Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

Best American Poetry: the movie and a launch on Thursday, Sept. 20!

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018
Share

We’re on the road (in New York City, in fact), but wanted to let you know about the “Best American Poetry Reading 2018” on Thursday, September 20, at 7 p.m.

The event will take place at the New School’s auditorium (Room A106), the Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall. Series editor David Lehman and Dana Gioia,  guest editor for the Best American Poetry 2018 volume, will headline an all-star cast of poets to launch the volume. I’m told this is an annual rite of fall in New York.

Dana is also former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts and now California’s poet laureate (and always, always a cherished friend). In the video below, he calls his guest editorship  “a privilege and a challenge.”

The book includes poets we’ve written about before – A.E. Stallings, Kay Ryan, Dick Davis, David Mason, Tracy K. Smith, Robin Coste Lewis and more.

We’ve run an excerpt from his introduction, “A Poet Today is more Likely to be a Barista than a Professor,”  here.

Below a sampler of the Thursday event. It was filmed by Dana’s son, Michael Gioia.

A poet today is more likely to be a barista than a professor.

Tuesday, September 4th, 2018
Share

Dana Gioia and Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

American poetry is full of contradictory trends. “That’s one reason why the articles announcing poetry’s demise are usually right and wrong at the same time,” says California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who is also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He has edited The Best American Poetry 2018. The Los Angeles Review of Books has published an excerpt from his introduction, on the state of American poetry today. As always, Dana has spotted a number of trends that hadn’t quite crystallized in my own thinking – or perhaps, in this case, it’s simply that I live in an academic environment, and the fish doesn’t notice the water.

An excerpt of the excerpt:

The university’s role in poetry may be the most complicated paradox of all. For decades, the expansion of academic writing programs provided a home for poets, first as students and later as instructors. Academia gave thousands of poets secure, paid employment — something unprecedented in the history of Western literature. It was the United States’s version of the imperial Mandarin system, which once employed poets as bureaucrats across China’s vast empire. Our system was even better. Poets got summers off.

Then, like most booms, the surge ended. The university system stopped expanding, especially in the humanities. Job applicants greatly outnumbered job openings. Rather than address the problem by cutting back graduate programs, universities chose to exploit their junior personnel as cost-savings. Tenure-track careers became adjunct gigs with low pay, no benefits, and minimal job security. The academic situation is old news, but it is still awful to young and often not-so-young people trapped in crappy jobs or unemployment. The tale of this city depends on what side of the tenure track a poet lives.

With Dana at the inaugural Sierra Poetry Festival, 2017.

Academia’s problems, however, had an unexpected cultural benefit. The legions of young writers, artists, musicians, and scholars who met with disappointment in the academic job market haven’t all vanished. Most of them just moved. Not finding a place in one world, the academic refugees sought new lives in another. As old bohemian neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, San Francisco, and other cities were being destroyed by gentrification, tourism, and rising real estate prices, a steady stream of unemployed and underemployed artists helped enlarge or create new communities in places such as Oakland, Austin, Portland, Jersey City, Astoria, and Downtown Los Angeles. Here they joined and revitalized preexisting local communities. Bohemian communities have also emerged in smaller towns, but in such cases their size makes them vulnerable to tourism and development. Witness the stultifying impact of money on Aspen and Carmel or, on a larger scale, the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Thirty years ago, the typical young poet taught in a university. Today’s new generation is more likely to be living in a big city and employed outside academia. They work as baristas, brewers, and bookstore clerks; they also work in business, medicine, and the law. Technology has made it possible to publish books without institutional or commercial support. Social media connects people more effectively than any faculty lounge. An online journal requires nothing but time. An iPhone and a laptop can produce a professional poetry video. Any bookstore, library, cafe, or gallery can host a poetry reading.

New circumstances create interesting possibilities for poets. In the new bohemia, a poet doesn’t need to worry about tenure, peer review, or academic fashions. A poet doesn’t even need a degree. Audience is not an abstract entity; the poet sees a diverse crowd face to face at readings. Those faces are not the same ones found at a research university. The new communities include large parts of the population unlikely to participate in academic literary life because they are blocked by poverty, language, and race. Those groups have brought new perspectives and new energy to literary life. Minority authors and audiences often share a conviction that literature and literacy are fundamental to the identity, advancement, and even survival of their communities. When creating your own literature becomes a life-or-death issue, different sorts of poetry emerge from what one commonly finds in an English department.

The new bohemia is no demi-Eden. Writers struggle to balance their art with practical exigencies. Their situation is complicated but exciting. Existing outside both the academic and market economy makes these poets marginal in society, but their circumstances also give them freedom from commercial and academic conventions. Most boho writers, with or without degrees, probably still dream of snagging a professorship, but they also recognize that as outsider artists they represent an important cultural enterprise. Together they have created a vigorous alternative culture that has broken the university’s monopoly on poetry. They have diversified, democratized, and localized American poetry.

Read the whole thing here (and Dana answers a question in the combox, too).

Postscript on Sept. 6 from David J. Bauman: “I want to be careful to respond to the article and not the headline. It’s actually a very positive and open assessment of where American poets are today and (mostly) why. The only tiny tidbit I question is when Gioia says: “Most boho writers, with or without degrees, probably still dream of snagging a professorship.” I don’t think that’s true. As a public library director, I can honestly say, my interest in joining the university ranks died off long ago. And while he happily argues that today’s young poets don’t need to go the university route, he does not seem to be aware of the fact that many don’t, or even never, wanted to. While I have nothing against MFAs, I still think their biggest blind spot was the fact that there are plenty of artists, poets included, who have zero interest in teaching at a university. It makes sense for many, but it is not a good fit for all. And our poetry as a nation is better for it. I’m happy that folks, including Gioia are waking up to that realization.” (See David’s own blog here.)

Another postscript, on Sept. 10 from essayist, filmmaker Rick Segreda: I don’t blame anybody from fleeing academia these days, hostage as it is to polarized politics, but when have artists in any medium in any age been entitled to live, and live well at that, off their art? This brings to my mind Isaak Dinesen’s gourmet French chef, Babette, who sacrifices her life savings to win over the hearts, minds, and appetites of a puritanical Danish community. At the end, she explains “a true artist is never poor.”

And we missed this Sept. 6 note from the inimitable Jeff Sypeck, in the combox: Good piece by Gioia. Even though he was trying only to describe the situation rather than judge it, I’m inclined to find it a positive development, in the long run, that poetry is no longer confined to the academy. As someone who tries to find spare moments to write and read poetry while holding down an unrelated full-time job and part-time job, I can’t help but think that the profs who have the luxury of being full-time poets should be turning out much better work than they ultimately do. I don’t mean for that to sound as snide as it likely does, especially since I can name several professor-poets whose work is fresh and exuberant, but there tends to be an awfully safe, prim aura about “campus poetry,” hewing as it does to conventions that have had a century to congeal. Anyway, I appreciate Dana Gioia’s generous spirit; I think he’s wise to see that even terrible Instagram poetry holds the promise of new audiences, readers who are hungry for something they can’t quite name.

A poetry prize for Dana Gioia, and a reading in an “otherworldly setting”

Saturday, May 19th, 2018
Share

 

Dana Gioia has won so many honors, awards, positions, distinctions, that it’s hard to keep track of them, but we can begin with his current appointment as poet laureate of California, and his earlier appointment as National Endowment of the Arts chair. As of yesterday, he has a new one: he was awarded this year’s Poets’ Prize for 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf). The ceremony took place in New York City’s Nicholas Roerich Museum.

The winning book

“Dana has won many honors, but he has never won one of the ‘major’ poetry prizes,” said R.S. Gwynn, thinking of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize. “His well known role as an advocate for the arts has perhaps overshadowed his excellence as a poet. Our award is not, however, for lifetime achievement or extra-literary work; it is an award, pure and simple, for what the members of the committee consider the best poetry collection of the year.” (Sam Gwynn is stepping down after ten years as chair of the event. He will be replaced by poet Robert Archambeau, with Marc Vincenz, editor of Plume and MadHat Press, stepping in as the new co-chair. have stepped forward to keep the prize alive.”

A committee of 20 poets selects the winner of the $3,000 prize, which is administered by Lake Forest College. The award is offered annually for the best book of verse published by a living American poet two years prior to the award year. The $3,000 annual prize is donated by a committee of about 20 American poets, who each nominate two books and who also serve as judges. Previous winners include A.E. Stallings, X.J. Kennedy, Marilyn Nelson, and Adrienne Rich. In fact, Dana shared the award with Rich way back in 1992.

I cannot find my own copy of 99 Poems to search for a poem – however, I do have a broadsheet of this one, which is included in the volume. It’s among my personal favorites, and somehow fits the Roerich Museum:

The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves

The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead you where you know you must go.

Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.

And one small detail out of place will be
enough to let you know: a missing ring,
a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
a crack of light beneath a darkened door.

The verdict from one of the poets attending the event, Susan de Sola Rodstein: “Wonderful event in an otherworldly setting, with touching tributes to Colette Inez and Dick Allen, and memorable readings by prize-winner Dana Gioia and finalists” – the finalists were James May and John Foy. Susan also took the photos above and below.

Sam Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and Robert Archambeau

The second Sierra Poetry Festival this weekend – with Robin Coste Lewis, David Kipen, and me

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018
Share

Angeleno David Kipen will be in the Sierra foothills for an onstage convo this weekend.

Another gig this weekend. I’m heading to the hills to be (I’m told) a “celebrity presenter” at the 2018 Sierra Poetry Festival on Saturday, April 28, which will be held at Sierra College in Grass Valley. Ever so tiny a celebrity, I should think – a National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis, is the keynote speaker, after all. And as always, Executive Director of Nevada County Arts Council Eliza Tudor is the magnificent organizer and visionary behind the event. You can hear her discuss the event (with poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) over here.

I wrote about the Sierra festival in its inaugural year, 2017, when California poet laureate Dana Gioia was the keynote speaker. He gave a terrific talk – read about it here.

Last year’s poetry festival, with Dana Gioia and Moi (Photo: Mary Gioia)

Said Eliza of this year’s program: “We chose our theme, Ordinary Light, as a nod to our brand new United States Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, for the title of her award-winning memoir.” We’ve written about the poet, a Stanford alum, here.

I spent about a dozen years in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, “Gold Country.” The twin cities – Grass Valley and Nevada City – are the best and largest souvenirs of the Gold Rush period in California history, and have a growing tourist industry. (Both cities are now under state designation with the California Cultural District program.)

That’s one enticement. Then there’s the company. Consider this an invitation to come and join me. It’s an all-day one-day event. I’ll be having an onstage conversation with David Kipen at 3:30 p.m.

David, born and raised in Los Angeles, is the former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, during the time it was under the chairmanship of a fellow Angeleno … Dana Gioia. Since then, David opened the Boyle Heights bookstore and lending library Libros Schmibros in 2010.

He is also the former book editor/critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, which is where I encountered him in the late 1990s. I was a critic at that time for the august San Francisco institution.

However, he was for the most part telecommuting from Los Angeles. So we only had one brief encounter, years later, at an event for the National Book Critics Circle we both attended. He moved through the room like the sun, and his conversation is engaging and lively.

The conversation will be moderated by author Kim Culbertson, who will try to rein in David and me. Our topic: “What does it mean to be a literary citizen?”

She’s back: U.K.’s Mel Pryor (Photo: Radu Sava)

I don’t think the type on the poster is quite readable when reduced to blog size (bel0w), but you can go and see the full line-up and more legibly here. You can also register for the event online here.

The highpoint: Keynote Speaker Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis will speak at 9:30 a.m.

From The Guardian:

At age six, Robin Coste Lewis told her aunt that she wanted to be a writer. This, she thought, meant being a novelist.

“I thought that if one wanted to be a writer, one had to write novels because I didn’t know that one could be a poet,” says Lewis, whose debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus won this year’s National Book Award for poetry. She believed this in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and afterward while teaching, and trying to write fiction. She believed it when she published She Has Eight Arms But Only Shows Me Two in the Massachusetts Review, a work that she thought was a short story, “even though all my poet friends at the time were like, ‘Girl, that’s a prose poem.’”

To the marrow … National Book Award winner Lewis

Things changed after she was in an accident that caused permanent brain damage and kept her in bed for two years.

The recovery was difficult. Lewis had to do speech-language therapy and stop reading and writing. “My neurologist told me, ‘You can only write one sentence and read one sentence a day,’” she says. “I decided, ‘OK, if it’s one line a day, it’s going to be a goddamned good line.’” …

“I am an artist through to my marrow,” she says, though adding, “which might be a curse and not necessarily a good thing.”

And poet Mel Pryor will be flying in from England – as she did last year – to attend. Closer to home is Nevada City poet Molly Fisk.  But read the schedule here, and the list of presenters here. Tickets are here.

See you there.


Never heard of her? A poet who endured illness, poverty, and the “snotty standards of British reviewing.”

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018
Share

Elizabeth Jennings – rediscovered.

Dana Gioia has a superb essay over in First Things, “Clarify me, please, God of the galaxies,” about Elizabeth Jennings, the only woman in the “Movement” poets of the U.K. (We’ve regularly written about a few of the others – Philip Larkin, Robert Conquest, Thom Gunn.) She echoes the Movement credo, with a soupçon of Christian mysticism perhaps, when she writes: “Only one thing must be cast out, and that is the vague. Only true clarity reaches to the heights and the depths of human, and more than human, understanding.”

Never heard of her? “Although mocked by the press and neglected by scholars, Jennings enjoyed a popular readership in the U.K.,” Dana writes. “Her Selected Poems (1979) sold more than 50,000 copies. Her poems became A-level texts for secondary schools. Her steadfast publisher, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, claims she became his bestselling author—’the most unconditionally loved’ poet of her generation.”

She lived her life almost entirely in Oxfordshire, where she experienced mental breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, under-employment and unemployment, and shabby poverty, but nevertheless earned many awards and much recognition. When she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E) at Buckingham Palace in 1992, the press criticized her for looking like a “bag lady.” She died in 2001, at 75.

“Jennings was not a great poet. Greatness had no appeal to her. She admired epic visionaries, such as Dante, Milton, and Eliot, who offered sublime visions of civilization and belief. She recognized, however, that her muse was lyric. Jennings’s ‘great’ subject was how the individual—fragile, isolated, but alert—worked her way through life’s difficulties and wonders. Her sensibility was romantic, but her style was neoclassical. The characteristic Jennings poem presents the ache and exhilaration of romantic yearning expressed in exquisitely controlled rhyme and meter. She acknowledges her own confused romantic longings—emotional, artistic, and religious—but subjects them to lucid analysis. Her goal is not to resolve the contradictions but clarify them.”

Dana says there are two ways to introduce the public to an unfamiliar poet. The first is to describe particular qualities of the work. He opts for Door Number Two:

“The second way to introduce a poet is simpler. Quote the work. Here is the opening of ‘I Feel.’

I feel I could be turned to ice
If this goes on, if this goes on.
I feel I could be buried twice
And still the death not yet be done.

I feel I could be turned to fire
If there can be no end to this.
I know within me such desire
No kiss could satisfy, no kiss.

The poem’s language is direct, musical, and intense. The strict form feels less like an abstract framework than a cauldron barely able to contain its scalding emotions. The poem’s impact is so immediate and tangibly personal that it is easy to miss its quiet but profound engagement with the Catholic literary tradition. The paradoxical combination of ice and fire imagery goes back at least as far as Petrarch. More interesting, however, is the poem’s connections to Christian mysticism. Although “I Feel” initially seems an expression of erotic longing poisoned by despair, close examination reveals it can also be read as a tortured expression of spiritual hunger, the mystic’s excruciating desire for rapturous union with God.

Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

She was prodigiously productive, and produced great poems at every stage of her life. Yet her Catholic religion set her apart as much as being being a woman did: “Jennings’s literary reputation never surmounted the limits imposed on women of her generation. By the time of her death in 2001, the situation for female writers had become less grim, but her Catholicism isolated her from the feminist vanguard leading the cultural change. In her later years, reviewers often treated her with condescension and hostility. One young critic mocked her as a ‘Christian lady’ and ’emotional anchorite’ inhabiting a world of ‘shapeless woolens, small kindnesses and quiet deaths’ —an odious remark even by the snotty standards of British reviewing. Jennings understood the dilemma and bore it, but not without a touch of bitterness. (Few Catholic poets extend the concept of redemptive suffering to include their own bad reviews.)”

Read the whole thing here.

Anton Chekhov, a lady, and her dog: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life.”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
Share

I’m working rather feverishly to finish writing against an important and non-negotiable deadline, and began two blog posts to you, Faithful Readers, but got strangely tangled up in my own words and couldn’t finish. Nevertheless I finally got a chance at last to read poet Dana Gioia‘s discussion of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” His thoughts about it are over at his website here. In the course of it, he writes, the hero (if you can call him that) “undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Dana begins with some background on Chekhov:

Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.

Dana and friend.

It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.

What do you know? I got this off without too much fuss. And I even found an image of a small yapping dog (you can read the story behind the painting here.) Read the Dana’s essay here.

How-to guides and texting aren’t enough: “Children, from the very earliest age, need to read stories,” says Dana Gioia.

Friday, November 24th, 2017
Share

Still on the road – but it may be some time before he gets to Lassen County.

Dana Gioia, California State Poet Laureate (and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts), is continuing his mission to visit all of California’s 58 counties during his term. It’s not always easy: “I’m trying to go to Lassen County, but Lassen doesn’t have any libraries,” he said. “There are 3,000 people [in the county], and the person who runs the arts for the state there, it’s a part-time job. She also works as a forest ranger. In a lot of these places, I’m the first person who’s ever given a poetry reading.”

And some counties need to be visited more than once. For example, his home turf, Los Angeles County. At an event last week at California State University, Northridge, Prof. Robert Gohstand quoted from one of Dana’s articles, in which the poet claimed that  “literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and refines our humanity in a way that nothing else can.”

At the inaugural Sierra Poetry Festival last spring. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Dana’s remarks at the Northridge event reinforced what Ursula K. Le Guin said in the previous Book Haven post: that we need to train the imagination. “One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice,” she said (read the rest here).

In short, it’s not enough for kids to read cellphone texts, tech manuals, comics, wikipedia, or science magazines. They need to read literature.

An excerpt:

“The early experience of reading opens up something in an individual’s mind and imagination, which makes him or her begin to lead their lives differently,” Gioia said. “Children, from the very earliest age, need to read stories. They need to know how many possible outcomes any story has, how many characters, how many plot reversals. If you don’t train the imagination early on, it tends to be locked into a very narrow set of possibilities.

“It’s the books that capture the imagination that deliver the practical outcomes, rather than the books that are designed with cold-blooded pragmatism to teach people mechanical skills of reading,” said Gioia, who also serves as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

“Literature has the power to arrest the attention to create an empathetic connection as you’re reading, to use your imagination, to fill out the details,” he said. “That’s why reading is a more powerful imaginative exercise than watching a film. The debt that I owe to books, to public libraries, is immeasurable. It made a huge difference in my life.”

Read how libraries changed his life here.

England takes notice of California’s poet laureate: Dana Gioia on the BBC

Saturday, September 30th, 2017
Share

“I don’t want to be a visiting celebrity. I want to be a catalyst,” says California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia. The Book Haven has already discussed his efforts as poet laureate here and here, but it’s nice to see his work getting international recognition. He’ll be on the BBC tomorrow, Oct. 1, at 10 a.m. California Time (PST). The program, called “a radio road movie,” will be available shortly after broadcast.

From the BBC website:

When Dana Gioia was appointed Poet Laureate of California in 2015 he was invited to read in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. But Gioia believes the role is to encourage poetry throughout the state. He has a mission: to visit every county in the state of California.

There are 58, stretching from Del Norte 1,000 miles south to Imperial, bordering Mexico; from the Sierra mountains and redwood forests to the desert; densely populated Los Angeles (almost 10 million) to almost empty Modoc (fewer than 10,000); with established communities from Mexico and Europe joined recently by people from the Far East.

Everywhere Gioia is joined by other poets and young people participating in Poetry Out Loud. For nine years Gioia was Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. One of his initiatives was this nationwide competition for young people to memorise and recite poems. It is astonishingly popular.

40-odd counties in, producer Julian May joins Gioia to create a radio road movie for Radio 3. Gioia reads in a pub yard in Mariposa, an old gold-mining town, while humming birds dart and hover. A few days later Gioia hears of a huge wildfire coming within a mile of the wooden town. In a library in Madera, roasting in California’s central valley, a woman from Peru recites a love poem in Spanish. In marches a squad of lads – military boots, buzzcuts. They are from the juvenile hall youth correctional facility. Each, says Officer Martinez, can recite a poem by heart. There is an event in Turlock, settled by Assyrians, another in San Diego near Mexico and, in his home county, Sonoma, Gioia appears at poetry event in a vineyard.

All this, and more, in ‘Every County in the State of California’, a radio road movie.

It airs tomorrow morning, October 1, at 10 a.m., California Time (PST). You can read the press release, too, here.

California poet laureate Dana Gioia vowed to visit every county: 14 more to go!

Friday, August 11th, 2017
Share

 

When Dana Gioia became California poet laureate a year ago this week, he vowed to visit all 58 counties of California during his tenure. From my own emails and conversations with him, I know that’s taken a lot of miles – out of him as well as his car. But he’s done it. Or is close to doing it. He’s visited 44 of California’s 58 counties. Only 14 to go in his second year. What will he do then? He’ll start all over again. Why? He replied, “because it is important to visit the large counties several times to reach different communities.”

“Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million people. That requires lots of events. The same goes for the Bay Area. When I was asked to read a poem at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Presidio’s National Cemetery, I immediately accepted because the gathering served a different audience from the venues I had already visited in San Francisco,” he said in a California Arts Council interview. “I also knew that poetry was important for the troops, veterans, and families on such a solemn occasion.”

Obviously, he hasn’t just been catering to the big cities. I attended his event last spring in Nevada County, which held it’s first-ever poetry festival, where he gave a terrific talk, one of his best:

At first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

“We bear a certain kind of spiritual wisdom,” he said. “It’s something that happened to all of us. We saw and experienced, at a really very early age, the transformation that beauty affords. We encountered things that changed who we were.”

“You have this beauty, which leads to joy, which becomes wisdom, which becomes a kind of helpful humility about what you can possess, and where and what you are. That has happened to everyone in this room repeatedly. Once you experience that, you want more. You will bring yourself at great expense and great difficulty” to those places that provide such occasions, whether Yosemite, the National Gallery of Art, or a small poetry celebration in the Sierra Foothills.

“It awakens you to the full possibilities of your own humanity,” he said. “What we are sold by society are generic, prepackaged versions of what our lives should be and how we should experience them– and what it’s going to cost us to have those predictable experiences,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Netflex: they don’t want beauty, they want to own beauty. They ‘like’ art, they want to own art – and turn it into entertainment.”

“They want to take all the unknowns and pre-package them, and sell them as a predictable product that they can own as a kind of property. We’re rather helpless and hopeless in front of this enormous global power which is trying to narrow and define our lives in ways that are not the way we want to live. It’s not the kind of mystery that has to unfold unpredictably and personally,” he said. “Joy is something I cannot own.”

“We don’t lead global lives. We don’t lead generic lives.”

Well, read the whole thing here.

But let’s go back to the California Arts Council interview: “We got big audiences in the smallest towns. There was also a wonderful mix of people. There were, of course, the local poets, musicians, and teachers we expected. But we also got mayors, ranchers, shopkeepers, accountants, almond farmers, veterans and veterinarians. The ages ranged from newborn to near centenarians.”

From an interview with the California Arts Council:

You’re a native Californian. Having traveled to some lesser known and less populated parts of the state, have you gained new perspective on the state and what it means to be a Californian?

Absolutely! I thought I knew the state pretty well, but these trips have been a continuous discovery. I now realize how little I knew about the eastern half of the state, especially up in the Sierra Nevadas. Those counties are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are also central to the state’s history. There were also a lot of towns I knew only from driving through them on the way to somewhere else. How different it is to meet local people and spend a day or two there.

I just finished spending two weeks with BBC, which is doing a documentary on the statewide tour. I asked that the show only be partially about me. I wanted it to be mostly about the California that the British don’t know—the mountains, the Central Valley, the desert, and the north coast.

One last question, just for fun. If you were hosting an intimate dinner party, and could invite any three people, living or dead, who would they be, and why?

Honestly, I’d invite my mom, my dad, and my late Uncle Ted, because I miss them. But if I had to exclude family, I’d ask William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. I’d open up a bottle of good California wine and then listen to the conversation.

And we’d join him. Make it a BYOB. Meanwhile, read the whole interview here. Congratulations, Dana!

“We don’t lead global lives!” Dana Gioia gives a passionate defense of the arts at inaugural Sierra poetry festival

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
Share

 

Dana Gioia_5

California state poet laureate launches the first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Dana Gioia, California’s poetry laureate, vowed to visit each of California’s 58 counties, and by gum he’s keeping his word. He’s visited Los Angeles County, 9.11 million, and Alpine County, 1,114. He also helped launch the first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival in Grass Valley in April (that means he gets to check off Nevada County on his list). While there, he gave perhaps the most passionate and eloquent defense of the arts, literature, and poetry I’ve ever heard.

Sierra Poetry_1

Poet from afar: U.K.’s Mel Pryor leads a workshop at Sierra festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

The former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts lauded the people gathered in the room, some of whom had come from some distance and personal sacrifice, praising them as people who have “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media.”

Those values, he said, could be summarized in three terms: “money, power, and other visible forms of social status.” That’s why, he said of one of his predecessors as state poet laureate, Al Young, who was in the audience “operated at a level any celebrity chef would look down upon.”

He countered society’s values with “three words our society is suspicious of, and professors of literature absolutely hate: beauty, truth, goodness. Are there three more discredited words in our society?”

Dana cited Robert Frost‘s words, that a contemplation of stillness moves you from delight to wisdom. “That is what it’s about. To make something that is beautiful. … to get something right.”

Sierra Poetry_12

Pablo Frasconi on William Everson (Photo: Radu Sava)

Intellectual rationales don’t capture the motivation that drives us. The real reasons, he said, are “experiential” – “to restore our souls, to give us a drink of what refreshes us.”

“We bear a certain kind of spiritual wisdom,” he said. “It’s something that happened to all of us. We saw and experienced, at a really very early age, the transformation that beauty affords. We encountered things that changed who we were.”

“You have this beauty, which leads to joy, which becomes wisdom, which becomes a kind of helpful humility about what you can possess, and where and what you are. That has happened to everyone in this room repeatedly. Once you experience that, you want more. You will bring yourself at great expense and great difficulty” to those places that provide such occasions, whether Yosemite, the National Gallery of Art, or a small poetry celebration in the Sierra Foothills.

“It awakens you to the full possibilities of your own humanity,” he said. “What we are sold by society are generic, prepackaged versions of what our lives should be and how we should experience them– and what it’s going to cost us to have those predictable experiences,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Netflex: they don’t want beauty, they want to own beauty. They ‘like’ art, they want to own art – and turn it into entertainment.”

“They want to take all the unknowns and pre-package them, and sell them as a predictable product that they can own as a kind of property. We’re rather helpless and hopeless in front of this enormous global power which is trying to narrow and define our lives in ways that are not the way we want to live. It’s not the kind of mystery that has to unfold unpredictably and personally,” he said. “Joy is something I cannot own.”

“We don’t lead global lives. We don’t lead generic lives.” Speaking for myself (and the Book Haven), that’s one reason why I’m so uncomfortable about the politicization of our culture, which is another attempt to co-opt the private sphere, the personal “aha” into a collective, ready-made experience, which is necessarily narrower and more generic. This trend, of course, is accelerated by the social media, by television, and even by our academic institutions.

Dana Gioia_11

“The battles are mostly local.” (Photo: Radu Sava)

I was happy to hear, at the end of the day, Dana’s eloquent championing of the writer William Everson, in an onstage conversation with filmmaker Pablo Frasconi, who is doing a film on the too little-known poet of the San Francisco Renaissance.

During the morning address, Dana also mentioned Everson, recalling his frequent misrepresentation and neglect over the years. It returned him to his main line of thought: In his research, he recalled a Poetry Foundation article that was riddled with errors, and noted that, in 1947, Everson became “a poet of national importance.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Dana asked. “Poetry is not something that happens and is judged in New York or Paris or London. We lead our lives in a particular place, in a particular time, in a particular body.”

“We have battles to defend that. The battles are mostly local. Why is there no arts education in local schools? It’s not because anyone in Washington made that decision.” Those decisions are made at the city and county level.

Yet an education in poetry, literature, the arts, is the way we shape our students’ emotions and intuition, he continued. “To produce people who are not educated in that experiential part of their humanity,” he said, is to process students who are “not educated, not able to take their particular life into a complicated society in the complicated business of living to have a productive life.”

Dana & Cynthia

Dana poses for a photo with Humble Moi, with flowers by the matchless Eliza Tudor, who organized the event. (Photo: Mary Gioia)

“We are here because we know these things are of value,” he said to the audience. “It rests on us unfortunately to communicate those beliefs to society, be it in the U.S. senate and House of Representatives, where unfortunately I have spent a great deal of my energy and time in the last three months – not to mention the previous decade – or the local schools boards or county supervisors.”

May the Book Haven add a note to this? Too often, arts education has yielded to a wrong-headed notion of self-expression, rather than as an apprenticeship to something more enduring and more profound than the limited ego and short-lived self. For example, it is a lesson in humility to write write essays, articles, even blogposts, and then read Great Expectations on the train, or memorize Shakespeare on the elliptical, just as it must be for an artist (or anyone else really) to study Giotto before returning to the commercial art studio. It subsumes us into something greater than ourselves, and one is happy to put a nail into the most obscure cupola in the magnificent edifice of civilization. It teaches one humility, and we could all use a little o’ that.

“I love California, I want to see every corner of California. Every place matters,” said the Angelino poet as he concluded his remarks. And a few hours later he hit the road again. I got an email from him a little while later – he’d traveled over a thousand miles by car in the past ten days, not counting flights to and from Los Angeles, where he currently holds the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

Listen to his whole talk here. Kudos to Eliza TudorExecutive Director of Nevada County Arts Council, for pulling off a smashing launch of a promising annual event. And congratulations to Molly Fisk, Nevada County’s inaugural poet laureate!