California Poet Laureate Visits APU

by Lucero Denisse Oceguera ’18

“The world does not need words. It articulates itself in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted. The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being. The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.”

With these opening verses from his poem, fittingly titled “Words,” California’s Poet Laureate Dana Gioia kicked off an evening of poetry and conversation earlier this month on Azusa Pacific’s East Campus. The latest speaker in APU’s James L. Hedges Distinguished Lecture Series, Gioia’s appearance in Munson Chapel drew students, staff, faculty, and alumni to hear the acclaimed poet read a selection of his works and share the inspiration behind his poetry.

Hosted by the College of Liberal Arts and Science, the Department of English, and the Honors College, the event began with an introduction by Mark Eaton, Ph.D., English professor. “Dana Gioia has been a tireless champion of poetry—not just art for art’s sake, but poetry as a necessary accouterment of a life well lived, hence indispensable for human flourishing,” said Eaton. “It is a huge privilege to have a poet and public intellectual of Dana Gioia's stature come to our campus. Not only is he a widely acclaimed and popular poet, but he has also been an champion of the arts in his important role as director of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009.” Gioia went on to read a dozen of his poems, including brief synopses of their meaning, and shared even more insights during a question-and-answer session to conclude the evening. Through his own writings, the audience glimpsed the triumphs, downfalls, heartbreaks, and breakthroughs of the man behind the words on paper.

The son of Italian and Mexican immigrants, Gioia was the first person in his family to attend college. He earned his bachelor’s degree and MBA from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Attending college at Stanford, Gioia was exposed to a whole new world away from his hometown of Hawthorne. “It was a different world up there,” said Gioia of Northern California and its trees, mountains, and smogless air. “The sight of nature was what inspired me to begin writing poetry. Everywhere I looked, there was something new to marvel at and write about.”

These encounters with nature sparked his poetic journey, moving Gioia to write about the beauty of the Northern California peninsula. He also tackled subjects of human emotion and struggle, including the sadness of a love never attained and the burden of dealing with his father’s death. A Southern Californian at heart, Gioia’s local roots also show up in his work, like the poem “California Hills in August,” which takes the reader on a journey of appreciation of the high and dry lands Californians witness every summer.

In 2011, Gioia became the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, where he teaches each fall semester. He was appointed California Poet Laureate by Governor Jerry Brown in 2015. At the time, Gioia remarked, “I believe that poetry is for everyone. It is not a remote or intellectual art. Poetry is our most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words, and it can play a powerful role in schools and civic life. I am honored to become poetry’s public servant in California.”

Visits from notable literary artists, like Gioia, and other distinguished professionals across different career fields punctuate the learning experience of students at APU, helping enhance their understanding of what future careers, ministries, or achievements can look like. Through them, students expand their knowledge and take inspiration. Recent visitors to campus include California State Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who encouraged APU students of color to develop their potential as leaders, and renowned criminologist Hillary Potter, Ph.D., who shared her important research on community activism and law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri. Whether they visit classrooms or lecture halls, having the chance to hear from and speak with professionals working and excelling in a student’s field of interest is a key part of the developmental journey at APU.

Gioia was the eighth distinguished lecturer to visit campus as part of the annual James L. Hedges speaker series, joining past speakers including Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky (both former United States Poet Laureates) and Diane Glancy, a prolific writer of Cherokee descent. Remarking on the California poet’s recent appearance, Eaton said, “A poetry reading by Dana Gioia is an unforgettable experience.”

Lucero Denisse Oceguera ’18 is a sophomore and editorial intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a sociology major and ethnic studies minor.