By Portia Choi, with contributions by Martin Chang
Photos by Martin Chang
On December 1, 2016 the California Poet Laureate, Dana Gioia, was the presenter at the December Room of the Walter Stiern Library at California State University, Bakersfield. He was friendly and easy mannered, just as he looked in the internet photographs of him. He performed his poems by memory. His feelings for the words and subject matter was expressed in his voice and enhanced by his hands and arms. Gioia’s presentation at CSUB was part of his promise to himself as the Poet Laureate of California. He had promised to visit each of the counties of California during his tenure as the Poet Laureate of the state.
The information about his life are taken from the program at the event at CSUB and from his official website, danagioia.com. The program stated that “Gioia was born in Hawthorne, California, the son of a Sicilian father and a Mexican mother. He became the first person in his family to attend college.” His website stated that “he received a B.A. and a M.B.A. from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University.” In the program, it stated that Gioia “was the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts from 2003 to 2009 and launched several nationwide programs to expand public support for the arts and for arts education with a focus on fostering youth creativity and expression. . . .The California native has received wide critical acclaim including his 1991 volume Can Poetry Matter? which was a finalist for the National Critics Circle award and triggered national discussion on the role of poetry in American public culture. Gioia is also a winner of the American Book Award and was honored with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008 for his public service in support of the arts.”
Gioia spoke of how he started to write poetry. It was when he was 19 or 20 years old that he started writing in a notebook. Before then, he thought that he would be a musician. In his home as a boy, he remembered that his mother would recite poetry that she had memorized. While growing up, he thought that poetry was part of all homes. One of the poems which his mother recited was shared by Gioia with the audience during the evening. The poem was “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, attended the reading. Recent events inspired Huerta to go to the reading. Because of these events it was something she needed as a person. She said, “I loved it. It was exactly what my soul needed tonight. With all the turmoil and everything, it was something I needed desperately.”
Gioia performed a number of poems during the presentation. He gave background and commented on each of the poems that he performed. The first and the last poems of the presentation were the following:
The first poem was written forty years after an experience in his youth. Gioia remembers that as a child and young man, he had only lived in the greater Los Angeles metropolis. When he later traveled to northern California, he had an intense experience during a trip to the Sonoma countryside, at an apple orchard. Gioia describes this experience, “I always had a kind of hunger in Hawthorne, I realized many years later that there was no nature. I visited the ocean but that was a little different. There was this moment where I got what the world was doing. It was a revelation.”
When Gioia visited the apple orchard that inspired the poem, the visit had an air of romance. “I had this crush on a girl, the two of us when across the Golden Gate Bridge and we found ourselves in an apple orchard in Sonoma County.”
The Apple Orchard
You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.
A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.
A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.
We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.
Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me . . . but I stopped.
What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
One of the last poems that Gioia performed was “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet.” He shared that he rewrote this poem almost a hundred time to get the words, the beat and the tone just right.
The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet
The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We weave
The fabric of our own existence out of words,
And the right story tells us who we are.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.
So let me bring this story to our bed.
The world, I say, depends upon a spell
Spoken each night by lovers unaware
Of their own sorcery. In innocence
Or agony the same words must be said,
Or the raging moon will darken in the sky.
The night grow still. The winds of dawn expire.
And if I’m wrong, it cannot be by much.
We know our own existence came from touch,
The new soul summoned into life by lust.
And love’s shy tongue awakens in such fire—
Flesh against flesh and midnight whispering—
As if the only purpose of desire
Were to express its infinite unfolding.
And so, my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake, together or apart,
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,
Body to body, naked to the night,
Appareled only in our utterance.
When asked what is the best way to participate in poetry as a literary pursuit, Gioia said that the best thing to do is to perform. “We make poetry more interesting by going back to what it originally was, which is a spoken performative art. Poetry is language shaped into music,” he said. “That is what people respond to. The entry way into poetry is in the music of poetry.”
Gioia believes that public spaces like the Open Mic at Dagny’s is a great place to celebrate this musical side of poetry. He said, “You may get some bad poems, but you also get good poems. Everyone who listens to it, participates in heightened language.”
Gioia also believes that events like the open mic can become a great place for people of different backgrounds to connect. “If you could use poetry and use art as a way for everybody who lives in a community to come into contact with each other, that has cultural importance.”