This week marks one year since Dana Gioia began his adventure as “poetry’s public servant” in the Golden State. In that time, the state poet laureate has taken his role as advocate for the art of poetry across the state quite literally, making it a point to visit every county in California.
Earlier this week, Gioia took the time to answer some of our questions—about poetry, his position, where he’s been, and where he’s headed next.
One year in—how has your experience as California’s poet laureate met your expectations? Has anything surprised you?
I started with the huge assumption that there would be an audience for poetry everywhere in the state. Indeed there was. What surprised me was how big and varied it was—no matter where we went. We got big audiences in the smallest towns. There was also a wonderful mix of people. There were, of course, the local poets, musicians, and teachers we expected. But we also got mayors, ranchers, shopkeepers, accountants, almond farmers, veterans and veterinarians. The ages ranged from newborn to near centenarians.
Where have you done your poetry events?
I try to meet in the public library, but for many small towns it doesn’t have enough space, so we also meet in taverns, churches, galleries, museums, and parks. I went to a jazz club in Oakland and the National Cemetery in San Francisco. I go wherever the community invites me.
Was the program mostly you reading your own poetry?
No. Everywhere I go I invite local writers, musicians, and students to participate. It becomes a local celebration for poetry and creativity. I also try to end every event with a question-and-answer period so we all can have a public conversation about literature and literacy.
You still have one year left in your term. You have covered a lot of ground in your 58-county tour. You’ve visited 44 counties so far. What are the plans for the rest of your term?
Well, I have to reach those last 14 counties. Next week I go back to USC for the fall semester. That limits how much I can travel in the next few months. I will then finish up the tour in the spring. Once I reach the finish line with county 58, I will start over.
Why do you need to visit counties more than once?
I’ve done almost 100 events so far, because it is important to visit the large counties several times to reach different communities. Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million people. That requires lots of events. The same goes for the Bay Area. When I was asked to read a poem at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Presidio’s National Cemetery, I immediately accepted because the gathering served a different audience from the venues I had already visited in San Francisco. I also knew that poetry was important for the troops, veterans, and families on such a solemn occasion.
You’re a native Californian. Having traveled to some lesser known and less populated parts of the state, have you gained new perspective on the state and what it means to be a Californian?
Absolutely! I thought I knew the state pretty well, but these trips have been a continuous discovery. I now realize how little I knew about the eastern half of the state, especially up in the Sierra Nevadas. Those counties are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are also central to the state’s history. There were also a lot of towns I knew only from driving through them on the way to somewhere else. How different it is to meet local people and spend a day or two there.
I just finished spending two weeks with BBC, which is doing a documentary on the statewide tour. I asked that the show only be partially about me. I wanted it to be mostly about the California that the British don’t know—the mountains, the Central Valley, the desert, and the north coast.
What makes a poem good?
There are many ways in which a poem can be good. Mostly, a poem works by shaping speech into a kind of song. A poem needs to be beautiful, memorable, and expressive. By “beautiful” I don’t mean merely “pretty” or superficially attractive. Beauty is a kind of heightened perception in which we recognize the deeper forms of reality—the way, for example, the shape of a tree tells about the light, the soil, and the winds around it.
What advice do you have for the uninitiated who may view poetry as pretentious or irrelevant?
I tell people just to relax and listen. Don’t feel as if you are in a classroom. Pretend you’re listening to music in a club. If I have learned anything on this tour, it is that most people enjoy poetry.
One last question, just for fun. If you were hosting an intimate dinner party, and could invite any three people, living or dead, who would they be, and why?
Honestly, I’d invite my mom, my dad, and my late Uncle Ted, because I miss them. But if I had to exclude family, I’d ask William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. I’d open up a bottle of good California wine and then listen to the conversation.
To see more pictures from Gioia’s travels and learn more about past and upcoming events, visit http://capoetlaureate.net.