By Irene Hsu
Poet Dana Gioia ’73 MBA ’77 was appointed as the California Poet Laureate by Governor Jerry Brown on Dec. 5. During his two-year term, Gioia will serve as an advocate for the education and practice of poetry by giving public readings, educating civic and state leaders and bringing poetry to students less acquainted with the arts through a cultural project.
Gioia intends to focus his efforts on small- to mid-sized communities and on civic institutions such as high schools and public libraries.
“We need to cultivate the things we share in common as citizens,” he said.
In an interview with The Daily, Gioia recalled childhood afternoons spent at Hawthorne Public Library, which he said was the only cultural institution in his hometown of Hawthorne, Calif. during his youth. He acknowledged the library for establishing the foundation of an education that he continued at Stanford University and Harvard University, making him the first in the family to attend college.
As a Stanford undergrad, Gioia was editor-in-chief of now-defunct literary magazine Sequoia. He served as poetry editor at Sequoia, and book editor for The Stanford Daily while a student at the Graduate School of Business (GSB). After graduating from the GSB, he spent the next 15 years at General Foods Corporation, where he eventually became vice president of marketing.
From 2003 to 2009, he served two terms as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and fronted initiatives including Operation Homecoming, a writing workshop hosting and anthologizing the writings of the military community, and Poetry Out Loud: The National Poetry Recitation Contest.
Gioia currently teaches at the University of Southern California as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture.
“The one real constant in my career has been that I tried to create a life in which it was possible for me to write poetry,” Gioia said.
He credits his mother, a working class Mexican woman who recited poetry to Gioia during his childhood, for the establishment of verse in his life. He described his early impressions of poetry as “spell-like” — akin to the effect of music and song.
“A poem creates a spell of heightened attention that allows us to relax our defenses and imaginatively enter a new idea or experience,” he said.
Gioia has published four books of poetry, among other books, translations and essays. He was a 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for his book of criticism “Can Poetry Matter?” and a recipient of the 2002 American Book Award for his book “Interrogations at Noon.”
“My whole career as a poet, a critic and a public advocate of poetry has been based on the notion that people will respond to a good poem well-presented,” Gioia said, referencing Poetry Out Loud, which has reached nearly three million students nationally over the past decade.
“I’ve seen how encounters with art and creativity can change the lives of students,” he added. “Poetry awakens and enhances and enlarges people’s humanity — and that means something different for each person.”