Dana Gioia will speak April 26 at the Redwood Writers “From Pen to Publish” conference April 26 at Santa Rosa Junior College. (Full disclosure: I will be one of authors presenting at a conference breakout session.) Here is an interview with a nationally known artist and part-time Sonoma County resident.

Photo by Lynda Koolish


Dana Gioia looks around and sees thirsting people.

“I believe that we are locked into a kind of crazy, materialistic ethos in this country, and people are starved for things of the spirit and the imagination,” said Gioia, a poet, essayist and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gioia, whose name is pronounced “JOY-uh,” says culture is supposed to point us to that which is beyond price. But culture today doesn’t seem strong enough to withstand the incessant messages that what we need is more stuff. Even so, he holds out hope that poets, writers and other artists can offer a different vision.

“What poetry should do is awaken us to what is true and beautiful and meaningful in our own lives,” he said. He believes literature and the other arts play a similar role.

Gioia, who splits his time between Sonoma County and Southern California, will be the keynote afternoon speaker April 26 at Redwood Writers’ From Pen to Published Conference at Santa Rosa Junior College.

A part-time professor at USC, Gioia is known for calling the public to value the arts and for calling artists and educators to be relevant.

The Sewanee Review, which in February awarded him the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American poetry, said perhaps no other poet in recent times has “sparked as much conversation on the role of poetry in society.” Part of that reputation resulted from Gioia’s 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Can Poetry Matter?

As the chairman of the NEA, Gioia helped champion such new initiatives as Poetry Out Loud, Shakespeare in American Communities, NEA Jazz Masters and Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.

The most important lesson from his seven years with the NEA was “the necessity to bring arts and arts education into every community, however large or small, in America. Without the arts, no education is complete. Period. Without the arts, no community really meets the complete needs of its own people.

“The arts are not a luxury. They’re one of life’s necessities.”

Gioia, whose 2012 poetry collection is titled Pity the Beautiful, is nothing if not a believer in beauty. He sees a strong connection between the beautiful and the true. Moreover, he said, artists “perceive and participate in the beauty of the universe and reflect it in their work.”

He believes that any writer in any genre has the opportunity to create such art, and that the best works fascinate us because they are elicited from experience rather than “manufactured by rules.”

A working-class boy from Southern California, Gioia graduated from Stanford University, where he later received an MBA. He worked 15 years as a corporate vice president in marketing before leaving the business world to write full time.

His best advice for writers is to read. “Your work becomes stronger by nourishing it from what’s been written before you,” he said. “No writer can do it all on his or her own.”

To learn more about Redwood Writers and its “From Pen to Published” conference, go to RedwoodWriters.org.

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