Celebrate our local laureates

California’s poets laureate are vanguards of cultural change

Dana Gioia with local poets from San Bernardino at an event in December 2017. Poets include Nikia Chaney, Tristan Acker, DG, Micah Tasaka, Alex Avila, Allyson Jeffredo, and Juan Delgado.

In early October poets across California will join a historic gathering in the San Fernando Valley community of Tujunga. The site is an old mansion, the former residence of John McGroarty, California’s third poet laureate. The handsome hillside house now serves as a vibrant community arts center.

Sixty poets will come to take part in a special group reading. All of them are current or former local laureates appointed by cities, counties, regions, and the state to champion literature and literacy in their communities.

This gathering could not occur at a better time. It is a transformative moment for American poets and poetry. For years, literary pundits declared that poetry was a dying art. No one, they claimed, read poems outside the English Department. But today, in defiance of all those dire predictions, poetry has become the nation’s fastest growing art.

It is a transformative moment for American poets and poetry. For years, literary pundits declared that poetry was a dying art.

Poetry readership in the U.S. has risen by 76 percent in the past five years. The new audience is young, diverse, and non-academic. The growth has come mostly from teenagers and young adults. Their readership has more than doubled with particularly notable gains among Hispanic, African-American, and Asian readers. This renascence isn’t just my opinion. The trend has been carefully documented in America’s largest and most accurate arts survey by the National Endowment for the Arts.

One reason that American poetry is experiencing a renaissance is the work of local poets laureate who serve their own communities. With minimal public support, they bring poetry and literature down to a neighborhood level.

The modern notion of the poet laureate was invented in California. In 1915, Ina Coolbrith was acclaimed the state’s first laureate. Her appointment revived an ancient aristocratic office and reset it for a new democratic purpose. This cultural innovation came not from the Northeastern arts centers; it came from a younger state with fresh memories of the frontier and a different vision of society. Not only did California institute this new public office. They also chose a woman.

Ina Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate.
Not only did California institute the new public office of poet laureate. They also chose a woman.

Coolbrith’s public office also announced that creativity was an integral part of the Golden State’s identity. Her appointment became international news. California’s example proved so compelling that gradually the rest of the nation followed. One by one most of the other states created similar positions, though it took until 1986 for the national office of U.S Poet Laureate to appear.

California continued to innovate. In recent years the state has seen the emergence of city, county, and regional laureates. These local laureates bring the art to classrooms, civic events, parks, community centers as well as prisons, hospitals, and homeless shelters. They have broadened and diversified the audience for poetry by bringing the power of words and literature to everyone across the state. They are a vanguard of cultural change.

I would urge poets, teachers, and readers to join their laureates on Saturday afternoon, October 6, at the McGroarty Arts Center. This is everyone’s chance to meet, hear, and celebrate California’s public poets.

Join California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia on Saturday, October 6 for a special statewide gathering of city, regional, and county laureates from across California, featuring a historic group reading by more than 60 poets laureate and special guest readings from renowned California laureates, past and present.

Register here for this free public event, sponsored by the Engaging the Senses Foundation, the California Arts Council, and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs/McGroarty Arts Center.