A conversation with former California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia on life, learning and his latest book

Now officially retired from his high-powered posts in business, government and academia, the longtime Sonoma County resident stays busy doing what he can to keep poetry alive by writing it and advocating for it.|

If you go

What: Poet Dana Gioia will read from his works, including his latest poetry book, “Meet Me at the Lighthouse.” The free event is sponsored by the Sonoma County Library in partnership with The Joe Mesics Literary Canon, a book club that reads the classics.

When: 7 to 8 p.m. March 14

Where: Healdsburg Community Center, 1557 Healdsburg Ave.

Information: sonomalibrary.org or 707-433-3772, ext. 0419

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.”

When Gioia and his wife, Mary Hiecke, lost their first son to sudden infant death syndrome, he decided to leave the business world in 1992 and pursue poetry full-time. The couple moved to the hills above Windsor in 1996.

Gioia already had aligned himself with the New Formalist poets, who extolled a return of American poetry to rhyme and regular rhythm, although Gioia has always written in both free and formal verse.

In 1992, he published an Atlantic Monthly essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” that posited that American poetry had become too stuffy from being “imprisoned” in an intellectual ghetto — college and university creative writing programs — and consequently, removed from its readers.

The essay became a groundbreaking book of the same name, with the subtitle “Essays on Poetry and American Culture.” It created a literary storm, but paved the way for Gioia’s future as a passionate advocate for poetry education for all, which helped him snag prominent positions in both federal and state governments.

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia worked to polish the agency’s tarnished image — it had been under threat of extinction by conservatives — while bolstering its outreach with highly visible arts programs such as the Big Read and the Poetry Out Loud contest for high school students, which are still active.

In December 2015, Gioia was named by then-Gov. Jerry Brown as California’s poet laureate, which allowed him to continue his quest to bring poetry to the masses. During his four years as poet laureate, Gioia inspired a new generation of writers and artists by visiting schools and libraries in each of the state’s 58 counties, where he also took part in writing and musical events.

To help put his two sons through college — oldest son Ted went to Harvard and works for Arion Press in San Francisco; younger son Mike went to Stanford and makes films in Los Angeles — Gioia taught for nine years at the University of Southern California. He held the Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture, but only taught during fall semesters.

“I didn’t want to leave Sonoma County,” he said. “In 2018, I quit, and they begged me to stay, then I really quit in 2019, and that was when the Kincade Fire came through.”

For two days, Gioia and his wife thought they had lost their home and writing studio, since all the other houses around theirs were gone. They were in Los Angeles at the time.

“The fire came through my property, and it burned everything, but it didn’t have enough fuel to ignite the house,” he said. “I am really compulsive about cleaning out all the wood around the house.”

However, there was considerable damage to the 20-acre estate, and for the past three years, they have been replacing fences, stairs, septic systems, irrigation and phone lines while removing and chipping 200 to 300 dead trees. Now, Gioia is intent on replacing the oak trees that were lost while reveling in the regrowth of the coast redwoods, buckeyes and madrones.

“That has cheered me up to see them come back,” he said. “Some of the small trees I had taken from my parents’ orchard in Sebastopol. I also had a Virgin Mary statue from my mom, and everything burned around there except the statue.”

When he was reached at home for this interview, Gioia was listening to a 1929 romantic operetta, “The Land of Smiles,” by Franz Lehar, which he described as “an Austrian-Chinese romance … with a bittersweet ending, which the Viennese love.”

In his musical, baritone voice, Gioia talked about his latest book of poetry, a new series of poetry videos (made with the help of his son Mike), how he divides his time between Sonoma County and Los Angeles and how he thinks he has evolved as a poet over the years. In April, he has another book coming out on Seneca, the Roman philosopher and playwright. Gioia’s “Seneca and the Madness of Hercules,” (Wiseblood Books, 2023) includes an introduction to Seneca’s life and a translation of his tragedy, “The Madness of Hercules.”

Q: What kind of podcasts have you been doing?

I answer all my mail, and I usually get 15 or 20 people who want to interview me for podcasts. Recently I was on a poetry show, a show done by an economist and another by a philosopher. I enjoy meeting these strangers. There’s a woman in the U.S. military in Germany, and she’s interested that I’m a Catholic writer. Last week I had a conversation with a poet from Central America, and we were talking about our common Hispanic background.

Q: You have been a big supporter of the spoken word tradition as it has evolved through the years. What does the sound of poetry offer that the written word does not?

I love poetry for its sound. To me, poetry is speech raised to the level of song. There are other sorts of poetry, but sound is what brings most people into the art. All of the new popular forms, such as hip hop and slam, are spoken rather than written.

Q: How can poetry help us during the computer age, when we can’t remember anyone’s phone number and artificial intelligence can write for us?

Poetry is an art of memory. It was developed before the invention of writing. Poetry was, by definition, language designed to be remembered. Memorizing something expands your consciousness. We all run the risk of becoming passive in the new electronic culture. We need to cultivate our active minds. Memorization is an ancient and effective technique. At USC, I made all of my students memorize great swatches of poetry. At first they grumbled, but they all soon realized how transformative it was.

Q: Let’s talk about your latest poetry book, “Meet Me at The Lighthouse.”

What I like about my new book is that it is characteristic but also different. I don’t think anybody would have expected the three little poems to Los Angeles, and the cabaret song (“You Leave Me Bent”) surprised a lot of people.

Q: How has your poetry evolved over the years?

When I look at my first book, I recognize everything about myself (in my latest book.) But over my career, I’ve been able to say it more directly, more musically and with more overt emotion. I went to Stanford and Harvard, and that set me back 10 years as a poet. They train you to be intellectual at the expense of all your other faculties. At Harvard, I loved graduate school … but I knew that I wanted to be a poet, and I recognized that my education was making me write poems that were too complicated.

When you write a poem, who are you writing it to? At Harvard I was being trained to write poems for a graduate seminar. Now I’m writing for intelligent, alert people across different lives. I don’t write for academics … everywhere I go I find really intelligent, creative people in every age and circumstance. And most of these people feel excluded by poetry. They feel that people are no longer writing poetry for them, they are writing for each other.

I want to write a poem that delivers pleasure, wonder and wisdom. I want to write poems that deliver those things equally to an average person and a fellow writer. It has to be open enough for an intelligent person without literary training to respond to and deep enough for a fellow artist to recognize how well made and honest it is. It has taken me my career to be able to master that. With each book, I got better.

Q: How long did you take to write the 25 poems in “Meet Me at The Lighthouse?”

I wrote these poems over the last eight or nine years. I publish one poetry book roughly a decade apart. My first was in 1986, so my career as a poet spans nearly 40 years. These are mostly recent poems, and they have matured.

But there’s a poem in there called “At the Crossroads.” In about 1986, I got a letter from a stranger in New Hampshire. They had a town pageant every year, and he asked if I would write a poem for it. Their theme was that their town had been a crossroads during the Civil War, and so I wrote them a poem.

Then I looked at the poem, and I saw a ghost of a really good poem there. So I revised it, and I published it in a magazine. Then I revised it about every 10 years … and I kept working at it. And it’s now in my new book. Sometimes I write and it comes out quickly and some of it takes decades. I try not to put anything in a book until I think it’s as good as I can make it. A lot of times, you have stuff, and there’s a pressure to finish things and get it out. But for a poem, it’s not like there’s an urgent demand.

Q: Can you talk about the series of poetry videos you’ve done recently?

My son, Mike, and I have done about 20 films together, half of them poems and half of them me talking about poems. Most of it is on YouTube, and I think that’s where people come across me. I wasn’t as much interested in doing this as I should have been. My son said, my generation likes poetry, but they tend to look for it on the electronic media rather than books.

My most recent video, “Psalm of the Heights,” has been out two weeks, and I’ve gotten almost 1,000 views a day. Tomorrow night, I’m going to drive to San Francisco to meet this jazz guy from the Northwest, Dmitri Mathany. We used his music in the film.

Q: Much of your work involves collaboration. What kind of artists do you collaborate with?

I work a lot with musicians and book artists. There’s a Petaluma artist, Richard Wagener*, who is a masterful woodcut artist. He’s doing a book of my poems and his prints of California, to be published by the Book Club of California.

My biggest project right now is with a woman from Santa Rosa, Sylvia Gonzalez. We are working on a production of a children’s opera I wrote with Lori Laitman, “The Three Feathers.” It will be presented in September at Solo Opera in Walnut Creek. I did the plot and the lyrics, and Lori did the music. We’ve had maybe 20 productions from Connecticut to Singapore, but we’ve never had it done in California. They are doing a full production with orchestra and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. It will be fully staged with very good voices.

Q: You and your wife divide your time between Sonoma County and Los Angeles. How does that work?

Mary and I spend most of the year in Sonoma County, but we go down to Los Angeles for a few months in the fall to see our younger son and our relations. It’s good to go down there because it keeps me in touch with people, but I’m so glad to get out.

Q: How has your life changed since the Kincade Fire?

I was living in a densely forested piece of land, and now it’s lightly wooded, but I still love it. I’m committed to healing the scars on the land. I have a stewardship. I had to not only repair the buildings but repair the earth. I had to make this beautiful hill healthy again.

You pay a price to live in a beautiful place. But the price is worth paying. Every time I walk outside my door, I’m full of joy.

Q: Do you have any idea why the fire spared your home?

Many years ago, there was a knock at the door. It was a guy who I had met through a stonework project. He was broke and asked if I had any work. I had just gotten a good royalty check so I said, ‘Maybe we could make a stone wall, unmortared, along the side of the road, all the way down my property.” It’s a Robert Frost wall, 3 to 4 feet tall. Twenty years later, honest to God, I think that’s one of the things that saved the house. I think sometimes acts of charity pay off in secret ways.

Q: What books are you reading at the moment?

I just finished an odd fantasy novel from the 1920s, “Lud-in-the-Mist” by Hope Mirrlees, a minor Bloomsbury figure. The one new book I’m reading is (the late Los Angeles Times reporter) Scott Timberg’s “Boom Times for the End of the War.”

I went on a short-story binge and read four books each by Nobel laureate Alice Munro and British author of strange tales, Robert Aickman. I found myself liking Munro less after each volume and Aickman more, though both were equally fine stylists.

Q: What poets, dead or alive, would you like to invite to a dinner party?

William Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, and the Roman poet Catullus. I’m not sure if Catullus can speak English, but the rest of us have a bit of Latin.

Q: Have you given any thought to what you want your legacy to be?

I was lucky as a writer. I came from a working-class, immigrant family, and I was eventually able to make my living as a serious writer. It took me years, but it was possible for someone in my generation.

I feel at this point in my career, part of what I need to do is to help younger artists and writers who are coming to maturity in a very difficult culture. There are fewer paying jobs for writers, and few of them reward literary work. Younger writers face obstacles both in learning their craft and making a living. That’s why so many try to hide in English departments.

The best thing you can do for an artist is give them paying jobs to practice their vocation. That’s why I spend so much helping foster magazines, festivals, presses and prizes for authors.

Artists also need recognition. That is something an older, better known author can help. I did 125 public events as state poet laureate. In all but one of these, I invited local poets, musicians, students and artists to appear with me. I wanted them to be recognized in their own communities.

Q: What are the benefits of growing older?

I no longer take anything for granted. I’ve never been happier because I recognize that every day is a gift. Every new person I meet who is interesting is a gift. When you’re younger, you’re worried about the future and what you should be doing. I no longer worry about what people are thinking. … I’m blissfully beyond vanity.

*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Petaluma woodcut artist who is working with Dana Gioia. He is Richard Wagener.

If you go

What: Poet Dana Gioia will read from his works, including his latest poetry book, “Meet Me at the Lighthouse.” The free event is sponsored by the Sonoma County Library in partnership with The Joe Mesics Literary Canon, a book club that reads the classics.

When: 7 to 8 p.m. March 14

Where: Healdsburg Community Center, 1557 Healdsburg Ave.

Information: sonomalibrary.org or 707-433-3772, ext. 0419

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