Dana Gioia speaks at Emory

Notes from A Fine Excess at Emory, April 2, 2008

NEA Chairman and poet Dana Gioia, hoarse from yesterday’s Congressional hearings, sat down with Emory University’s Rosemary Magee to videotape an interview in celebration of the 75,000-volume Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.

What follows are my notes–not a transcript–of their conversation. When I have not been able to transcribe verbatim, I have paraphrased in brackets. To place some quotes in context (jokes, etc.), I also have used brackets.

–Robin Kemp

RM: Asked about being a poet and how DG has been able to keep writing while at the NEA.

DG: Spoke of his exposure to poetry as a kid [widely available elsewhere; grew up working-class, etc.]. “I discovered at an early age that I was different from the other boys.” — In his neighborhood, only his priest had gone beyond high school. “I assume most of you [poets] have private incomes?” Grad school: after some years, it was obvious to me that they were not making me into a poet; they were making me into a literary theorist. . . .The net effect is exclusionary rather than inclusive. [When I heard about great poets I was moved by, they were inclusive artists.] A poem can be looked at in two ways: One, for our fellow human beings; 2) for your fellow poets and the cognoscenti. The dance between the two is the ultimate dance of poetry. I had to get out of grad school–though I liked the academy [liked studying]!–so I went to business school. I made a promise to myself that I would spend three hours a day reading or writing. Reading is an essential part of writing. . . . If you don’t listen, you don’t know how to inject [ideas] into the conversation. [Did that for 17 years.]

NEA is a seven-day-a-week job, five evenings committed. The only way to write now is to go off to the outermost San Juan islands-has anyone here ever heard of Waldron Island?–No?–“it is the last outpost of American hippiedom.” I work there a couple of weeks a year. That at least allows me to keep my work alove.

RM: Threads between all your work (NEA, poetry, corporate)?

DG: I’ve always felt I made stuff up as I went along. Pretty much every plan I’ve ever had in my life didn’t work out. . . . you’re always remixing your life. This is why every human being on the planet needs literature. We need stories. . . . [We live in] a multiplicity of narratives; we’re not just trapped in one. Before I realized it, I spent my entire life preparing for the National Endowment for the Arts. People ask me, ‘How’d you get that job?’ I say, ‘By refusing it.’ I’m not a political person; I don’t want to live in Washington; partisan politics repels me. [When you go to DC, ] both sides are sharpening their knives [against you]. I refused to allow my name to be put into consideration. Michael Hammond, dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, was nominated, then died seven days later. If you have my job, you’ll know why–enormous stress!

At Stanford, I wanted to be the editor of the literary magazine. I couldn’t understand why [the editors] wanted to turn it over to me–it was almost bankrupt! If you want to keep [something] going, you develop ways to sustain it. In all three [areas], I was always doing stuf. But I could not have survived without [what I learned from] the business world.

RM: Such as?

DG: You never learn in literary life to create win-win situations. With artists, it’s ‘I win, you lose.’ Or ‘You win, I lose.’ The zero-sum game is instinctive to artists. In business, if the project wins, everybody wins.You take people who don’t want to do a project and build these very elaborate [relationships] to get it done. This is what I learned in business. Listen; build situations in which everyone prospers. And that’s how things get done in Washington.

RM: [Partnerships have propelled your work forward–discuss a couple.]

DG: I have philosophical reservations about the NEA; in fact, I have philosophical reservations about every government institution. I do not want the government solving my problems, and I do not want the government telling me what to read and what not to read. How do you keep the federal government from interfering with the freedom of artists?

Everything we do at the NEA is built on partnerships. [e.g., matching grants with donations]. What we’ve really gotten good at is developing partnerships [for projects] that are so large they would seem insurmountable otherwise.

* * *

more to come 4:53pm

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