By Dana Gioia, California Poet Laureate
Being California Poet Laureate is an exciting experience, but it is also a humbling one. Our state is so big, populous, and diverse that it is more than any poet can handle. Since jumping into the job nine months ago, I have done 40 public events across 20 counties, and I feel as if I have hardly begun.
My goal as Poet Laureate has been to serve the entire state. But how does anyone do that? I decided that one relatively objective measure for reaching the whole state would be to visit every county—all 58 of them. One retired politician gave me some practical advice, “Don’t do it,” he said. “Once you get started, you’ll realize it’s impossible.” Never tell a poet not to do something. It makes the idea irresistible.
It probably would be impossible to visit all 58 counties if I didn’t have such active partners from the California Arts Council, the California Center for the Book, and the California State Library. They have helped me connect with people and communities I could never have reached on my own. Working together, we are now starting to fill up the intimidatingly large map of California counties.
These early events have taught me some important things about realizing the potential of my unusual public office. The best plan is not just to visit every county in California; it is to create a literary event in each place that has a local element. A poetry reading is good, but group event is even better since it serves as a catalyst for the local cultural scene. So everywhere I go now, I try to find local partners.
One obvious form of partnership has been to present the local county champion or champions for Poetry Out Loud as part of the program. These kids worked hard to develop their winning recitations. I love having them perform alongside me, though they often steal the show. (Featuring the students also recognizes the valuable work of the local county art councils.)
I’m also trying to involve the county poets laureates. Their participation lets my visit become a mini-poetry festival as in Lake County where I appeared with four past and present local laureates.
Of course, there are many other ways to involve local writers, musicians, and artists. My statewide tour is just getting started. There are 38 counties to go—before I turn around and start again. I hope to meet you along the way.
DANA GIOIA is California’s new state Poet Laureate. Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in December, 2015, Gioia serves as the state advocate for poetry and literature in libraries, classrooms and boardrooms across California. An award-winning poet, Gioia is the author of Can Poetry Matter?, which is credited for helping revive poetry’s role in American public life. He is also the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts where he championed arts education. As state laureate, Gioia will work to inspire a new generation of writers and celebrate California’s great literary legacy. www.capoetlaureate.net