State, Foothills Are Alive With Wordplay


Katerina Karen Canyon began writing poetry as a child, after her father snooped through her diary: "I had a need to write things down," said Canyon, 32. "So I wrote poems, thinking he wouldn't know what I was writing about."

This month, Canyon was named poet laureate of Sunland-Tujunga, a community of winding back roads in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

On a sultry August night, at a potluck dinner, with classical music playing softly in the background, the laurel crown was passed by 65-year-old Marlene Hitt, the community's first poet laureate.

Poets laureate are a tradition borrowed from the British, and increasingly popular nationwide. Laureates are almost never salaried, although the first--Ben Jonson--received a pension and a wine allowance in 1616.

Last week, the state Legislature adopted a bill outlining terms for selecting a new California poet laureate. Gov. Gray Davis is expected to sign it.

Established in 1915, the state post was last held by a poet of dubious literary merit, former Democratic Assemblyman Charles "Gus" Garrigus. His fellow legislators chose him in 1966, and he clung to the designation until his death last year at 86.

Traditionally, the job of British poets laureate is to praise the monarch and mark important public occasions such as coronations and royal births. As unofficial poet laureate of the United States, Robert Frost struggled against a bitter January wind at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy to read a poem he had written.

Local poets laureate like Canyon are a newer breed. They are found in San Francisco, Providence, R.I., and Northern California's Sonoma County, among other places.

"I feel like I'm an ambassador for poetry," said Janice Mirikitani, 60, who replaced Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti as poet laureate of San Francisco.

Poets Help Celebrate Events

Ray Davey, 42, is poet laureate of Providence, R.I., as well as a speech writer for Mayor Vincent Cianci. Davey said he had just finished an "occasional" poem to celebrate the 100th time the city has lighted bonfires along the river as part of its popular public art events, called Waterfire. His position is strictly honorary. "The mayor said I'd get a dollar a year, but I've yet to see my buck," he said.

Canyon is paid nothing but the good wishes of her fellow Tujungans. So far, she has yet to write her first poem for a public occasion. "But they said I would have to write something for the Tujunga Little League," Canyon said.

Ginni Haddad, who was on the five-member selection committee, said Canyon was picked from a field of six applicants, in part because she tackles controversial themes. "She doesn't limit herself to nature poems about the beautiful hills around Tujunga, and her poetry isn't self-enveloped," said Haddad, a poet herself.

Canyon has written poems about her biracial daughter, Aja, about being black, about being abused as a child and about discrimination against women.

"We hope her example will help some of the other artists of Sunland-Tujunga, including performing and fine artists, to come out of the thickets," Haddad said.

In fact, Tujunga attracted many writers and other artists early in the 20th century, including writer John Steven McGroarty (1862-1944). McGroarty was Tujunga's first mayor and a poet laureate of California. His home, built of local boulders, is now Tujunga's McGroarty Arts Center.

Hitt said one of the reasons Sunland-Tujunga decided to have a poet laureate was to counter its seedy image as a home to drug dealers. "We wanted our community to have a different reputation," she said. "We just get tired of being classed as a methamphetamine capital."

Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) wrote the California poet laureate bill. In addition to making the post official, the bill mandates that the poet-in-chief be "a prominent poet with a significant amount of published work" and a California resident for at least 10 years.

Chosen by the governor from three nominees of the California Arts Council, the laureate would be limited to two two-year terms. He or she would give at least six public readings per term and undertake a significant project "to make the poetic arts more accessible to California and its students."

The council is expected to pick up the laureate's expenses and "may establish an appropriate stipend."

Since the poet laureate of the United States receives $35,000 a year, the California stipend is expected to be modest, at best.

Capturing Children's Imaginations

Pavley, a former middle school history teacher, said having an official poet would send the right message to children. "A great teacher, a great storyteller, a great poet can capture the imagination of school-age children and make a difference in their lives," she said.

The laureate post also would help recognize the state's rich cultural tradition, she said.

Pavley's bill had bipartisan support, including that of Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine). When the bill was in committee, Campbell revealed that his great, great uncle, Bayard Taylor, had been poet laureate of the United States. "Longfellow gave the eulogy at his funeral," Campbell said in an interview.

State Librarian Kevin Starr said a poet laureate is a mark of a civilized society.

"All mature civilizations have had poets laureate, either appointed or de facto," Starr said. The position is an acknowledgment, he said, that the culture expects to be judged, not just by its size or gross national product, but "by the quality of its literature and its imagination."

Perhaps because poets laureate don't have paid jobs to lose, they sometimes have personal agendas.

When Ferlinghetti became poet laureate of San Francisco in 1997, he gave a speech calling for five reforms: closing much of the city to cars, promoting alternative radio and TV, restoring the city's natural waterways, painting the rusty red Golden Gate Bridge golden, and tilting Coit Tower. "Think what it did for Pisa!" he said in favor of the last proposal.

Canyon has her own agenda for Sunland-Tujunga. She hopes to establish a poetry slam in the community--a competitive reading that has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Unlike most readings, slams are high-energy events that appeal to young people who deliver their poems, rap-fashion. Canyon said slams help youngsters become better poets: "With poetry slams, you have to structure your poem so you excite an audience."

She plans to visit schools to talk about poetry.

"I'm actually a shy person by nature," she said, "but when I speak about my poetry, I'm not that soft-spoken."

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