Rock stars go on tour, and sports teams do the same, but do poets go on tour?
If you’re Dana Gioia, the answer is yes. The Sonoma County-based California Poet Laureate is in the midst of touring the entire state for a series of public poetry readings he hopes will dispel any popular perception of poets and their verse as aloof or pedantic.
“I’m determined to visit all 58 counties in the state, and create events where I read poetry aloud, along with local talent,” Gioia said. “I want to make the office of state poet laureate mean something to the public. I want to bring poetry into as many communities as possible.”
He has worn out two sets of tires on his car during his travels so far, but he’ll have a short commute to the “Poetry Reflections” event Sunday, July 16, at the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa.
A longtime resident of unincorporated Sonoma County — he has a Santa Rosa address and a Windsor phone number — Gioia, 66, was named the state’s 10th California Poet Laureate by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015.
“When I was appointed, I immediately had invitations from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley to come and read my poetry. I realized that unless I actively shaped what I was doing, my role as poet laureate would simply become part of the normal literary life of California, which is a great literary life,” Gioia recalled.
“But I wanted to broaden the role, and try to be the poet laureate for the entire state. Some of the smaller communities have never had a poetry reading.”
Recently, Gioia’s quest led him to Downieville, a town of less than 300 people in Sierra County, for an event held in an old movie theater.
“The town closed the schools to bring all of the kids over, and all 51 kids, from kindergarten through grade 12, had written a poem — under compulsion, I’m sure. They recited their poems, and I recited a couple of my poems, and then I had a question-and-answer session,” he said.
As usual for Gioia on his visits with young students, the ensuing exchange was engaging, if not necessarily academic.
“The first few rows were all little kids — 5. 6, 7. So the first question was ‘What is your birthday?’ and when I said Christmas Eve, that caused great discussion. The second question was ‘What is the name of your cat?’” (The cat’s name is Dr. Gatsby, and Dec. 24 really is his birthday.)
Gioia hopes his outreach efforts will encourage young people to regard poetry as something personal and engaging, rather than dry and academic.
The “Poetry Reflections” event Sunday at Paradise Ridge Winery will include readings not only by Gioia and Iris Jahmal Dunkle, Sonoma County’s poet laureate, but also by student champions from the national Poetry Out Loud recitation contest — founded by Gioia and The Poetry Foundation in 2006. Gioia has been nationally prominent since 1991, when he wrote the influential essay “Can Poetry Matter?” — lamenting the fact that poetry had been relegated primarily to college campuses.
Since then, Gioia has been on a crusade to bring poetry to everyday people, while continuing to maintain a high personal profile in the arts, serving as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 under President George W. Bush.