Power of Poetry

California poet laureate Dana Gioia wants beautiful words part of everyone's life

‘To call oneself a poet is a slightly pretentious thing,” says Dana Gioia, celebrated critic, poet, past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and current poet laureate of California.

“I usually just call myself a writer, and then, when someone asks ‘What do you write?’ I have to say, ‘Well, I write mostly poems and essays about poetry.'”

“That,” Gioia adds with a laugh, “tends to be a conversation killer.”

The longtime Santa Rosa resident is the author of several books of poetry, including the recently published 99 Poems: New & Collected (Graywolf Press; $24). He’s also written the libretti for three operas, Nosferatu (2004), Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (2008) and The Three Feathers (2014).

As poet laureate, Gioia is staging poetry and music events all over California. On July 16, he hosts a multi-artist performance titled Poetry Matters at the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club in the town of Sonoma, featuring some of his own poetry, as well as performances by local poets, musicians and actors.

The purpose, he says, is to spread the news that beautiful words, whether recited or sung, should be a part of everyone’s life, one way or another.

“There are an enormous number of ways in which a poet can create a life for themselves,” Gioia says. “In our society, usually, it now involves some
kind of activism, which is to
say ‘active involvement’ in their own communities.”

One thing a life devoted to poetry should not have to be, Gioia insists, is lonely.

“I don’t believe that most poetry is an affair of infinite solitude and isolation,” he says. “Some poets work that way. But for myself, I write poems, I write words for composers—in classical, jazz and pop genres—I teach, I talk about poetry in the media, and I give public appearances. And I would not enjoy a life in which I had to lose any of those things.”

He repeats the old joke that the only problem with being a poet is deciding what to do with the other 23 hours of your day.

“Most poets find other things to do aside from just writing poetry, some of them cultural, some of them civic,” he says.

He fills his non-writing time reminding people that the unique power of a good poem, well recited, is a thing worth praising and promoting.

“I’ve spoken to a thousand audiences, without exaggeration,” he says. “When I was chairman of the [NEA], I would give a talk two or three times a day, and I would almost always include a poem. The audiences loved it.”

The amazing thing, he says, isn’t that audiences appreciated hearing a good poem recited by one of poetry’s most significant cheerleaders.

“What amazed me,” he says, “is how often they’d tell me it was the first time they’d ever heard someone recite a poem out loud. That’s something that we’re eager to change.”