California’s first Asian American poet laureate is using his platform to intersect social justice with the arts.
Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Lee Herrick, a Korean American writer and professor of English, to the position this past December. Herrick spoke with AsAmNews on his upbringing and aspirations as poet laureate.
Adopted from Daejeon, South Korea in 1971, Herrick grew up in Modesto, California. During his childhood growing up Asian American in a White family, he stated how the colorblindness during the 70s created dissonance in his identity.
“I grew up being told I was just like everyone else, and that I was lucky to be an American,” Herrick said. “The erasure with those sentiments is that it dismisses the trauma of being adopted, it dismisses the trauma of leaving your birth country. So, I had to reclaim that identity.”
In a school photograph of his first grade class, Herrick pointed out how he was the only Asian kid as well as the only person of color. Books helped to bring his culture to him, he stated.
“Fortunately, there are authors and filmmakers and artists and journalists and musicians. But mostly for me, it was writers who were this lens into a life and a culture that I kind of had erased by virtue of my adoption.”
The writings of Maxine Hong Kingston, especially her memoir “The Woman Warrior,” were instrumental to Herrick as a writer and Asian American. Other adopted Korean poets like Sun Yung Shin and Jennifer Kwon Dobbs were formative for the future poet, referencing a “spiritual kinship” with them.
“I started to feel less alone, I started to recognize the power of people’s voices and stories. And as I began to realize the power in that, I began to realize the value and strength in an Asian American community and also the potential value in my own identity as a Korean American.”
In talking about his inspirations, Herrick draws on others’ resilience and perseverance, whether it be communal or cultural Asian American groups in the country and in parts of California.
“[I’m inspired by] how communities and families are sort of built and built upon, but also individual struggles. I think also people carving out better lives [for themselves]. I’m inspired by social justice and activism. I’m inspired by people who’ve worked and fought, whether it’s publicly or privately to make change and to make the place to make our lives better.”
Herrick shared an anecdote that inspired his poem “Elegy,” written in honor of Korean adoptee Phillip Clay who was raised in Philadelphia and deported back to South Korea before he committed suicide in 2017. He had been asked by friends of Clay to write a poem so they could read it at his memorial.
“I’m inspired by the people who work to keep those memories alive and to honor the dead,” Herrick said.
As a full time professor, parent, husband and now California poet laureate, Herrick wears many hats but sees these experiences as applicable to benefitting his role as laureate. He credits his 17 year-old daughter in giving him a fresh look at how young people perceive reading and writing.
“I love working with young people. It’s a special creative energy,” Herrick said.
Herrick also talked about his role as a professor in listening to and valuing all voices.
“Everybody has some kind of hope, or dream, or desire or idea, and sometimes it’s very blurry, or sometimes it’s very difficult to achieve. But what I’ve also seen is there’s a great there’s an incredible sense of perseverance, and work.”
His platform, “Our California,” consists of two main aspects, which include inviting local social justice organizations to poetry readings and working with the governor’s office and California Arts Council to publish an anthology of poems from Californians throughout the state.
These poems will focus on what beauty they see in their town, city or state, but also what they want to change.
“I want to get people writing and to notice the poetry in their lives. I believe there’s poetry in everyone and there’s music in everyone.”
Herrick also hopes to have more Californians learn about the California Arts Council and for governments and schools to encourage a more expansive arts education.
“[The arts and poetry] It’s not a fringe interest. It’s an essential part of our lives,” Herrick said.
Executive director of the California Arts Council Jonathan Moscone commented on how honored they are to be working with the poet.
“His work is uniquely powerful in articulating hope and possibility inside complex and at times despairing circumstances,” Moscone told AsAmNews. “He is such a generous soul, with his talent and his time, his mind and his heart, that our state could not be luckier than to have his presence as our California Poet Laureate.”
With his year packed with outreach events and book club tours with the First Partner of California Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Herrick desires to reach out to as many Asian American groups that he can, as well as anyone who wants to engage with poetry.
“I hope that there’s less isolation. I hope people can feel more part of the community, I hope people can feel more empowered.”
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