Green Room

by Melinda Whiting

Renaissance Man: Dana Gioia brings broad interests and a business background to the NEA.

In 1991, a General Foods marketing executive penned a glum prognosis for the future of American poetry. Verse, argued Dana Gioia in an Atlantic Monthly article, had become invisible to the general public. Universities harbored hundreds of poets writing solely for the delectation of other faculty-based poets; general-interest periodicals had dropped any mention of poetry from their pages; poetry journals and books reached a miniscule readership. Gioia offered several specific prescriptions--few of which seemed likely to appeal to the patient--for bringing poetry back into the mainstream. The article (and Can Poetry Matter?, the book from which it was drawn) caused an uproar in literary circles and resonated well beyond them.

Gioia was not just any businessman. He was also a respected poet and critic who made his literary reputation emphatically outside the academy. By the time he left his business career in 1992 to concentrate exclusively on writing, he had already published two books of poetry, as well as essays and reviews in The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Upon returning to his native California, Gioia added the post of classical music critic of San Francisco magazine to his credits. His third book of poems, Interrogations at Noon, won the American Book Award in 2002.

In January, Dana Gioia became the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Postponing his arrival by a few weeks to finish an opera libretto, he arrived in Washington in February and sprung into action, testifying before Congress on the state of the arts agency and putting the final touches on a broad-based "Shakespeare in the Schools" program spearheaded by the NEA. We spoke in late March about his literary and musical background, and his plans for the Endowment.

Melinda Whiting: Your artistic interests are famously broad, extending to all forms of literature, music, and film. Do you also see the ideal audience in that mold, representing a broad range of interests?

Dana Gioia: The arts are healthiest when they address or engage a mixed audience. One problem about the 20th century is that it encouraged the overspecialization of the arts, and many of them went from being public arts to being coterie pursuits. I believe a playwright, a composer, a poet usually is at his or her best when addressing a mixed audience of different kinds of people. A diverse audience tends to bring a whole different set of demands to the composer, to the conductor, to the soloists. That challenges artists to grow.

MW: Is the ability to speak to that broad audience a necessary component of artistic excellence, in your view?

DG: Well, there are many kinds of art, and there are many kinds of excellence. Any art form should, within the limits of the form, be able to articulate or express everything in human experience. But when we talk about the performing arts--music, opera, theatre, dance--we're largely talking about arts which are historically civic. It can't be coincidental that the three greatest periods of live theatre--which I would take to be Athens in its golden period, Elizabethan England, and 19th-century Italy for opera--were periods when all classes were in the theater. In Athens, literally every citizen of Athens was entitled to attend those performances. And in 19th-century Italy, anybody who could get to the opera, got in there.

Consequently, rather than simply addressing the concerns and the ideals of a single group of people, a playwright or composer or librettist had to create works of art that appealed to different people, even to competing classes. That challenge tended to bring out the greatest feats of imagination. That's why great dramatic artists like Shakespeare or Verdi are performed all over the world. It's because there's something universal in their works. And I fear that I am old-fashioned enough to believe that art has universal qualities.

On the other hand, I do personally prize writers, composers, painters who are in some ways coterie artists. There's a kind of poet called a poet's poet, and some of my favorite writers would fall into that category.

MW: Tell me about the business path you followed for seventeen years. After studying literature and business at the graduate level, you had a choice to make. What informed that choice?

DG: I went to business school after having spent a couple of years at Harvard graduate school in a Ph.D. program for comparative literature. I wanted to be a writer, but in graduate school I realized that I was being trained to be an academic literary theorist. I didn't know enough about the world to realize that I could have gone to New York and scraped by as a literary journalist. I also had family obligations, as the oldest child in a fairly large working-class family, and I felt that I had a certain duty to them.

So my motives for going into business were both noble, ancient artistic motives: One was poverty, and the other was security. I wanted to create a life in which I could have a certain amount of protected time where I could write exactly as I wanted without worrying about the marketplace or deadlines. So I became probably the first human being in history to go to Stanford Business School to become a poet! I made myself a promise that I would spend three hours a day reading or writing, and I have pretty much kept that promise over the years.

MW: That shows a great deal of discipline, given the demands of the business career you led, the 60-hour-a-week kind.

DG: Exactly. I was working eleven or twelve hours a day. But I still wrote every night--except for Fridays, when I don't think anybody can, after five days at the office! And I wrote on Saturday and Sunday. I simply arranged my life around that, and it was a good life. I always felt that I was getting rewarded. I had a job that I enjoyed, worked hard at, and did well in. And I was able to write. Maybe not as much as I wanted to, but exactly in the way I wanted to.

MW: I think of business life as being very much a team effort. Obviously it's competitive, but it's essentially a social enterprise: working with other people, compromise, consensus. Then there's this solitary writing you were doing in the evenings, a real contrast.

DG: You understand it very well. I was an artist-intellectual going in, so it took me a while to understand how to work with teams. The most important thing I learned in business was how much more you can accomplish, and how rewarding it is, when you create a situation in which everybody can succeed together. These are not skills that one is taught in the literary world. Musicians understand them, though. Musicians are raised in collaborative situations, and my training in music eventually made this a very natural thing. It was also good for me to have a daily life that was social, because that allowed me to have a very solitary existence in the evenings devoted to writing.

MW: It also gave you daily contact with the people that you were writing for.

DG: You know, it is not a bad thing for a poet to spend his or her days hearing intelligent, nonliterary people speak, describe their lives, share the issues of their lives. I found that a very clarifying experience. It definitely made me a different sort of poet than if I had spent those years in a university.

MW: You mentioned your musical training. What form did it take?

DG: Well, I fell in love with music, and especially classical music, from the first moments I heard it. I had a Mexican uncle, an autodidact and intellectual, who taught himself six languages. He was passionately interested in music. My uncle was killed in a plane crash when I was six, and our apartment was full of his records and scores. My mother, out of a sort of piety to her brother, had kept these things. There were privately printed German scores--the complete works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms, which we eventually sold to the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. My father, who was a working-class Italian man of no intellectual sophistication and no advanced education, had a kind of a patriotic attachment to opera. So he would play me Caruso records and my mother would play me Chopin.

MW: You grew up entirely in Los Angeles?

DG: Yes, in Hawthorne, California--the most bleak, industrial kind of urban landscape you could imagine. There was hardly a tree in the city limits. But I fell in love with music, and in second grade I began to learn the piano. When I was in eighth grade, I really wanted to be in orchestra or band, so I rented a dilapidated alto clarinet for almost nothing. Then I began to play bass clarinet. And then I went on to tenor sax, while continuing with piano. In high school, I played in the jazz band and began composing music. I had a group of musician friends and we used to go to all the modern-music concerts in Los Angeles. We would go around the county to any free concert. I went to Stanford thinking I wanted to be a composer, and in my sophomore year I actually went to Vienna, where I studied music and German.

Gradually I became more interested in writing and became a poet, but music has always been my other passion. When I left New York after twenty years to go back to California, I was asked by San Francisco magazine if I would write about literature for them. I asked if they had a classical music critic, and they said they didn't really have a regular one, and I asked, "How could you not have one in San Francisco?" The thing is, I really believe in the importance of criticism, of picking up a newspaper and seeing a concert reviewed, picking up a magazine and seeing classical music talked about, turning on the radio and hearing classical music mentioned or played. So I created, essentially, the classical music desk at San Francisco magazine.

MW: You wrote eloquently in a 1991 Atlantic Monthly article, "Can Poetry Matter?"--and in the book that followed--about how poetry was isolated from the general discourse in the last quarter-century. Your thesis was essentially that when poetry removed itself to a safe subculture within academia, it lost much of its vitality. Have you seen similar trends in other arts?

DG: Well, fifteen or so years ago one could have made a very similar argument about contemporary classical music in America. But there has been an enormous renaissance in contemporary music. I've been very gratified to see the success of some older composers whom I thought were terribly neglected at that time--like Lou Harrison, to mention one who passed away recently, or David Diamond. Or a composer that I myself have worked with, Alva Henderson.

MW: You wrote the libretto for his recent opera.

DG: Yes, Nosferatu. Another composer I admire is Ned Rorem, who is just wonderful. It's good to see the revival in the interest of people as diverse as Henry Cowell and Walter Piston. To see that Samuel Barber is finally being recognized justly as a national treasure. One of the strengths of American music is the diversity of approaches that are available. I mention composers that I have passions for, but there's any number of them. Most of my record collection--which is enormous--is 20th-century music.

MW: What's in your record collection?

DG: You know, I've got everything. I tend to find a composer that I like and immerse myself. Sometimes you don't like everything you hear, but you learn a lot. One that I have been listening to lately is this wonderful Mexican composer named Daniel Catn. I've been listening to a lot of Penderecki again, whom I really fell in love with in high school. I have also been discovering George Pelecis, Alexander Rabinovitch, and Peteris Vasks. Then there's a composer who is little-known and exquisite, Gerald Finzi. I don't think anyone ever set English poetry better than Finzi.

MW: I agree with you. The great thing in his vocal music is how naturally his melodies follow the spoken cadence of the words.

DG: And the way his melodic line becomes an organizing device. I guess it was about ten, twelve years ago that I discovered Finzi. The poet Alfred Corn happened to say to me, "Well, of course, you like Finzi."

MW: "Well, of course!" And you ran off to the record store!

DG: [laughs] Well, I decided to, yes.

MW: Returning to the insularity trend, some things have happened to poetry that you might not have foreseen twelve years ago when you wrote about this subject. Now there are the poetry slams and jams, there are the book clubs devoted to reading poetry aloud, and rap and hip-hop are being viewed as poetry in their own right.

DG: Which is what I called for in the last two pages of my Atlantic Monthly article--to turn poetry back into a performative art. Actually, the solution for poetry was to learn from music. Once people recognized the auditory nature of it, then they connected to it. After all, we live in a culture that has enormous auditory sophistication.

MW: What's the parallel "solution" for other art forms, especially those that already incorporate performance? Does the key to broader interest lie in engaging more diverse audiences, perhaps, or in education?

DG: Absolutely. I am the deepest and truest believer in the power of art. I really do believe that if you take people who have never heard a Beethoven symphony and somehow make a great performance accessible to them, it will change some of their lives. Some of those people are going to be not merely hungry, but starving for more.

MW: They will be transformed, in other words?

DG: Yes. Not everyone, but some of them. The difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment gives you a predictable pleasure that you indulge and enjoy, but you don't tend to emerge a different person. But art always allows at least the possibility of transformation, of an inner realization.

Now classical music raises different problems from those of poetry, in specifics, although on an abstract level the larger issues are the same. We have to make classical music both more accessible and less forbidding to the average intelligent person. And that has to start in education. Music should be part of every American child's education. If we do not provide music in the schools, we're producing impoverished students.

MW: You're talking about learning to do music, as well as learning about it?

DG: I don't think we necessarily need to have every child learn how to play cello or trumpet, but if they aren't getting chorus or some basic instruction in music, then the educational system is failing them. Now, ideally, they would have chorus; they would have band; they would have the possibility of individual instruction. They would have musicians visiting the schools as part of a complete package of education and appreciation. Certainly in both primary and secondary schools that should be available. I can't imagine a school that's complete that doesn't have band and chorus.

MW: And yet there are so many today that don't.

DG: Unfortunately, yes. But that is the challenge for both American education and the American arts establishment. And I would go one step further. Music education benefits the student even if the student never goes on to pursue any kind of musical career, even if he or she doesn't become an eventual audience member. Music instruction develops certain basic human skills that are essential to adults. So I would make use of the smaller argument--that music education is a way of supporting music in general, certainly. But more importantly, there is the larger argument that music is a necessary component in the development of fully realized adults.

MW: Today we have a kind of patchwork, with some schools having strong programs and other schools combining a limited curriculum with some offerings provided by the local orchestra, the local opera company, or both. Then there are schools where students get almost no musical exposure or, at most, a couple of performances per year. What can the NEA do in the next few years to even out that inequality and that lack of standardization?

DG: The NEA needs to take a leadership role in arts education. I don't mean that we should propose a monolithic national arts education policy. What I envision is a much more strategic kind of leadership. The United States needs an entity that evaluates all of the programs out there from a national perspective, and makes recommendations from among all of the available, proven possibilities. Local school districts, state organizations, professional organizations need some kind of reliable, central resource to identify the possibilities. Ideally, they could pick and choose what is best for their particular circumstances.

There is an enormous amount of good work being done--especially in music which, in some ways, has the strongest educational programs and the best track record of any of the arts. We need to distill the available approaches, recommend the best, and make a case to legislators about why it's important. Then we need to provide the materials and the resources to educators, so they can tailor the programs for their communities.

Now, let me answer the question in a different way, not from the NEA's perspective, but from the perspective of the music world. This country is full of remarkable musicians, and many of them are not working every day. We have an enormous underutilized resource in this country of musicians who could transform American education with their talents. How do we bring those people productively into the educational system to create the next generation of audience, artists, and patrons? That seems to me to be the other side of the NEA's challenge.

MW: In your testimony to Congress soon after your appointment, you stated that "the NEA needs to replace its old image as an embattled enterprise with a cogent account of its new mission and many accomplishments." How would you state that new focus?

DG: I refuse to believe that federal funding of the arts is a controversial issue. Most Americans want arts funding. They want to see the arts in their communities, and they want to see the arts in their schools. For a variety of reasons, there was a period in which arts funding got caught in the middle of the cultural wars. I refuse to become involved in those dusty battles. They bore me. They happened in the last century.

I'm concerned that there is a generation of kids who were born after the last of those controversies--which happened ten years ago. What are we doing for those kids now, and what do we want for them in the future? What do we want the future role of the arts in America and American education to be? Those are the questions that concern me. Everything else is history.

MW: And that's the priority for you?

DG: Absolutely. We need to re-establish the National Endowment for the Arts to its rightful place as one of the premier American public institutions. And I believe that, by and large, the American people want this. I also believe that the American legislators want this. I believe that the White House wants this. We need to build a compelling and inclusive consensus for arts funding.

The NEA gives so many small grants, that those grants tend to be invisible to the general public. People don't understand what the NEA is doing. What we need to do is bring ourselves before the public, and to be full of conviction about our mission. We need to offer a vision to Americans and American legislators of what the NEA might do for the country. We're not going to accomplish that by being timid or by being apologetic. I believe in the power of the arts to transform individuals and to transform communities. We should not deny that possibility to America. A great nation deserves great art.

MW: Every few years, the NEA announces some broad initiative to fill a void or address a problem, and in the best cases some real change has been effected by these programs. There was a dance touring program a few years ago, for instance, and a Shakespeare program is soon to be launched. I'm curious to have you dream a little bit and tell me what might be some of the areas where you think in terms of broad, sweeping NEA initiatives.

DG: Let me reminisce for a second, and then I'll dream for you. It is a matter of historical record that the growth of regional ballet, opera, theatre, chamber music, jazz, and to a lesser degree orchestras and museums, was the product of investment from the National Endowment for the Arts during the 1970s and 1980s. The key thing to learn from this fact is that enlightened and focused federal funding can transform the American cultural landscape. For every dollar that the National Endowment for the Arts gives, it tends to generate seven more dollars in other philanthropy and revenue. That creates an eight-to-one ratio of total impact in terms of investment.

Now, let's dream about the future. I would like to create programs that reacquaint Americans with the best of their own heritage across all of the arts and introduce a new generation of Americans to the accomplishments of our artists in music, dance, theatre, literature, the visual arts. I don't think that is an impossible dream. What we have to do is to put together an idea that will be irresistible to Congress, and I look on that as being one of my primary challenges: to give them a vision of something that it would break their hearts not to do.

What I'm thinking of is actually a large, integrated program across all of the arts that would involve partnerships with hundreds of organizations from around the states to reacquaint them with the greatest moments in the American arts. I don't have the idea yet, but I do think that there is a notion that European nations have that they call patrimony, their national legacy: What are those things, for example, that make Italy Italian?

MW: You're talking about their cultural heritage, the things that define them as a nation.

DG: Right. In Europe, they tend to define those things overwhelmingly through the arts: the architecture, the music, the literature, the painting, the sculpture, and the folk arts that help give the country its identity. To take those things away would make an Italian anonymous. The French, the Germans, the Italians, the Spaniards, the Chinese, the Japanese all have a very defined sense of their cultural patrimony.

MW: In America it's more difficult, because you have diverse cultures at work, and the thing that we have in common is more a set of ideals than a common history.

DG: But I think that just makes it a lot more interesting. Take a creation like jazz, which is the product of an African-American synthesis. But the audience for jazz and even the practitioners of jazz are no longer confined to a single community. So I think the American arts have the wonderful ability to combine and transform themselves. It could be enormously enjoyable and instructive to try to celebrate and articulate America's diverse artistic legacies across the arts. Now, this is something that would take decades to do. It might take the form of re-creations. Or it might take the form of juxtapositions of some sort. But I do think that the notion of connecting or reconnecting America with the best of its own artistic legacy is both an irresistible and an inexhaustible idea. We should think big.

MW: So, the money question: Do we have enough to start that job at present? Is the NEA funded in the way that it needs to be funded in order to achieve the kinds of dreams that I see forming in your head?

DG: The current budget of the National Endowment for the Arts is adequate to begin planning for the future. In fact, we're about to begin the largest tour of Shakespeare in North American history. It will combine educational programs and poetry-reading programs, in such a way that when we visit a hundred different towns in all 50 states, it can have a real impact. It won't be simply an isolated performance but part of a whole experience of Shakespeare in that community. My hope is that by demonstrating our ability to bring artistic works of indisputable merit to the broadest possible cross-section of America, we will create a precedent which will excite people so much that we will get significantly more funds in the future to do more programs of an even more ambitious nature.