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California's new poet laureate wants to preach the power of poetry across the state

Dana Gioia at the California Arts Council's 2014 Poetry Out Loud State Finals in Sacramento.
Dana Gioia at the California Arts Council's 2014 Poetry Out Loud State Finals in Sacramento.
Jay R. Hart

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California governor Jerry Brown has found the state's newest poet laureate in a long-time advocate for the power of poetry in public culture. 

Dana Gioia, a professor of poetry and public culture at University of Southern California, was appointed on Friday. California poets laureate serve two-year terms and are charged with educating civic leaders around the state about the value of creative expression, providing public readings across the state and "undertaking a significant cultural project" designed to bring poetry to California students who might otherwise have little exposure to the form. 

Gioia served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003-2009. There, he created the national high school recitation competition Poetry Out Loud. Fourty-four of California’s 58 counties participate in that contest and during his two-year term as poet laureate, he hopes to visit schools in each of the counties.

"Having poetry in my life changed my life," said Gioia. "Having arts education in my life changed my life and I think it’s very important to have advocates at a state level to remind people of the importance of have arts in our children's educations and in our communities." 

Gioia said part of his job is to be a catalyst for the arts across the state.

"It would be very easy for a poet laureate to spend most of his or her time in the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area," Gioia said. "I want to reach out to smaller towns, rural communities, mid-sized towns -- places that usually don’t get the kind of cultural programming that the metropolitan centers do."

The state has had an official, governor-appointed poet laureate since 2001, but the state has had one less formally since 1915. Juan Felipe Herrera, who now serves as the U.S. Poet Laureate, most recently held the position. The California Arts Council manages the nomination process and provides a list of three outstanding candidates to the governor.  The council also provides a $5,000 annual stipend to cover things like planning and travel costs.

Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, said they look for people who have been thinking about the power of words all their lives. 

"If you look at Dana’s career, it is already an amazing collection of steps," said Watson. "He’s already proven in a major way his commitment to this notion of citizen arts and citizen voice."

Gioia has published four books of poetry and three collections of critical essays and won the American Book Award for his 2001 collection "Interrogations at Noon." His 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?" talked about the declining role of poetry in American life and spurred an international response. In the nearly 25 years since, he said one of his main goals in life has been to demonstrate the value of poetry in public culture. Before pursuing writing full time, he had a career in business and earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University.

Gioia, who was born in Hawthorne, Calif., said he was astonished and grateful to continue that mission in this new role. 

“To serve my place with my art," Gioia said, "I mean, that’s a pretty great gift.”

Past California Poets Laureate

1915 - 1928  Ina Donna Coolbrith
1929 - 1931  Dr. Henry Meade Bland
1933 - 1944  John Steven McGroarty
1953 - 1961  Gordon W. Norris
1966 - 2000  Charles Garrigus
2005 - 2008  Al Young
2008 - 2011  Carol Muske-Dukes
2012 - 2014  Juan Felipe Herrera