Introducing California’s new poet laureate: Fresno’s Lee Herrick gets a surprise visit with the news from Gov. Newsom himself

‘This is a city that breathes and grows poets,” says Lee Herrick. And he should know.

The Fresno City College professor and former poet laureate for the City of Fresno has a new title: Poet laureate of California. He got the news last week from Gov. Newsom, who surprised him in person.

Pictured above: Gov. Gavin Newsom and Jennifer Siebel Newsom at Fresno City College with Lee Herrick, the new California poet laureate. Photo: California Arts Council

I’m really excited for Herrick, who will be the first Asian American to serve as California poet laureate. Along with being a wonderful poet (obviously), he’s also a great poetry ambassador.

As founder of Fresno’s LitHop literary event, Herrick has been a tireless promoter of the local poetry scene. That scene has had a national reputation for decades thanks to such names as Philip Levine (also a national poet laureate), Chuck Moulton, C. G. Hanzlicek, Peter Everwine, Gary Soto, Mai Der Vang, Anthony Cody, and many more. (And let’s not forget that when William Saroyan dropped out of high school in 1923, he declared he was going to be a poet.)

Herrick is the second Fresno-based poet to be given the honor; he joins Juan Felipe Herrera, who went on to become a two-term national poet laureate, in that distinction.


Herrick is the author of three books: “Scar and Flower,” “Gardening Secrets of the Dead” and “This Many Miles from Desire.”

I caught up with him to offer my congratulations and ask a few questions.

Q: What was it like getting the news from the governor himself?

A: Gov. Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom came to Fresno City College specifically to surprise me and tell me in person. Two of his staff members had asked me in advance if they could come take video and photographs of my class, but I didn’t know the governor and first partner would be there (they wanted to surprise me, and they did). In the middle of class, they walked in, and my jaw almost hit the floor. Hearing him tell me in person that I am the next California Poet Laureate was a moment I’ll never forget. They were kind, gracious, and down to earth, and we spent a half hour talking about poetry, education, and purpose. He shared his experience having dyslexia and what poetry, literature, and education mean to him. It was a joy.

After the class, we went outside into the Old Administration Building Courtyard, where the college president, district chancellor, and a small group of administrators and staff said congratulations and met the Governor and First Partner. It was an exciting day. In the spring, there will be an event/reading at Fresno City College to celebrate.

Photo by Curtis Messer

Lee Herrick is the state’s next poet laureate.

Q: How does the California poet laureate get selected?

A: As far as I know, poets are nominated first. The Fresno Arts Council nominated me, and I am deeply grateful to them. I sent in my CV, a description of my platform goals, and sample poems. After that it was a long wait. There is a group of poets and writers who forward three finalists to the Governor’s office. I don’t know who they were, but I’m grateful to them, too. Then I had an interview with seven people from the Governor’s staff. It was a fairly intense interview but a wonderful one, too. Then there was an intense background check. I have known I was a finalist for many months. It was a thrill to be selected. It’s deeply humbling and an incredible honor that it’s now official.

The official description of the process, according the California Arts Council, reads:

After a call to the general public for nominations, electronic applications are reviewed by a panel of knowledgeable and experienced California poets who are identified in consultation with representatives of literary organizations, universities, and other experts in the field.

The panelists review all applications and narrow the number to 15-25. Subsequently, the panelists meet, evaluate the top applications, and rank them according to the review criteria: recognition for excellence of their work, a significant body of published work, consideration as a poet of stature, and willingness to undertake a specific project that shall last through the term of service. The names of the top three applicants are sent to the Governor’s office for additional vetting. The Governor makes the final selection and names the California Poet Laureate, who must be confirmed by the Senate.

Q: What do the duties entail?

A: I will advocate and educate everywhere I can, to bring poetry to as many communities as I can. From large cities to small towns, I will advocate for poets and poetry. My platform is called Our California, which will connect poetry with social justice and civic engagement organizations everywhere I read during my term. Through poems, we will explore what we love about California but also what we want to improve about it.

The official description of the duties reads, “The California Poet Laureate is charged with advocating for poetry in classrooms and boardrooms across the state, inspiring an emerging generation of literary artists, and educating all Californians about the many poets and authors who have influenced our state through creative literary expression. Over the course of a two-year term, the Poet Laureate provides public readings in urban and rural locations across California, educates civic and state leaders about the value of poetry and creative expression and undertakes a significant cultural project, with one of its goals being to bring poetry to students who might otherwise have little opportunity to access it.”

Q: When does your term begin?

A: My term officially begins when I sign the oath of office, which I will receive from the Governor’s office in the next couple of weeks.

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Q: How did you feel when you learned about the honor?

A: I was taken aback, humbled, and elated. I felt excited and immensely grateful, for my family, friends, wife and daughter, colleagues, former teachers and professors, students, and all the poets, writers, and readers I have met in my life. I felt proud, as I always do, to be Korean, Californian, and Fresnan. This city made me a poet. I also felt and continue to feel a sense of responsibility to do the best I can in this role, to serve California, to serve poetry.

Q: Can you speak to Fresno’s continued “fertile ground” in terms of poetry?

A: This is a city that breathes and grows poets somehow. I think it has something to do with the heat, the fog, the farms, the work ethic, the immigrants and refugees, the desire, the hard earth, and of course, the poets whose lives and poems shape us. The history of Fresno poets is well known, and I am grateful for them. I am equally grateful, excited about, and inspired by this generation of poets. The present and future of Fresno poetry is brilliant, diverse, and remarkable. There are too many to name, but if you want a list of recommended poets, let me know.

Q: Anything else you want to share?

A: The morning of the announcement, I thought of myself as a child in Korea, pre-language but already surrounded by the sounds, words, and poetry of the world. I believe those sounds stayed with me when I was adopted to California, this state I love so much, a bounty of innovation, agriculture, and poetry culture. I am honored and grateful to be named California Poet Laureate. I am excited about the work and joy ahead.


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.

Comments (3)

  • What a joyous story. Thank you for giving us all the details of that announcement. I had seen it on the news, but this was even more thrilling.

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thank you, Donald. I loved reading this! What a beautiful, historic and meaningful occasion. An amazing poet, Lee Herrick is also an incredible and inspirational human being. He is going to be one of the really great California Poet Laureates. I look forward to what he continues to bring to and for us. Thank you for always bringing us the best and the details of the arts.

  • Dale Engstrom

    Thanks for this article. What a wonderful and well deserved honor for Lee as well as Fresno City College. We need more positive things like this for our area. Lee Herrick is not only a great poet but is also a great guy. Congratulations once again.


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