Mysterious Encounters in Life and Art: A Conversation with Dana Gioia

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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.


LM: In Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life, you detail the influence of six individuals on your early years as a writer: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Fitzgerald, John Cheever, James Dickey, your uncle Ted Ortiz, and a now-forgotten poet named Ronald Perry. What compelled you to pen a memoir at this particular juncture?

DG: I felt it was now or never. For years I had wanted to publish a book of literary memoirs. I had written several portraits—shorter, different versions of the pieces in the book. The individual memoirs were fine, but they differed in length and approach. They didn’t add up to a real book.

I decided to rewrite everything. I revised and expanded some sections so extensively that they became new works. I created a consistent voice and unified the book with common themes. I revised the “finished” manuscript obsessively for months. It was a short book. I had the delusion it could be perfect.

LM: Were there any specific literary coming-of-age memoirs that acted as models for you?

DG: I’ve always enjoyed reading literary memoirs, but many aren’t very good. They ramble and preen and gossip. A memoir should be as well written as a short story. It needs a clear narrative line and consistent point of view.

I love Elizabeth Bishop’s portrait of Marianne Moore. I wish she had written memoirs of other writers. She certainly had the stories. I heard a few. I admire Donald Hall’s Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, which began as a shorter but equally excellent book called Remembering Poets. I kept Hall in mind as a gold standard, though I didn’t model my book after his.

The best literary memoir I’ve ever read is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which is as good as any of his novels. I reread it during the final revision of my book. I wanted the example of Hemingway’s tight but evocative prose fresh in my mind.

LM: What were the more difficult aspects in composing the memoir?

DG: Where to start? I find it difficult to write about myself. I’m always digressing. A good memoir needs to be selective. You can’t put in everything, though some eager authors try.

A memoir has to sustain two simultaneous narrative lines—then and now. You need to tell the story of then, but you narrate it from the vantage of now. Even if you try to eliminate your present self, the now is always there by implication. Balancing those two perspectives is complicated. In my case, I found it useful not to take my earnest younger self too seriously.

LM: In the title chapter, you chronicle your experience studying with Elizabeth Bishop during your time as a graduate student at Harvard. You emphasize that she felt the majority of literary criticism “reduced poems to ideas, and that the splendid particularity of an individual poem got lost in the process.” Throughout your career, you have been equally productive as a poet and critic. What are some of the challenges involved in producing criticism that resists reducing poems to ideas?

DG: I’ve written my criticism from the perspective of a poet. That means never forgetting that poetic language differs from conceptual language, which is the idiom of literary criticism. Poetic language is intuitive, sensory, emotional, physical. I try to keep my prose from being bloodless and disembodied.

The purpose of too much literary criticism is to reduce poems to prose paraphrase. Or to expand them into abstract ideas. There is nothing wrong with paraphrase or abstraction, but they erase most of the qualities that make a poem valuable. At Stanford and Harvard, I was trained in those critical methods. But they are not the only way to write about poetry. They are more useful within the profession than in speaking to a general audience. (A general audience, by the way, is not an unintelligent one; it contains all of humanity outside the English Department, including lawyers, doctors, scientists, artists, clergy, and musicians.)

I was trained by New Critics. They insisted I keep both the poet’s biography and my own life out of my criticism. But didn’t the poet’s life create the poem that entered my life? Of course, the poem is a text to analyze or deconstruct, but it is also an enchanted space where the living and the dead meet. If you eliminate that mysterious relationship, you misunderstand the role poetry plays in real lives.

At twenty I recognized the problem, but I had no idea what to do about it. I gradually realized that I had to allow the same imaginative and emotional energy that animates my poems into my prose without losing my intellectual focus. It took years to get the balance right. I found it difficult to lose the solemn intellectuality of grad school. I had an advantage working outside the academy. I didn’t have to discuss poetry in the mandatory ways.

LM: One of the most distinguishing aspects of Elizabeth Bishop’s presence in the classroom, you observe, was her belief in teaching young people not to “interpret” poetry but rather to “experience” it. You also note that the more you “mastered” the “analytical disciplines” of literary scholarship at Harvard, the more “detached” you became from the “intuitive faculties” out of which you wrote poetry. Would you talk more about the tension between an approach to poetry that emphasizes interpretating language and an approach that centralizes experiencing it?

DG: The great shock of Bishop’s class was her indifference to, indeed her deep suspicion of, critical analysis. My academic training up to that point had emphasized critical analysis. My literary ability and sophistication had been measured by how ingeniously I could tear a poem apart and then rebuild it as a critical statement.

Academic criticism was a fascinating game. I was good at it, so I wasn’t inclined to question its central position in the study of poetry. But even as an undergraduate, I recognized that the fascinations of criticism had little in common with the complex pleasures I experienced in poetry.

What Bishop gave me was the confidence to express what I already knew about poetry—insights that the rest of my education had either refused to acknowledge or dismissed as sloppy thinking. I read a great deal outside of the classroom. I constantly had to reconcile my private experience with my academic training. They didn’t match.

If I’d wanted only to be a critic, I might have stayed in the fold. But writing poetry heightens your sense of the emotional, intuitive, and physical elements of language. It connects you to the primal elements of the art. You recognize the inadequacy of critical language in conveying the strange exhilaration, pleasure, and sensuality you experience. I decided to leave academia and write on my own. It was a risk. I was lucky not to fail.

LM: In the chapter titled “Remembering Robert Fitzgerald,” you recall with great fondness your experience as a student in his course at Harvard about the history of English versification. What aspects of Fitzgerald’s approach to versification have proved most useful to you in your own engagement with meter, and would you share with us some thoughts about the current position (or lack thereof) that prosody occupies in the contemporary poetry classroom? 

DG: Everything that Fitzgerald covered in his class proved useful. He ranged over three thousand years of prosody—from Homer to the American Modernists. He examined dozens of possible approaches to the poetic line. He helped us understand what we heard in poetic language. He also reminded us that every style requires mastery.

I had been trying to learn versification on my own. I’d read a dozen books on the subject. I’d scanned and analyzed poems. A poet can learn technique on his or her own, but it helps to have a teacher. A great teacher can change your life. Fitzgerald saved me years of solitary study. He and Bishop also kept me connected to the musical nature of poetry, which my other professors ignored. He was the right teacher at the right time.

LM: Another unique aspect of your time studying with Robert Fitzgerald is the emphasis he placed on plot in his approach to teaching epic poetry. You found that this stood in contrast to the rest of your literary education at Harvard, which trained you “to consider plotting an obvious and superficial device unworthy of serious attention.” Do you think that Fitzgerald’s ideas about the primacy of plot have influenced the way you engage with narrative elements in your own poetry? And what are some of your observations about the use of narrative in contemporary poetry?

DG: In Fitzgerald’s “Studies in Narrative Verse,” we read the Odyssey, Aeneid, and Inferno. We had to be able to read at least two of the books in their original languages. (I knew Latin and Italian but no Greek.) I had already studied all three epics, but Fitzgerald made me feel as if I were reading the works as poems for the first time.

My earlier professors had often treated plot as an author’s vulgar concession to the common reader. Fitzgerald stressed the expressive power of narrative. He made us pause and consider hundreds of small narrative touches that created a powerful total effect. In a masterpiece every detail matters.

I had tried to write narrative poems before Fitzgerald’s class, but they never worked. The summer after I left Harvard, I moved back home and spent every afternoon in the public library—reading through modern narrative poems. It was not a hit parade.

Then I read Robert Frost’s North of Boston. He opened up new possibilities—modernist verse narrative that was spare, understated, yet potent. Frost had avoided the pretensions of most long modernist poems by writing mid-length realistic narratives that resembled short stories. Virtually no one had followed him. I began to play with Frost’s idiom. By the end of summer, I’d drafted an early version of my first narrative poem, “The Room Upstairs.” It took me years to finish the poem, but I had begun.

LM: What are some of your observations about the use of narrative in contemporary poetry?

DG: Strong narrative poetry is very rare. It’s difficult to write. You need to create a compelling story that has lyric force. You also have to present a credible speaker or protagonist. It’s easy for the telling to become prosaic or to impede the narrative flow with lyrical digressions. Poets tend to make their narrators too autobiographical. The speaker doesn’t have an identity independent of the author. The dramatic monologue is just a monologue.

Narrative verse takes both special talent and the right subject. Even fine writers have trouble sustaining it. Richard Wilbur’s “The Mind-Reader,” for instance, is a splendid poem, but it never entirely pulls itself out of lyric mode, though the speaker is beautifully imagined. Anthony Hecht’s “The Venetian Vespers” is an example of how powerfully the form can work. David Mason and Jared Carter are two current poets who have consistently written narrative poetry of scope and power.

LM: You highlight the following as one of Fitzgerald’s most powerful lessons: “What we apprehend in art… is always greater than what we understand.” He demonstrated for students that, as you describe it, a great work of art can be recognized “by its radiance, the splendid clarity communicating not only its identity but its mystery.” Would you talk more about the role of mystery in poetry, and also discuss how an appreciation for such mystery might best be cultivated within an educational system that, even in the humanities, largely emphasizes empiricist approaches?

DG: The best education in poetry cultivates a student’s capacity to experience the art as well as analyze it. For several generations, poetry has been taught too intellectually. Poems are presented to be dissected. There is no point in analyzing a work to which you have no intuitive response.

Anyone who loves poetry understands how little of its full meaning can be captured in analysis. We experience great works of art as mysterious encounters, full of significance. Some of those meanings are public and available to others, but some are strangely private, secrets meaningful only to us. Oddly, it is that second sort of meaning that most firmly links the reader to a poem or author.

The study of poetry should begin with listening, reciting, and memorizing. Let students encounter poems initially without having to analyze them. Let them perform. (The class clown will suddenly shine, and the brooding outcast speak with the tongue of an angel.) Then move to imitation and parody. Let the students play with poems and make their own versions. The experience of getting inside the poem will be illuminating. After those experiences, students will be ready to intellectualize about the art.

LM: Related to our discussion about how dissection-based critical approaches can result in a reduction of literature, you express a conviction in the chapter titled “A Week with John Cheever” that critics have missed the spiritual dimension of Cheever’s work. You ask: “Was it the unusual surface brilliance of Cheever’s work that so often fixed critics on its most literal level?” Would you highlight for us some of the key ways that you see spirituality operating in Cheever’s work?

DG: I first read Cheever as a teenager in urban Los Angeles. I had never seen the milieu he wrote about. I read him as a fabulist, just like Borges whom I was also reading for the first time. Some years later I was surprised to see Cheever dismissed as a suburban satirist, a dated realist of middle-class mores. That characterization struck me as mistaken.

Cheever’s greatest stories—and there are many—are suffused with spiritual anxiety, moral agony, and religious grace. How can one read “The Swimmer,” “The Death of Justina,” The Five-Forty-Eight,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” or “The World of Apples” as anything but existential parables of fall and redemption? I realize, in retrospect, that I had an advantage as a teenager. I had not yet seen the places about which Cheever wrote.

LM: In the chapter titled “How Nice to Meet You, Mr. Dickey,” you describe a party at which James Dickey, after a few too many drinks, confronted you over a negative review you had written about his book Puella. You have often argued for the importance of veracity in book reviewing. Would you elaborate on your perceptions about how the relationship between poets and critics has changed through the ages and how it currently functions? 

DG: The situation is easy to describe. The poetry world is a small place. If you give a poet a bad review, there is a good chance you will eventually come face to face with the author. If you give a well-known author a bad review, there is a further chance the person will sit on a prize committee, granting body, or editorial board that could affect your career. Consequently, there are almost no negative reviews.

The lack of critical candor has had a terrible impact on the art. The public rightly feels they can’t trust poetry reviews. (Editors feel the same way.) There is little reliable coverage of new work. The decline in critical candor began about forty years ago as writing programs grew. As the possible rewards for poets increased, so did their caution.

As a critic, I had to choose. I could either give everyone a rave review in order to get as many rewards as possible. Or I could tell the truth and accept the consequences. I took the bumpy road less travelled by. The Dickey altercation was only one encounter I’ve had with an angry poet.

I don’t write cruel, mocking, or sarcastic reviews. If anything, I’m kinder than I should be, but I state my honest opinion. I often have mixed reactions. I’ve learned that many poets consider a mixed review an attack. Poets want unqualified praise. I know I do.

LM: One of the most moving and memorable features of your memoir is the attention you pay not only to your interactions with well-known writers like Dickey but also to a pair of essentially unknown people who impacted your literary path: your merchant-marine uncle Ted Ortiz, and an essentially unknown poet named Ronald Perry. What do you feel that you absorbed from Ted and Ronald that you could not have otherwise gleaned through your formal literary schooling?

DG: My dead uncle left a library of serious books and musical scores that provided an unlikely but rich backdrop for my childhood. The numerous volumes, many in foreign languages, gave me the assumption that all of this learning could be mine if I wanted.

My strange friendship with Ronald Perry schooled me in the loneliness and isolation most poets feel, especially those who live outside of academia. I also saw how the friendship and attention of one or two other poets unlocked his creativity. I went on to experience that isolation and loneliness. I made sure I had deep friendships that could sustain me.

LM: In your chapter “Letters from the Bahamas,” in which you explore your epistolary friendship with Ronald Perry, you note how, though you were impressed with the brilliance of his book Denizens, you were also “troubled by the lack of a unifying voice throughout the volume.” The book struck you as seeming, at times, “more like an anthology of different poets than a collection by a single author.” Would you discuss further how you view “voice” as operating in poetry, particularly with regard to its “unifying” capacities? 

DG: “Voice” is the term we use for the powerful effect we feel when a writer has found the right style and tone for his or her subject. There is a tangible sense of authenticity and authority. Young writers naturally experiment with different styles and subjects, different tones and attitudes. There is a sudden sense of maturity when a writer discovers a personal voice. It seems to grow naturally from his or her personality, background, and character. As the writer changes, the voice can change, but generally in a way that feels connected to the earlier work.

In retrospect, I feel that Perry’s Denizens reflected his attempt to find his mature voice. His early books were experiments in different styles. But style alone doesn’t give a poet a voice that feels authentic. The poet needs to invest something important from his or her character. The best poems in Denizens led Perry into his later work, which has a distinctive voice. Those poems remain uncollected and mostly unpublished.

LM: In addition to painting striking portraits of Perry, Bishop, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Dickey and your Uncle Ted throughout the memoir, you offer readers a vivid characterization of yourself as a young writer. Born into a working-class family of Italian and Mexican origin, you were the first person in your family to attend college. If you started out from a place of limited access relative to the literary world, you later found yourself, as a business executive, occupying a very different kind of outsider position in relation to that same world. Robert Graves once said “there’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” Would you offer us some thoughts about the relationship between poetry and money? 

DG: I’ve been an outsider to the poetry world, which is the ultimate insider’s microcosm. That has made my career difficult, but it was also an advantage. It gave me a different life experience and perspective.

Once I decided to leave graduate school, I had to find a way to make a living. The situation was especially complicated because I was the oldest child in a large working-class family. I knew that I had to help my family as well as support myself. I’d held lousy jobs all my life. I decided to get a good one. Law school struck me as unspeakably dull. I lacked the training and aptitude for medicine or science. But I was good with numbers and practical at running things. I had run a film series at Stanford as well as pulled the literary magazine out of bankruptcy. So I went to Biz School.

Many academics are prudish about money. They complain about it all the time, yet they consider it slightly disreputable to know too much about making or managing it. I couldn’t afford such genteel prejudices. My parents lived at the edge of poverty. I had nothing but school debts. I had to be practical, especially since my real ambition was to write. For years I lived very simply. I worked ten hours a day at the office and then came home to write. I spent as little as possible and paid off the debt. I helped pay my younger siblings’ way through college. I was happy in that life.

My day job gave me the time to mature as a writer without the pressures of tenure or promotion. (I had anxiety enough in my business life.) It took me years of private labor to discover myself as a poet.

As for Graves’s remark about poetry and money, I find it clever but hollow. It doesn’t lead anywhere interesting.  I prefer Wallace Stevens’s journal entry that “Money is a kind of poetry.”

LM: Perhaps guided by Stevens’s notion that “money is a kind of poetry,” in the sense that money undoubtedly enables the creation of poetry, you have been extensively involved in your public life with programming at the National Endowment for the Arts and elsewhere that focuses on providing funding for individual writers and literacy-related initiatives. Did your business or personal background influence your policies?

DG: You’re right that my background influenced my policies as Chairman of the NEA. My business background helped me manage the agency and deal with the complicated political situation. But it was my own experience of living on the edge that made me focus on providing grants, employment, and recognition for artists. I increased the number and amounts of awards. I added new categories. Most important, I created national programs that employed thousands of actors, singers, musicians, and writers. The best gift for an artist is well-paid employment practicing his or her craft.

LM: Through the work you have done to provide funding opportunities, recognition, and employment for writers, in addition to your endeavors as a teacher of poetry, you have come full circle in paying forward the support you received from the figures you commemorate in Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life. Toward the end of the book, you write: “Keeping the memory of the departed alive is an expression of love and esteem; it is also a means of deflecting our own oblivion.” Would you leave us with some final thoughts on the notion of a memoir as a means for an author to deflect his or her “own eventual oblivion”?

DG: One of the ancient purposes of literature is to commemorate, especially to remember the dead. It’s part of the poetic tradition. It’s also a major purpose of prose memoir. Think of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which is a personal memoir disguised as a biography. The book has kept both Boswell and Johnson alive in our imagination. I recently reread Max Beerbohm’s charming account of a lunch with Swinburne at the Pines. It made both the young Beerbohm and the older Swinburne come alive.

A good memoir works both ways. That’s why I had to create myself as a character in Studying with Miss Bishop. Otherwise the memoirs would have felt detached and abstract.

Did I write the book to deflect my “own eventual oblivion?” That wasn’t my main intention. I wanted mostly to document episodes from the lives of these remarkable people for literary history. But it’s nice to imagine the memoir might deflect my own extinction. I’d like to hold off oblivion as long as possible.

LM: Certainly the youthful Dana Gioia we encounter on the pages of Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life is a character who will escape extinction, along with the six unforgettable figures who influenced him on his way to becoming a poet. It has been a great pleasure to discuss this project with you, and if one of your students ever pens a book titled Studying with Mr. Gioia: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life, we will be sure to claim the first rights to an interview. Oblivion won’t stand a chance.



LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 15, 2012 - Dana Gioia, Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at USC, October 15, 2012. Gioia is one of the members of the selection committee, who are choosing Los Angeles' first Poet Laureate. The nomination will be later this week.<br /> (Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times).

Dana Gioia is a poet and critic.  His poetry collections include Interrogations at Noon, which won the 2001 American Book Award, and 99 Poems: New & Selected (2016)., which won the Poets’ Prize as the best book of the year. His four critical collections include Can Poetry Matter? (2002) and Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life (2021). Gioia served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 and as California State Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2019. His other awards include the Laetare Medal, Presidential Civilian Medal, and the Aiken-Taylor Award in Modern Poetry. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County, California.

(Photo credit: Star Black)