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“We would walk miles to a drainage ditch to find frogs.”: An Interview with Dana Gioia

By Harriet Staff

NEA juggernaut turned USC professor Dana Gioia took part in this interview with Patt Morrison of the LA Times.

What’s on your USC to-do list?

One thing that interests me is how a young artist makes a living in the U.S. I want to teach a class about, if you are a musician who wants to create a string quartet, a writer who wants to create a press or journal, how do you do it? The poet Donald Hall described himself as a one-man vertical conglomerate, a wonderful phrase. I’d like to encourage young artists to become a one-man or one-woman vertical [conglomerate].

And then, a bit on his stint in the NEA:

Is the NEA about the audience or the artist?

The NEA is not about artists, it’s not about audiences, it’s not about government, it’s about a whole ecosystem [of arts], and [making] it healthy and vital. If you simply take one portion of it, to quote another poet, you murder to dissect.

One generation’s artistic outrage is the next generation’s classic. Should art sandpaper our sensibilities?

Not all art is provocative. This is a great cliche. Art is a language, and [with] language, you can say anything, from the shocking to the comforting, the hilarious to the heartbreaking. The art that survives most expressively embodies the human experience; in the same generation, you’ll have a conservative and a radical survive as great artists because of that.

You launched the “Shakespeare in American Communities” program, and one critic fulminated that if there’s one playwright who doesn’t need the NEA’s help, it’s Shakespeare.

I was able to get almost 100 theatrical companies employing thousands of actors, technicians, directors, to tour thousands of cities and reach millions of people with Shakespeare. We had 25 million high school kids use our free materials. The Shakespeare program not only helped students and communities, it helped American theater.

Where should the fulcrum of public versus private money be in the arts?

The United States has the most vital and creative artistic culture of any nation in the world. We have created whole art forms, abstract Expressionism, movies, television, rock videos, graphic novels — every facet of the arts has thrived here. Blues, jazz, rock and roll have emerged from this soil. And yet we do not have a court, a pope or a king sponsoring them, nor does most of the money come from the government. Artistic decisions should not be made by government ministries who say, “This is the art form we’re going to support.” The thing that intellectuals hate about the system is that it’s sheer chaos, and yet out of this chaos comes unprecedented cultural energy. We should celebrate our own system. Now, that being said, I don’t think it would hurt if the federal government threw in a couple more hundred million dollars!

No word yet on whether Snoop Dogg or Will Ferrell will show up at his classes as they do at football practices, but we will keep our eyes peeled.

Posted in Poetry News on Monday, November 7th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.