National Poetry Epoch by John Bender

If April’s really the cruelest month, per our old American expat T.S. Eliot, why is it National Poetry Month?

One month is too short, and poetry desires thoughtful reflection, emotional investment and delight, not brief periods of frenzy—post one poem a day on Facebook, maybe someone will notice amid all the social-media noise.

So, given the power vested in me as this week’s grumpy, yet hopeful, Inlandia Literary Journeys columnist, I hereby declare 2015-2016 as National Poetry Epoch. Forget April. We have a great year ahead of us.

Skeptical? Well, at least for the Inland area, this year already has proved momentous.

The Library of Congress recently named former UC Riverside professor Juan Felipe Herrera as poet laureate of the United States for 2015-16. He officially begins in September with events at the library’s National Book Festival.

Herrera, who just finished his term as California’s poet laureate, becomes the second US poet laureate with strong ties to UCR. Best-selling poet Billy Collins, who served as national laureate from 2001-2003, received a masters in English from the university in 1965 and earned a doctorate in Romantic Poetry at UCR in 1971.

So forget about the people from LA who look down on our area. Forget about those on the East Coast who don’t even know we’re here. We’re no literary wasteland. We can boast of two poet laureates who lived here, worked here and breathed the same smog we breathe.

I’m not familiar enough with Collins’ work to know whether his time in the Inland area is reflected in his poems, but I know that this area’s stark beauty and working-class mixing bowl of huddled masses have informed Herrera’s poems.

And I know that Herrera will welcome our help making his time as US laureate a tremendous time of poems and poetry—an epoch of enthusiasm!

While he was at UCR and during his time as California’s top poet, Herrera joined then-Inlandia laureate Gayle Brandeis, Inlandia Executive Director Cati Porter and me at a guerrilla reading in downtown Riverside.

Our aim was to surprise the workers and businessmen at lunchtime with a surprise poetry reading. It wasn’t as guerrilla as I wanted it to be, because when the state’s poet laureate is going to read, you alert the city fathers.

And so, amplified by a small public address system powered by a battery from a defunct 1963 Buick—the whole contraption contained in the back of a child’s wagon—we brought poetry to downtown Riverside’s pedestrian mall.

During that November 2013 event, which you can find on YouTube by searching for “California Poet Laureate holds impromptu-style reading downtown,” Herrera was the pied piper of poems, the ambassador of allusion—clearly a guy who relishes sharing poetry.

He released more energy than that Buick battery, inviting passersby to compose their own poems on the spot. He made me and his other co-readers feel like the most important poets on the planet, even translating one of my lines into a cool Spanish phrase, “¡Raja la calabaza!” (which of course I’ve incorporated into the text of the poem.)

During his California term, Herrera brought poetry to other unexpected places, reading at the re-opening of the Oakland Bay Bridge and inspiring hundreds to join him in writing “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.”

I have no doubt that he plans even bigger unifying events during his term as national laureate, so why wait?

As poets, literary fans and readers, let’s all pledge to share poems with others during the next year. Let’s invite friends to breakfast and give them a reading while they digest. Let’s volunteer at schools and teach the children to write poems, let’s give free readings at hospitals, bus stops!

Let’s go to readings wherever they’re held. Let’s buy poetry books, attend poetry workshops.

Let’s write love poems for poetry.

It’s our turn. It’s our epoch. Juan Felipe needs our help. We have work to do.


To learn about upcoming readings and Inland literary events, go to inlandiainstitute.org