Backstage of the California Theatre, the blue and gold stage lights strike down on the wrapped cords above our heads, creating electrifying halos that seem to be floating in the dusty abyss of the stage's ceiling. And here I am sitting in the dark, caught in the magic moment with California Poet Laureate, Dana Gioia. We talk about him being a librettist for the opera Nosferatu. He recites his poem “Nosferatu’s Serenade” which he will soon read for the audience on the other side of the curtain, “You’ve heard me inside you speak in your dreams.” This stirs nostalgia for my goth teen years.
Dana nods his head toward a stage-hand working a lighting board. “That man reminds me of Ray Bradbury.” I asked, “Did you meet him?” And he replies, “I knew him. We were friends.” In the eighties, when Dana was the chairman for the NEA, he was known as, “The man who saved the NEA.” He helped produce a series of interviews with famous writers for his initiative called The Big Read, and Ray Bradbury was one of the writers. Dana said Ray was a big huggable man, so kind and very funny. Ray’s mantra, “Do what you love and love what you do!”
I loved every moment with Dana as he kindly took a couple of days to spend in San Jose as a guest of Cinequest Film Festival. He is a person full of stories and knowledge. He is one you can listen to and feel like you’ve read a few great short stories and lived through a couple of adventures yourself, although it was all from the oral chronicles of Dana. I’m quoting his bio from his website below but first I just want to point out a few things. The best thing about Dana is his sincere embrace of everyone. He truly believes in democracy, letting everyone be heard. This is a man who came out of poverty, he was the first to graduate from college in his family, supporting himself through our top universities, Stanford, and then Harvard. Still, as a true advocate for humanity, he shares his knowledge and doesn’t hold it above others as so many do in the academic world. He is for the people, with the people and will stay in the heart of all
“Dana Gioia is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet. Former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is a native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent. He received a B.A. and a M.B.A. from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Gioia currently serves as the Poet Laureate of California. (Gioia is pronounced JOY-uh.)
Gioia has published five full-length collections of poetry, most recently 99 Poems: New & Selected. His poetry collection, Interrogations at Noon, won the 2002 American Book Award. An influential critic as well, Gioia’s 1991 volume Can Poetry Matter?, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, is credited with helping to revive the role of poetry in American public culture. In 2014 he won the Aiken-Taylor Award for lifetime achievement in American poetry.
Gioia’s many literary anthologies include Twentieth-Century American Poetry, 100 Great Poets of the English Language, The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, and Literature for Life. His poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and The Hudson Review. Gioia has written three opera libretti and is an active translator of poetry from Latin, Italian, and German.
As Chairman of the NEA, Gioia succeeded in garnering enthusiastic bi-partisan support in the United States Congress for the mission of the Arts Endowment, as well as in strengthening the national consensus in favor of public funding for the arts and arts education. (Business Week Magazine referred to him as “The Man Who Saved the NEA.“)
Gioia’s creation of a series of NEA National Initiatives combined with a wider distribution of direct grants to reach previously underserved communities making the agency truly national in scope. Through programs such as Shakespeare in American Communities, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, NEA Jazz Masters, American Masterpieces, and Poetry Out Loud, the Arts Endowment has successfully reached millions of Americans in all corners of the country.
Shakespeare in American Communities has put more than 75 professional theater companies from 35 states on tour in more than 2,000 communities in all 50 states to perform for nearly one million students — many of whom had never before seen live, professional theater.
Operation Homecoming brought distinguished American authors to conduct workshops among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as their spouses) to write about their wartime experiences. The resulting anthology was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2006, and the documentary film, Operation Homecoming, became a finalist for the 2007 Academy Awards.
Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest now involves nearly half a million high school students across the country in a national poetry recitation contest that awards $50,000 in scholarships.
The NEA’s two critical studies: Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence brought enormous public attention to the importance of reading and arts participation. In addition, the NEA assumed a major role in shaping the national discussion on issues of arts and arts education.
The Big Read became the largest literary program in the history of the federal government. By the end of 2008, 400 communities had held month-long celebrations of great literature. Because of these successes as well as the continued artistic excellence of the NEA’s core grant programs, the Arts Endowment, under Chairman Gioia, reestablished itself as a preeminent federal agency and a leader in the arts and arts education.
Renominated in November 2006 for a second term and once again unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Dana Gioia is the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gioia left his position as Chairman on January 22, 2009. In 2011 Gioia became the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California where he teaches each fall semester. In 2015 Gioia was appointed the State Poet Laureate of California by Governor Jerry Brown.
Gioia has been the recipient of ten honorary degrees. He has won numerous awards, including the 2010 Laetare Medal from Notre Dame. He and his wife, Mary, have two sons. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County, California.”