Poets Guide the Way

Lit by Susan Bono, 03/19/07

In honor of National Poetry Month, Betty Rodgers of Boise, ID, sent this link to Ronna Leon's photos of 52 California Poets Laureates. These arresting images and words will inspire the poet in you.

California Poets Laureate slide show

Photographer and poet Ronna Leon has this to say about her ongoing project:


Crowning artists and athletes with laurels dates back to the ancient Greeks. The middle ages saw the tradition flourishing in England, and it was made official a few centuries later when Ben Johnson was installed (1615) as Poet Laureate to the court of Charles I.

In the United States, California was the first state to honor a poet as a laureate conferring the honor (1915) on Ina Donna Coolbrith. The poetry circle she founded still flourishes today.

For the rest of the past century the state honored various gentlemen ceremoniously for life as poets laureate. It wasn't until 2001 that Sacramento took another look at the program and enacted legislation that restructured the state laureate program giving it clear public responsibilities, a two year term of office, and a clarified nomination and appointment system. State laureate positions are now part of the civic life of over 40 states. A National Poet Laureate is also appointed by the Librarian of Congress. The Californian, Robert Hass' appointment in 1995-1997 certainly did much to stimulate interest in the honor in the Golden State.

Early in 1998 various counties and municipalities also joined the cultural feast and enacted local poet laureate programs. Each area formulated the honor and service to fit local needs. Some favored life appointments and others opted for one to three years terms of service. The structure of the post is almost as individually defined as the poets holding the position. Some are called poet laureates while others, more broadly, are called literary laureates. Most of these programs still thrive. Each honors a dedicated poet who serves a cultural tradition of public readings, poetry education, and community events which stimulates public awareness of the rich landscape of the poetic arts.

I may be the only person to have met all 52 of these Poets Laureate. This collection of portraits is, to me, a light that has been turned on, and suddenly there they all are, each of them busy fostering poetry in their communities, going about their fine work as poet citizens. But they haven't just suddenly sprung into action. Before and after their laureate duties, as you will discover, they have all been activists for poetry. I was amazed to discover how isolated each program is from its counterparts in the state and how little of their contributions to our civic culture is in the public record.

I first got involved with this project when Joel Fallon (Benicia) invited me to the poet laureate gathering organized by Mary Rudg(Alameda). Her hope was that the laureates throughout California would share common concerns and let artists (sketchers, photographers) have the chance to record impressions of them. As a photograher/poet myself, this seemed grand. At the event, I took portraits of about 18 laureates. Encouraged by my results and curious about the people I was meeting, I fast fell into a fully blown photo project. My intent became to make portraits of all the living California poet laureates at the state, county/district, and city level.

Like the people pictured here, I have a deep love for poetry and relish the joy and insight it brings to my life.

I hope my photos capture some of the intelligentce, and spirit of these fine citizen poets.

Photographer and poet Ronna Leon is about to produce some catalogs of the 52 images of current and past laureates she now has. She's working on trying to find funding to produce a poster and print show that might travel around to California libraries and civic center promoting the poet laureate programs.

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