Before he was California Poet Laureate or leading the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia marketed Jell-O. Possessing both a Stanford MBA and a Harvard MA, he combined his creativity and facility with numbers to climb the corporate ladder at General Foods to the second highest rung before abruptly quitting to become a poet and writer. That unique professional experience and a lifelong “hunger for beauty” have made him into what Tyler calls an “information billionaire,” or someone who can answer all of Tyler’s questions. In his new memoir, Dana describes the six people who sent him on this unlikely journey.
In this conversation, Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.
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Recorded February 18th, 2021
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I have Dana Gioia. The way I think of Dana is he is the only guest I have ever had who can answer all of my questions, but he does have another biography: at the top of the biography it reads, “Dana Gioia is an internationally acclaimed poet and writer. He is the former California Poet Laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.” Most notably, he has a new book out, it’s a kind of memoir. Excellent book, I loved reading it. It’s called Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.
Miss Bishop, of course, being Elizabeth Bishop, but Dana has numerous other books, including books of poetry, a book, The Catholic Writer Today, perhaps his most famous work is Can Poetry Matter? Dana is also an accomplished librettist for opera. He has done much, much more on top of all of that. Dana, welcome.
DANA GIOIA: I’m glad to be here. Good to see you again. It’s been many years.
COWEN: Correct. First question, the total softball. Why was Jack Benny such an effective spokesperson for Jell-O?
GIOIA: Because he was the most popular radio comedian in the United States.
COWEN: Why were you such an effective advertising executive for Jell-O?
GIOIA: Because I spent about a year and a half, figuring out what was the possible way that we could get people to use more Jell-O. Then I convinced the company, which took another year. It was really hard work, creativity, and research.
COWEN: How did older and younger women use Jell-O differently?
GIOIA: Well, what you’re referring to is the epic moment in General Foods life when we invented the Jell-O Jiggler, which was rather than creating an elaborate recipe, which was what we were trying to sell people for 40 years, simply a way that you could add water with your kids, put it in the refrigerator and have it ready as a finger food in one hour.
COWEN: It was like a platform for Jell-O?
GIOIA: Yes, it was the way of using three times as much Jell-O for an occasion in which people would never use Jell-O, which is to make your own gummy bears. It became a mom-kid activity. We sold every box of Jell-O in the United States for several months.
COWEN: How was it that you picked out Jell-O to start with in your corporate career?
GIOIA: Because that was one of the businesses I was running, and it was one of the two most profitable businesses at General Foods. It had been declining for 25 years without a break, and we doubled the business overnight.
COWEN: Jell-O had been declining?
GIOIA: Jell-O had been declining because all packaged foods had been declining. Working at General Foods, what I was working with was the best food company in the United States in 1950, but I was working at it in the ’80s. It was a sense of taking these older products and making them relevant to people that weren’t using them all the time.
COWEN: What was the corporate culture inside you that you brought to General Foods that maybe was missing in a company in decline, and where did you get that individual corporate culture from?
GIOIA: I was a poet, but I needed a job, so, I went to business school, I got an MBA, and I ended up in marketing at General Foods which is a highly analytic company with a very military organization. It was absolutely fantastic at managing existing businesses with a maximum of efficiency. What they were not good at was, in a sense, reconceptualizing a business that was in trouble, because they would simply try to do more or less of what they had done before.
When I was an entry-level person, I was really at a disadvantage being a creative person. I was very good at numbers, so I could fake my way through, but with each promotion at General Foods, actually the particular skills I had, which was in a sense of — I’m very good at reconceptualizing things, taking a solution that people have had, breaking it apart, and creating a new solution. I essentially brought creativity that was completely in command of the numbers, if you can understand. That’s a very fairly rare combination, and I was able to transform several businesses there.
COWEN: Given your General Foods success, why do MBA programs so completely neglect the humanities?
GIOIA: Well, it comes from two reasons. One is that the American educational system ignores the humanities, and secondly, our larger culture ignores the humanities. If you go to business school, you are with the most practical people you’ll ever hang around with. I like business school and I like my colleagues at business school because they were people that just wanted to get things done. They were very down to earth, unlike Harvard Graduate School and comparative literature where I’d come from. The problem is they are not people generally with a broad knowledge of history of the humanities and they’re not terribly creative people.
COWEN: Did your poetry converge or diverge with your work at General Foods and this military organization?
GIOIA: Well, my poetry was transformed by working in business. It probably could’ve happened at other companies too, but if you think about this, most poets in the United States have been in school since they were 6. At 65, they’re still in school, their whole vision of the world is of a schoolroom, of a university. I was basically working with very intelligent, nonliterary people for 15 years. In the same way in Washington DC, I was working with highly intelligent, highly competitive, but nonliterary people. It changes your sense of language, it changes your sense of the audience. I think I would’ve been a worse poet had I not gone into business in a business school.
Another reason why I was probably good is that I suffered in a way because I was working ten, twelve hours a day doing this other thing, then I was squeezing my writing into late nights and weekends. I do believe, as the jazz musicians say, you got to pay your dues. If your art isn’t so good that you’re willing to suffer for it, willing to sacrifice for it, you’re not getting deeply enough down inside you.
COWEN: You left Harvard what, in 1975?
GIOIA: Yes, 1975, I was in business school till ’77, then I was in the corporate world for 15 years, and then I quit. Actually, that’s the weird thing is, I worked all the way up to the top, and just when I would have made some good money, I just said, “I’ve only got one life to lead.” It was complicated reasons because I think you know, I lost a son. It changes your perspective on what you want to do for life so, I just walked out, and my colleagues were baffled because they have to give an explanation that makes sense to them.
Apparently, what people were telling in the company was, “Gioia has cancer, he just doesn’t want to tell anybody,” because they couldn’t understand why you would walk out when you should have made your whole way up, one step from the top. Then, I finally had to give them an explanation they could understand. I said, “I’m going to teach.” Which I wasn’t really going to leave to teach, but they all understood that, “Oh yes, one of these days I’m going to quit and teach at Harvard Business School.” That was a fantasy that a lot of them had. It was time to reinvent my life.
COWEN: The first time when you quit Harvard, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What was the final thought in your mind where you realized, “I need to get out of here?”
GIOIA: I realized I took my best teachers at Harvard. They fell into two camps. They were older men who had served in the military in World War II. That had given them a kind of reality index about what the purposes of literature were. My other two teachers, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald, whom I write about in this book, were people who basically came to teaching very late. They had made their living as writers, and it was only when they were old and lacking funds, they ended up teaching.
I realized that Wallace Stevens hadn’t been in the university, T. S. Eliot hadn’t been in the university, I could make a living as a writer somehow some other way. I just felt that being in the university was making me, as a poet, too self-conscious. I was writing poems to be interpreted, rather than to be experienced.
COWEN: Why is there so little good American poetry about business in the office, when business is such a big part of American life?
GIOIA: I think there’s two reasons. First of all, people tend to write out of their life experience, and that life experience is, nowadays, mostly academic. Secondly, business and money are the only two obscene topics left in American poetry. You can write specifically about sexual acts or excrement in American poetry and be praised, but if you write about business, you’re considered somehow polluted. I think even the business people who are poets, there’s been about a dozen, fifteen of them, they’re really quite famous, starting with Stevens and Elliot, to people like Dickey and Eberhardt.
Those people tend not to write about their experience because they know that it will essentially earn them criticism from their peers.
COWEN: What do people who work in marketing, what might they understand about your poetry that other people would not?
GIOIA: I don’t think that people in marketing would understand my poetry better or worse than other people. What I do think — and I know this, it’s not a speculation, it’s a deeply rooted observation — my poetry is written for people with broad life experience. The older the audience, the better the audience. The more diverse the audience, the better the audience. Rather than writing for people who essentially are working in a — You know the tribe of economists. The tribe of economists have certain rituals. They get around the fire, they do their economist dance, they offer their economist sacrifices, they sing their economist chants. Poets are the same way, and I’m not really interested in talking to them exclusively. My desire has always been to write a poem that my fellow poets will say, “Gee, that’s really well made, that’s really a nice work,” but it’s really registered to speak to a broad mix of humanity.
There’s an assumption in the university that the common reader, the average person is stupid. I hate to say this in public, but the center of human intelligence, the epicenter of human intellectuality, is not the English Department. The English Department has bright people, it has dumb people. It is a reflection of humanity in general, and I meet intelligent people in every profession I go to, including people that are in manual labor. I mean, extremely reflective and intelligent people.
That’s the life that they have found themselves in, and I know that because I am the first person in my family to go to college. I was raised among working-class people, many of whom did not speak English as their native language. My family on both sides was full of really intelligent people, and I do not want to exclude those people from the work that I write.
COWEN: Do you, like Auden, crave a social function for poetry?
GIOIA: I think poetry has a social function but it’s a relatively complicated and subtle one, which is to say, the reason that we have art is, in a sense, to increase human happiness. It does that, essentially, on an individual level. A work of art awakens you. It awakens you to the possibilities of your own potential. It takes that potential, it enlarges it, it refines it, and each art does it in different ways. Music appeals to the auditory sense, an organizational, formal structure in the mind. Painting is visual. Sculpture is visual and tactile. In the old days, people always would feel sculptures. Poetry is to our language and our emotional functions. They awaken emotions and awaken our ability to articulate them.
Now, that’s on an individual basis. When you do that on a social level, what you create over time, if you have the arts there, are people who are better aware of who they are, how they feel, are able to articulate it and recognize that empathetically in other people. I would say that a purpose of poetry on a social level is to enlarge our empathy and understanding of one another.
COWEN: What are the prospects for a culture that no longer understands poetry, and might that be ours?
GIOIA: I think we see it everywhere around us. We see a coarsening, a stupification of language. We live in cliches. We live in news bites. If you look at just the size of an article in a newspaper, it’s probably one-third of what it was when I was in college. The New Yorker even probably has one quarter as many words that we’re not as comfortable working with words, and where you see it most clearly — I did a lot of work at the NEA in terms of American literacy, and I had never understood how we measure literacy. It’s a very simple thing, and I can explain it in about a minute. In a test that measures high levels of literacy, I say, “Tyler says that coffee is good.”
Dana says, “Coffee is bad,” and the question is, “Is coffee good? Is coffee bad? Is there a disagreement?” Most people will check good or bad. They cannot because of their, in a sense, inadequate linguistic training, they cannot recognize contradictory statements in a logical structure, which means that we’ve lost our ability to make even basic distinctions and refinements in terms of thought. There’s another whole thing which is different from this that I’ll be happy to go into but I don’t want to talk too long on this.
COWEN: Will there be ever a great long poem again?
GIOIA: There might be, but it will take a very different form.
COWEN: Why did they stop appearing? Harry Potter is a long book or the series of them is long, you put them all together. Lord of the Rings, the three volumes, they’re fairly long. Why aren’t poems long anymore?
GIOIA: Well, it’s interesting. In the modern movement, and I’m talking about maybe 1914 to the Second World War, there was a huge transformation in all the arts, music, sculpture, painting, literature, and art became, in every form, more abstract, more conceptual, more formal, not in a sense of rhyme and meter or whatever but in terms of these structural designs. As part of that, there was a general bias against narrative. Putting a story in was somehow condescending to a stupid audience but the fact is, humanity needs stories. People lead their individual life as a story. One of the reasons you need lots of stories is that in every life, your story comes to an impasse.
You have to, in a sense, revise the narrative of your own life, and what fiction does, what poetry does, what narrative does is give you a wealth of narrative possibilities so you can recognize that no matter how bad your life is right now, that there’s an escape, there’s a rescue, there might even, in the Greek sense, be a deus ex machina, an intervention which saves you. I believe that the suicide epidemic in the United States, the opioid epidemic in the United States, especially among young people, is among people who cannot, in a sense, get control of the stories of their own lives.
The deprivation of narrative of stories, the cheapening of narratives in our mass culture, I think has had tremendous human cost, both in the loss of creativity, loss of productivity, and also, at its worst in terms of suicide, drug use, and death.
COWEN: Is rap music, simply the new poetry? It’s very popular. It is poetic in some broader notion of the term.
GIOIA: Rap, hip hop without any question is poetry. It is rhythmically structured words moving through time. You have in the invention of rap — Rap is interesting because, once again, if I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience, and finally, that the African American voice in poetry rejected these European things and would take this experimental form. What the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people.
We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it. The greatest one of these was Kool Herc in the South Bronx, who invented what we now think of as rap and hip hop. Within about ten years, it went from non-existent to being the most widely purchased form of popular music. We saw in our own lifetime something akin to Homer, the reinvention of popular oral poetry. There were parallels in the revival of slam poetry, cowboy poetry, and new formalism, so at every little social group, people from the ground up reinvented poetry because the intellectuals had taken it away from them.
COWEN: Why is Elizabeth Bishop a more radical poet than Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti?
GIOIA: She’s radical in that she went back to the roots of poetry and she kept rhythm, she usually kept rhyme, and she understood that poetry wasn’t simply a formal structure, it was a form of wisdom literature. When I review books of poetry, I ask myself three questions. What is the writer doing? What’s the writer trying to do? Secondly, how well does the writer do this? Then, there’s the third question, and this is where Elizabeth Bishop really wins. How worthwhile was the thing that they wanted to do and they did? Sometimes you see people do marvelous jobs of something that’s not really worth the effort. What Bishop tried to do was to explain in her poetry, this is what great poets do, what it is like to live in a particular life, in a particular moment, and make you feel the pain, the joy, the illumination, the doubt with the absolute intensity as if it were happening to you.
COWEN: As you must know in the main Bishop biography, it suggested she was not such a popular professor at Harvard, yet you loved studying with her. What accounts for that difference in perspective?
GIOIA: I think actually, it was my memoir that really brought this to light because nobody wanted to take her classes. She was not popular, she was not prestigious and Harvard students are absolute barometers of prestige. They can feel it and they gravitate towards it. I liked her, she was a bad teacher, there’s no question about that, she was a bad teacher, but you were in a room with a great poet who had no pretensions at all. She says, “I am a bad teacher,” and you would just talk about poems. She would look at them, you’d feel material, and there is no substitute for a young artist to the experience of being in the presence of a master.
My brother Ted, who’s a famous historian jazz critic, he played piano with Stan Getz. Stan was a very difficult guy but he was one of the great jazz geniuses in the last half-century, and just seeing how Getz worked, how Getz performed, how Getz conceived of things was like a university degree. The same thing for me was Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald. I was with two of the greatest Craftsman poets of their generation sometimes twice a week. It was transformative to me much better than an organized lecturer.
COWEN: Is memorizing poetry a good way to learn it?
GIOIA: Memorizing poetry is the only way to learn poetry. Who is the mother of the muses? Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. You don’t understand poetry until you learn it by heart. Think of the metaphor of learning it by heart, putting it into the very center of your being, and making it part of you. That’s when and only when you understand how most of poetry’s meaning is indirect, is intuitive, even physical.
COWEN: What do you think of learning every single character in a long epic poem?
GIOIA: I thought it was hard because Robert Fitzgerald made us learn every character in every one, and we’re talking about hundreds of people with Greek names or Italian names, but what it does do is show you that every moment in a great work of art contributes to the total effect. That none of these things are accidental, everything has meaning.
COWEN: Putting yourself aside, where were the conservative poets today? Why is there not a modern T.S. Eliot or Cummings?
GIOIA: There’s three ways of saying conservative. Is it conservative politics, is it conservative aesthetics, is it a conservative cultural vision? There was an avant-garde composer named Lou Harrison and he had his motto which was, “Consider, [cherish], conserve, create.” The whole notion seems to me of art is of conservation, of looking at all the achievements of the past and figuring out what it is we save and what it is that we need to add to move forward.
The trouble with that in terms of academic culture is that there’s one or two trendy ways that they think are important because they generate work that validates you for promotion and for tenure versus having real deeper cultural values. The really great poets who are conserving culture, and one of the greatest ones just died, a fellow named Richard Wilbur. What you felt with Wilbur when you are reading these wonderful poems that everything that was worthwhile and usable in the past somehow found a place in these poems.
I think that’s what it is in the same way you would not in mathematics or science or economics throw out everything before you. You would take it and you would build on it to make something that was meaningful for the moment.
COWEN: Elliot had suggested that Virgil was the first poet to, in some aesthetic sense, actually belong to the Christian world. Do you agree?
GIOIA: Well, you can’t understand early Christianity oddly without understanding Virgil. Virgil in one of his Eclogues claimed that there was a king being born in the east who would save the world. He was talking about apparently a possible heir to Augustus, but the Christians took this as essentially a prophecy, and they developed a view of Virgil and of classical culture which I think saved Christianity. I’m a Catholic, I think this is fundamental to Catholicism, which says that there is the supernatural inspiration, but there is also a natural prophecy, a natural inspiration.
Using Virgil they were able to save the entire classical tradition as an alternate way of thinking about the world, articulating in the world, and they assumed this, they consumed and digested this to form Catholicism, which is why Catholicism has such a strong philosophical-theological and artistic tradition.
COWEN: Hermann Broch, as you know, he wrote the famous novel The Death of Virgil. He was a Catholic. Is that coincidence, accident, fundamental?
GIOIA: Broch is one of these fascinating characters, and he takes a single moment in Virgil’s life, the very last moment. Virgil, like Kafka, at the end of his life felt that he had failed as an artist, that he had not finished certain things in the need, so he requested that his great epic — You have to think of this, the Aeneid is the central poem of Western literature. People forget this now because we go back to Homer, we have Dante, we have everything else but the Aeneid was what formed essentially the imagination of Christian Europe, and that he’s going to burn this.
Broch takes him and turns them into an existential hero having an existential crisis, which indeed might have been true. Luckily, Kafka’s friend Max Brod, Virgil’s friends refuse to follow the poet’s wishes.
COWEN: Towards the end of that novel, he has a dialogue with Augustus, the Emperor. Let’s say you’re that poet, you’re on or near your deathbed, and you’re having a dialogue with Augustus. What do you tell Augustus?
GIOIA: Thank God you were here and not Caligula. [laughs] Augustus is that brief moment where you think that the Roman imperial system might work, and Augustus, much more than our rulers today, understood the cultural power of art. Postmodernists, they defame Augustus, they defame Virgil, Horace, think that they were pawns into imperial power, but I think Augustus had a broader vision as did Virgil which is to say, if you can give people a common story, it unifies them. A culture, in order to keep together an empire, a nation in order to keep together, has to have certain common myths that express, convey the values, not in intellectual terms, but in terms of story, emotion, image.
COWEN: I know you’re a big admirer of Auden as a poet and a writer. He once said and I quote, “Opera is the last refuge of the high style in poetry.” True or false?
GIOIA: True, with a vengeance. I am not invited to come in and rewrite TV shows. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese don’t call me to work on their screenplays, but in opera, they still need the poet because they need language in stories that are elevated, concise, and lyrical.
COWEN: How good are Auden’s libretti? He did one for Stravinsky, one for Henze, for Britain he did Paul Bunyan.
GIOIA: Here’s the thing you learned from Auden. His greatest libretto in terms of poetry is his first one called Paul Bunyan, which made an absolutely terrible opera because it was so well written, you couldn’t do anything with it. What Auden did is as he went forward, the libretti became less poetically distinguished and more dramatically powerful. I think his greatest libretti, I think is the best two are the two that he wrote for Hans Werner Henze, The Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids. Unfortunately, in Elegy for Young Lovers, Hans Werner Henze was in his twelve tone period and the opera is unlistenable but the libretto is a truly great libretto. The Bassarids is a great opera. It’s one of the three or four best operas of the last 50 years.
COWEN: Having studied opera librettos and written quite a few of them yourself, how is it you feel you have a deeper appreciation of Auden?
GIOIA: Auden has always been a good role model, because Auden — We can think that Auden understood that if you were in the 18th century and you were a poet, you were writing lyric poems, ballads, verse epistles, satires, you are writing plays, you were writing song lyrics, in all these things. He did not allow himself as a poet to become hyper specialized, where most poets today all they write are pieces of typography that are roughly one page long. You can write great poems that way, but I did not want to have a poetic life that was restricted to a narrow genre of the lyric poem written to be read silently on the page.
Auden gave me the permission as it were to write libretti to write song lyrics, to work with jazz musicians, to do translations, to do long poems, and also, and this is what Bishop did too, to work in any style I wanted to. You see this assumption right now that a poet finds a voice, a style and they just keep working in that same vein their whole career. Where I think that you should be open to any possibility of genre, of style, of form.
COWEN: When you write a libretto for Nosferatu, as you’ve done, is that German Expressionism? Is that an American Poetic Style? Is that Catholic? How do you place your own libretto?
GIOIA: Tyler, it’s all of them because what I did was Nosferatu —Alva Henderson wanted to write an opera with me, but I couldn’t. He had an idea and I just didn’t like the idea. I said, “Let me come up with an idea.” Then I happened to meet a film historian. He died a few years, a wonderful guy named Gilberto Perez, he was a Cuban. He had gone back to the original cut of Nosferatu, which was about half an hour longer than the one people to see. When I saw it I said, “Gee, this reminds me of a 19th century opera,” because it’s not about the vampire. It’s about the suffering of this woman who’s trapped in this tragic drama.
What is opera except the suffering of people with high voices. I was able to take the Murnau film, which he had stolen from Bram Stoker. He couldn’t get the copyrights, so we borrowed it. Then he overlaid Wagner. I took that. I overlaid my own concern. The opera is a kind of expressionist opera but which uses a lot of bel canto conventions, it’s deeply, deeply Catholic. I didn’t intend it to be Catholic, but somehow when you’re talking about the nature of evil, your theological assumptions come to the fore. I mostly wanted it to be dark and sexy and fascinating in its sinister quality.
COWEN: What is the most difficult or most scarce skill in writing opera librettos?
GIOIA: Taking it seriously. I can’t tell you how bad most contemporary libretti are because there’s this assumption which is that you write something and the composer does all the work. That’s not true. An opera needs to be as well written as a broadway musical. If you go to a broadway musical, if you go to a Cole Porter musical or Stephen Sondheim musical, much of the pleasure is in the language. I’ve had this experience again and again when they produce the operas I’ve written the libretti for, the singers come up to me and they go, “Your lyrics are so good.” What does that mean? I think it means this. When I was writing a poem for the page, all it had to do was to work on the page.
When I write lyrics for an opera libretto, it has to work as a poem, it has to work as something that the composer can set to music, which means it has to be tight enough to have a form but not so tight that the composer can’t get into it. There’s a third thing that I had never considered. The singer has to become your words for the duration of the performance. When the soprano walks on, she has to know who she is, who she was, what she wants, she has to inhabit your words. That’s what I think I got to be very good at, creating beautiful language that a singer could inhabit in the way that they can inhabit a great pop song.
COWEN: What do you think of the libretto for Jerome Kern’s Show Boat?
GIOIA: I think if you go to these classic musicals like Show Boat, they have tremendously fine lyrics. Annie Get Your Gun. [laughs] Who wouldn’t have wanted to write the lyrics for that show? I don’t find that as much in contemporary musicals, and I don’t find it hardly at all in contemporary operas. The opera is what Wagner called a Gesamtkunstwerk, a combined artwork. It combines stagecraft poetry, music, acting, et cetera, et cetera. If you have one element of that combination that doesn’t work, the whole doesn’t work. In the same way that if you have a singer with a bad voice, opera doesn’t work. I think that writing great lyrics is what makes a lot of musical theater from opera to cabaret either excellent or lousy.
COWEN: Was Joseph Kerman correct to suggest the Tristan was Wagner’s greatest most integrated work as a whole? In part because of the synthesis of ideas, music, lyrics, history.
GIOIA: In abstract, I agree with him. I do think that there was a problem with Wagner. I’ve always wanted to write an essay. I’ve never written it called Slow Time Versus Fast Time. I would take Verdi’s Rigoletto, where he just rushes through this thing and it puts you in an emotional frenzy. Rigoletto is about as long as one act of Tristan, where Wagner slowed down time to give you a very different almost hypnotic effect of the music. One’s emotional excitation, the other is a kind of hypnotic trance. I feel that that hypnotic trance, it goes too slow in Parsifal.
For me I think something like Die Walküre and even these early operas like The Flying Dutchman, Fliegende Holländer, or Lohengrin do it in a timeframe that I find more natural to my own body rhythms. That being said, Tristan und Isolde is a masterpiece.
COWEN: Is it plausible to believe that Verdi’s Otello is a greater work even dramatically than Shakespeare’s Othello?
GIOIA: It’s certainly the equal of Shakespeare’s play. It has things that Shakespeare — It has the thing called the Credo, where Yago comes in and does a blasphemous parody of the Catholic Credo, which is I believe in one God, and he believes in a God of evil. This is a moment, a theatrical moment that staggers you in the same way Ave Maria, Desdemona’s Ave Maria staggers you. I think it’s an equal work. It’s hard to compare across genres, but Othello is the greatest of all the many distinguished Shakespearean operas, Falstaff being a close second. Falstaff also being a gerontologist’s miracle. [laughs] Opera that Verdi does when he’s 80 is a masterpiece, and it is different from his earlier operas.
COWEN: Clearly better than the The Merry Wives of Windsor, from my point of view.
GIOIA: It’s clearly better than the The Merry Wives of Windsor. Not even a comparison in that case.
COWEN: How good a lyricist is Brian Wilson?
GIOIA: Pretty good for what he did. The Wilson family is from my hometown of Hawthorne. In fact, my uncle Giacomo many years ago was called in for a carpentry assignment that he thought was ridiculous. He came and he said, “I had the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen today. There’s this guy, he made me pull out his rug and build a sandbox for his living room. That guy’s crazy.” We said, “What’s his name?” He says, “Wilson.” I have that, but I think the Beach Boys’ greatest songs from almost a decade are among the high points of American popular music.
They are at this moment especially valuable because they are in some ways the purest expressions of a personal and collective optimism that America had about, in a sense, the goodness of life, and we’ve lost that to our detriment.
COWEN: For me, a lot of the songs are quite tragic and melancholic. That’s what I enjoy about them. That there’s the shiny surface but underneath, my goodness.
GIOIA: Yes, but anything that reflects life — There is a Latin phrase which is Et in Arcadia ego: even in Eden, in paradise, in Arcadia, I am, which means death. These Renaissance painters would do these beautiful landscapes, but put a little skull under a bush somewhere that you could see. I think that all great happy art has an undercut of sadness and any artist has to, in a sense, reconcile the sorrows, the sadness of it. In Brian Wilson’s case, that becomes an increasing theme and I think eventually a paralyzing theme for him, quite literally.
COWEN: Is Brian Wilson still great in the 1970 to ’73 period, say from Sunflower to Love You, or do you think by the end he’s fallen apart?
GIOIA: He’s become a different kind of artist and I think you — If you love an artist, you are interested in everything they do, but I don’t think that that later work is the entry point into Brian Wilson, versus his transformation of the popular song, and his creation of a genre. Also, he did as much as any artist in terms of creating a vision of California. Which is to say, a vision of California as the American dream. This is what the great historian Kevin Star did in a seven-volume history of California, explaining that. I asked Kevin why he never did the vast volume because he ends in the early ’60s, and he says, “He didn’t have the heart to have the dream fall apart.”
As a Californian, I guarantee you it has happened alas.
COWEN: You still live there, right?
GIOIA: Well, this is where I’m from. I’m the last Jew to leave Nazi Germany, this is my home. This is where I know every tree I know every bird, where I’m part of the history of it and so, it’s still a wonderful place to live, don’t get me wrong, but the detrimental aspects of California economically, culturally educationally have been so extreme in the last 15–20 years. It’s heartbreaking for people here.
COWEN: Were The Three Stooges funny?
GIOIA: They certainly were when I was a kid. [laughs] I still rather — I’ll watch 15–20 minutes of The Three Stooges every time I can, but I prefer Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy.
COWEN: W. C. Fields, or not?
GIOIA: I adore the W. C. Fields.
COWEN: The Bank Dick is a great movie.
GIOIA: I think my wife just rolls her eyes because if there’s the W. C. Fields movie on, I’ll watch it till the end. It was the one — It’s a gift, where he’s trying to sleep on the balcony and the salesman goes, “Isn’t Carl Lefong here? Capital L, small e, capital F, small o, small n, and small g. W. C. Fields milks that thing for about five minutes and it’s wonderful, but I didn’t understand when I was young that both Laurel and Hardy and W. C. Fields, the fundamental comic idea under them, is how thwarted we are getting through the ordinary business of our day.
When I was young I just saw the jokes, the slapdash elements of it, but now I understand there’s an existential humor under this where W. C. Fields can’t get a cup of coffee without trouble, can’t take a nap without trouble.
COWEN: Which is the most underrated art museum in the world?
GIOIA: Oh it’s a hard one, I think it’s probably the Hermitage because you can never see two-thirds of the art, and so there’s usually some huge portion that’s out on loan somewhere so, who can actually assess how magnificent even after they sold it to Lisbon and Washington DC in large quantities, it’s this great unknowable museum.
The finest really small museum, and that’s perhaps what you ask, the museum that nobody goes to, is this weird gallery at Bob Jones University. Bob Jones, Jr. for years simply bought old masters when they were $700 and he has this incredible collection, or he had, he’s dead now. The university has this incredible collection of Italian Baroque art, which they don’t really want people to come in and see. In fact, when you go there, they have a warning sign that saying you have to understand that these paintings exhibit some of the heresies of the Catholic church or have these terrible Catholic tendencies, but you go there and it’s just chock a block with this stuff and no one’s ever seen. Very few people get in. It took me a long time just to be able to get into it. I’ve never been able to get into their chapel to see the art there.
COWEN: We were together in Paris, I think it was 2005 and the topic of Hieronymus Bosch came up, and you knew off the top of your head the location of each fully intact Bosch painting in the world. It took you about five seconds to realize the final one was in Lisbon. Temptation of St. Anthony, as you may recall. How was it that you knew that?
GIOIA: Well as a kid I still know this weird stuff. As a kid, I was hungry for beauty and so I went to the Hawthorne Public Library, which is a monument to the good effects of political graft. Somebody was on the take and so they built an enormous library and they put ten times as many books as Hawthorne needed, and I read and studied everyone in art. I would go there and I would make lists of these things, and I am still to this day, most of my trips are to see art museums, and I see them again and again and again and again.
The last trip I took internationally was Madrid and I took my kids there as well as a nephew, and they thought I was crazy. Every day I was in the Prado, or I was in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum day after day after day, and I said, there’s not that much else I want to see there, but I want to see the Bosch again and again, I want to see the Velazquez. To me, it’s my pleasure and I love going to these forgotten museums that have one or two great paintings.
One of the things I really want to do is I want to go back to Detroit, to see their Museum of Fine Arts, which is one of the greatest collections in America, and usually when you go there, half of its closed. It’s like the Hermitage. You have to go there a couple of times to be able to see, and they also have one of the great Bruegels there, but anyway. I love this and I feel that I’m a verbal artist, but there is an extraordinary intellectual, emotional, and spiritual power that the greatest paintings have. If you put yourself in their presence, they unlock and awaken things inside of you.
Let me give you one other fine museum people don’t know about, which is that in Balboa Park, which is arguably the most beautiful public space in California. There’s this ugly modernist building, tiny awful little thing in this awful little moat that is a blemish on the entire park. It’s the Timken gallery, which is only six rooms, and every room is full of fantastic paintings, and when I’m there, there’s usually three or four other people there, people don’t know about it. There’s a Bosch, there’s a Bosch there too.
COWEN: The Huntington I thought you might say, the Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York City.
GIOIA: I love the Roerich.
COWEN: Hardly anyone goes there.
GIOIA: I guess that’s technically a museum… We used to do a reading series in the Roerich Museum and I loved it because you were surrounded by the paintings of this Russian mystic, and it almost looked as if you were doing a production meeting for lost horizons in terms of describing Shangri-La. The Huntington is the greatest collection of English paintings outside of England, and it’s on 200 acres of gardens, so it’s wonderful but it’s pretty well known.
COWEN: A lot of people have never been there because it’s not in Downtown Los Angeles. If you’re a tourist, it’s a bit of effort to get to it.
GIOIA: Certainly crowded when I go there. I have a house in South Pasadena now. When we’re there, my wife and I who are members of the Huntington, and as you probably know, I have donated my archive to the Huntington Library, which is one of the great American institutions, also one of the great stories of American culture. I’ve given them my archive. We go there walking in the mornings, and it’s extraordinarily beautiful also great for birdwatching, and all the plants and flowers pretty much if you find that are labeled, so you will see thousands of plants and flowers.
COWEN: Putting aside whatever one might think of contemporary art, take that as a separate issue, but what is the main thing wrong with Western art museums today?
GIOIA: Well, right now, American art museums, Western art museums are going through a destructive period of self-doubt. Now, if you think of what a museum is, a museum is a conservation technology. The museum is a relatively modern creation. It really happens only after the French revolution when they decide that when they grab the emperor’s urban palace, which is the Louvre, and that they will bring all of the art that they’ve taken from the aristocracy and the royalty, and put it there and allow people to come in.
They also created the earliest version of the NEA because they took the upper apartments and they made them free rent for artists. After a number of years, they realized that was a bad idea. That’s a whole separate topic. Then because of that, the Habsburg emperor in Vienna said, “Well, I should have got my people come in and see my collection.” Then it began to happen to The Uffizi in Florence and in Madrid.
You look at this, it’s really only slightly more than 200 years old. What we’re trying to do is to preserve the best of the past and let people into it. Museums today now say, “Well, we are vehicles of cultural change. We don’t want to be hemmed down by the past,” and things like this. I think it’s a misunderstanding of their basic function. There are art spaces for this. There are exhibitions, there are galleries. There are kunsthalle, in German, it’s a wonderful term, an art hall. No collection, but we exhibit art there. That’s where that should happen.
It breaks my heart to see museums sell their best paintings to raise money to, first of all, cover the deficits of their own bad management. This has happened, the Albright-Knox in Buffalo did this shamefully ahead of everybody else. The Berkshire Museum did it shamefully. Now, it’s universal because they need money and to buy works that are more socially proactive. I think that if they want to buy socially proactive works, have their board buy them, don’t sell your existing collection. These places will never be able to get them back.
COWEN: If you walk to the men’s room in most museums, there’s a lot of blank, white space on the wall. Should they be putting pictures out there?
GIOIA: That’s a cultural question. [laughs] Probably not. I think, first of all, because it’s not honorable — rightly or wrongly. Secondly, it’s nice to have a white space in the museum to give your eyes a break.
COWEN: How would you restructure the Vatican Museum?
GIOIA: Oh, God. Talk about the Hermitage being inaccessible. No one sees the Raphael rooms, the Raphael Stanze. I think what the Vatican should do, is to take their Pinacoteca, which is their gallery, and probably their classical collection, and create a new museum outside of the Vatican. The physical structure of the Vatican cannot support the millions of people that visit there.
If you think about this, in most years, Rome is the most widely visited tourist location in the world and the Vatican is the number one attraction in Rome. It makes St. Peter’s and everything else inaccessible. I do think that they should build a new museum for the core of their collection. They could raise a lot of money that, and take better care of the art.
COWEN: Is Andy Warhol an effective Catholic artist?
GIOIA: It depends on what you mean by a Catholic artist. He is a Catholic artist in that he recognizes the power of the iconic image and the incarnational quality of art. That being said, if you ask, what he does so well, is it worth doing? I’m not sure a lot of it is. I think of him as a kind of brilliant eccentric artist, and the Catholicism gives a certain weight to his art, but he would not be on my shortlist of great artists of the 20th century.
COWEN: What is the most significant work by Ray Bradbury?
GIOIA: Ray Bradbury for 10 years wrote a series of books almost at the rate of one per year that transformed not only American science fiction, but American popular culture, including two tremendously interesting novels, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. I think his greatness, however, is in his short stories.
If you took his 10 best short stories things like A Sound of Thunder, Pedestrian, they are extraordinary. They create a kind of sensibility that then became encoded in our culture through The Twilight Zone that expanded the possibilities of American literature.
COWEN: What do Martians have to do to seek redemption? That’s a question Bradbury asked in The Fire Balloons. They’re pure energy. What can they do?
GIOIA: We asked our eighth-grade nun if there were people on the other planets, would they have to get baptized, and would they go to heaven and hell? She answered the question brilliantly, I thought. She says, “Well, if there are people on other planets, if they fail the way Adam and Eve did, they would need redemption and God would need to redeem them.”
The first question we have to ask, are they an unfallen race? I think generally we’ve looked at the Martians as an unfallen race. They are the noble savage. They are the identic creatures except in H.G. Wells.
COWEN: What do you view as the implicit theology of the original Star Trek series? Is it in fact secular as it pretends to be or not?
GIOIA: I think of it as Jungian and what it is doing is creating the archetypal journey of the young hero towards discovering his own strengths part of which is finding his anima and his animus. Darth Vader, some would say it has Jung on his uniform, he is the shadow of the hero’s personality and the hero has to confront and eventually control or even his shadow. I think it’s a Jungian work rather than a Christian work.
COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?
GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.
COWEN: How could you not expect that?
GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.
COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.
GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First Men. Odd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.
COWEN: Did Anthony Burgess ever write a truly great book or was he always falling short in some sense?
GIOIA: That’s a real good question. I love Anthony Burgess. When I interviewed Burgess in about 1979, I said, “I’ve read 19 of your books.” He said, “That’s too many.” What you have with Burgess is you’re always feeling he’s on the verge of his great novel.
I think that perhaps Earthly Powers was his great novel because he takes the form of a Somerset Maugham novel, and he overlays a mafia novel, a religious novel, a Bildungsroman all in that. I think it works. I think it works from the first page to the last page. Isn’t the first sentence something like, “I was in bed with my catamite when the papal nuncio rang”?
COWEN: To me, it’s the memoir that I think is best, which, strikingly, is not a novel. I think he’d been better off had he not been a novelist and done something else and written.
GIOIA: Anthony Burgess is like D. H. Lawrence. D. H. Lawrence is without question a great writer. The question is, did he ever write a great novel? He wrote great short stories, but most of the novels have problems. Burgess is the same way, but the fact about Burgess is that almost every page is alive.
I’ve read Inside Enderby, the Enderby novels, three times and they never failed to amuse me. Clockwork Orange, I’ve read maybe three times. I think you’re right, but I think Earthly Powers may be a good thing. His biography is stunning, and his self-criticism and his self-discovery, plus the interestingness of his life.
COWEN: Is György Lukács an interesting thinker?
GIOIA: Lukács is, to me, the most interesting Marxist critic, except for Marx. What Lukács understood was — Lukács wrote a book, which I think has one of the dullest titles you can imagine, called History and Class Consciousness. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács gave an analysis of institutional history. Fundamentally, it’s one of my basic concepts and understanding of the world. He says that humans create an institution, you can say, it’s the legal system for a social use called justice.
As the legal system develops and develops and begins to find a way of becoming internally consistent, it has less and less to do with justice because it’s more concerned, in a sense, about being a self-contained, rational enterprise. I think that literary studies in the university reached this point maybe 50 years ago, where, in creating internal cohesion and internal structure, they had less and less to do with literature and almost nothing to do with the human purposes of literature.
Also, Lukács’s analysis of the 19th-century novel is fantastic. I reread him a few weeks ago, his discussion of Tolstoy and Balzac, and I found it absolutely illuminating. His piece on Dostoyevsky, too.
COWEN: What’s your favorite Tolstoy short story or short fiction?
GIOIA: Death of Ivan Ilyich, which, I think — First of all, if you asked me who was the greatest fiction writer who ever lived, I would say Tolstoy. His short stories are full of masterpieces, but the Death of Ivan Ilyich is simply one of the greatest considerations of human mortality and human limitation that I’ve ever read and reread and reread again.
COWEN: I might say Hadji Murat, though, because Ilyich is such a linear tale and Hadji Murat has the satire going on. It’s all about historical construction of reputation, deflating egos.
GIOIA: It’s a masterpiece and very few people have read it. Master and Man is another one. My family does a thing every year where we pick a book and we all read it together. We did Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, right now we’re reading Cousin Bette by Balzac, we did The Red and the Black, we did Catch-22, but we all agree that the greatest thing we’ve ever read together was Anna Karenina. Nothing else can hold its own against the greatness of that novel.
COWEN: I have a few questions about Catholicism. Why is singing less central to Catholic worship?
GIOIA: Catholic worship, this is a limitation, was really about chant, originally. It was about the people who were performing the rites of the sacrifices chanting and the people around them chanting. It was in Latin, which became increasingly distant from the vulgate of the various populations. By the time that the Reformation came around, there was this great gap between, in a sense, a sacramental religion and what the Protestants invented, which was a charismatic religion. Catholicism has never really caught up with that if Catholics suffer for their sins by going to mass and hearing the music.
COWEN: How has that shaped Catholic poetry, that different musical tradition?
GIOIA: Catholic poetry is completely shaped by the sacraments. The sacraments are outward signs that symbolize inward changes or inward turns of grace, which means that a Catholic sees everything that happens in two ways: in a physical way and a metaphysical way, in a temporal way and an eternal way, with all of the mysterious connections between that. Even up to my generation, and even some of the younger ones, we were raised with Latin, which means that we hear, when we speak English, the echoes of an ancient language.
There was a continuity in Hawthorne, California, hometown of both Dana Gioia and Brian Wilson, when I was growing up, between a working-class kid there and the court of Augustus Caesar and Virgil and Horace. The language spoken by the Roman legions in Palestine was not particularly different from what was being recited and sung in hymns in Hawthorne, California. That was a cultural gift that was at least as good for me as getting a Stanford BA and a Harvard MA.
COWEN: What is the strongest presence of Catholicism in the American fine arts today or recently?
GIOIA: Movies. The Italian-American filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese, Cimino, in a sense, brought a dark Catholic worldview into American popular culture. Things like Mean Streets, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter.
COWEN: How about Catholic Asian cinema, so John Woo. The films in the ’90s, highly Catholic, very successful.
GIOIA: I find them interesting, but they don’t speak to me in theological terms.
COWEN: How about Chan-wook Park? Oldboy? Sin, redemption, suffering?
GIOIA: They are, but the question is, when you begin and you locate your films in hell, how do you get out of it? I don’t necessarily find those films having convincing redemptions. I don’t think we’re redeemed by the blood that we ourselves spill.
COWEN: The Sopranos, Catholic TV show or not? The characters are Catholic, but that’s not the same thing, right?
GIOIA: It’s slightly. When I saw The Sopranos and I thought the guy was named David Chase, I said, “How can this happen? This guy knows Italians from the inside.” I thought his name was DeCesare or something originally. He’s an Italian who actually went to Stanford. I find them absolutely, 99.9% on the mark of Italian Americans, but most of the religion is scrubbed away.
In the first season, when the mother was still alive, you saw the darker side of Catholicism in her. After a while, it becomes a very Italian-American series with the emphasis on American, the way Italians have changed in America.
COWEN: Tony meeting the end he does, visiting the therapist is like going to confession. Isn’t there Catholic symbolism throughout it for, what, all seven seasons?
GIOIA: It is Catholic, but he is going to a psychoanalyst with whom he has a sexual attraction. It becomes Americanized in that way. Versus Mean Streets, it’s Catholicism straight up. The Deer Hunter is Catholicism straight up. The Godfather, Godfather 1 and 2. Even in number 3, he tries, it doesn’t work very well. These are fundamentally sacramental works of art. I think The Godfather is psychoanalytic rather than sacramental.
COWEN: In fiction, has America outsourced its Catholicism to other nations such as Elena Ferrante, Houellebecq. Knausgård is Lutheran, not Catholic, but it’s still quite a confessional memoir.
GIOIA: We have a tremendous Catholic culture in American fiction that was largely done by converts, or people that were sympathetic. Willa Cather, who was not Catholic wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, maybe the best Catholic novel in American literature. You have Flannery O’Connor, you have Walker Percy, you have John Kennedy Toole. You have these people that are largely southerners. They were the part of Catholicism that was in some ways a discriminated minority against the South, or you have converts.
We have several really fine Catholic novelists right now. Tobias Wolff, Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott are the three best ones, I think. There’s a re-invention of this, but we are not a mainstream cultural voice yet. Astonishingly, we even have a revival of the Protestant novel, which I thought had died with Updike and Cheever with Marilynne Robinson. Who would have thought you’d have a series of Calvinist masterpieces?
COWEN: How did Catholicism shape the work of Sigrid Undset?
GIOIA: Once again, I think Scandinavian Catholic is in the minority. What it did with Undset in a sense brought her back to pre-Protestant Scandinavian culture, which I think she was able to be both medieval and modern. I think she was able to bring more of the Scandinavian character together in her novels that way.
The interesting one that you mentioned though, is Houellebecq. All of his novels to essentially take place in secular hell of modern Europe, which has eradicated its roots. You see him in the recent work trying to get out of it, and the only way he can is in a sense by a leap of faith.
COWEN: Anyway, it’s Islam that he admires for standing up to the system and saying no.
GIOIA: The novels are novels of existential despair, so it’s not surprising then, they become novels of existential resistance. He is our version of Camus. I find him a fascinating novelist. I’d always heard terrible things about him. He was the most awful writer in Europe today.
Then I read a novel of his, and I just said, “He’s like once again, D.H. Lawrence. It’s not a great novel, but there’s a great vision in this. There’s tremendous energy in this.” They are intellectually enlivening books. I now have read everything. I’d love to see him interviewed because he is a wonderful interviewee. You see him play with the BBC and reduce the BBC, and it was shivering massive, excuse me, Jell-O.
COWEN: How has being a Catholic influenced your management style?
GIOIA: Catholicism gives you a very sensible piece of advice: you must love everyone. But that doesn’t mean that everyone’s perfect. You have to, in a sense, manage love, community, togetherness, shared responsibility with an ability to criticize people so they can transcend their current state and become better versions of themselves.
COWEN: With a background that is both Mexican and Sicilian, do you feel closer to those varieties of Catholicism? If so, does the American version of Catholicism leave you a little disappointed?
GIOIA: Yes and yes. I’m still a working-class guy. My Catholicism — I’d been going through a lot of stuff. When I came to Washington as an appointee, I was living downtown in The Lansburgh renting a room. I began to go to mass at St. Patrick’s. I was in a church where one third of the people were homeless. One third were like me, overeducated guys and one third were the hotel service workers that were Latin Americans. When I was there, it was truly a religious reawakening for me.
Yes, we were all together in this society and in this life. I belonged to two parishes, one in South Pasadena, which my wife prefers. Which is upper middle class, highly educated, very prosperous. The one at Santa Rosa, which I prefer, which is complete shambles, it’s working class, lower middle class people, very Mexican, very Filipino. Those are my people. I like ground-level Catholicism. I believe that my church is the church of the poor. The church of the immigrant.
COWEN: Where are we still building great cathedrals?
COWEN: Why not?
GIOIA: I guess we can blame Mies van der Rohe. Modernist architecture created this notion of functionality, form follows function. The United States is full of dreadful churches, but the function of a church is different than what architects think. I know many people who have come to Catholicism because they were in France. They walked into Chartres, Mont St. Michel and something happened in them that they did not understand. They felt something happening inside this space that was not happening in the outer world. That is the purpose of a cathedral. A purpose of a cathedral is to bring you into a space in which spiritual contemplation and experience is possible. Transformation is possible inside those walls that are not going to happen generally outside. Now, we simply have functional things. There are comfortable seating, comfortable lighting. We might as well be in the Elks lodge.
COWEN: Now, you were Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, for what, six, seven years? How long?
GIOIA: Yes, seven years.
COWEN: Seven years. What is it you think you understand about Congress that maybe outsiders would not, given all that experience? One thing you were very successful at doing was appealing to Congress for what you wanted to get done.
GIOIA: When I was appointed to this job people said, “Go there and fight the good fight.” Everybody just told me, “Just to go there and fight. Don’t give up.” I knew instinctively that fighting was the wrong metaphor, that my job was to reconcile.
They went, “How can you deal with so-and-so, he’s such an awful, evil person?” I said that, “I believe everyone in Congress is the valid elected official. They are the person that their people have sent to represent them in a democratic republic. Therefore, they deserve the respect that the system itself deserves.”
I met with everybody. In fact, I took meetings with people who only took the meetings so they could yell and scream at me. I had the people that supported me, the people that wanted to support me and the people that I would convince to support me. Within a year, because I traveled every week with people back to their districts, to their states, I had created a bipartisan, bicameral majority.
It was because I also changed the NEA so that we were representing, for the first time in the history of the agency, all of America. We were reaching every community, every population, versus an institution that was largely serving the artistic elite. The arts world was very angry about that, but that is the best thing that I did in my chairmanship, was to make this institution, which reflected America.
COWEN: Should we send 40% of the NEA budget to the state arts agencies?
COWEN: Can’t you all spend it better?
GIOIA: The right person under the right circumstances might spend it better once, but generally, you’re better off getting it closer to the people. Also, you’ve got 53 state arts agencies, which means you’ve got 53 different strategies. You start to see the advantages of the federal system, where different people try different things and then they learn from each other.
COWEN: How can we make arts funding less bureaucratic, whether public or private sector?
GIOIA: I think the best arts funding is from the private sector. It’s where people give money while they’re still alive so they can measure the results of what they’re doing. I believe that people should fund things in their own communities and they should become very actively involved.
If you think about this, the people who create wealth have skills. Now, they aren’t artistic skills, don’t get me wrong, but they have organizational skills. They can also recognize when something’s working and what’s not working. If we could take some of that energy and bring it into local arts organizations, we wouldn’t have the number of symphonies and museums and opera companies and theaters that are going bankrupt right now.
I see a lot of people who have a lot of money not willing to give their time or not willing to give their money. “Well, I’ll give it when I die. I’ll create a little foundation when I die.” I just finished rereading a book on Henry E. Huntington, who like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, did it while they were alive.
They oversaw the things and they created. In the case of Carnegie, hundreds, thousands of institutions, but in terms of Mellon and Huntington, institutions have absolute world quality that transformed the cultural landscape of their region and we don’t see that much anymore. When people do this, they tend to do it in medicine or science, not in the arts.
COWEN: I have just a few basic questions to close. First, if someone wants to pursue Dana Gioia as a poet, what should they actually go out and do? What’s the first act they should take?
GIOIA: The first act they should take is learn how to spell my name, which is not self-explanatory in the Anglophonic world. Then I think just go to danagioia.com, which is my website, or even better yet, just go to YouTube, put in Dana Gioia Poems, or Dana Gioia. One of my sons is filmmaker. I’ve done about 20 short films with him. Some are only one or two minutes long.
You can hear my poetry, you can hear some lectures. Yesterday, in fact, I put up an 11-minute lecture on Robert Frost. We’re doing these things and he believes and I believe he’s one that goads me to do this is that we need to find a way of speaking about poetry in our culture. It’s not happening in the universities, it’s not happening in the mass media. To do really good short films on poetry, I think has a tremendous cultural value.
COWEN: I’ve done one of these podcasts with your brother Ted, obviously, you know Ted.
GIOIA: He’s the smart Gioia.
COWEN: If you had to explain in as few dimensions as possible, how your aesthetic outlook differs from his, what would you boil it down to?
GIOIA: The sad thing is it’s almost identical. I think I have-
COWEN: I don’t believe that.
GIOIA: I discovered some new thing. I talked to him and he’s discovering at the same time. He is interested in popular culture, I’m most interested in high culture, so I think that leads us into different things. The art forms that he’s interested in are hardly more than 100 years old, the art forms that I’m interested in are as old as humanity itself. Chronologically, we’re listening.
If you think about his art in his view of culture it tends to be horizontal because he’s looking at, maybe 20 years in terms of hip-hop or something like this across the thing where mine is more vertical. I’m going all the way back to Virgil to Homer to Horace to Dante.
COWEN: Now, I’ve sometimes described you to my friends as being an information billionaire. Now, these questions and answers we didn’t prepare any of them in advance, did we?
GIOIA: No, no. In fact, I was delighted. They’re such good questions. I’m usually asked the same 10 questions that you did not ask one of them. That was a relief.
COWEN: If there’s someone young and bright and they want to also become an information billionaire, what non-obvious advice would you offer? Yes, read a lot of books, go to art museums, yes, of course, but what’s the non-obvious insight you have into this process?
GIOIA: Well, I don’t think you can give people advice to this that don’t have the inclination. I think part of it is to pay attention to what interests you, not into this kind of novelty-driven commercial culture we’re in. My students, and I would ask them, how long do you spend each day looking at tweets? They say, “Well, about 90 minutes.”
Punk yourself out of the daily ephemeral culture and immerse yourself into things that are going to be still there 10 years later or 100 years later. I think the distractions for younger people today are so extreme that they learn very little about the past. Therefore, they learn very little about the present, because you can’t understand anything unless you have a point by which to judge it as a point of perspective.
COWEN: Very last question. What do you seek to learn next?
GIOIA: If I were young, it would be Russian. What I’m doing right now is actually to go back and to relearn a lot of things that I had before. I just finished writing a 14,000-word essay on Charles Baudelaire, that’s going to be the introduction to a new edition of The Flowers of Evil. I knew Baudelaire’s work but spending several months rereading absolutely everything was, to me, illuminating and joyful.
I plan to do this for a couple of other people. Poe, I know pretty darn well, Samuel Johnson, and Wordsworth because I think, in my own work, both as a prose writer and as a creative writer, I can learn from them and my main goal right now is to finish a long poem that I started a few years ago, which stopped about a third of the way through so I can finish that.
COWEN: Again, everyone the new book is Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life by Dana Gioia, G-I-O-I-A. Dana Gioia, thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure.
GIOIA: Tyler, this was fun.