serve as a guide to reading one’s fortune after a game of lotería. It is as though Rodriguez holds up the cards, and Herrera, our cantor, or singer, reinterprets each one for us as residents of the modern era.

Here is Rodriguez’s version of the “El Diablo” card:

ElDiabloAnd this is Herrera’s poetic response to it on the facing page, which re-imagines the Satanic figure in the garden as a monstrous growth resulting from environmental pollution:

Fear was expected to wash down by the rivers,

the clergy said. Just a couple of problems

fix-it things – the child aberrations, for example.

Farmers kept on with wheat, lettuce, grapes,

the paradox of irrigation. Who tended the flowers?

The war? Well, who wants to answer that? Me?

you? So, it grew up, on its own, this brooding

orphan in our garden. 

In 2012, Herrera was named California’s poet laureate. For a selection of Herrera’s most recent work, check out the Boston Review Web site, which features five new poems by Herrera in commemoration of National Poetry Month. And for a full list of Herrera’s extensive publications, see the CV on his faculty page at UC-Riverside, where Herrera is a professor of creative writing.

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