California Poet Laureate Returns to Santa Rosa

Writer Dana Gioia served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and was appointed California State Poet Laureate by Jerry Brown in 2015. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)
Writer Dana Gioia served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and was appointed California State Poet Laureate by Jerry Brown in 2015. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosan Dana Gioia is the new California Poet Laureate, appointed to the post by Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2015. During his two-year term, Gioia will spread the art of poetry and inspire a new generation of writers while visiting schools and libraries in many of the state’s rural counties.

He picks up where he left off as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-2009), for which he snagged a bigger budget and initiated several programs, including the popular Poetry Out Loud contest for high school seniors.

Gioia’s father was the son of Sicilian immigrants, his mother a working-class Latina who recited poems to him. Intellectual from an early age, Gioia earned degrees at Stanford and Harvard, then earned an MBA. “I’m probably the only person in human history who decided to go to Stanford Business School to become a poet,” he jokes.

That led to work on the East Coast for 15 years, where Gioia became vice president of General Foods. He and his wife, Mary Hiecke, lost their first son to sudden infant death syndrome, prodding Gioia to leave the business world in 1991 and pursue poetry. His latest book, “99 Poems: New & Selected” (Graywolf Press) will be published this spring. Gifted with a booming baritone voice, Gioia will read his poetry on March 26 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts and on May 19 at Healdsburg SHED.

AGE: 65

BORN: Hawthorne, Calif.

LIVES: Santa Rosa and Los Angeles (where he teaches at USC) FIRST POETIC INFLUENCE: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” OUTPUT: Five books, but best known for his 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book triggered a debate on the role of poetry in American culture.

COULDA BEEN: “A composer. My parents sent four kids to college in the hope of getting a doctor or a lawyer. Instead they got a poet, jazz musician, DJ and a Navy captain.”

ABOUT HIS SONS, TED AND MIKE: “Having one child become a writer felt like a compliment. Having two seems like bad parenting.

I tell my boys to work hard and master the craft. Being a writer is a bumpy vocation. But if you love the art, the work itself becomes a reward.”

FOR THE POETICALLY CHALLENGED: “Listen to Garrison Keillor’s ‘Writer’s Almanac.’ Or get a copy of ‘The Classic 100 Poems,’ which William Harmon compiled by documenting the poems most often reprinted over the past century. Every page is a joy.”

MARKETING JELL-O: “I was bold enough to say Jell-O was an inherently silly product. The silliness was its charm. It came in bright colors and wiggled. I developed a kids’ finger food, Jell-O Jigglers.

That idea saved the business after 20 years of declining sales.”

HOBBIES: Collecting books and stamps, and birding. “My wife and I saw a bald eagle on the Russian River by Jenner while sipping lattes at a roadside cafe. You can’t get more Sonoma than that.”

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