California’s Poet Laureate, Lee Herrick coming to Benicia

“Benicia Our Home” Celebration at Benicia’s Clocktower on June 25

Special to the Benicia Herald, by Lois Kazakoff, June 9, 2023
[Note from BenIndy Contributor Roger Straw: For more about California’s first AAPI Poet Laureate and his understanding of racism and the importance of telling story, see KCRW News LA.]

California Poet Laureate Lee Herrick will headline “Benicia Our Home” on Sunday, June 25 at 3 PM at the Clock Tower.

California’s poet laureate wants you to write about Benicia, maybe in rhyme – but definitely with heart.

“Usually those who speak for a community are politicians or officials but we all have thoughts connected to where we live, grew up and raise a family,” said Lee Herrick, 52, a Fresno City College writing instructor who was appointed state poet laureate in November. “We each have a voice. And there is poetry in everyone.”

Herrick will headline “Benicia Our Home,” an afternoon of poetry, art and song at the Clock Tower on Sunday, June 25, sponsored by the Benicia Public Library. Everyone is invited. To learn more, go to or email Benicia’s Poet Laureate, Mary Susan Gast at .

Event flyer – click to enlarge

Benicia is one stop on Herrick’s travels around the state to hear what Californians experience and celebrate. Or what concerns them. Or what they see differently. In April alone, he participated in 27 events.

Poetry can help us explore and celebrate California’s diversity and the range of our experiences through a personal, emotional and social lens, he said. The poet’s imagination can transport us and illuminate the full range of the human condition. California is the most populous state in the country, and we lead in many disciplines, including the literary arts and poetry.

He hopes to bring together the social justice, civic engagement and poetry communities in each town under his platform, “Our California.” Californians will be able to submit their poems at the “Our California” webpage on the California Arts Council’s website when the project launches later this year.

Poetry can help us reflect on how life in our hometown could be different or celebrated more widely. “Change starts with an individual’s imagination,” said Herrick.

Herrick, the first Asian American California Poet Laureate, joins a long line of poets who have been central to the state’s history of social activism and struggle for civil liberties. Among his favorite books is “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California,” written by Elaine Elison and Stan Yogi (Heyday Books, 2009).

His own poetry is rooted in these themes. His 2020 poem, “What I Hear When I Hear You in My Head,” begins: It’s the little whisper, the aggregate sorrow …

Poetry lays bare what we find beautiful and joyous but also the less pleasant human emotions – anger, sadness, fear, grief, he said. “When we are writing, we discover more of who we are.”

As the world sheltered in place in 2020 and health concerns engulfed us, Herrick wrote, “The Birds Outside My Window Sing During a Pandemic:”

What we need has always been inside of us.
For some — a few poets or farmers, perhaps —
it’s always near the surface. Others, it’s buried.
It was in our original design, though — pre-machine,
pre-border, pre-pandemic. …

Herrick, Fresno Poet Laureate in 2015-17, emerged from the remarkable Fresno poetry scene. That Central Valley city has produced two U.S. Poet Laureates, Juan Felipe Herrera, the nation’s first Latino poet laureate (2015-17), and Philip Levine (2011-12), known as the poet of the working class.

Herrick has three published books of poetry: “Scar and Flower,” “Gardening Secrets of the Dead,” and “This Many Miles From Desire.

He was named in November to a two-year term as California’s 10th poet laureate and confirmed by the state Senate in May. In announcing the appointment, Gov. Gavin Newsom said, “Lee (Herrick)’s dedication to highlighting the diverse experiences of Californians, and making them so accessible through his poetry, makes him a perfect candidate for Poet Laureate. I look forward to his work to inspire communities and individuals across the state through the power of the written word.”

Herrick was born in Daejeon, South Korea, and adopted as an infant by White American parents. He lived in Danville until the family moved to Modesto when he was 8. He has taught at Fresno City College for 26 years and teaches in a master’s of fine arts program at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. He lives in Fresno with his wife and teenage daughter.

Lois Kazakoff is a member of the Benicia Public Library Board of Trustees.

* * * * *

Write a ZipOde

Maybe you are a poet and don’t know it? Start small. Write a ZipOde, a poem about a town based on its ZIP code.

Each ZipOde has five lines, with the number of words on each line determined by the numbers of the ZIPcode. Benicia’s ZIP code is 94510.

For example,

I will change into my painting pants and shirt (9 words)
Benicia is a palette (4 words)
Of limitless and gorgeous vistas (5 words)
Yay! (1 word)
[Ooooo] (0 words)

For more examples of ZipOdes, go to benicia

Next, go bigger and write a poem to submit on the California Arts Council website when the state poet laureate’s web pages go live in July.

* * * * *