For a quarantined Juan Felipe Herrera, the need for our creative voice is greater than ever

Editor’s note: The author is a Fresno State MCJ (Media, Communications and Journalism) major. He wrote this story in Donald Munro’s media writing course.

By Manuel Hernandez

Inside my house I feel trapped, alone with my feelings. Lying in bed, time drags on, but there are Zoom meetings back to back, and the news is adding more stress. People want a break. This is not at all a vacation, and throughout this, I can sense a feeling of angst, even through a video call.

Pictured above: Juan Felipe Herrera was the first Latinx poet laureate of the United States. Credit: NPR

“To tell you the truth my mind burns. It burns up because it’s just too many things at once,” said Dr. Juan Felipe Herrera, 71, talking about how hard he is working from his home in Fresno during the coronavirus quarantine. “I’m like a fast fry cook. I write a poem and send it off. I don’t even get a chance to read them to myself.”

Although he may be half-joking, Herrera has been cooking up poems for years, and his trademark workaholic persona endured with the emergence of COVID-19. Herrera talked about the long list of projects he has been working on while quarantined in his home.

At Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, the term for May started, and Herrera, who has taught at Fresno State and UC Riverside, is teaching classes online. On May 7, he was a guest panel speaker in a video interview hosted by Zócalo Public Square.


For National Poetry Month, Herrera recorded a poem for a weekly video series called “The Poetry of Home” sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Washington Post. The series featured other poets laureate coming together in response to COVID-19. Herrera talked about the laureates’ importance, emphasizing them as “good people.”

“Sounds funny just to say that so generically, but it’s true,” Herrera said. “It’s good to get a deeper insight, or a creative insight, or an unexpected insight. Insights that are usually marginalized or not talked about.”

Herrera talked about his appreciation for the current U.S. poet laureate, Joy Harjo, and how her poems are “universal” while also bringing her background into her work. Harjo is the first Native American to hold the position, and it was amazing to learn how she inspires Herrera, who served as the first Latinx U.S. poet laureate from 2015 to 2017. He used this as an example of how words – how poetry – can connect people together.

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Herrera expanded this idea beyond the select group of people honored with the title of U.S. poet laureate.

(This is where the conversation shifted. I was warned how Herrera beautifully goes off topic, but this time there was an important lesson he was teaching.)

“I think it is a good thing to present at these times. These kind of voices, the creative voice,” said Herrera, explaining the role of these voices during this pandemic. “It is really about the need for all us to let our deeper selves be expressed… Otherwise, we’re worried. Otherwise, we’re afraid. We’re thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Herrera talked about watching the news. There are warnings from the CDC that COVID-19 may hit worse in the fall.  Herrera thought about the fear the news created, and questioned who this was actually helping. It seems like we’re constantly processing a barrage of new information.

“There is no map, and everyone is going through this,” said Herrera. “If it was a tortilla yesterday, who knows what it is now. Now it’s an elephant. Used to be a tortilla, now it’s an elephant.”

We both paused and then laughed at the metaphor, but honestly, it feels truer now more than ever.

Library of Congress

Juan Felipe Herrera was just part of ‘The Poetry of Home,’ a series sponsored by the Library of Congress and Washington Post.

This is where he thinks the creative voice can really make an impact on the world. The goal, he said, is to help people rather than just adding to the “big swirling ball of information versus misinformation.”

He explained how simple it can be, from sharing something you liked reading, to sharing your own writing, to sharing your own voice, and to expressing who you really are. Herrera talked about putting in your time into something that will really encourage people, and all that requires is a shared compassion for one another.

“Find our fountain of kindness, and express that with words. That’s all we have,” said Herrera. “If someone has [COVID-19] and you’re at home, what you can do is feel compassion. Generate compassion instead of generating fear. Or generate kindness instead of generating escape or anger.”

I asked him if he thinks that is his role as a poet.

“To present a clear, compassionate, warm poem. That’s what I like to offer,” answered Herrera.

Although he stays humble in his response, his poems have a major impact. In an April 17 column for the Fresno Bee, David “Mas” Masumoto wrote about his appreciation and respect for healthcare workers, especially during a hard part of his life. Through the dark times, Masumoto looked for hope. He ended the piece with a beautiful poem by Herrera:

we will gather again — soon
we will notice each other
again & again & again
as if we had never ever
seen each other at all
this is why we will skip
& leap & unfold our wings
flower & rivers & stars

Masumoto wrote that Herrera “offers his words and insight through this poem, allowing us all to once again soar.”

Those words and insights help make him one of the most influential voices we have.

“Dr. Herrera leads with passion and spirit — and his energy and love for art and love for people is contagious, builds communities, creates new worlds,” said Brynn Saito, an assistant professor of creative writing in the English department at Fresno State. “As a young aspiring writer growing up in Fresno, I always looked up to poets like Dr. Herrera.”

Saito, herself an esteemed and published poet, said in an email interview how she was able to do poetry readings alongside Herrera in Fresno and San Francisco. She wrote how honored she was by the experience, and how much Herrera inspires her. She quoted a famous line by Walt Whitman to explain how Herrera’s spirit “contains multitudes.”

To mark the end of Herrera’s second term as U.S. poet laureate, the Fresno State Chamber Singers performed at the Library of Congress.

“Every time I see him, I’m inspired — to play, to create, to imagine new ways of writing and sharing poetry,” said Saito, expanding on how poetry impacted her own life. “I usually start out my poetry classes very honestly, by telling students that poetry no less than saved my life. It helped me make meaning out of silence and trauma; it gave me pleasure to make art with words.”

I asked Saito about the importance of creative speakers. In her class, she is teaching the same lessons Herrera talked about.

“We need everyone’s story, a tapestry of voices and art. It’s so inspiring to see younger folks making art and sharing it publicly through new online mediums,” said Saito. “Bringing my students to the poet laureate lab at Fresno State has been one of the highlights of my time here as a professor.”

Herrera is the founder of the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio at the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State. It is safe place that allows freedom of creative works and thinking.

In our interview, Herrera laughed, saying that at the lab he is the abuelito, or grandpa, watching the lab “Fellows” like Anthony Cody, Javier Lopez, and Mariah Bosch do their work. He is inspired by their “whole tool kit and pallet of writing,” and he is hopeful with the new generation of creative voices.

I am hopeful, too, because the younger generation can look at figures like Dr. Juan Felipe Herrera as they share their own inspiring words and compassion. It can get us through bad times.

In my house, I am trapped with my feelings, lying in bed. But there are Zoom meetings ahead. They are meetings filled with people with whom I can share my words. I hope Juan Felipe’s words of compassion encourage you, like me, to take a breather and relax.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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