Sonoma County’s Dana Gioia looks back on his 58-county trek as state poet laureate
When Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Sonoma County writer and teacher Dana Gioia to the post of California State Poet Laureate in 2015, Gioia took the honor seriously.
He embarked on a quest to bring his ongoing, lifelong celebration of poetry to every one of the state’s 58 counties, a journey he finally completed last month in the city of Hanford in Kings County, in the San Joaquin Valley.
It was an epic journey, if not quite Homeric. During his 34 months in office, Gioia drove 17,000 miles, took 16 airline flights and participated in 116 events with a total of 500 local poets, musicians and students.
“I’m glad I did this. It just takes a lot of energy,” said Gioia, 67, who made some of his appearances on crutches after a knee injury last July. “I kept every engagement that I had made. It’s important to show up.”
The truth is, Gioia did a lot more than just show up.
“In visiting the 58 counties, I didn’t just want to drive to a place and speak,” he explained. “Everywhere I went, we created a local event, in which I took part. We celebrated the place, and I was just the visiting writer.”
Of course, Gioia is much than that. He first won national attention in 1991 with the influential essay “Can Poetry Matter?” — lamenting the fact that poetry had been relegated primarily to college campuses.
From 2003 to 2009, Gioia served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush. During his tenure, Gioia and The Poetry Foundation initiated the annual Poetry Out Loud student recitation contest.
The poet’s statewide, all-county tour was a natural extension of his ongoing crusade to bring poetry to everyday people, and he discovered that there is actually a vast public appetite for this art form.
“People in small towns don’t have a chance to talk about literature and culture with one another in a public forum, so the question-and-answer period is always lively, and I think it’s clarifying. People are often surprised by how many people turn out for a poetry reading. Suddenly they realize how many other people share their interests,” Gioia said.
“Poet Laureate is a public office. One of the things it can do is convene a local literary public, and that supports civic life and community identity,” he added. “Of the 58 county visits I did, there was never a moment when the occasion became highbrow. Everybody involved wanted to engage the audience. Some of my events in San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles had their academic moments, but that’s exactly why I wanted to get out of the big cultural centers.”
Gioia’s travels took him to Stockton and San Bernadino, as well as tiny Downieville, a town of 300 people in Sierra County, among many other stops along the way.
“No state poet laureate has ever tried to visit all 58 counties in California. This was a historical first, and I think it’s unlikely to be repeated, because it takes so much time,” Gioia said with a laugh. “I went through three sets of tires, but I wanted really wanted to see the state and meet my fellow writers across the state.”
Now that his term as California Poet Laureate is officially over, Gioia — who lives in unincorporated Sonoma County, with an Santa Rosa address and a Windsor phone number — will not disappear from public view.
He hopes to show up for jazz pianist and composer Helen Sung’s “Sung With Words” concert, which features Gioia’s poetry set to music, Dec. 2 at the Paul Mahder Gallery in Healdsburg. Sung released her “Sung With Words” CD in September. Presented by Healdsburg Jazz, which hosts an annual summer jazz fest, the event also will feature saxophonist John Ellis, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Adam Cruz and vocalist Christie Dashiell.
But beyond that, what does Gioia plan to do next?
“I think I will write about the trip at some point, but next year, I want to write a more general essay about what the office of poet laureate means. California created the role of the state poet laureate, and now all over the country, there are state, county, city and regional laureates. You don’t have painter laureates or sculptor laureates or novelist laureates,” he said. “What does it mean that there is recognition of the civic role of the poet? You wouldn’t necessarily think that this would happen, and yet it does. It means there’s something very ancient and communal about the role of the poet.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts