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.
Poetry at Paradise
What: ‘Poetry Relections’ with Dana Gioia, California Poet Laureate
When: 1-3 p.m. Sunday, July 16
Where: Paradise Ridge Winery, 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Drive, Santa Rosa
Admission: Free, but please register in advance at eventbrite.com
Cruising With The Beach Boys
So strange to hear that song again tonight
Traveling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.
Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along—
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.
Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city —
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.
I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.
— Dana Gioia
(From “99 Poems: New & Selected,” by Dana Gioia.)