The Gioia of Poetry

Poet and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia teaches in USC Dornsife’s English department. His unusual path includes a post as a marketing executive for General Foods, leading the team that created Jell-O Jigglers.
ByAndrew Good

“La Vie Bohème” may be romantic, but even poets need to eat. Solving that dilemma is something many artists don’t give ample consideration to early in their lives, said Dana Gioia, Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at USC.

Gioia is involved in a number of arts education endeavors at the university, not least of which are his classes in modern American poetry and arts leadership and entrepreneurship. In the latter, he teaches students management skills for running dance companies, museums, theaters and other venues.

He also asks them to map out the steps they’ll take to support their creative careers over a decade. It’s a practical exercise, but a challenging one for some, who are forced to think tangibly about their own futures.

“If you look through history, there are many lives a poet can lead,” said Gioia, also a lecturer in the Department of English in USC Dornsife who teaches a USC Dornsife course in the USC Thornton School of Music. “Some have been scholars, soldiers, clerics, tradesmen. Don’t limit yourself to thinking the only thing a poet can do is teach poetry.”

Gioia has lived his own advice. He’s crossed between the worlds of letters and business at will and found success in each. He’s known for his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” as well as an extensive body of work — his latest collection of poems is titled “Pity the Beautiful.”

As a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he marshaled bipartisan support for new initiatives, including a program that brought Shakespeare to underserved communities. And as a high-level marketing executive for General Foods, he led the team that created Jell-O Jigglers, resuscitating the Jell-O brand after 20 years of sharp decline.

Few poets have similar careers. But Gioia pointed out that many poets have supported themselves in the business world and still found time to hone their craft: Wallace Stevens worked in insurance, T.S. Eliot in banking and James Dickey worked in advertising for Coca-Cola and Lay’s Potato Chips.

By the time he was 20, Gioia said he was faced with a simple question: “How does a poet make a life in today’s world? Especially a poet like me, from a working class family?”

In Hawthorne, Calif., where he grew up, he knew no college-educated adults. Self-motivated to write, he would eventually pursue his literary aspirations at Harvard University on a scholarship. Graduate study at Harvard, however, hardly felt poetic; Gioia realized he was in training to be an Ivy League professor of comparative literature, not a writer.

“I found myself trained to write in ways the people I wanted to reach — and came from — couldn’t understand,” he said.

He ultimately turned from the halls of academia to earn his MBA at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. But he did not give up on being a writer. Instead, he spent three hours every day after class either reading or writing, and he had 40 essays, reviews and poems published by the time he finished his degree.

He kept up the regimen throughout his working career. That meant sacrifice: After an 11-hour day, he’d much rather collapse or go to a restaurant with his wife or a concert with friends. Instead, he’d sit at his desk and work for a couple of hours. He would try to write one good paragraph or stanza each night; failing that, at least one good line. On weekends, he’d work in the day or at night, depending on what social events he had planned. If he was completely blocked, he’d take a paragraph from the night before and copy it over.

“I was tired and stressed but very happy,” Gioia said.

Engaging his imagination through writing, ironically, made him a better businessman, Gioia said, especially in marketing. Likewise, stepping out of academia and working among “intelligent, alert, nonliterary people” reminded him of the issues that absorbed them and what “real American English is like.”

Eventually, Gioia decided to live his passion, leaving his job to become a freelance writer. He’s been a tireless advocate of creative endeavors since then and not just during his tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts. He recently served as Poet Laureate Task Force Chair for Los Angeles, helping to select Eloise Klein Healy as the city’s first poet laureate. At USC, he’s been involved in Visions and Voices, the Philosophy Club and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

“I see myself, because of my interests and life experience, as working across the arts rather than as a specialist,” Gioia said.

That’s apparent in Gioia’s classes, attended by poets, writers and creative types of all stripes. In his poetry and music class at the USC Thornton School of Music, one can expect singers, composers and musicologists. On the other hand, three of the best students in his arts leadership course who were interested in dancing and choreography were from the USC Marshall School of Business.

Gioia expects all three to be successful — and with him as a guide to the creative life, it’s likely they will be.