03/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Poet in Hollywood

A couple of months ago, I received a call from the Governor's office, informing me that I had been appointed California Poet Laureate. Soon after, I was invited to write a brief essay for the Los Angeles Times about my appointment. I mused a bit about how this poetic "office", which had originated as a royal appointment in Britain, had eventually crossed the Pond and shown up in the U.S. (and various states) as a more informal American cousin. No more "odes" to the Queen Mum, or poems celebrating Tube station openings. Rather the occasional casual panegyric like my hopeful little Golden State litany: "...desert by the sea, one hundred tongues, snow-peaked, blowing fire, homeless under the freeway, homeboy jewel in the lotus".. etc.

The first Poet Laureate of California (appointed in 1915) was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, as Josephine Donna Smith. Her uncle was the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. Her mother fled polygamy with her young daughter Josephine -- they traveled by covered wagon to California, where Josephine Smith reinvented herself as Ina Coolbrith to escape the Smith name and legacy. She was a librarian and a teacher and mentor to a young Jack London. But her poems sounded as Brit as elevenses, even though her subjects were often inspired by her home state, like "California Poppy":

Not all proud Sheba's queenly offerings

Could match the golden marvel of thy blooms...

Poetry, as a famous poet once said, should not "mean" but "be". And what does that mean? It's useless to speculate that a poem by Ina Coolbrith, written from the perspective of little Josephine Smith -- crossing the Sierras in a lurching covered wagon, her terrified mother holding her hand as they came over that last rise, then on to the end of the continent, the sun-lit ocean -- would naturally "be" more convincingly than Ina Coolbrith's "queenly offerings".

Still, a poem too laden with meaning or the rhetoric of "meaning" won't make it over the mountains. Poems in which meaning and the poem's "being" come together in a convincing idiom and a "voice" and powerful language -- will travel well.

I tried to write about being a poet married to an actor in a collection of essays called MARRIED TO THE ICEPICK KILLER: a Poet in Hollywood, a compilation of pieces written for the LA Times Book Review and the New York Times Book Review, Op Ed page and Magazine. My late husband, the actor David (Coleman) Dukes, once played a killer-with-an-icepick (opposite Frank Sinatra, as the hardened detective on his trail) in the film First Deadly Sin. In a few of the essays, I tried to provide a sense of what it was like to live, as a poet, in a town whose central industry was the creation of illusion -- where people confused the two regularly. (Arriving late to a dinner party one evening -- entering a room in which guests were already seated -- a woman rises up, dropping her napkin, pointing at my husband: "You're the one who raped Edith Bunker!" I glance at him and he answers her calmly, "No" he says, "I tried to, but she hit me in the face with a cake from the oven.")

I've written poems, as well, about Hollywood and movies and David, his loss. I've written about teaching poetry -- at USC, where I'm a professor -- and in the prisons in NY State and on Riker's Island. Recently, I visited Home Boys Industries, the new location for the so-far-successful gang rehabilitation center -- and Home Boys bakery and restaurant. We watched former gang bangers, minus their tattoos and gang insignia -- learning the rudiments of child care and homemaking in a "Baby & Me" class. I wrote a poem about this experience (in an armored form called a Sapphic, a syllabic form). An excerpt:

Ex-gang members. Drive-by days over. Zero

Tattoos, tagging. Sippy cups, hoodies. Baby

Daddies gather, stubble-cheeked, holding infants.

Rock-a-by Central.

I later read this poem on an NPR affiliate station; a California juvenile court judge named Margaret Johnson heard it and sent me an email about the poem -- she asked me if she could give copies of it to "teenage offenders" in her courtroom. Will it mean anything to them? Probably not -- but it will "be" a poem to them, therefore an object of curiosity -- perhaps, ultimately, a form of I.D.: "I'm in that poem."

As Poet Laureate of California, I am charged with creating a statewide project. I've decided to rev up a vehicle called A Magic Schoolbus -- the bus will travel throughout California, carrying poets, artists and actors to our beleaguered public schools -- and we hope to leave in place an informal guide to teaching creative writing -- so that teachers can re-create the experience of approaching a poem or a story. I hope to "partner" schools (a school in Fresno with one in San Francisco) in writing and sending poems to each other.

I've gotten letters from schoolchildren all over the state, asking the poet laureate to come and visit them. One child from the Imperial Valley wrote: "Poet Laurette! Please come and visit! I once knew a poem but I forgot!"

That, to me, is a poem -- it's alive, it doesn't just "mean". I'll keep you posted about California poetry -- and The Bus.