The city of Los Angeles will select its first poet laureate this fall. He or she will be tasked with visiting schools, giving readings and crafting verse evocative of the city for special occasions. (A $10,000 annual stipend guarantees an on-call poet.)
We could question why the mayor and the City Council, in the midst of a budget crisis, are creating and funding a new government post that is not essential — and we just did — but their decision follows the growing trend of most every state and thousands of cities, large and small, to establish civic poets.
"The major reason why you create a poet laureateship is to symbolize the importance of reading and writing literature in a free society," said Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet who is chairing the mayor's Poet Laureate Task Force (yes, really), which will make the selection. Gioia sees it not as a ceremonial position but as a community service. Indeed, there is something valuable, even lovely, in dispatching an emissary of an often inaccessible art form to captivate poetry lovers, woo the doubters and inspire all.
Nominations from various sources will be considered, and poets can nominate themselves. But, for whichever poet is chosen, we have some advice. When selecting a topic, avoid surfing, the ocean in general and every natural disaster. Earthquakes (Carole King) and devil winds (Joan Didion) have already been exhaustively mused on. Instead, look for what gives the city its character, for better or worse.