California, home of 'beat' poets, seeks official bard

Arts programs are kaput, libraries are being shuttered, K-12 education has plummeted, and literacy rates are down. And California has been without a state bard for nearly two years.

Q:Who ya gonna call?

A:Somebody who can rhyme and doesn't need a dime.

Reviving an idea California started in 1915 - and since followed by 35 other states - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Arts Council are in hot pursuit of a state poet laureate. The bard will serve for two years and must perform a minimum of six public readings and undertake a significant cultural project - all in a state that spends only three cents per resident per year on the arts.

The search reveals the sagging fortunes of literacy in the land of John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, and the 1960s San Francisco "beat" poets. Art aficionados hope that the new post may reverse that downward spiral by spreading the power of poetry from school to nursing home, lunchroom to boardroom - without much pay.

"The person we choose will be limited only by the imagination," says Adam Gottlieb, spokesman for the California Arts Council (CAC), which is actively pursuing published resident California writers and poets. "They could open a legislative session, throw out the first baseball or wrap a poem around Catalina Island if they want."

Since California appointed the nation's first poet laureate in 1915, 35 other states have established similar positions as ways to capture each state's unique heritage in verse. And according to Maggie Anderson, director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, the state poet laureates have been highly successful at doing just that.

"They bring a state identity to a region," she says. "They have been quite successful in helping to catalyze ways in which people in a state can read, and write, and perform poetry, and represent the achievements of that state to the nation as a whole."

But some say in a culture of financial cutbacks - the CAC recently lost 97 percent of its budget - a Golden State poet would be nothing more than a feel-good gesture.

"The idea of a poet laureate is always a kind of token position which is good in that the state recognizes the value of poetry, but it comes at the same time they have obliterated the budget that funds smaller arts organizations that often embrace poetry," says Steve Dickison, executive director of The Poetry Center, an American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University.

Indeed, laureates across the nation have long grappled with their poetic purpose.

"We are an extremely obscure and undervalued group of people," says Tom Chandler, poet laureate of Rhode Island, who attended the first national conference for his other state colleagues just last year.

"These jobs come with almost no job description and little if any pay, so we start from scratch and decide what we want to do and how to do it," says Mr. Chandler. Besides numerous personal appearances around the state, he uses a monthly column in the Providence Journal-Bulletin to present Rhode Island poets to a statewide audience.

Utah state poet Ken Brewer, who has penned couplets for building dedications, is largely focused on building a video archive of state writers. He says he "would love to open a session of the state legislature," but hasn't been asked.

"[Brewer] talks about value of arts and what people can do as individuals to support them," says Guy Lebeda, of the Utah Arts Council. "For Utah, it has been a fabulous idea because we are still in the stage of beginning to recognize our own artistic heritage."

While some poets toil to capture recognition by preserving a region's identity, others arrive at their post already decorated. Vermont's laureate Grace Paley, for instance, has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters for her ability to capture the voice of an immigrant generation.

And not all poets are willing to work in obscurity. New Jersey poet laureate Amira Baraka rankled state legislators and antidefamation groups two years ago with a stanza toward the end of a poem entitled, "Somebody Blew Up America": "Who Knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?"

California has set a Jan. 31 deadline to fill its post and hopes to find a bard of distinction and repute. Two years ago, the state passed a bill redefining the position after Charles Garrigus, at the time of his passing, had filled the post for nearly four unremarkable decades. Then the new laureate, Quincy Troupe, resigned after four months when a background check revealed he had lied on his résumé about graduating from college.

Appointing a state bard isn't as simple as it seems. San Francisco State's Dickison says the California position could be tricky if the holder used the post to to speak out about the current state administration's lack of real support for the arts. "And that can be risky," he says, in getting a nomination approved.

But Mr. Gottlieb of the CAC doesn't see an activist poet as a problem. It will be a wide open question, he and others say, whether that person will be such an advocate with formal pleas for more funding, or by just creating a higher profile for great writers. "Poets are unique individuals who can look at the ordinary and transform it into the extraordinary," says Gottlieb. "We want this to be a role model for many others who can be inspired, educated, and enlightened by the art of poetry."

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