California’s first AAPI poet laureate sees ‘beauty’ in state

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“There's so much innovation [in California], but [I think] the poets and the writers are ones who can reshape how we see ourselves, our communities, and even the state,” says California’s 10th Poet Laureate Lee Herrick. Photo by Mark Tabay, courtesy of Lee Herrick.

Lee Herrick has a lot of titles. He’s a teacher, published author, father, and now California’s 10th poet laureate. 

During his two-year term, he is tasked with advocating for literature and visiting and educating people all over the state, particularly underserved communities.

Herrick is the first Asian American in the role, and when announcing his historic appointment, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “Lee writes movingly about his identity as a Californian and encourages others to reflect on what the state means to them.”

Herrick talks about California, his mission, and how the state’s communities inspire him in his work.

Why do you say California is an ideal place for poetry?

I think of different things. One is the bounty of natural beauty — whether it's the coasts, ocean, mountains, or where I am, Central California. I think of the agricultural beauty in the farming and labor in this state. 

I think of the glitz of [the state] and the opportunity, but also what I love about California is the grit, the work ethic, [and] the struggle. 

Where these things merge often is the imagination and that's … where poetry comes in. There's so much innovation [in California], but [I think] the poets and the writers are ones who can reshape how we see ourselves, our communities, and even the state.

What’s your story and how has it guided the work that you do?

I was born in South Korea sometime in the late 1970s, I don't know exactly when I was born. When I was about 10 months old, I arrived in San Francisco and became a person with a different name. 

I became Lee Herrick and I was raised in a white family, and that shaped my life and my outlook on race significantly. I grew up seeing racism and experiencing it at school or in the media, but at home it was often spoken of in a way that would diminish it …  in a way that sometimes made me question my own experiences. 

What I realized … is that dynamic [and] those experiences of racism are real, they're not made up. That shaped my thinking, my teaching, and my poetry to some extent.

When did you discover poetry as a way to tell stories?

I always like to think that I experienced it before I knew I was experiencing it. So even in the time I was in Korea, I want to believe that there was poetry, music, or even … the sound of a family member's voice that I couldn't quite place or understand yet. 

More specifically, one of the first times I remember experiencing poetry was [when my] high school teacher would make us read poems out loud. It was at the same time that I was having these great, really life-changing experiences discovering new music, specifically punk and rap.

In the mid 1980s, there was a friend of mine … [who] passed me a blank tape, and it said Run DMC. So groups like that and Public Enemy. Punk groups had this lyricism, anger, and energy … that  spoke to me because I was starting to question the things around me. 

Can you share one of your poems that speaks to Californians?

I’ll read a poem titled “My California,” and it was my way of thinking about things I’ve seen, imagined, and hoped for. 

“Here, an olive votive keeps the sunset lit,

the Korean twenty-somethings talk about hyphens,

graduate school and good pot. A group of four at a window

table in Carpinteria discuss the quality of wines in Napa Valley versus Lodi.

Here, in my California, the streets remember the Chicano

poet whose songs still bank off Fresno's beer soaked gutters

and almond trees in partial blossom. Here, in my California

we fish out long noodles from the pho with such accuracy

you'd know we'd done this before. In Fresno, the bullets

tire of themselves and begin to pray five times a day.

In Fresno, we hope for less of the police state and more of a state of grace.

In my California, you can watch the sun go down

like in your California, on the ledge of the pregnant

twenty-second century, the one with a bounty of peaches and grapes,

red onions and the good salsa, wine and chapchae.

Here, in my California, paperbacks are free,

farmer's markets are twenty four hours a day and

always packed, the trees and water have no nails in them,

the priests eat well, the homeless eat well.

Here, in my California, everywhere is Chinatown,

everywhere is K-Town, everywhere is Armeniatown,

everywhere a Little Italy. Less confederacy.

No internment in the Valley.

Better history texts for the juniors.

In my California, free sounds and free touch.

      Free questions, free answers.

Free songs from parents and poets, those hopeful bodies of light.”

Why are the references to immigrants and communities of color in “My California” and your other poems important to you?

I do feel natural, comfortable, at ease, and inspired in those communities and I think it has got to do with my adoption. 

I don't know where I was born, I might have been homeless. I was part of the system. I was raised, not just in the country as a minority, but in a family, I was the minority. … I just feel more in tune with that. That's not to say that everyone from those communities always feels in tune with me, but I think that's the nature of relationships. 

I've always been inspired most by people striving and who have not just fundamentally granted advantages and privileges. 

How can Angelenos bring more poetry into their lives in honor of National Poetry Month?

Los Angeles has so many great organizations. Get Lit comes to mind. … It's an organization that works with young people and spoken word, and they connect [spoken word] to uplifting their lives.

The [last] poet laureate of Los Angeles, Lynne Thompson, does great work. I think young people can find resources on the Academy of American Poets website to find resources … and great poets. 

I would also like to put in a plug for public libraries who always have great ideas, programs, and sometimes workshops for people that are wanting to write or find poetry. 

Southern Californians can catch Herrick at Cal State Fullerton on April 6, Beyond Baroque in Venice on April 8, the LA Times Festival of Books on April 23, and the Pico Union Library on April 29.



  • Lee Herrick - California Poet Laureate; professor, Fresno City College


Tara Atrian