Bringing Art to the Public

Dana Gioia didn't really want the job when first asked.

The internationally acclaimed poet was appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts on Jan. 29, 2003. President Bush recently asked for an $18 million increase in the endowment's budget, the largest increase since 1984.

A critic, educator and former business executive, Gioia's goal has been to make art accessible to all Americans. He recently spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from Washington, D.C.

You're from California.

I grew up in Hawthorne, Calif., a working-class town in the middle of Los Angeles. I call myself a Latin because my father was Sicilian. My mother was Mexican-American and Native American. I was born into a working-class family.

My father worked as a cab driver, a chauffeur and then a department-store clerk. He later owned a small children's shoe store. My mother worked for the telephone company. There are four of us. I'm the oldest of three boys and one girl.

Yes, I've never broken with the Church. A Catholic intellectual is supposed to go through an anti-Catholic period, but I never felt the need to do so. I've been better or worse in terms in my Church attendance.

I was the oldest child in a working-class home. I had a lot of financial responsibilities to help my family. I helped pay my younger brothers' way through college and have tried to support my family when my parents needed help. I felt enormous gratitude to the sacrifices my parents made to make sure their children were educated.

My parents put their children's education ahead of their own comforts.

I wanted to be a writer, but I needed to be practical. For 17 years, I worked every night on my writing except for Fridays and weekends until I became so well known that I could quit my job.

In what ways does your faith inform your poetry?

I do not write devotional poetry. Religion is rarely the overt subject of my work, but I consider myself a Catholic poet. I should add that my two libretti — “Nosferatu” and “Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast” — are both much more overtly Catholic. In fact, the “Salve Regina” appears in “Nosferatu.” “Nosferatu” is a kind of redemptive tragedy with very overt terms — good vs. evil, light vs. dark.

I consider myself a Catholic writer in that there are central themes to Catholic literature. One is that we live in a fallen world in which we face a constant moral struggle. There is a need for grace and, I think, most importantly, a sacramental sense of the relationship between the material and the spiritual worlds. My poetry is deeply rooted in the notion that behind the visible world there coexists an invisible world. The interpenetration of these two worlds is in some sense the occasion of poetry.

I'm deeply interested in modern Catholic writers such as Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien and James Joyce. You could make a case that Tolkien is not an overtly Catholic writer, yet you could argue that his books are allegorical in that they deal with how one leads a good life in a fallen world.

Didn't you originally reject the idea of chairing the National Endowment for the Arts?

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