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University of Iowa News Release


March 20, 2009

National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Herrera credits Writers' Workshop

The National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, announced March 12, was shared by two writers with close connections to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Workshop alumnus Juan Felipe Herrera was honored for "Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems," and former faculty member August Kleinzahler was honored for "Sleeping It Off in Rapid City."

Herrera, the son the Mexican migrant workers, was a teaching fellow at the UI, winning an Excellence in Teaching Award in 1990, the year that he received his Master of Fine Arts degree.

"By the time I stepped into the workshop, I had been writing and performing poetry in various forms, from spoken word to poetry-in-performance and Teatro Chicano for 20 years," Herrera says. "Yet, a personal revolution occurred when I walked into workshops held by Marvin Bell, Gerald Stern and Jorie Graham.

"Marvin assisted me from day one (and still does), as a mentor and as a fiery maestro at the table of the word. Although this may sound easy, from Marvin I came to grips with the architecture of a poem in all its aspects. Everything about my writing changed, and my work grew exponentially. It was a monumental change that still carries me forward to this day.

"Stern was another matter. In Gerry's workshop I came face to face with the powers of simplicity and the dangers of obscure language and evasive narrative. After resisting it, in time, simplicity proved to be a great ally. I also tapped into what we can call 'tone.'

"In Jorie's class, the problematic was how to strip language down to minute particles and then re-construct without ever 'staining' what is being said. This led me to rethink the poem, its construction and also how to talk about the poem and its workings.

"My cohort was a gift to me. Each one also taught me many things that can power the poem: abstraction, play, humor, art, texture and even flavor and much more. I could go on and speak of the conversations, the meals, the silences, the experiments and elixers. Let me just say that Iowa catapulted me beyond my dreams."

Herrera has received numerous awards and fellowships including National Endowment for the Arts Writers' Fellowships, four California Arts Council grants, the UC Berkeley Regent's Fellowship, the Breadloaf Fellowship in Poetry, and the Stanford Chicano Fellows Fellowship. He was written 21 books, including 14 collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels and picture books for children, winning the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Hungry Mind Award of Distinction, the Americas Award and the Focal Award.

He now holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair and is the Gluck Fellows Coordinator in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

"Pugilist poet" Kleinzahler is the author of 10 books of poetry, and Allen Ginsburg described him as "a loner, a genius." In addition to teaching at the UI in 1997 and at other universities, he has worked as a locksmith, cabdriver, lumberjack, music critic and building manager in San Francisco, and in 2005 he was designated as the first poet laureate of his hometown, Fort Lee, N.J. He received the Lannan Literary Award in 2008 and the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2004.

Iowa Writers' Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson's "Home" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction.

The workshop is a graduate program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Amy Margolis,; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073,