Pioneers in Poetry: California’s Poet Laureate

Did you know that California was the first state to appoint an official poet laureate? To single out a writer whose work was deemed to have great cultural significance and importance, California named poet Ina Coolbrith its poet laureate in April of 1915. Since then, states across the nation have joined California in naming their own laureates; 42 states now grant that title to a writer on a regular basis. So what exactly does a state poet laureate do, and who is the reigning poetic heavyweight of California today? Read on to find out more!

What are the Duties of a State Poet Laureate?

Depending on the state itself, the official “job” of poet laureate can mean a few different things. Generally speaking, however, one thing remains the same regardless of location: The poet laureate’s primary purpose is to encourage the sustainment and growth of writing in the state. This could be accomplished in a number of different ways. Some poets start initiatives in schools to foster a love of writing in children and teens, while others hold festivals and readings throughout the year to encourage everyone to celebrate the written word!

poet laureate California

Who is California’s Current Poet Laureate?

In 2012, Juan Felipe Herrera was named the poet laureate of California by Governor Edmund G. Brown. He has published 29 books in his long career, received the Guggenheim Fellowship, and received a National Book Critics Circle Award for his work. As the Golden State’s poet laureate, he has headed several projects to get people writing and thinking about poetry. The “Answer Cancer with a Poem” initiative calls on Californians to write a piece about how cancer has touched their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Through verse, Herrera hopes that the “healing powers of the poem” can help people to cope with cancer as it affects their lives. As a Spanish-speaking poet, Herrera also launched the “Show Me Your Papers” poetry project, which invites amateur and professional writers to write on the issue of immigration and migration, highlighting political awareness through poems.

Do either of Juan Felipe Herrera’s poetry initiatives get you inspired? Even if you are not a California resident, there is no reason you can’t try your hand at a poem based on these projects. If you like what you write, consider submitting it to our poetry contest and show your work to the world!

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