In 2003, Dana Gioia walked onto the battlefield that was the National Endowment for the Arts and brokered a peace. He chaired the NEA for six years, longer than the Civil War. The George W. Bush appointee increased the agency's budget and worked to broaden its mission and demographic reach. Gioia is a widely published poet and essayist, a Stanford MBA and a Southern Californian who's come home, as professor of poetry and public culture at USC, whence all of California is a stage.
What's on your USC to-do list?
One thing that interests me is how a young artist makes a living in the U.S. I want to teach a class about, if you are a musician who wants to create a string quartet, a writer who wants to create a press or journal, how do you do it? The poet Donald Hall described himself as a one-man vertical conglomerate, a wonderful phrase. I'd like to encourage young artists to become a one-man or one-woman vertical [conglomerate].
Your exposure to great books growing up in Hawthorne was partly thanks to an uncle, a merchant seaman who taught himself five languages and read the classics in them.
He was something we hardly think of existing anymore: a working-class intellectual. Growing up with my Sicilian and Mexican relatives in this house full of books in different languages proved to me that you didn't need anybody's permission to master things. One can always benefit from mentors, but the responsibility is yours.
It's much more difficult to be an intelligent young person today. There are more opportunities than 40, 50 years ago, but you are overwhelmed with nonstop commercial media. Perhaps I was lucky to be raised in the last generation where childhood had a lot of downtime. We would walk miles to a drainage ditch to find frogs. We'd talk and read books. It allowed us to build an inner life, which is very difficult when you're constantly being bombarded from the outside.
You were once misquoted as saying there were no great poets in California. What did you actually say?
What I said was more complicated: that Los Angeles was perhaps the only truly great city that had never produced a great poet. Most of the reality of L.A., which people all over the world see in movies, has never been definitively and memorably shaped into a poem. We've had crime novelists, literary novelists, science-fiction novelists, musicians who've captured L.A., but the poetic history is relatively thin compared to San Francisco or Chicago. Los Angeles has had a really magnificent but somewhat lopsided cultural history.
I am chauvinistic in the old-fashioned sense about California, and that's why I've come back. I want to take an active role in the cultural arguments of my time.
You spent 15 years working at General Foods by day and writing poetry by night. Like a secret identity.
I did have a double life! I became the only person in history to go to Stanford business school to become a poet.
[At General Foods], by the time I got reasonably high up in management, I was the one person who had kind of kept the creative side alive. This is the dilemma of American corporations: They don't know how to deal with creative thinkers. Most American companies are created by slightly wild visionary people that the company would never hire 50 years later.
In business I learned that it's important to create win-win situations. Artists live for the most part in win-lose situations. You get the part; I don't. You get the award; I don't. You can create communities -- of artists, of arts administrators and arts supporters who worked together. I think that's one reason I succeeded at the NEA.
What would you count among your successes?
When I went off to the NEA, my [artist] friends said go and fight the fight. Fighting was the wrong metaphor. The metaphor was reconciliation. This country was fighting over something that it didn't really need to fight about -- the arts, [in] an unnecessary and terribly destructive antagonism. I saw as my role to take people who thought they opposed this and convince them that [arts support] was the right thing to do. We created a bicameral, bipartisan national consensus to support the NEA, not simply the budget but also the authority of the agency.
Is the NEA about the audience or the artist?
The NEA is not about artists, it's not about audiences, it's not about government, it's about a whole ecosystem [of arts], and [making] it healthy and vital. If you simply take one portion of it, to quote another poet, you murder to dissect.
One generation's artistic outrage is the next generation's classic. Should art sandpaper our sensibilities?
Not all art is provocative. This is a great cliche. Art is a language, and [with] language, you can say anything, from the shocking to the comforting, the hilarious to the heartbreaking. The art that survives most expressively embodies the human experience; in the same generation, you'll have a conservative and a radical survive as great artists because of that.
You launched the "Shakespeare in American Communities" program, and one critic fulminated that if there's one playwright who doesn't need the NEA's help, it's Shakespeare.
I was able to get almost 100 theatrical companies employing thousands of actors, technicians, directors, to tour thousands of cities and reach millions of people with Shakespeare. We had 25 million high school kids use our free materials. The Shakespeare program not only helped students and communities, it helped American theater.
Where should the fulcrum of public versus private money be in the arts?
The United States has the most vital and creative artistic culture of any nation in the world. We have created whole art forms, abstract Expressionism, movies, television, rock videos, graphic novels -- every facet of the arts has thrived here. Blues, jazz, rock and roll have emerged from this soil. And yet we do not have a court, a pope or a king sponsoring them, nor does most of the money come from the government. Artistic decisions should not be made by government ministries who say, "This is the art form we're going to support." The thing that intellectuals hate about the system is that it's sheer chaos, and yet out of this chaos comes unprecedented cultural energy. We should celebrate our own system. Now, that being said, I don't think it would hurt if the federal government threw in a couple more hundred million dollars!
You made reading a big deal at the NEA. Now people read books on Kindles and artist John Baldessari creates on an iPad.
I don't care in what medium people read, as long as [it] allows extended attention, extended lines of thought. I worry we have a culture you can summarize with three letters: ADD. The culture's attention span has gotten shorter and more easily distracted.
The importance of reading is only secondarily about literature. At the NEA we pulled together studies [that] told us reading transforms lives. People who read have higher levels of academic success, of economic success. People who read do more volunteer work, they vote more, they exercise more. When you read, you're sustaining a meditation about other people's lives. What is it like to be Oliver Twist or Robinson Crusoe? It develops tremendous capacity to understand that other people are actually as complicated, as sensitive, as wonderful as you are. By understanding their inner life, you begin to develop your inner life.
About 400,000 students take part in the poetry recitation contest you started.
It's interesting; many of the states' arts experts thought it was a terrible idea -- memorizing great poems; what a repressive thing to do to young minds. That's nonsense. To embody great language, to convey it and get comfortable speaking before crowds -- these are not just artistic sills, they're life skills. We talked [states] into trying it one year, and they realized what a success it was, that kids love to have a chance to strut their stuff. In the first national finals, at least a third, maybe as much as a half of the state winners are first-generation [immigrant] kids who wanted to make the language their own. I loved that. I am a poet who does not have a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood, but I own English. English is my language as much as it belongs to any member of the House of Lords.
It's 20 years since your essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" made a splash by criticizing many poets' isolation from the larger culture. In all honesty, did it change anything?
Many people who had misgivings with the poetry world but did not have a framework to articulate them read my piece, and it gave them a framework to understand their own dissatisfaction [with poetry]. The poetry world would say, "How terrible, you have armed our enemies," but something else happened. Innumerable people began creating series that mixed poetry and music, began doing poetry on the radio, began publishing poetry reviews. Without any question 20 years [later], poetry is more present in American public life.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun