USC’s Dana Gioia named California Poet Laureate

The California native will present public readings in classrooms, boardrooms and other places during his two-year term

December 04, 2015 Andrew Good

Dana Gioia, Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at USC, has been named California Poet Laureate.

Gov. Jerry Brown today appointed Gioia to the position, which was created in 2001 to inspire an appreciation for the art of poetry throughout the state. During his two-year term, Gioia will provide public readings in classrooms, boardrooms and other places.

“As a poet and a Californian I’m honored and delighted to represent this beautiful state,” Gioia said. “It’s very emotional for me. I was born in California. My place has asked me to serve my art.”

It’s a role that’s loosely defined, and every poet laureate has served according to his or her own interests. Gioia said that he hasn’t decided on a specific project yet, but he’s toying with the idea of visiting the 44 counties that promote the California Poetry Out Loud program, which he spearheaded during his time as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The program encourages high school students to compete in reciting poetry, exposing them both to creative expression as well as public speaking.

Dana will bring the voice of a native son of California to his new role.

Craig Watson

“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 – just as he did when he created the Poetry Out Loud high school recitation program while at the NEA – a program which has greatly impacted California’s young people for 10 years.”

Gioia grew up in Hawthorne, a working-class Southern California town where — like in many small towns — the major cultural institution was the public library. Gioia said he spent hundreds of afternoons there. He hopes to make libraries and high schools central to the institutions he works with as poet laureate.

I’m from working people and an immigrant family. I want that to play an important part in the audience I reach.

Dana Gioia

“I’m from working people and an immigrant family,” Gioia said. “I want that to play an important part in the audience I reach.”

Gioia said he had always been fascinated with the literary traditions of California. Besides poetry, the state’s authors have produced novels, science fiction and detective stories that have influenced him. Poet Robinson Jeffers, a USC alumnus, played a special role in Gioia’s creative development. Gioia has organized conferences on the work of Jeffers, who he called “the great poet of the western landscape.”

Gioia’s own work is as vast as the Golden State itself. Most of his narrative poems are set in California, allowing him to write about its many regions. “Los Angeles After the Rain” describes his hometown, “Planting a Sequoia” was about the tragic death of his son and “Film Noir” is set in the Central Valley. A poem entitled “California Hills in August” has been “translated into the language of every dry country. It’s about a landscape short of rain,” Gioia joked.

But one of his most personal works on the subject may be “Being a California Poet,” which explores the paradox of California’s rich blend of immigrant languages and cultures.

Gioia’s newest collection is called 99 Poems: New & Selected. It comes out in March.