Deep in the Heart of the Basement

At the Texas Book Fest, poets read underground and the ex-president draws a mob.
The Texas Book Festival was buzzing about the appearance of Bill Clinton, while in a bunker-like room, Anna Maria Hong listened to Dana Gioia read his work and talk about the great future of poetry.

Last fall I attended the Texas Book Festival and found the poets in the basement. I started out upstairs, in the author’s hospitality room deep inside the enormous pink Texas Capitol. I ran into Dan Rather, his neck tucked squarely into his white-collared shirt. The room was packed with people and snacks, and there was a buzz in the air—you never knew when Liz Smith or Lemony Snicket might show up.

I left behind the authors and anchormen and found my way to room E2.026, two levels underground, where the poetry sessions took place. Dana Gioia was up next. A large seal of the State of Texas made its presence known behind a bank of green leather chairs. Overly air-conditioned, the room had the feel of a pleasant bunker.

About 30 people were seated when Gioia, the ninth chairman of the NEA, began speaking. Eschewing the microphone in favor of using his “God-given voice in a room so small,” he began by authoritatively telling people to shut off their cell phones. Then he read a short poem titled “Unsaid” from his third collection, Interrogations at Noon:

So much of what we live goes on inside—
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.
He read seven more poems of his own, holding his book all the while but reciting the poems by heart. He had trim brown hair and wore a blue blazer, khaki pants, and a squared-off red tie—a corporate-casual look in line with his formalistic poems, but at odds with his folksy delivery.

Before reading a poem called “Veterans’ Cemetery,” Gioia looked at us and said, “Don’t try to understand this one. Let it be part of life’s infinite pageant.” As he read, he paced back and forth, accentuating words with hand gestures. He frequently leaned an elbow against the podium while crossing one ankle over the other. Upon finishing the poem, he walked over to a tape recorder belonging to a smiling man in the front row and, peering directly into the device, said, “Hello, this is Dana Gioia, and I’m glad to be recording this.”

Gioia then read “Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain,” which he called a “celebration and critique of the Surrealists in their own style.” He performed some of the lines in a faux French accent: the voice of Maurice Chevalier. Then he announced it was time to change the mood. “I’ve got a lot of depressing poems,” he said cheerfully, “but I think you’ve heard enough of them.” He read Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” some Ogden Nash, and a Tennyson poem, followed by his own send-up of the Tennyson. Gioia’s version was about the futile romantic efforts of Fred, an aged cat.

Following his reading, Gioia fielded questions about the NEA’s projects, outlining ambitious ideas for expanding arts education. NEA staff members in the audience groaned and chuckled. More people filed into the room. It was a somber crowd: mostly white, Texan, middle-aged. A woman asked how one can pursue poetry when being a poet “seems to be an impossible profession.” Gioia wrapped up the session by saying, “It’s never been a better time to be a poet in the U.S. in the last 100 years. . . . The audience for poetry is growing, and if you ask yourself what are the many thousands of things I can do as a poet every day, you would probably be staggered by the opportunities.”

Ultimately, 56 people found their way to Gioia in the bowels of the Capitol, while more than 800 crammed in to see Bill Clinton in the Texas House Chamber. The road to see Clinton was paved with thank-yous to Laura Bush, the festival’s honorary chair. I stood in the crowd and awaited Clinton, listening to an awards ceremony honoring some high school fiction writers. Best short story title: “Final Fiasco.”

A surge in the press section signaled Clinton’s arrival. He shook hands and walked up the stairs to the elevated stage. The crowd stood and cheered. Bill. Clin. Ton. Bill in a baby blue shirt and gold tie. He thanked his friends in the audience. He was a vertical blur of gray hair and pink flesh. His voice was burrier than I’d expected. He thanked Laura Bush for personally inviting him to speak at the festival (she’d asked him on the way to the Pope’s funeral).

As a sense of well-being washed over the chamber, Clinton answered questions from audience members who’d lined up for hours in advance. He took about seven minutes to answer each of the questions. The questioners asked about Wal-Mart, health care, and the national debt. Clinton called himself “America’s most famous sinner” and the Moral Majority “the people of the Nine Commandments.” He talked about tax cuts for the rich in a time of war, bad economics, and bad ethics.

Like Gioia, Clinton assumed a bit of an accent, kicking up his palliative Southern drawl throughout the session. When he was finished answering questions, he left the way he came in—amid a cheering, grateful crowd, who waited awhile to make sure he was gone and then dispersed back into the current climate.
Originally Published: February 9th, 2006

Anna Maria Hong earned a BA in philosophy at Yale University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. Her poems have been published in many journals and anthologies, including 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology (2012) and The Best American Poetry 2013. Hong...

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