This poet laureate will make your brain work. Plus 4 other facts about his life and work.

Who'd have thought the son of two migrant workers could rise to the pinnacle of poetry honor?

The United States Library of Congress has appointed Juan Felipe Herrera national poet laureate. And, wow, he is extraordinary.


Juan Felipe Herrera. Image by Slowking4/Wikimedia Commons.

As a child, Herrera lived a nomadic life out of tents and trailers on farm roads throughout California. His folks, both migrant farmworkers from Mexico, moved with the seasons of agriculture for the often hazardous and thankless work in the fields.

Herrera and his father. Image via University of California Riverside/YouTube.

Despite steep social and economic odds, Herrera has achieved the top of his art on a mountain of original talent, unshakeable work ethic, and passion. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Herrera was selected as poet laureate because his poems “champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity."

Here are five great things to know about the nation's premier wordsmith:

1. He WILL make your brain work.

Herrera's writing is riddled with cultural references and mind-scrambling metaphors, but the images he conjures can launch even the least versed of his audience into a state of wonder.

Image via Poets.org/YouTube.

2. His poems are meant to be heard.

Many of Herrera's poems were written for spoken delivery. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he spoke of his humble beginnings with spoken word:

"I used to stand on the corner in San Diego with poems sticking out of my hip pocket, asking people if there was a place where I could read poems. The audience is half of the poem."

In this video, Herrera reads excerpts from a few of his poems, beginning with "187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross The Border," a call-and-response piece that involves the audience in an affirmation of each line of the story.

3. He's down with the kids.

Herrera's contemporaries are pretty excited about his knack for connecting young people to poetry. And with the rising popularity of spoken word among American youth, his appointment comes at a great time.

Herrera with a bilingual class in 1984. GIFs via Rick Tejada-Flores/YouTube.

Robert Casper of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress is stoked about Herrera:

"He speaks poetry in a way that I think is super-inspiring. ... He's the kind of poet who gives you permission to love poetry, to be excited about it, to be energized by it. To think that it's something freeing and fun but also relevant to the issues we face, the challenges we have; to understanding the world we're in."

4. He's an icon of recognition for a growing community.

Herrera is the first Latino — Chicano (Mexican-American), to be specific — to ever receive this honor. Latinos, who represent 17% of the U.S. population, are an important part of the country's cultural tapestry.

Image by Voces de la Frontera/Flickr.

As much of Herrera's writing focuses on working-class Latino experiences, a lot of people are very excited to see their heritage recognized in a culturally significant way.

5. He cares about the world and all its people.

In an interview with Washington Post, Ron Charles asks Herrera about a line from his book "Senegal Taxi" that goes, "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!" to which he replied:

“Waking up is the biggest thing. I'm a political poet — let us say a human poet, a poet that's concerned with the plight of people who suffer. If words can be of assistance, then that's what I'm going to use."

And if that's not reason enough to love him, check out this video playlist of readings and interviews with Herrera. It won't take long to make you a fan. Then you can send him a congratulatory tweet to what has to be one of the best handles in the Twittersphere: @cilantroman.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less