Every year or two, I have a day like this: when the new Poet Laureate is announced. There’s a lot of build-up–from the many months that go into the selection process, and the weeks of publicity-related work after the Librarian of Congress has made his decision. We even do a “Laureate Orientation,” with the Laureate-to-be, to prepare them for the life-changing experience of being appointed to the position–the only one in the federal government for a literary artist.
Today is finally nearing its end, and I have a moment to reflect on what happened. I will blog with a list of selected links tomorrow; right now, I am simply happy for our new Poet Laureate-to-be, Juan Felipe Herrera. I first met Juan Felipe when he read and talked in a public program I moderated. The program took place in 2009, as part of the ALOUD series at the LA Central Library. Juan Felipe was his brilliantly charming self, on-stage and off. In fact, we had a funny moment before the reading, in a grungy hipster café. Our meal there, of giant grilled cheese sandwiches, started a running joke–and to have such a joke with Juan Felipe Herrera means getting ever-more outlandish e-mail and phone call greetings/sign-offs. One can only try to keep up with his imaginative wordplay.
This is not to say that our 21st Poet Laureate is merely a master of comic flourishes. In his work humorous inventiveness serves to address our most pressing issues–issues we all face as human beings, I imagine him saying. As the Librarian said in today’s announcement, Juan Felipe’s poems “engage in a serious sense of play–in language and in image–that I feel gives them enduring power.” The Librarian also talked of Juan Felipe as “an American original”–one of the highest compliments from someone who helped further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people, for almost three decades.
I have seen Juan Felipe’s originality in poem after poem–a favorite example is “Half-Mexican,” which he read at the gala event of the Library’s 2013 National Book Festival. You can see Juan Felipe’s reading that night, and read the poem online as part of today’s announcement. He explained the poem to me as a starting with the title, which made him feel like he was “on the outside looking in.” It was also a term he wanted to loosen, to contradict, to contest. He wrote the poem “in one shot . . . one swish, one lap,” and he described writing it as “tackling large dummies filled with feathers, in a semi-lit room.” I have grown used to reading “Half-Mexican” over and over, to feel it working out the impossible with the dynamic rhythms of its logic. And it is a showcase of what someone who believes in the realness of the creative world can do.
Congratulations to our next Poet Laureate. He joins great good company, and will surely find new ways to promote the art–most of all through his example, and his work.
A great appointment!