Dana Gioia, Poet

Dana Gioia with Frogs, Rats, and Bats from his new opera, The Three Feathers

Dana Gioia with Frogs, Rats, and Bats from his new opera, The Three Feathers

I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at this blank page, fingers poised over the laptop’s keyboard. But it feels like a long time. A very long time. And my thoughts are all over the map; I see them as an army of impossibly tiny steer running in every direction and there’s me without a horse to give chase, standing dumbstruck, as they brazenly scatter across my boot-tips, safe in the knowledge that the lone impossibly tiny lasso dangling from my shaking hand poses no threat to them whatsoever.

Oh, look, another bill just landed in my email. Thanksgiving is upon us, Christmas is right around the corner and why is it these holidays now bring me more anxiety than pleasure? And then there’s the perfectly timed article over at The New York Times’ website in which two established authors are attempting to answer the question, “How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley?” I know it’s coincidental but that doesn’t stop my irrational racing mind from asking, “Am I being mocked?”

And then, finally, a more pertinent question—ferried upon the impossibly tiny shoulders of a wayward steer—breaks through the pack: Does this kind of thing ever happen to poet Dana Gioia? He’s the former chairman (2003-2009) of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and in 2011 was named Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California where he teaches in the fall. (Other Judge Widney Professors at USC include world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now-retired General David Petraeus, and conductor, pianist, and composer Michael Tilson Thomas.)

During one of our first email exchanges in which we’re attempting to set up a time to talk on the phone, Gioia remarks, “Next week is pure madness, but I should be okay by the weekend.” But then the following day brings this missive: “And today I got word that I have a German professor staying with me and another one who wants me to come to his lecture, and my older son just sent me the manuscript of his latest magnum opus which needs immediate care, and tomorrow night I must be the interlocutor—I’m not making this up—for a historian who has written a history of double entry accounting (a pretty interesting book, by the way). I also have a piece due for the program of an opera for which I’ve written the libretto, lyrics for a jazz song cycle, and half a dozen letters of recommendation, all urgent. This is what they call a contemplative life.”

I want to believe that Gioia sometimes finds himself staring numbly at a blank computer screen and, if not feeling mocked by it, at least wondering, Why me? Why today when I really need to get this done? But the further I dig into his literary history and the more we communicate via email and, later by phone, well, I just don’t see how it’s possible—or even an option for that matter.

He has published four full-length poetry collections (one of which, Interrogations at Noon, was the 2002 American Book Award winner) and eight chapbooks. Gioia is also an acclaimed critic and essayist whose 1991 compilation, Can Poetry Matter?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Then there are the anthologies, of which Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing are just a couple. His poems, translations (Latin, Italian, and German), essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Book Review, among many others. Not to mention three libretti: Nosferatu (with composer Alva Henderson), Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (with composer Paul Salerni), and The Three Feathers (with composer Lori Laitman). The latter, a children’s opera based upon a fairy tale of the same name by the Brothers Grimm, had its world premiere at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech back in October.

And I haven’t even mentioned two Word documents sent to me by Dana as reference—one titled “Musical Settings of Poems” encompasses eleven pages of his work and collaborations, the other a “List of Books” (a few of which I’ve already noted) clocks in at a mere three pages and is by no means comprehensive.

He’d warned me in advance that he was “a talker” and when we finally spoke on the phone some weeks later I understood why. We were about twenty-five minutes in when I realized I hadn’t yet asked Gioia a single question from the list of about fifteen or so on the notebook in front of me. But the thing was, I didn’t care. I’d intuited after just a few minutes that Dana was someone who couldn’t help but talk passionately, regardless of the subject at hand. Combine that passion with his unassuming, jovial demeanor, and sonorous voice and you soon realize the best course of action is to simply sit back and listen.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m very working class Italian, and the main topic of conversation of adults when I grew up was misery and deprivation. You know, the theme song could have been Noel Coward’s “There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner.” When his father retired from work due to health reasons he had no pension to fall back on but Dana was glad to help out—just as he was glad to help put both his brother and sister through college. “I never let myself think of quitting. I might go to another job but I will not quit working. It was just, like, a given…and I did it because once you start allowing yourself to hate your job then when are you going to stop? (He laughs.) Especially for a poet. I mean, there’s always other stuff you want to do. So I just wouldn’t let myself go there. And it was probably a pretty good spiritual discipline.”

That discipline saw him through fifteen years at General Foods and the publication of his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic. The essay garnered attention worldwide, and ruffled more than a few feathers within established poetry circles. But it was also the impetus for Dana to decide to try and make a living as a writer. “So I asked my wife how much was the smallest amount of money we could get by on, and she gave me a number which, I have to say, in retrospect, was pure fantasy.” (He laughs.) They had two kids at the time. Still, Gioia says that there were only two really bad years when he was cutting his financial teeth as a full-time writer (one of which, after deductions were taken for his children, he had no taxable income). “There are times that I felt bad about quitting [General Foods] for my family’s sake but I never felt bad about quitting for my sake… If you put yourself in a new world and allow yourself to be open to possibility, things happen.” 

American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
—“Can Poetry Matter?” (The Atlantic, May 1991)

During our conversation, Dana references a huge survey of adult readers that the NEA regularly conducts. And while he didn’t have an exact figure on hand, he noted that the number of adults reading poetry continues its downward spiral.

“We’ve created a profession of poetry [for] which we have employment, we have grants, we have awards, we have civic positions…but an ironic counterpoint is that the number of people in our society reading poetry has gone down. If you look at “Can Poetry Matter?” the basic insight is really very simple: generally, at any moment of culture there are just simple things to be said that nobody wants to say. It must be hundreds of millions of dollars a year being spent on poetry (professors, scholars, writers, etc.). We have a culture where almost everybody agrees it’s beside the point. And I just say, well, let’s explore that paradox.

“Maybe one of the reasons that poetry is declining [is] because of the very way that we teach it, we profess it, and we institutionalize it. And I believe that. I believe the professors, the school systems and even the poets, you know, lost touch with why people need poetry—you know, what it does, why they like it.”

In case you’re wondering, Gioia and I did finally get to those questions in my notebook. And, as it turns out, he has a workaround for that blank, mocking page: take a pair of pruning shears to it.

Michael Passafiume: How would you describe the state of poetry today in relation to print versus electronic publishing?

Dana Gioia: The state of poetry in print and electronic media is oddly similar. A huge amount of poetry constantly appears in both media, but the audience is small and increasingly fragmented. The internet makes poetry more easily accessible, but it hasn’t grown the readership. I love the convenience of the internet. If I become interested in a poet, I can usually find something instantly on the web. That’s nice, but in such cases the poet gets neither sales nor royalties. That’s not so nice.

MP: In “Can Poetry Matter?” you called poetry “a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia.” That was written in 1991. Has your view on the profession of poetry since altered?

If I become interested in a poet, I can usually find something instantly on the web. That’s nice, but in such cases the poet gets neither sales nor royalties. That’s not so nice.

DG: I was, of course, talking about the academic profession of creative writing. Over the past twenty years things have changed but not for the better. Like many other middle-class professions, the university creative writing trade has suffered significant damage. Nowadays there are virtually no new full-time jobs. There is also a generational split between the older tenured faculty, who are comparatively well-paid, and younger people, who lack full-time employment, job security, and benefits.

The situation for writers is actually worse than for most other fields. English departments need lots of graduate students to teach freshman composition courses, so for the past three decades they have deliberately admitted far more students than can ever be placed in permanent jobs. These young writers and scholars are openly exploited with poor pay and little likelihood of career advancement. It is a shameful situation. Academia has created a lost generation.

MP: In the title essay of your book Disappearing Ink, you said: Finally, there has been a decline in the quality and seriousness of poetry reviewing itself… Consequently, the reader seriously interested in following contemporary poetry finds that criticism now comes mainly in four varieties: invisible, incomprehensible, inaccessible, and insincere.

And in “Can Poetry Matter?” you again turned your sights on the topic of poetry reviewing: Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don’t publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.

Today, unless it’s a collection by a well-known, well-regarded poet (“well” being relative), you might find coverage about a new book of poetry in The New York Review of Books or The Cortland Review, but coverage will likely be scarce in publications such as The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

Do reviews matter to anyone beyond the narrow scope of literary scholars and creative writers?

DG: Literature does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Criticism creates the conversation about literature that informs and enlarges the audience. When criticism is healthy, literature becomes more relevant and vital. Reviews give us the news of literature. These reviews matter greatly when they are intelligent, well-written, and honest.

When I finish a piece by a critic like Clive James or Adam Kirsch, I not only feel more alert and informed.; their writing whets my appetite for poetry.

Reading a first-rate critic, we enjoy the privilege of following a fellow reader’s mind and emotions as he or she engages in a literary work. Their efforts amplify and refine our ability to read the work. Unfortunately, so many reviews nowadays feel dull and untrustworthy—full of bland approbation and generic blather. Those reviews don’t matter because they don’t offer much that’s useful to the reader.

And, at least in my case, they dull my appetite for the art.

MP: You told me that A poem should be personal but it shouldn’t be autobiographical. A poem is about us…a common space both of us can occupy. You should feel as much ownership of it as I do.

I’m a poet whose work is highly autobiographical and whose style often pitches a tent in the confessional camp. Even so, I strive to engage a reader on multiple levels: I want them to learn about me but I also want them to learn something about themselves, to experience that Zen-like moment of “Hey, I’ve been where this guy’s been before; I’ve had those same feelings!”

What’s your yardstick for transforming “this is about me” to “this is about us?”

Prose can gain by the slow accumulation of detail, but poetry usually loses its energy and edge. A poem should evoke memory and emotion, not just catalogue them.

DG: There are two ways of answering this question—first from the reader’s perspective, then from the author’s.

As a reader of poetry, I worry that contemporary poetry has become too mired in needless private details. I often come across poems that would be twice as good if they were half the length. It’s not merely a matter of lost intensity. It’s about leaving some room in the poem for the reader to bring his or her own life. Prose can gain by the slow accumulation of detail, but poetry usually loses its energy and edge. A poem should evoke memory and emotion, not just catalogue them.

As a writer, I try to make my poems personal but not exhaustively autobiographical.

What I leave out can be as important as what I include. I want to invite the reader to bring his or her own life into the poem. In fact, I’ve come to believe that this need for the reader to “complete” the poem is part of the particular frisson of poetry. That is why poetry is a bit harder to read than prose. We need to do part of the imaginative work, and that effort brings us deeper into the text. For that reason, I try to cut out any detail that doesn’t seem necessary, and then I cut some more.

MP: In a lecture you gave to Antioch students last year on “The Poetic Line,” you claimed that the line is the key factor that separates poetry from other forms of literature. You also said that “in a poem, the microcosm is the macrocosm.”

DG: The most obvious difference between prose and verse is lineation. In art, obvious elements are always important—although that is often what experts ignore. Poetic technique consists mostly of exploiting the expressive possibilities of lineation as a formal principle to communicate and intensify meaning. Formal verse does it in auditory ways; free verse in syntactic or visual ways. The line is like the frame on a painting. It shows us where to pay attention. I spent an hour examining, refining, and explaining these points. So my summary is really just a few headlines.

Now on to your second question. One of the interesting things about poetry is that one can take a line or two—say from Yeats or Eliot or Dickinson—and it has the weird quality of recapitulating the power of the entire poem. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” “The Soul selects her own Society—/Then—shuts the Door.” “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

A few words have the ability to evoke the larger structure of meaning and music. That is why people quote poetry in a way that they don’t quote fiction or drama. This social practice recognizes that a special power of poetry is its quotability. Offer a few lines from a great poem, and you already create a heightened state of attention in the audience.

MP: Taking into account today’s reading audience, what is the value of rhyme and rhyme schemes to creative writing students?

DG: Rhyme is a powerful and perennially popular technique. Over the past thirty years it has become even more popular with the rise of hip hop. Rhyme may also be one of the obvious ways in which to expand the audience for poetry since it appeals to the ordinary reader. Any aspiring poet should learn how to write in rhyme. Even if they don’t find the technique useful for their later work, it improves their eye and ear.

There is also something that I’ve seen again and again among young writers. If you make writing students learn a dozen different verse-forms—not just rhyme and meter but even different types of free verse—they are astonished to discover that they have a particular talent for some technique they’ve never tried before. The forms allow them to discover things about their own imagination. At the start no writer really knows what he or she does best. By learning the craft of writing they learn about themselves.

MP: I’ve seen you give readings and read your work. Rhyming seems to come natural to you. Is that a fair assumption? What about it do you enjoy? How do you avoid the dreaded “chime effect?”

DG: I have complicated feelings about rhyme. Over the years I’ve noticed that about a third of my poems rhyme—exactly the same proportion that are in free verse. I find it an intoxicating, mysterious, and maddening technique. Used well, rhyme offers pleasure and musicality to a poem in ways that most people can immediately apprehend. The trick is figuring out when a poem wants to be rhymed. As a new poem starts to emerge in one’s imagination, what shape does it want to take?

Rhyme moves a poem from conversational speech towards song. That is not always the right direction.

For me, rhymes either come at once or they take forever. I’m delighted that you find my rhymes so natural. It takes hard work to make them seem effortless.

When I hear people talk about “imposing” a form or rhyme on a poem, it seems to me that they have the process backwards. You can’t impose a rhyme on a line without making it sound false or awkward. You have to lure the rhyme out of the words. That usually means revising the whole line, not just the final words. Richard Wilbur once told me that a poet rhymes lines not words. That observation struck me as right.

MP: Suppose that you have a day or two, unfettered from social or work obligations, and you want to get some writing done. What is your process?

DG: My process is terrible. I usually have trouble getting started. I waste hours doing everything except the task at hand. I do the dishes. I go outside and prune trees. I answer letters. I drink lots of coffee. Finally, I get so angry at myself that I become depressed. I boil in self-contempt. About half an hour later, I start writing. I’m sure if I had an analyst, he or she would have a great deal to say about my need for psychic disturbance.

I should add that every now and then a poem just comes in the window and lands on the page. In those cases, it seems that I have been writing it for years in the back of my mind. On those days the dishes sit in the sink.

MP: Do you ever tire of poetry—either reading or writing it?

DG: I honestly love reading poetry—good poetry. What happens, however, is that after one gets bombarded by bad poetry, it just kills the appetite. I remember Elizabeth Bishop telling me that after reading some literary journals, she didn’t want to look at another poem for months. In order to read poetry well, you need to be open and vulnerable. That’s why bad poetry is so excruciating.

Writing poetry is an involuntary process. A poem either comes or it doesn’t. I can’t write a good poem as an act of will. I am at the mercy of the Muse. Sometimes she stays away for months, even years. Then she barges in and starts dictating. I never tire of seeing her. I wish she would stop by more often.

MP: What authors have influenced you and your writing?

DG: Some writers influence your ideas. Other influence your style. A few provide useful models for your life (or cautionary examples of what not to do). The modern poets who have served as models for me have been W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Rainer Maria Rilke—each in different ways. They helped me clarify what it means to be a poet in the modern world. But I’ve learned a lot from prose writers, too. Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, and John Cheever taught me a great deal about writing poetry.

MP: Speaking of reading, what occupies space these days on your nightstand or iPad?

DG: Reading is one of the great and constant pleasures of my life. I can’t recall a time in my life that I didn’t read for pleasure. I still read a great deal of fiction—at least one novel or book of short stories a week. The trouble is that I often feel I’ve read most of the books I’m likely to love. So I reread a great deal. This past year I’ve reread four novels by Friedrich Durrenmatt as well as much of Chekhov. Last night I finished Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a short novel that consists entirely of letters of recommendation by a teacher of creative writing. It was very witty and at times quite touching. The best new novel I’ve read lately is Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. It is in some ways a conventional Bildungsroman about a young poet trying to find himself on a fellowship to Spain, but Lerner’s prose has such remarkable richness and bite. He portrays the delusions of a young male artist with merciless accuracy. Lerner is also a poet. His verse is good, but fiction is his true métier.

For poetry, the best new book I’ve read is J. Allyn Rosser’s Mimi’s Trapeze. I’m still not crazy about the title, but the poems both moved and fascinated me. Rosser’s poetry is smart and clever, but her work seethes with such quiet emotion that the effect is deeply emotional. I don’t understand why Rosser isn’t on everyone’s list of the best younger poets.

MP: If time travel becomes a reality tomorrow, where will you go?

DG: I would go back to December, 1987 and try to prevent the death of my first son.

MP: Do you write for an audience or only for yourself?

DG: I suppose a poet might write only for himself, but that situation doesn’t appeal to me. A poem without readers seems a diminished thing. I have always written for an audience—but not the small, cantankerous audience that exists for contemporary poetry. I write for the sort of person who reads novels, listens to jazz, watches old movies. These people don’t pay much attention to poetry. But it’s my experience that they like good poems when they encounter them. It’s not a bad thing for poetry to compete with fiction or film. I’ve always assumed that I would have to create my readership as I went along.

MP: What advice would you give a fledgling writer pertaining to the craft of poetry?

DG: Love the art. Be passionate. Immerse yourself in it for hours every day—reading, writing, memorizing, reciting. Learn poems by heart. Bring them into the center of your being. Take pleasure in mastering technique. Study great poems and not so great poems, so that you can tell the difference. If you don’t love poetry so much that all this labor seems like fun, then try something else. Fame and fortune are unlikely outcomes for the poet. The main reward is doing work you love.

Michael PassafiumeMichael Passafiume is co-poetry editor of Lunch Ticket. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The AlembicThe Blue Hour MagazineDirty ChaiDrunk MonkeysKNOCK MagazineMinetta Review, and The Subterranean Quarterly, among others. His chapbook, I Know Why the Caged Bird Screams, was a quarterfinalist for the Mary Ballard Poetry Prize for 2015 from Casey Shay Press. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.