Daily Breeze

October 25, 2002

Hawthorne native’s rise is sheer poetry 
The background of NEA designee and writer Dana Gioia includes corporate leadership. 


WASHINGTON — The blue-collar environs of Hawthorne may seem unlikely to inspire poetry. But it has produced the man tapped by President Bush to chair the National Endowment for the Arts.

City native Dana Gioia, a noted poet and critic who now lives in Sonoma County, said this week that White House officials approached him about the job six months ago.

“I’m very honored and delighted to serve my country in this way,” he said, acknowledging he will have to put much of his writing aside if he’s confirmed by the Senate, but plans to continue with his poetry in his spare time.

The NEA awards federal grants to artists and institutions.

Gioia (pronounced JOY-a) was “recommended by several outside sources in the arts and humanities fields,” a White House official said of Bush’s nominee. “He’s very well-respected among those in the arts community and he has extensive management experience as well.”

The latter was a reference to Gioia’s 15 years as an executive at
General Foods, where he eventually rose to vice president while pursuing his writing at night and on weekends.

“I am probably the only person in humanity who went to Stanford Business School to become a poet,” he joked.

That unusual combination of business acumen and artistic skill was
welcomed by some advocates for the arts.

“It looks to me like they have picked someone who is experienced, who is multidimensional and is arts knowledgeable,” said Bob Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, which represents local arts councils. “He needs to have all of those skills because it’s a challenging time for the arts, financially in particular.”

Gioia, 51, is the author of three books of poetry, Daily Horoscope
(1986), The Gods of Winter (1991) and Interrogations at Noon (2001), which won the American Book Award.

Originally wanting to be a music composer, he became interested in
poetry while on a student exchange program in Vienna, Austria, during his undergraduate years at Stanford.

In an anthology of poems and essays by California writers, Gioia said growing up in “tough, working-class” Hawthorne informed his writing. His father was a cab driver when he was born and later ran a shoe store on Hawthorne Boulevard. His mother worked for AT&T.

“Surrounded by Italian-speaking relations, I grew up in a neighborhood populated mostly by Mexicans and Dust Bowl Okies,” wrote Gioia, who is of Italian and Mexican descent. “I attended Catholic schools at a time when Latin was still a living ritual language.

“Having experienced this rich linguistic and cultural milieu, I have
never given credence to Easterners who prattle on about the intellectual vacuity of Southern California.”

The NEA has been a lightning rod for criticism from conservative groups for some of the artwork and performances it has funded, though the controversy has subsided in recent years.

Michael Peich, an English professor at West Chester University in
Pennsylvania who co-directs an annual poetry conference with Gioia,
described him as a consensus builder.

“He can bring people from different perspectives and backgrounds
together,” Peich said.

Gioia said he could not discuss policy matters until his Senate
confirmation hearing.

A translator of foreign poetry and a noted critic, Gioia stirred debate
in the literary world for his criticism of the academic domination of
poetry in a 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, published in The Atlantic Monthly. 

“He’s regarded as a conservative poet” in his writing style since he is widely known for his use of rhyme and traditional form, said poet Rodney Jones. “He’s not part of that community that has grown up around creative writing programs.”

Gioia has a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from Stanford University and a master’s in comparative literature from Harvard University. He is classical music critic for San Francisco magazine and wrote the libretto for the opera “Nosferatu” with composer Alva Henderson.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gioia would replace Michael P. Hammond, who died in January a week after starting the job.