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Santa Rosa’s Dana Gioia named California's poet laureate

Longtime poetry advocate Dana Gioia of Santa Rosa was taken by surprise last Friday when he learned that Gov. Jerry Brown had chosen him as the state’s newest poet laureate.

The 64-year-old Gioia, a California native and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said he knew he was on the short list but did not expect to be named to the prestigious post.

“My reaction was astonishment mixed with deep gratitude,” Gioia said in a phone interview. “I’ve lived in Vienna, Rome, New York and Washington, D.C., and I made the decision to move back to California. This is my place, so I feel enormously honored to be asked by my place to share my art.”

The role of the state poet laureate is to spread the art of poetry and creative expression, to inspire a new generation of literary artists and to educate all Californians about the literary authors who have influenced the state.

“I feel deeply concerned that the arts have been taken out of public education,” Gioia said. “California is the center of the creative economy globally. How can we realize the state’s potential if we don’t offer creative education to our young?”

Gioia, a professor of poetry and public culture at the University of Southern California since 2011, lives in Santa Rosa about half the year. He succeeds poet Juan Felipe Herrera, who currently serves as the U.S. poet laureate.

“Dana is a highly spirited visionary who gets things done,” Herrera said in a press release from the California Arts Council, which oversees the position of poet laureate and makes recommendations to the governor. “He has a broad and deep vision for all our peoples in California, and as a poet, he includes people in a very energetic and creative way.”

Gioia, who has lived in Santa Rosa for the past 20 years, has written several books that have received wide critical acclaim, including his 1991 tome “Can Poetry Matter?,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and triggered a national debate on the role of poetry in American culture.

“Dana will bring the voice of a native son of California to his new role,” said Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council. “He’ll also help our state’s young people learn to explore and develop their own voices.”

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Gioia created the popular Poetry Out Loud contest for high school seniors, which drew participation from 44 out of California’s 58 counties. During his two-year term as the state’s poet laureate, he plans to personally visit schools and libraries in each of those 44 counties.

“It would be very easy for me to spend my time as a laureate in L.A. and the Bay Area, but I want to visit as much of the state as possible,” he said. “California is a mostly rural state, so I see myself spending the majority of my official time in small and midsized areas.”

Other NEA initiatives launched by Gioia include Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, a project to support returning troops and their families, and The Big Read, which promotes reading initiatives across the country through a variety of engaging community programs.

Gioia was born in the Southern California city of Hawthorne to a Sicilian father and a Mexican mother who infused her son with a love of the written and spoken word.

“My mother, a working-class Mexican woman, used to recite poetry to me,” he said. “For me, it was never an academic thing. It was a part of intimate, daily life.”

He became the first person in his family to attend college, earning a bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University, a master’s in comparative literature from Harvard University and an MBA from Stanford Business School.

Gioia worked in business for 15 years on the East Coast before returning to his first love, writing poetry. With both parents living in Sebastopol, he decided to move his family to Santa Rosa in 1995, where he now spends roughly half the year.

“I only teach at USC in the fall semester,” he said. “I like the peace and beauty of Sonoma County.”

This spring, Graywolf Press will publish Gioia’s fifth book of poetry, ?“99 Poems: New & Selected.” He hopes to debut those poems during a couple of readings planned this spring, including one at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on March 26 and another in May at the Shed in Healdsburg.

“I’m just one person, but poets understand the power of symbols,” he said. “I hope that my laureateship in some small way becomes a symbol of the importance of art and the imagination in our public culture.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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