Summer 2004 vol 3.2
An Interview with Dana Gioia
Dana Gioia is Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and an internationally acclaimed poet, critic, educator, and former business executive. A native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent, Gioia was the first member of his family to attend college. He received a B.A. and a M.B.A. from Stanford University and a M.A. in comparative Literature from Harvard University. For fifteen years he supported his writing by working as an executive for General Foods in New York, eventually becoming Vice President of Marketing.

An influential critic, Gioia is best known for his 1991 book Can Poetry Matter? about the role of poetry in contemporary culture. His collection of poems, Interrogations at Noon, one of three full-length books of poetry, won the 2002 American Book Award.

Gioia is also an influential literary anthologist. His anthology, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, co-edited with X.J. Kennedy, is the best-selling college literary textbook in America. His many other anthologies include Twentieth-Century American Poetry and The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction: Stories and Authors in Context.

Dana Gioia is a long-time commentator on American culture and literature for BBC Radio. His poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, Slate and The Hudson Review.

Trained in music, Gioia was the classical music critic for San Francisco magazine for six years. His poetry has been set to music by many composers in genres from classical to rock, including a full-length dance theater piece, Counting the Children. He has written two opera libretti, including Nosferatu (2001), with composer Alva Henderson, published by Graywolf Press.

Gioia is an active translator of poetry from Latin, Italian, German, and Romanian. He has published a translation of Italian Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti (1990) as well as two large anthologies of Italian poetry. His translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules (1995) was performed by Verse Theater Manhattan.

In 2001, Gioia founded “Teaching Poetry,” a conference dedicated to improving high school teaching of poetry. Also, he is the founder and co-director of the West Chester University Poetry Conference, the nation’s largest annual all-poetry writing conference.

Dana Gioia has taught as a visiting writer at Johns Hopkins University, Sarah Lawrence College, Colorado College, and Wesleyan University. He is the former Vice President of the Poetry Society of America and has served on the boards of numerous arts organizations.

Nominated by President George W. Bush in January 2003 and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Dana Gioia began his term as the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in February 2003.

turnrow’s Co-editor Jack Heflin and Assistant Editor Claudia Grinnell interviewed Dana Gioia in June of 2004.

turnrow: In a recent review of Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems that you published in Poetry, you seem to appreciate more than anything else the democratic and populist appeal of his selections and go on to note that The Writer’s Almanac “has probably done more to expand the audience for American poetry than all the learned journals of New England.” How does his editing mirror your own goals as Chairman of the NEA for the promotion of the arts in America?

Dana Gioia: Although I share Keillor’s admiration for many poets, his editorial stance doesn’t exactly “mirror” my goals at the National Endowment for the Arts. His literary taste differs from mine in some significant ways. But unlike another critic who wrote damningly about Keillor in the same issue of Poetry, I don’t consider the differences between Keillor’s taste and my own as a sign of Keillor’s aesthetic depravity. I respect his judgment and rather enjoy exploring our differences. I often learn something that way.

I do understand your point, however. As you imply, I find some things about Keillor’s approach relevant to the Arts Endowment, especially his populism and eclecticism. I also admire his high-spirited commitment to reaching all communities across the country—big and small, rural and urban. I share that vision of democratic inclusivity. The Arts Endowment has traditionally done a better job of reaching the top metropolitan areas at the expense of the rest of America. I feel that we need to be more equitable. We need to serve all Americans by providing them with the best of the arts and arts education. That is a difficult goal, but it seems the only possible one in a democracy.

turnrow: Has the measure of “artistic merit” for grant applicants, both for “learned journals” and for individual artists, changed in your tenure as Chair of the NEA?

DG: There is and never has been any single definition of artistic merit at the NEA. All of our applications are decided by independent panels of experts drawn from the relevant field. I believe in this system, and I have protected it. The panel process may not be perfect, but I can’t imagine any better way—in either aesthetic or practical terms—to manage individual artistic decisions. The only change I have made since becoming Chairman is to insist on more diversity and turnover among the panelists. There is a tendency to have the panels drawn repeatedly from the same small pool of experts. It is important for a public agency to be inclusive and democratic. There should never be a group of insiders who exercise undue influence.

turnrow: Do you in principle support the government’s awarding grants to individual writers? Have you always held that position?

DG: I have no inflexible principles in regard to individual artist grants per se. My views are entirely practical—most specifically in regard to how NEA funding can best foster the arts and arts participation. Literature currently receives the largest number of individual grants—on average 50 per year. I have recently increased the number of individual grants in literature—the first increase in years. I hope to announce another increase soon, specifically in the translation category.

turnrow: What about writers whose attitude toward their audience may be ambivalent or threatening?

DG: Your question about “ambivalent” or “threatening” writers is a common one, but it seems tangential to real literary values. There is no single quality that guarantees literary excellence. Most fine writers are in some sense ambivalent about their subjects and attitudes. Only highly ideological writers see the world in one unambiguous way.

Ambivalence is, in fact, a very traditional literary value. Virgil was famously ambivalent about heroism in The Aeneid, and Sophocles was ambivalent about civic justice in Antigone. What is Hamlet but a tragedy of ambivalence? I can hardly imagine a great writer who lacks ambivalence, but I don’t think ambivalence in itself is a guarantee of artistic excellence. What matters is the quality of the contradictory imaginative forces the ambivalence holds in tension.

As for “threatening” writers, I am one. For the past twenty years many mainstream literary people have considered me a threat because I have challenged many conventional pieties. No poet of my generation has been attacked in print as much as I have—by right, left, and center. (I have also been passionately defended by writers of every political and aesthetic persuasion, which I consider a sign of my intellectual integrity.) As my criticism and anthologies demonstrate, I have consistently championed controversial and outcast writers. I like artists who have the courage of their convictions. Such writers usually make enemies, but in the long term candor and honesty win a writer the best sort of literary friendship—the trust of readers.

You should note that the first NEA Jazz Masters Award ever given to a writer went—under my chairmanship—to Nat Hentoff, a great jazz critic who is also an outspoken civil libertarian. Hentoff has made a career of offending everyone in his unflinching defense of free speech and justice.

turnrow: How would you evaluate the success of the NEA project Shakespeare in American Communities?

DG: Shakespeare in American Communities has probably been the most successful initiative in the history of the NEA. It has certainly been the most ambitious and wide-reaching. The program is currently sponsoring 30 professional theater companies to tour new productions of Shakespeare to more than 200 cities across all 50 states as well as military bases and Indian reservations. Most of the communities we visit are small and medium-sized towns, which do not have professional theater. We are also employing nearly one thousand artists and crew members, including 500 actors presenting 17 different plays. (Giving artists steady and inspiring work is no small thing.) Most important, we will eventually bring one million high school students into the theater to see a Shakespeare production. For most of these kids, it will be the first time they have ever seen live professional theater.

How does one evaluate such a huge program? I guess by saying it is a good beginning. But only a beginning. There are still millions of kids and thousands of schools we aren’t yet reaching. We need to improve the state of arts education in this country. We shouldn’t be content until we bring every American kid into plays, symphony concerts, opera, jazz, and dance performances. We don’t want children’s access to the arts to depend upon family income or social class. The arts need to be part of every child’s education.

turnrow: Along with many other contemporary poets, you often choose to write within the traditions of what most of us consider formal poetry. Could you talk about the urge that directs you to these elements of form?

DG: What attracts me to poetic form is pleasure. I like the way it sounds. There is nothing particularly intellectual or academic about my predilection. Having started college in California in 1969, I was taught that free verse was the only true American style. Perhaps that dogma made my attraction to form seem slightly wicked. Many critics evidently thought so. I was attacked ferociously almost as soon as I started publishing. What these critics objected to was simply that I chose to write in form—a forbidden technique at that point. They claimed that poetic form was retrograde, elitist, academic, and even un-American. I noticed at once—not without amusement—that the poets attacking me were always one generation older. They resented youth rebelling against their consensus. I guess I “threatened” them.

Ironically, I have never written exclusively in form. From the start, I’ve also written in free verse. For that reason, I have often been attacked by die-hard formalists who also find me “threatening.” I rarely work in fixed form. I like to play around with the rules too much, including mixing elements of free and formal verse in the same poem. I have never understood the small-mindedness that demands a poet must only work in one way or another. Why should a poet give up any resource of the language? What I have always insisted upon is the poet’s freedom to write in whatever form or manner the poem itself suggests.

turnrow: Is the effect of form what you suggest in the poem “Corner Table” from your recent collection, Interrogations at Noon: “Better to trust / The forms that hold our grief.” Is the writing of poetry a search for some formal vessel that could hold our shared cultural sadness?

DG: This is an interesting question. Yes, I was making a sort of subtextual pun in that otherwise sad poem. In a literal sense, “the forms that hold our grief” in “Corner Table” are the social forms of good manners and etiquette that give that couple in the restaurant a way to get through an emotionally devastating dinner. They talk and conduct themselves with courtesy and consideration despite the heartache. Poetic forms can do something similar. Their music can enclose seemingly unbearable emotions in a way that makes them accessible.

turnrow: How do you avoid merely painting by numbers when you use these conventions?

DG: How does a jazz musician avoid “painting by numbers” every time he or she plays? The beat doesn’t prevent or weaken music—it guides it. The beat gives music and poetry a kind of primal physical energy. Of course, the beat alone is neither music nor poetry—just one element out of many. That is why good poems are so hard to write. As Elizabeth Bishop once said, they require “hundreds of things coming together at the right moment.”

When form is used well in a poem, it feels inevitable—as if there were no other way to say these things. It never feels imposed but seems intrinsic. When form is used badly, it feels mechanical. Form doesn’t generate poems. Emotion does. I never begin a poem by planning to work in a specific form. I listen to the language that arrives and try to see the shape it suggests. I’m often quite surprised by the form a poem finally assumes.

turnrow: What current expressions of form in American poetry are you most excited about?

DG: I don’t get very excited about literary trends, although some are fascinating to analyze—especially the bad ones. Trends usually reflect conformity—group-thinking and received ideas. What excites me most are distinctively accomplished new writers, especially poets who have developed some expressive and memorable way of writing. That’s how I felt when I first read Kay Ryan’s work ten years ago when she was virtually unknown. Among the new writers who interest me most at the moment are H. L. Hix and Diane Thiel. Hix is cerebral, ingeniously inventive, and often scary. He is an experimental poet whose experiments usually succeed—a rare event in contemporary letters. Thiel is rhapsodic but oddly controlled. She is like a gentle and more emotionally accessible Louise Glück. There are also writers in mid-career who keep getting better and better like David Mason, B. H. Fairchild, and Michael Donaghy.

The most interesting critic to emerge lately is Jack Foley. He is a Berkeley-based experimental poet who also understands the tradition. His essays are accessible yet profound. They are also often weird, eccentric, and funny. Foley is particularly brilliantly and insightful on poetry’s relation to electronic culture as well as the ways in which poetry uses myth, politics, regional identity, and religion. Foley has a literary radio show on KPFA that may be the best thing of its kind in the country.

turnrow: The NEA has recently released a survey of American literary reading called Reading at Risk. Can you tell us something about this report? [In a press release today, July 8, 2004, the NEA indicated that forty-seven percent of Americans don’t read literature.]

DG: Reading at Risk summarizes twenty years of statistical data that provides a detailed survey of American reading habits. The results are terrifying to anyone who considers advanced and active literacy essential to a democracy. Reading has fallen off drastically among every group in the U.S.—every age, race, region, education and income level, and both men and women. Nowhere has the decline been more precipitous than among young adults. The report also shows the strong positive relationship between reading and other forms of active civic involvements—like volunteerism, charity work, and participation in the other arts.

This is a report that writers and educators need to ponder. I don’t think the problem is impossible to solve, but it will require real effort. Otherwise literary culture, as we know it, will gradually become a thing of the past. And, worse, yet we will lose something irreplaceable in our society—active, engaged, and informed citizens.