From high schools to prison: Why California's poet laureate is always on the road

When California Poet Laureate Lee Herrick shares his travel schedule with his friends, he says they often compare it to the itinerary of a band on tour. “It’s just city after city after city.”

It’s an apt comparison for Herrick, who listened to punk and rap while growing up, genres of music that embody the power of self-expression and the visceral nature of music — two things he emphasizes when talking about poetry to people who aren’t sure if it’s for them.

“I think if people just think about the emotions involved with writing, how it makes them feel, what they want to write about, and just let it be for them,” says Herrick, who joins the L.A. Times Book Club on Dec. 12. “If it's anger, let the poem be angry. If it's sadness or grief, that's what the poems are there for. “

Herrick had an inkling of what he was getting into when he accepted the position last November. He served as Fresno's poet laureate from 2015 to 2017 and was intimate with being what he called “a conduit between the literary and poetry world, and the civic and public sphere.”

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I caught up with Herrick during a recent visit to Davis. He was there to speak at the Poetry Night Reading Series at the John Natsoulas Gallery.

We met for tea and coffee at a busy cafe on the edge of downtown near the UC Davis campus to talk about his first year as California's poet laureate.

“It's been a very full, exciting, eye-opening year,” he said. “I couldn't have guessed all the ways poetry is part of people's lives. It's been pretty incredible.”

Part of the surprise has been the wide range of organizations he’s visited and the unexpected opportunities he’s had to celebrate poetry. “I would not have thought I'd be chatting in the green room with Malcolm-Jamal Warner of 'The Cosby Show' while judging the Get Lit finals in Los Angeles,” Herrick told me.

When deciding where to go, Herrick considers the impact his visit will have, which is why he never turns down an opportunity to visit California’s prisons. Since his term began, Herrick has been to Valley State Prison, the women’s lockup in Chowchilla, which he had visited before. He gave a reading with a talk followed by a question-and-answer session. He also visited a class. “It's always eye-opening,” he said, “but I say it most everywhere I read, the people in prisons are Californians too.”

Herrick especially loves visiting high schools and meeting the future leaders of California. “I tell you, creativity, the arts, joy, fight — that's all alive and well in California,” Herrick said, “and I see it most pronounced, I see it most visibly, when I visit high schools.”

So how does the California poet laureate decide where to go? The majority of places Herrick visits are arranged by invitation from various arts and community-minded organizations around the state. The office of the California poet laureate receives assistance from the California Arts Council to help manage the logistics of Herrick’s rock star travel schedule.

Although Herrick knows he can pick and choose the places he wants to go, he told me has trouble saying no. “If I weren't a poet laureate, I might feel inclined to be slightly more selective, but it’s a public position. I was appointed by the governor. I had to go through Senate confirmation. I have a hard time saying no to a grade school or a public library, so I accept most invitations. It's really an honor.”

Part of the mission is to bring poetry to people who might not seek it out on their own. The challenge is to reach those communities — no matter how far off the beaten off they might seem. California, Herrick reminded me, is the largest state by population — by almost 10 million people.

“I've been to places that on the surface might seem remote,” Herrick said, “but then I get there and commonalities appear: sadness, despair, hope. These are things that transcend city size, political demographic, or race.”

Of course, some places resonate more than others. He recently gave the commencement address at Modesto Junior College, which he attended. “Adoption groups really hit home,” he said. Herrick was born in Korea, adopted when he was 10 months old, and he grew up in California. “What I find is my notion of home expands each time.”

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Herrick wants to continue his conversation with California communities with his new Our California initiative. It’s a poetry program designed to get people writing about where they live with an emphasis on social justice.

“I suppose there are two potential outcomes,” Herrick said. “One is to get those creative ideas flowing, but also to see how writing can be related to our immediate surroundings. I think with social justice, it has to be an idea before it becomes an action.”

Our California is open to people of all ages from all backgrounds and the submission portal will be opening soon. The initiative was inspired by Herrick’s poem “My California,” an intimate but expansive view of the state that doesn’t attempt to define California by what it is or isn’t, but to challenge our perceptions and encourage the reader to imagine possibilities beyond the reality of our lived experience.

“I saw Herrick recite ‘My California’ in Venice at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center ... and it moved the room like a holy prayer,” writes poet and professor Mike Sonksen at Cultural Daily. “Similar to Langston Hughes in his ‘Let America Be America Again,’ poem, Herrick’s California envisions the state in its greatest possible light promoting inclusion, farmers markets, family relationships and the power of poetry.”

Herrick’s poetry includes the books “Scar and Flower” (2019), “Gardening Secrets of the Dead” (2012), andThis Many Miles From Desire” (2007). He doesn’t shy away from big topics like school shootings and climate change; his work is imbued with sharp, keenly felt observations of a deeply personal nature that bring the reader into the poem.

But with all the travel that Herrick has been doing as California poet laureate, has he had time to work on his own writing?

“I have,” he said, “and it feels wonderful, because I'm a poet first and foremost. Going into this, I knew it would be a challenge, but I wanted to keep writing. I just wasn't sure if I’d be able to, but I have.

“I've probably written more in the last year than I have in the previous two or three years. It feels so good. I don't know what will come of the poems. They're very messy, but that's how it is. It just feels good to be doing that work.”

Driving up to Davis the day before our meeting, I stopped by the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to gawk at the trees, and I mentioned the visit to Herrick, because if you can’t talk about redwood trees with the California poet laureate, who can you talk to about them?

He didn’t disappoint. “That's not only rejuvenating,” he said of my detour, “but it's also necessary. It's difficult because of our busy lives, but that side road, that trip to the redwoods, that new restaurant, that walk when you need it — it's all poetry. It's all necessary.”

Jim Ruland is author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel "Make It Stop."

Book Club: Lee Herrick

What: California Poet Laureate Lee Herrick joins the L.A. Times Book Club for a conversation with Times editor Steve Padilla.

When: Dec. 12 at 6 p.m. Pacific

Where: This free virtual event will livestream on YouTube, Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). Sign up on Eventbrite for direct watch links.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.