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Poet Provocateur

He spent 14 years as a corporate executive. Now Dana Gioia has reinvented himself as a man of letters. And he's making it his business to revive public culture.

Photo: Barbara Ries

GRASSROOTS: Gioia says "working-class intellectuals" like his family are rare today.

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By Cynthia Haven

Way above Santa Rosa, Calif., on a very high hill behind a security gate, we enter Dana Gioia's well-appointed citadel. "Welcome to a literary sweatshop," he beams, opening the front door of a clean, white building that could pass for a New England church.

It is a temple of a different sort -- a belletristic meeting-place, retreat and workshop tailored for the one-man literary dynamo. The spacious interior is lined, floor to ceiling, with books -- first editions, contemporary journals, criticism, poetry and fiction -- a necessity so far away from a substantial library, he explains. His home and a separate guesthouse are a few footsteps away.

This evening Gioia looks fried, after only three or four hours of sleep last night. He is working on eight books and up against a formidable deadline for one of them, Longman's Anthology of Short Fiction, to be published this fall. "This book is endless," he says of the 1,748-page collection he's editing. He's also promoting the opera Nosferatu (he wrote the libretto), functioning as a literary editor for a half-dozen major journals, recording cultural commentaries for BBC radio, organizing the West Chester Conference (a high-profile poetry coffee klatch he co-founded) and serving as vice president of the Poetry Society of America and board president of Story Line Press, a spunky publishing house in Ashland, Ore. That's in addition to writing his own poetry and fanning the odd firestorm.

The word maverick inevitably comes up in conversations about this man of letters. He is, by his own account, a misfit: a poet outside academia. And if there is such a thing as a literary entrepreneur -- well, he's it. Gioia, '73, MBA '77, once a vice president of General Foods, brings businesslike acumen and an appetite for risk to intellectual ventures.

Gioia's reputation for trenchant commentary gelled with an essay he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1991. "Can Poetry Matter?" accused academia of holding American poetry hostage -- the captive of an inbred coterie in a climate where academic standards trump artistic ones and rigorous criticism has given way to professional courtesy and fluffy encomiums. Most poets teach in creative writing programs, where they must publish or perish, 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." The educated public is divorced from poetry, he continued, because "the traditional machinery of transmission -- the reliable reviewing, honest criticism and selective anthologies -- has broken down."

His words stung. Gioia on poets: "Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists, they are almost invisible." On the disappearance of poetry from general-interest publications: "Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around -- not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake." And on contemporary anthologies: "More than one editor has discovered that the best way to get an anthology assigned is to include works by the poets who teach the courses."

The response was electric. As Gioia wrote in a 1992 follow-up article in Britain's Poetry Review: "When the hate mail arrived, typed on letterheads of various university writing programs, no one was surprised." Articles attacking and defending the piece were published in the Times Literary Supplement, The New Criterion, USA Today and the Washington Post, among others. Gioia paid a price: literary journals had widely reviewed his first book of poems, Daily Horoscope (1986), but they virtually ignored his second, The Gods of Winter (1991).

The big surprise was the groundswell of public reaction. "Reporters phoned at the office for interviews," Gioia wrote. "Radio producers asked me to discuss the article on the air. Friends phoned with anecdotes about the article's impact. Strangers called to ask advice. And for months the mail continued." Despite the silent treatment from the journals, The Gods of Winter outsold Daily Horoscope 5,000 to 3,000. When his Atlantic article was republished as the title piece in a 1992 collection of Gioia's essays, the book sold 10,000 copies, made the finals in the National Book Critics Circle awards and was named by Publishers Weekly one of the best books of the year. "For a book about poetry, that's fairly extraordinary," says Fiona McCrae, his publisher and editor at Graywolf Press in St. Paul, Minn. All three books have been reprinted.

"People are interested in what he has to say," McCrae says. "He's cultured. He's erudite. He's very confident of his position. Not his position as a poet, necessarily -- he's dedicated his life to something. He's not going to dilute who he is."

Nearly a decade after his manifesto appeared, Gioia believes that "even my enemies would admit it changed things." He's had letters from thousands of people, many of whom made important switches in their lives or careers because of the piece. He credits it, in part, with the recent resurgence of poetry outside academic walls. Certainly, evidence of a re-engaged public abounds: steady growth in poetry book sales, grassroots poetry "slams" and the quarter-million poetry websites tabulated by USA Today in February -- whether or not such enthusiasms advance poetry as an art.

But one of the biggest changes happened in Gioia's own life.

Fielding questions after a guest lecture at Sacramento City College, Gioia calls himself "the only person who ever got a Stanford mba to become a poet." He jokingly describes his blue-collar background and relates how, as an undergraduate, every time he'd passed by the Business School, he saw students outside drinking beer. "I thought, 'I can do that!'" he laughs. He also tells the audience that he's 100 percent non-Anglo.

Later, in our Santa Rosa interview, the truth is a bit more subtle and layered: "My family didn't have any money," he says simply; then, tongue-in-cheek: "My parents neglected to give me the income I so richly deserved . . . I made the decision to work in business so I could make a living and write without any economic or professional pressure."


So much of what we live goes on inside --
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.

-- Dana Gioia

Gioia was born in 1950 in Hawthorne, Calif. -- a tough, blue-collar community where the Beach Boys were born, where pulp films were made, where Mattel spewed out toys in the 1950s. His Sicilian father was a cab driver; his mother, Mexican and Native American ("mestizo," he says wryly, is the politically incorrect term), was a telephone operator who could recite hundreds of poems by heart. He was raised in "a kind of bilingual Sicilian clan." An aunt, an uncle and grandparents lived next door -- "there were always at least a dozen relations around."

He remembers, in particular, Theodore Ortiz, his mother's brother, who lived with the family when he wasn't at sea with the merchant marine. Ortiz taught himself seven languages, as well as how to read music, and memorized Dante's entire Inferno in Italian. Gioia commemorates this uncle, who died in a plane crash in San Francisco Bay at age 27, in "Night Watch":

These memories will die with you,
But tonight they rise up burning in your mind
Interweaving like gulls crying in the wake,
Like currents on a chart, like gulfweed
Swirling in a star-soaked sea, and interchangeable
As all the words for night -- la notte, noche, Nacht, nuit,
Each sound half-foreign, half-familiar, like America.

"My uncle was the kind of working-class intellectual who scarcely exists these days in America," he recalled in a bbc interview. It's exactly the potential reader Gioia was trying to reach.

Arriving as a freshman at Stanford in 1969 was a culture shock. Gioia had never been around peers whose parents had been to college. But if he felt out of his element, it didn't show, recalls Professor Herbert Lindenberger, one of Gioia's Stanford mentors. Nor did it cramp his ambition. Gioia eventually saved the student literary magazine Sequoia from near-bankruptcy. While he was editor in chief, it grew to have the highest circulation of any small West Coast literary journal. "I'm old-fashioned," says Gioia. "I think as long as you're going to publish a journal, you might as well try to sell it."

After Stanford, Gioia won a fellowship to Harvard graduate school, where he studied with poet Elizabeth Bishop and classical scholar and translator Robert Fitzgerald. Both became mentors and friends. "He had the profile of someone who has a career on the faculty of comparative lit," recalls Lindenberger. "He would have had a very distinguished career had he wanted to do that."

But he didn't. Instead, Gioia headed to business school. "His model was Wallace Stevens -- the businessman," Lindenberger says, referring to the poet-cum-insurance executive who was 43 when he published his first book. "I thought it was a wonderful idea. He was surprised I approved of it." His parents, on the other hand, objected. "They believed you should never make the important decisions in your life for money," Gioia says.

Although Gioia was the first in his family to go to college, he wasn't the last -- and wasn't the only one to study business. A jazz musician brother, Ted, also has a Stanford BA ('79) and MBA ('83). His sister, Carol, 20 years younger and the first woman officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, is currently enrolled in the Stanford Business School. A second brother, Greg, is a rap DJ who graduated from UC-Berkeley.

After receiving his MBA in 1977 and spending an idyllic summer in Italy, Gioia moved to New York with his classmate and future wife, Mary Heicke Gioia, MBA '77. ("We met at the staple department of the Stanford Bookstore," she says.) Starting as an assistant product manager at General Foods, he rose to become a vice president, overseeing operations worth three-quarters of a billion dollars in revenues.

He lived a double life. "I wrote every night and on weekends. I wrote entirely for perfection," he says. "I was trying to discover and perfect my voice as a poet -- and then to write a kind of exploratory essay that no one else seemed to be doing at the moment." Gioia tried to keep his two worlds separate. "Whenever something of mine appeared in The New Yorker, I would discreetly buy all five copies in the company shop, mail one to my parents and slip the others into the finance department's bulging recycling bin," he wrote in 1996.

In 1984, Esquire chose Gioia for its first register of "men and women under forty who are changing the nation," citing his articles and poetry. The same year, Gioia's edited collection of stories by Weldon Kees was among the New York Times's "Notable Books of the Year." In 1991, The Gods of Winter won Britain's Poetry Book Society award. The honor, along with the fanfare aroused by "Can Poetry Matter?" (republished in Britain), prompted the BBC to offer Gioia an ongoing outlet for commentary. He discusses "everything from Clint Eastwood to Edward Hopper" in his radio essays.

"To my surprise, by the early '90s, I discovered I was internationally famous," Gioia says. Until then, he'd never let himself consider the option of leaving the business world. Suddenly, he felt he could -- and on January 1, 1992, he resigned from General Foods. "One of the reasons I quit was to become a man of letters, to work in many genres, and work to shape the literary climate of my times. I imagined a Victorian literary career -- what I did not foresee was a Victorian workload," he says, looking at the manuscripts strewn over chairs in the otherwise immaculate workspace.

"Good evening, and welcome to Bohemia," says master of ceremonies Gioia.

Another day, another life. And another genre. We're at the SomArts Gallery in San Francisco for the "world premiere" of the final scene of Alva Henderson's Nosferatu. It's the first opera ever about vampires, based on F.W. Murnau's German expressionist film of 1922. Gioia hopes to whet the public's appetite by debuting different scenes in cities across the country over many months, rather than having the entire production open, close and be forgotten in a week.

There is nothing grand about this opening: inelegantly strung black curtains, the bare glare of stage lights, scuffed white walls and unpainted cement floor, steel supports crisscrossing the ceiling like a highway map. The music competes with the oceanic roar of traffic overhead (the gallery is directly under a freeway exit). But Gioia soldiers on. The opera has already won distinction at the 1998 Western Slope Summer Music Festival in Colorado, where it received standing ovations and a favorable review in Britain's Opera Now.

Nosferatu was born after Henderson sought out Gioia in 1995. The late poet and novelist Janet Lewis, widow of renowned critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters, had been Henderson's longstanding librettist, but Lewis was then in her 90s. "I told him I would write as long as I could choose a subject that I could stay interested in for the several years it would take," says Gioia. Inspired by the 1922 film, he suggested Nosferatu. Henderson resisted; "he said he didn't want to write a vampire opera."

Faced with a hard sell, Gioia improved his pitch. He recalls a bucolic day in Sonoma County with Henderson -- "a day walking through the Armstrong Redwood Grove. It was the most Gothic landscape I could think of." He tried to explain how he saw the story working. It wasn't, in the end, about a vampire; it was about a woman fighting for her soul -- "a woman trapped in the machinery of tragedy," he says.

Gioia-as-librettist isn't a complete departure. As a Stanford undergraduate, he considered a career in music and spent his sophomore year studying music and German in Vienna. Professor April Lindner of Wittenberg University in Ohio, who wrote a monograph on Gioia for Boise State University's Western Writers Series, says he abandoned the field partly because his teachers didn't appreciate his interest in musical forms they considered old-fashioned. Gioia's explanation is more humble: "I didn't have the level of talent that I wanted to have." He's now working with composer Paul Salerni on another libretto, for what he calls a "one-act, very strange opera." Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast is about "a classical radio show being canceled as a station turns to easy-listening format -- but that hardly begins to describe it."

True to his goal of pursuing many genres, Gioia is a music columnist for San Francisco magazine. With New York composer Stefania de Kenessey, he co-founded the Derrière Guard, an organization of "rebel classicists" in music, painting, architecture and poetry devoted to rediscovering and reinventing traditional forms and techniques.

Except for solitary nights writing poetry, almost all Gioia's ventures apply lessons absorbed at General Foods. "What I learned in business was the dangers of egomania and the importance of teamwork." His projects often involve scads of collaborators.

Take, for example, the annual West Chester Conference in Pennsylvania, which Gioia co-founded with fine-press printer Michael Peich. Now in its sixth year, it is perhaps the largest ongoing poetry assembly in America, attracting more than 200 participants a year. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "a true event, one of the most important such conferences in the United States." It aims to train new generations dedicated to preserving age-old techniques of poetic craftsmanship. West Chester's motto: "I think, therefore iamb."

The venture started as a pipe dream. "Any idea sounds more plausible after a bottle of pinot noir," Gioia says. Against the advice of friends and without budget, staff or lead time, he and Peich forged ahead -- getting faculty poets to work without pay. This year, the conference received an endowment from West Chester University to ensure its continuance. "Poverty kept us pure. What worries us now is success," Gioia wrote in New York's Poetry Calendar.

The faculty has doubled to a dozen. Those attending range from brand-new writers to experienced poets who have a book or two behind them but feel they missed learning some facets of their craft. Says Lindner, author of the study on Gioia: "I sat in on Dana Gioia's workshop on blank verse and gleaned more on the topic in a handful of hours than I had picked up in a two-year MFA program."

In this and other projects he has launched, Gioia says, he is attempting "to create institutions that are democratic, but demanding -- open and accessible, but operating by the highest standards." Perhaps the same impulse makes him rail against the disintegration of a literary culture in hopes of goading others to action. This he did most recently in an essay, "Fallen Western Star," in last winter's Hungry Mind Review (now The Ruminator).

San Francisco's literary community is "living off an imagined sense of greatness and centrality," Gioia says. The piece accused it of being "fixated in its last moment of national literary glory -- the Beat movement of the 1950s." Gioia concedes that Bay Area writers still win national attention but, he insists, "that notoriety will be brokered, built and administered elsewhere." Citing a lack of influential journals, quarterlies and newspapers produced in the U.S. West (with the exception of Berkeley's Threepenny Review), he notes that only one Westerner, Robert Hass, PhD '76, ever held the position of U.S. poet laureate or its antecedent in 62 years. It took more than a half a century for a California poet (George Oppen in 1969) to win a Pulitzer -- and California's Robinson Jeffers never won one. The cause, he says, can be measured in distance from the influential East Coast selection committees.

Like the 1991 essay, this one provoked controversy: reaction from notable poets, blistering editorial rebuttals, denunciation on a California radio station, "lots of letters" -- and an offer for Gioia to write a newspaper column (he's too busy). Gioia seems to revel in his role as provocateur. "I believe artists and intellectuals should create the culture they want to live in," he says. "For that, I have poured huge amounts of my energy over the past decade."

Has it made a difference? Gioia says it has. "I do think there's been a change in the last 10 years -- the change has been the rebirth of populism in American poetry, and the realization that most of the vibrancy is happening outside the university. There has also been a modest renewal of interest in poetry, largely filtered through the office of poet laureate," he says.

These are all good things, Gioia allows, but he contends that they don't add up to a renaissance. What's missing? "The emergence of a few, uncontestably great poets whose work is widely read and discussed," Gioia says. "Still, there is no effective cultural system to identify the very best work and champion it -- but for the first time in my life, it's sexy to be a poet."

Looking at it all -- the essays, the articles, the poems and anthologies, the publishing houses and journals, the conferences and the controversies -- you begin to wonder if Gioia could have managed without business training. "It's part of the picture," says McCrae, his publisher. "He's not thrown for a loop by publishers' considerations. Clearly, he's a man of the world -- and for the world and in the world."

Lindenberger sees Gioia as a "glorious phenomenon" more than a product of his background or training. "That's the thing with interesting people -- they create themselves. Dana has created himself."

But with his penchant for projects, Gioia is clearly a work in progress.

Read a May 2010 update on this story.

Cynthia Haven is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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