Dana Gioia’s Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life was recently published by Paul Dry Books. The book contains a series of essays in which Gioia details his interactions, as a young writer, with several people who helped him understand what it means to dedicate one’s life to the craft of writing. Booklist describes the essays as “fascinating snapshots of remarkable encounters which, when brought together, chart a delightfully unusual path to literary success.” As the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a recent California State Poet Laureate, and a widely published poet, critic, and librettist who has received the American Book Award and the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern Poetry, among numerous other honors, Gioia began his “delightfully unusual path to literary success” in working-class Los Angeles. I corresponded with him about his roots as a writer and the coming-of-age journey that he chronicles in Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.
1. The much-anticipated release of your fourth poetry collection What He Did in Solitary is sure to register as a significant event in contemporary American poetry. What are some elements of What He Did In Solitary that you view as distinctive from your earlier work?
AM: A book’s release is hardly an event—I’ve hardly marked when past ones came and went, but I can always hope the latest finds some sympathetic ears and kindred minds. Its continuities are yours to guess; I work, like Goethe, ohne hast, ohne ras at “fragments of a great confession”—yet each fragment is a whole, and of a set. If I have deepened my poetic speech or spread the sweep of my noetic reach, you know, not I—a poet never knows himself without descending into prose. These poems may be heavier: less chaff, more heft. (Though all my poems are game to laugh.)
In his essay “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur asserts that poets cannot achieve artistic fulfillment until their “vision fuses with the view from the window” (136). Wilbur’s examination of the tension between imaginative vision and concrete reality stands central to his writing. He frequently traverses this terrain through poems that probe the relationship of people to works of art, human-made objects, and performance-based representations. In such pieces, he both courts and resists the blurring of distinctions between reality and imitation, immersing readers in illusion while tugging us back to the world. When it comes to the interplay of life and art in Wilbur’s writing, some critics have argued, as Henry Taylor notes, that Wilbur’s “well-wrought surfaces” risk containing “little more than themselves,” possessed of a consummate artifice that keeps reality away (94). However, a close reading of Wilbur’s poetry reveals that, in his view, artifice performs the paradoxical function of helping us more fully see reality. Art that engages this paradox, Wilbur’s work insists, is essential to our lives if we wish to avoid personal, political, and cultural ruin.
“No woman poet of her generation was as adored, or as widely read or quoted, as Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Holly Peppe writes in her introduction to the new Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay’s ascent to the status Peppe describes, well-documented by multiple biographers, could be a movie tagline from the Golden Age of Hollywood: “Young woman of modest means from rural Maine skyrockets to stardom.” Not long after garnering wide accolades for her poem “Renascence” when she was only twenty-one years old, Millay became a sought-after celebrity among Greenwich Village literati. With the publication of her books A Few Figs from Thistles and The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems in the early 1920’s, she achieved national renown and earned a Pulitzer Prize, still just the beginning of a career that would span ten poetry collections along with numerous lauded works in other genres.