Interviews December 2004

Poetry's Chairman

Dana Gioia, who famously pronounced poetry moribund in 1991, now heralds its surprising comeback
book cover

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press
304 pages, $16.00

Thirteen years ago Dana Gioia wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that poetry had ceased to be a part of the public conversation. All the hopeful signs—the popularity of graduate creative-writing programs, the proliferation of small literary magazines, the public and private funding available for poets—were only evidence, Gioia said, that poetry had turned in on itself. Written by a select, academic group, it was being read mainly by that same group and supported by the philanthropy of cultural institutions. Never had poetry meant so little to ordinary people, and never had there been so much of it. In "Can Poetry Matter?" (May 1991) Gioia wrote,

Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy.

In other words, when poets left bohemian squalor for the comforts of the university they compromised their artistic goals and became mere wage earners.

For all Gioia's praise of bohemia, however, he has never been a true bohemian. In the mid-1970s, after earning a master's degree in comparative literature at Harvard, he dropped out of the doctoral program to pursue another master's degree in business at Stanford. Taking Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot as his models, Gioia decided he could best support his poetry and maintain his intellectual independence as a businessman, and for fifteen years he worked as an executive at General Foods, writing in the evenings and on weekends and keeping his second career a secret from his colleagues.

After publishing many essays and two collections of poetry, in 1992 Gioia was able to leave business to write full-time. In 2003 he made what for a poet was another unusual professional choice: he accepted President Bush's nomination for the chairmanship of the National Endowment of the Arts. Last summer, under his leadership, the agency published Reading at Risk, a stark report on the decline of literary reading in the United States.

But in a new collection of essays, titled Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, Gioia describes a poetic resurgence. New popular forms of poetry (rap, poetry slams, cowboy poetry) have sprung up organically outside the university and throughout the country. Literary bookstores with cafés and reading series have given writers and readers communal spaces to compete with the English-department lounge. And the overabundance of credentialed creative writers has begun to trickle out into the general public, invigorating independent literary culture. If Gioia's book does not make it entirely clear how all these innovations interrelate and what they foretell, perhaps this is because it is too soon to know.

Dana Gioia is the author of three books of poetry, Daily Horoscope (1986), The Gods of Winter (1991), and Interrogations at Noon (2001), the last of which won the American Book Award. His 1991 Atlantic essay "Can Poetry Matter?" elicited more than 400 letters from readers and was included as the title work in Gioia's first collection of essays, published in 1992.

I spoke with Gioia by telephone on October 6.

Joshua J. Friedman

Author photo
Photo credit

Dana Gioia


Your office tells me that as a federal appointee you're not permitted to promote your new book, Disappearing Ink, in this interview.

That's correct. Disappearing Ink is the last of the books whose manuscripts I submitted before I took office.

Has becoming a political figure meant giving up a certain amount of personal freedom?

Without any question. I hesitated to take the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts for several reasons. First and foremost, I knew that I would not have time to write seriously while I was in office. I also knew that I would not be able to engage as actively in literary life as I wanted to, not only in terms of publishing and promoting my own books but also in commenting freely on the literary scene. I now have to be very conscious that any personal opinion I might offer could easily be construed as an official position of the National Endowment for the Arts.

An opinion on a poet, say?

On any subject regarding the arts. In Dante's Inferno, sinners are punished symbolically according to their vices, and I think that it is a particularly Dantescan punishment for a critic as outspoken as myself to be under a gag rule, more or less, during my chairmanship. But I also think it's the right thing.

You've argued in more than one of your essays that poetry criticism today is suffering as much as poetry itself—that poets need to recommit themselves to writing honest criticism if the culture of poetry is to be revitalized.

No art exists in isolation from the rest of the culture. I think it's a mistake to see poetry as an art based solely on the creative imagination of individuals. Poets exist in a culture, and their talent is nurtured, promoted, and preserved by editors, critics, scholars, and teachers. Walt Whitman once said that to have great poets we need great audiences, too. I think that is absolutely true. So I feel that the health of American poetry depends not only on poets, but on readers, critics, editors, publishers, and teachers. We can't foster creativity in isolation, so at the Endowment I'm trying to nourish the entire ecosystem of culture.

Through Operation Homecoming, for example?

Operation Homecoming is an unprecedented literary enterprise. We've put together a distinguished cross-section of American writers—novelists, poets, historians, biographers, and journalists—and they're conducting writing workshops for the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. These writing workshops are also available to the spouses of the troops. (And remember, this is probably the first American war in which a great many enlisted women have served.)

This program is important in several ways. First of all, it provides opportunities for these servicemen and -women to gain some clarity at very crucial points in their lives. So in human terms, I think it has an enormous benefit. In historical terms, we are creating a written archive of the war—not as it is represented by politicians or journalists, but as it is recorded by the individuals who experience it firsthand. And in literary terms, I think we'll discover some excellent new writers who might not otherwise have the chance to develop their talent.

Moreover, I believe the program has a broader cultural significance in that it creates a conversation between writers and troops that would not take place otherwise. This is one way of breaking down the many divisions that exist in our culture. I don't mean only political divisions but also the professional, cultural, and class barriers that still exist in the United States. So I hope that in some ways the program will be as important for the participating writers as for the troops.

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