A conversation with former California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia on life, learning and his latest book
Catching up with poet Dana Gioia of Santa Rosa can be a little difficult these days. He turned 72 on Christmas Eve but continues to be a man constantly on the move.
Now officially retired from his high-powered posts in business, government and academia, the longtime Sonoma County resident stays busy giving interviews for various podcasts, organizing and speaking at conferences and doing what he can to keep poetry alive by writing it and advocating for it.
In the last two years, he has published three books: “Studying With Miss Bishop: Memoirs of a Young Writer’s Life” (Paul Dry Books, 2022), a memoir centered on six writing mentors; “Conversations With Dana Gioia” (University Press of Mississippi, 2022), a compilation of interviews he has given, many from his tenure as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 and 2009; and a slim but richly varied poetry book, “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” (Graywolf Press, 2023), which has surprised him by generating positive feedback from colleagues and critics alike.
“‘Meet Me at the Lighthouse’ is a quick read at 70 pages; yet the poems demand revisitation, especially to fully engage and enjoy wordplay and rhyme,” poet Andrew Jarvis wrote in the New York Journal of Books. “Gioia’s poems are simple, clear and permanent — exactly what poetry should be.”
Like Gioia himself, whose reputation for serious, highbrow literature is balanced by his unintimidating, down-to-earth approach, the new book manages to offset the darker subjects of aging and death with flashes of lighthearted humor. For example, Gioia writes a witty epitaph for himself — “Here lies D.G. A poet? Who can say? He didn’t even have an MFA” — before plunging the reader into the final poem, “The Underworld,” a rattling train ride to hell that gives a new twist to Dante’s “Inferno.”
“I had no idea how people would respond to it, because it was a little different and darker,” Gioia said of the book. “Older poets, well-known people, wrote me heartfelt letters (saying) what I was touching on was what they were thinking. One wants to reflect one’s own generation.”
Recalling Welch poet Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” many of Gioia’s late-life poems try to prod the reader from the safety of the suburban sofa. Instead of thinking we are finished works, Gioia urges readers to take risks and continue to evolve. Like an old poem tucked away in a back drawer, we can be polished to a new sheen, if we are willing to try.
One of the most surprising works, perhaps, is “The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz,” a cowboy poem that tells the true story of his maternal great-grandfather, a Mexican vaquero who was murdered in 1910 by an ornery, racist cowboy over a bar tab while Ortiz was working as a saloon keeper in Wyoming.
“I decided to write the poem in a form that people I wrote about could have understood,” Gioia said. “To be perfectly clear, it’s a cowboy ballad. That’s not something poets do nowadays.”
His sixth volume of poetry since 1986, “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” also includes nostalgic memories of his family and former haunts in Los Angeles such as The Lighthouse, a shabby nightclub in Hermosa Beach he used to frequent. In “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles,” he revisits the “defaced and boarded” streets of the once-vibrant city of Hawthorne, where he grew up in a poor, immigrant family.
Gioia’s father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, worked as a cab driver and a chauffeur. His mother was a working-class Latina who recited poems to him. “I praise my ancestors, the unkillable poor,” he writes in one poem. The book is dedicated to their memory.
Intellectual from an early age, Gioia attended the parochial school at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Hawthorne and continued his classical education at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, which paved the way for him to become the first person in his family to go to college. He earned his undergraduate degree at Stanford and got a master’s degree from Harvard, where he studied with renowned poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop.
In an unlikely twist, he returned to Stanford to get his MBA, then moved back to the East Coast to work for General Foods for 15 years, where he became a vice president and helped turn the company around by embracing the joy of Jello-O.
“I was bold enough to say Jell-O was an inherently silly product,” he said. “The silliness was its charm. It came in bright colors and wiggled. I developed a kids’ finger food, Jell-O Jigglers.”