Juan Felipe Herrera, the new poet laureate of the United States, is the 66-year-old son of migrant workers in California. In high school Herrera discovered the Russian poet Boris Pasternak and “wanted to write poems like that.” Herrera attended UCLA before going where West coast poets often go — to the Bay Area, joining and then moving beyond the Beat legacy there. Herrera, who sometimes slept in tents during his childhood in Southern California, didn’t utterly eschews the pedigree of former poet laureates — he has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the writer’s equivalent of a lawyer passing the bar, or an actor getting his SAG card. But Herrera, while he comes out of the traditional funnel, also skirts it — writing about displacement, injustice, border-crossing, and the chicanery of identity in language often as hard and plain as sun-baked dirt.
Herrera is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. His strongest work has been collected in 2008’s Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. The poem he recites below, “Five Directions to My House”, begins: “Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance.” It’s a map to Mr. Herrera’s poetry, too.