Dana Gioia’s latest collection, "99 Poems," includes poems about the California landscape, giant sequoias and the Beach Boys. Now, as California poet laureate, he’s heading on a summer tour, bringing poetry to some rural parts of the state.
California is a big state. What do you see as your mission as poet laureate?
As poet laureate, I’m a public servant, and I represent all of California. But I think it takes some planning to get up in Calaveras County or Modoc or Humboldt or Del Norte. I’m going to try to do at least one poetry event in all 58 California counties. Like most Californians, even though I was born and raised here, I’ve only seen about half the state.
What are you going to do at each stop on your tour?
Try not to embarrass myself. Come and talk about poetry, read some poems. Feature as my part of the presentation the local high school kids who have won Poetry Out Loud, the high school poetry recitation contest. But I’m open to other ideas. The one thing I insist on is that local people be involved in the event.
What kind of a role can poetry play in civic life, especially in this era of Twitter and Snapchat?
That means we need poetry all the more. Poetry is our most concise, expressive and memorable way of using speech to describe our existence. Poetry will never go entirely out of style, or lack a use, as long as we use words to communicate. The problem right now is that there’s so much media, so much entertainment, most of it pretty awful. So poetry is marginalized in the corners. But on the other hand, poetry is rather wonderful. If I were a novelist, I couldn’t read you my novel on the radio. But I can read you an entire poem.
Tell us about a California poem you’ve written.
Years ago, I was living in New York, and I heard this fellow come back from a summer vacation in California. He said, “California was really ugly, it was all burned out. Not pretty, like Vermont.” And this irked me. About a week later, I was in California, walking through some hills, and I realized I’d been writing this poem subconsciously. It describes California the way someone from back East would see it, then the way a native would see it.
"California Hills in August"
I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.
One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.
And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.
And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.
— Dana Gioia
You’re a native Californian. You grew up in L.A. Your mom was Mexican-American, your dad was Italian. How did growing up around different cultures and languages influence you as a poet?
I was raised in this kind of sociological, linguistic babble. One side of my family spoke Sicilian. I was living in a Mexican neighborhood, which spoke Spanish. My school was in English, and when I went to church, the services were in Latin. So I learned at birth that languages are complex things, and they overlap around each other. And I think that was a kind of gift that’s guided me through life.
You’ve got a pretty unconventional resume for a poet. You were the first in your family to go to college, then went to Stanford Business School. And became an executive at General Foods, where you marketed Jell-O. Then you went on to head the National Endowment for the Arts. How do you think those experiences shaped you as a poet?
I have an absolutely weird resume. I think it’s been good for me. Because most poets today spend pretty much their entire life in school. They go to school and then they teach school. Nothing wrong with that. But I do think it’s a kind of lost opportunity when all the poets in a society have the same job, the same life experience. So for me, working around non-literary people allowed me to understand what interests intelligent people outside of the intellectual world, what their speech is like, to hear their perspectives. The same way that growing up around essentially poor people has been a kind of wealth for me as a writer.
Do you have a favorite California poet?
I think, without question, the greatest poet that California has produced was Robinson Jeffers. He lived in Carmel when it was still a wild, natural place. He articulated a vision of nature, of the world, that really, in some ways, helped inspire the environmental movement. He also inspired photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to photograph the California coast and help fight to preserve it.
I think right now we’re in a poetic renaissance in California. Los Angeles has more artists than any other city in the country. It’s an extremely interesting moment to be a California writer. California is really coming into its own on a kind of global stage.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.