Dana Gioia has published five full-length collections of poetry, as well as eight chapbooks. His poetry collection Interrogations at Noon won the 2002 American Book Award. An influential critic as well, Gioia’s 1991 volume Can Poetry Matter?, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is credited with helping to revive the role of poetry in American public culture. 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. Gioia has written three opera libretti and is an active translator of poetry from Latin, Italian, and German. His latest collection, 99 Poems (2016), was published this year.
Tell us about your upbringing in Hawthorne, California. What was your neighborhood like? Your family?
I was raised in a rough urban neighborhood in Los Angeles. My dad was Sicilian. My mother was Mexican. Neither had much education. My dad drove a cab. My mother worked at the phone company. We lived in an apartment. My dad’s family lived in the apartments around us.
I grew up among people speaking an Italian dialect in a Mexican neighborhood. Most adults had a foreign accent. I went to parochial school where everyone spoke English, though the Mass was still in Latin. Some people find my background odd, but it’s a typical American childhood for anyone from an immigrant family.
I had a happy, lonely childhood. Both of my parents worked — often with more than one job — so I was left alone much of the time. I didn’t mind. I was a very dreamy kid. I read or played with my cousins. I spent a lot of time in the local library.
When you first started publishing your poetry in the 1980s, you were criticized for using rhyme and meter. Why was this considered unacceptable by the creative writing establishment back then?
Creative writing has as many fashions as the clothing industry. At that time, poets were supposed to write only in free verse. Poetry was part of a permanent modernist revolution that was going to erase all the older traditions. Critics called writing formal poetry “elitist” and “un-American.” (I’m not making this up.) But the working-class people I grew up with liked rhyme and meter, so form couldn’t be too elitist. And Robert Frost used rhyme. Was he un-American, too? Rock songs rhymed and had a regular beat. I wanted to write a poetry that combined the energy and allure of popular culture with the precision and intensity of literary poetry.
You worked in business, broadcasting, literary journalism, arts advocacy, and government. What was your schedule like during those years? Were you writing a lot in your off hours? Do you think working in business and government made you a better writer? It brings to mind another poet, Wallace Stevens, who spent much of his working life as an insurance executive.
By nineteen, I knew would be a poet. I also knew that I had to make my own way in the world. My parents were barely able to make ends meet. So I created a simple pattern for my life. I had a day job, but each night I came home and wrote. Even in business when I worked ten hours a day, I always found an hour or two each night to write. This schedule didn’t leave time for much else, but I was very happy. It’s good to give up things that don’t matter.
I’m not sure if working in business made me a better poet, but it did make me a different one. I was a very intellectual young man. Working with intelligent but non-literary people gave me a better sense of how poetry might matter to ordinary people. It made me less academic. It also gave me a wider sense of the world. I went to factories, sales offices, warehouses, and laboratories.
Having a day job also allowed me to write in the ways I wanted. (It took me years to figure out what exactly those ways were — but that’s another story.) I didn’t have to worry about making a living or publishing to get tenure. I could let the writing grow at its own pace.
Can you talk about your new book 99 Poems: New & Selected? How is the book arranged?
I did something unusual with 99 Poems. Rather than organize the poems chronologically, I arranged them in seven thematic sections — Mystery, Place, Remembrance, Imagination, Stories, Songs, and Love. That gives readers seven different ways to enter the book. I don’t think readers care much about chronology. They want to relate poems to their lives.
Your poem “Being Happy” from this collection was recently featured on The Writer’s Almanac. Did it go through several revisions? Do you write in longhand or type?
I use only the most current technology. I write in fountain pen on a yellow pad of paper. I do a lot of drafts, sometimes forty or fifty. I read each version aloud to hear how the lines move — like sitting at the piano writing a song. It sometimes takes me years to finish a poem. I don’t put a poem on the computer until it seems mostly done. Then I revise some more. It’s all very neurotic. I like the process of revision. The poem will go places you never expected.
“Being Happy” came quickly in about a dozen drafts. The story told itself. The revision was mostly just getting the details right.
In your recent essay “Poetry as Enchantment,” you lay out three crucial observations about the art of poetry: poetry is a way of remembering; poetry is a universal human art; and poetry originated as a form of vocal music. You write: “In oral culture, there is no separation between the poet and the poem […] Creation and performance are inseparably linked.” You quote Ezra Pound: “Poetry withers and dies out when it leaves music, or at least imagined music.” And Donald Hall: “I came to poetry for the sound it makes.”
It is clear poetry is, for you, an auditory and performative art. Can you talk about this connection and some of your musical work and aspirations? You’ve written the libretti for three operas.
In ancient cultures, all poetry was sung or chanted. Over time they became separate arts, but even today they still share common roots. A great songwriter like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell speaks to us as a poet.
Poetry is speech heightened into music. The physical sound of a poem is part of its meaning. The language can be heightened a lot or just a little, but you need to feel the musical shape. The poetry I like the most — Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickinson, Auden, Frost — takes pleasure in its own physical sound. The poem grabs you even before you know what it’s saying.
One of your operas takes place in a classical music radio station that is going bankrupt — Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast. It’s a one-act opera that takes place in ten scenes. You worked with composer Paul Salerni. Poets are so often viewed as these solitary artists, but you’ve been very collaborative throughout your career. How does collaboration enrich or alter your creative process?
Being a poet is pretty lonely business. You spend most of your time staring at a piece of paper or a screen. I don’t mind the solitary effort, but it’s also fun to work with other people. I’m always working with composers on songs or an opera. It’s part of a poet’s calling to write words for music. I’ve also collaborated with visual artists, filmmakers, and choreographers, but musicians are the easiest to work with. Their art depends on collaboration.
Working on opera is the most interesting project because you create characters and plots as well as lyrics. It’s starts off with just you and the composer. By the end you have a stage full of people and a pit full of musicians. Sometimes even an audience.
You’ve mentioned that your mother, a working-class Mexican-American, used to recite poems to you in the kitchen, and that’s how you “first became enchanted by the art.” Can you describe more what you mean by enchantment?
My mom still knew the poems she had memorized in school. I could tell as a kid that these poems were very precious to her, although I didn’t really understand why until I was an adult. She had lost her mother when she was very young. I think the poems somehow evoked happy memories in an otherwise terribly unhappy childhood.
She would recite Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Whittier’s “Maud Muller,” or Portia’s speech on mercy from A Merchant of Venice. I would be drawn into a spell of words and images. The world was slower and quieter back then. These recitations were very vivid experiences to me. I found the music of the words delicious. They opened up new places in my mind. I didn’t realize it then, but my mother reciting poems in the kitchen would change my life.
You’ve said that “the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of art — which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive,” and that scholars’ reaction is purely analytical; they “take things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests.” As a teacher, how do you cultivate an environment that engages the senses and intellect?
For most students, poetry is something you analyze in a classroom. Their attitude is very intellectual. Poetry is a verbal puzzle for clever kids to solve.
In my classes, we try to accomplish two basic things. First, we get the poem off the page — to hear it and recite it. Everyone memorizes poems and recites them in class. When you see something, it is outside you. When you hear it or speak it, it’s inside you. That’s one reason music is so powerful. It happens inside us.
Second, we learn how to experience a poem holistically — not just with the analytical part of the mind but with our emotions, imagination, memory, intuition, and physical senses. Poetry can be analyzed, but that’s not why it exists. The purpose of poetry is not to create literary criticism. It exists to delight, instruct, and console living people in the sloppy fullness of their humanity.
The reason poetry has played such an important part in education across the ages is that it helps students wake up to their own identities.
You are a big proponent of bringing memorization back into the classroom. It’s a practice that fell out of fashion, so much so that you’ve taught graduate seminars on poetic form at elite institutions, and yet when you asked your students to memorize a sonnet, you were met with anxiety. As chairman of the NEA, you started a number of national arts programs, including Poetry Out Loud, the high school recitation competition. Arts education experts predicted it would fail. It is now finishing its tenth year nationally. Almost 3 million kids have participated in it.
You’ve spoken about the initial resistance to the idea: that there was a feeling among educators that “poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art.” And yet here it was, this massive success — and many of the top competitors were not necessarily the best academic students. Can you speak about the importance of bringing memorization and recitation back to education? About Poetry Out Loud in general?
I’m so glad you asked this question. I just finished attending the California state finals of Poetry Out Loud. The students recited for hours to a packed and attentive audience. There was a tangible energy in the room that you don’t often see in classrooms or ordinary poetry readings.
The goddess Memory was the mother of the Muses. There is no better way of understanding poetry than to memorize it. Knowing a few poems “by heart” brings the art into the center of your being. That is a powerful experience for students. In its slow and subtle way, it can change your life.
Interview by Joy Biles