26 April 2011

Church Patronage of the Arts

Dear Artists (painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, actors, composers, etc.):

I am working on an article about church patronage of the arts for the Comment online magazine.

Have you ever had a piece of work commissioned by a church? Have they ever paid you for a newly composed piece of music, a poem, a play, a work of fiction
, a drawing, a painting, a mural, a sculpture, an installation, or a performance? If so, would you please share some details with me (either in a comment here or via a personal email)? I would like to know, especially:

- Who initiated the project, you or the church?
- How much creative control did you have over the project?
- How was the piece or performance used -- in a worship service, in the church building, or in some other way? Did the pastor announce or discuss it from the pulpit; did he incorporate its themes into his sermon?
- Were you paid for the piece or performance? If so, just for time/materials, or the going sale value of the work?

- What advice would you give to artists seeking church commissions?
- What advice would you give to churches looking to work with artists?

Thank you!

~ Sørina

18 April 2011

Interview with Jeanne Murray Walker, poet

This is the forty-sixth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Jeanne Murray Walker
Poet, Playwright, Professor
via email
10 April 2011

IA: Please tell us about your poetry. What topics tend to recur in your work? How have these changed over the period of time represented by your seven collections of poetry?

JMW: My poems are collected in books that have appeared fairly regularly every four or five years since 1980. I suppose I've always been haunted by death. After a five year illness, my father died when I was thirteen. And my brother died three years later, when I was sixteen.

But each of my seven books is a collection that centers on whatever issue was preoccupying me at the time I was writing. The first book, for example, explores the kind of questions young people ask. Who am I? What is a self? What is a home and how can I make a home for myself in the world? Many of the poems in that book talk in terms of architecture, the structure of a house. In my third book I wrote about the astonishing fact of childbirth and the challenges and boredom involved in nurturing another human being. By the time I wrote my fifth book, I was fascinated by narrative and delving into the mystery of community. How on earth do we stay connected to one another? Why are we often so lonely? How is it possible to express the silly joy of real connection?

I write to sort out and solve problems, human problems, ones we all have to deal with sooner or later. I write to try to harness this fleeting consciousness, this reality that we think of as ourselves. It's about trying to make sense of what I experience-- love and children and death and illness and suffering.

IA: Your poems tend to have tight, well-controlled stanzas through which a conversational, colloquial voice charges with astonishing intensity. This seems to me to be a particularly relevant approach for this moment in literary history: we need form, we need control, and yet we need the passionate expression of a burning spirit. Am I describing something you see in your own work?

JMW: I’m a big believer in the tool kit. I was lucky enough to have mentors who insisted that a poet should read and reread the tradition, going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans and Beowulf. Early on I composed verse in iambic pentameter, trying to develop a more subtle ear. I’ve always done exercises based on the kinds of metaphor that show up in Shakespeare and Trahern and Sidney and other early modern poets. Within the last several years I’ve written about fifty sonnets as a way of exploring the line as a unit that a poet can play against the English sentence. To write a sonnet is to take up the challenge to say something significant in a small space. I sometimes spend several hours tracing patterns in a poem by circling and drawing lines between similar sounds. This contributes to ear training. I teach in a low residency MFA Program and encourage my students to do this kind of work, too. Oboists spend thousands of hours rehearsing and so do ballerinas and base ball players. Can you imagine someone picking up a Strad and trying to play the Mendolssohn Violin Concerto without practicing?

After all the practice, a writer has to hope she will be given something significant to say. And sometimes we are. On this subject, I’m sticking with the crowd that believes in the Spirit, as Milton called it, or in Coleridge’s Unconscious or in the Muses. My job is to hone my skills and then, like a kite, to try to catch the wind.

There’s a great deal at stake these days. Particularly now that American society has gone mad with speed and so much of our communication is either trivial or selling something, we are in desperate need of poetry. Poetry reminds us of life and death issues.

IA: What other specific techniques do you use?

JMW: I’ll try any technique I think will work. I’m reading and learning from other writers all the time.

IA: What theories inform your work?

JMW: I don’t write mainly in order to express myself. I’m more like a carpenter who wants to create well made objects. I’d like to craft poems like Emily Dickinson’s that can be read by successive generations, who will find them intriguing.

I would like to be clear. But as Dickinson pointed out, “success in circuit lies.” In poetry, being clear almost always involves metaphor and leaps of logic. No wonder. Human consciousness is so subtle and difficult to document, it involves such inversions and unpredictable twists. And what we’re trying to write about is what it feels like to be a human living in the late twenty and early twenty-first century.

IA: You have often spoken on PBS, on the radio, at colleges, universities, workshops, conferences, and retreats…. What is the common thread that runs through your public speaking engagements? What are the most important messages that we need to hear right now about poetry, literature, the arts, and the life of faith?

JMW: Americans work long hours and consume stuff and the rest of our waking hours we watch TV or spend on social networking. That’s part of the reason America is experiencing a crisis of the imagination. Any real imaginative activity arises out of silence and thought and deep reflection. But we live lives of constant and often frenetic activity. Motion and speed and noise leave very little space for our imaginations. Even believers—those of us who profess faith in God—don’t know very well how to be quiet. Ours is an active faith—working at shelters, traveling to do missions abroad, serving on committees. There’s nothing wrong with that. Far from it. My question, though, is how much practice do we have at paying attention and, at a deep level, listening? Our imaginations come alive in that kind of stillness.

The imagination allows us to make a new world to replace natural disasters and pedestrian poems and polluted rivers and music that has been created with predictable templates and repetitive architecture and the habitual disregard people have for one another. America needs that kind of “making new” right now. We need people to do more than solve one problem at a time. Many solutions to specific problems create new unforeseen problems. So we need to imagine anew the way God did when he created the world. The imagination—far from being frivolous, far from misleading us—will invent what has never been thought of. It can take the fabric of our current reality and transform it into something entirely different.

But in order to imagine in this profound way, we need to make friends with rest and silence. Remember, in the creation story, God rested. He sat back and paid careful attention to what he had made. He reflected on it for a whole day. And he came to the conclusion that it was good. With that, the writer of Genesis forever linked the act of creation to stillness—to Sabbath—to contemplation—to thoughtfulness, to intentional rest. The truth is, you can only imagine if you know how to be still—because the ability to imagine and create something new arises out of and is followed by solitude and stillness.

IA: You have spent a lot of time in your life as a poetry editor and on editorial boards (first for Christianity and Literature, now for Image): what do you look for when you are selecting poetry for publication?

JMW: I get a kick out of spotting good new poems. I look for what’s immediate but also has staying power. There’s a lot of interesting work these days that runs on voice, that’s all bravado and daring. But if a poem doesn’t go deep, if it doesn’t puzzle and refract the human struggle with loneliness and community, with love and death, then it won’t last.

IA: What other authors are working in North America right now whose work you particularly admire?

JMW: Right now I’m reading a lot of poets in translation. We owe an enormous amount to the people who’ve translated the work of poets like Milosz and Lorca and Neruda and Tomas Transtromer and Kamienska and Amachi and Rumi and Adonis and the dozens of other significant writers in languages other than English.

IA: How do you teach the arts of crafting and interpreting poetry?

JMW: I ask students to pay attention. We all speed-read because most of us read online all the time. If you google a topic and get three hundred hits, you can’t read them all carefully. Fortunately most of what’s written doesn’t even require careful reading.

But reading poetry does. It demands an utterly different kind of attention. It’s not virtual and it’s not speedy. It happens in the body. It’s more like eating a fine meal or like riding a bike than it is like reading online.

The first thing I ask students to do is to read every poem aloud slowly twice. There’s no cheating. Twice. It doesn’t sound hard, but it’s astonishing how few people either can or are willing to do that.

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

JMW: A lot of what’s going on in the world these days seems spectacular and wonderful. What good fortune we have, to be able to buy oodles of books relatively cheaply, to have the opportunity to read good work from so many different cultures! Twenty years ago, much of what we have now wasn’t available. We’re living through a mini-renaissance of food and culture and literature. Who can not notice? Who can remain ungrateful?

And much of what’s happened with fragmentation in postmodernism interests me deeply. It involves juxtapositions within art forms and between them. It’s a little like watching a kalidoscope as it turns, showering the pieces into different patterns which generate new meanings.

On the other hand, I’m concerned about our American addictions to speed and multitasking. Psychologists recently have done experiments to demonstrate that multitasking actually wrecks concentration. The electronic devices that allow us to do everything simultaneously—talk on the phone, use the computer, speak with someone in the room—don’t seem to accomplish much more than make our lives go by faster. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t paradoxically what we are trying to do: get rid of our lives because it’s so hard to live and make wise choices and to be aware that we’re going to die. Those things are hard to deal with. I sometimes think that these addictions to speed are a form of denial.

I’m also hoping that we can get better in this country at talking to one another in reasonable ways. If democracy is to work, we need to figure out how to discuss politics and religion calmly. Maybe we’re afraid of anyone who doesn’t look or sound like us. Our fear makes us shout at one another. I need to cultivate patience and practice listening, as I think many of us do.

14 April 2011

Review of "The Miracle Worker"

Last night I attended a Players of the Stage production of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, directed by Sharon Barshinger. The Miracle Worker is the powerful, moving story of Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, and Helen’s family. These young actors gave a superb performance, professional in mood, tone, character development, physical stage business, and technique. Particularly remarkable were Marian Barshinger, a high school senior, as Annie Sullivan, and Elizabeth Marlin, age ten, as Helen.

When The King’s Speech was in all the pre-Oscars discussions, critics and reviewers kept praising Colin Firth for his excellent acting, and they continually added a statement like: “not just because a man without a stutter stuttered so well.” That’s true. And yet he did do that stutter extremely well. The tiny girl playing Helen Keller gave a similarly virtuousic performance last night, too: what struck us audience members first was her convincing representation of deafness and (especially) blindness. Her eyes were unfocused, but open, through the entire play, her expression blank around the eyes even when her mouth smiled or frowned. Her zombie-style walk was perhaps a little overdone, but added more to the eerie feeling her parents experienced at their own ineptitude in dealing with her. Yet her performance was more than just vacant eyes: it had an emotional depth remarkable for someone of her age, as she played Helen’s temper tantrums, sly moments of deceit, flashed of love for a doll or a dog, and final revelation of the meaning of language.

An emotional depth beyond their years was a theme throughout this play. Marian Barshinger, age eighteen, brought to Annie Sullivan a whole history of suffering, brokenness, horror, grief, guilt, and stiff-necked strength. She played the difficult private scenes, of Annie’s auditory hallucinations and anguish over her brother’s death, as well as she played her tough moments of stubborn pride and conviction. What’s more, she played the director’s chosen themes with subtle grace.

The director, Sharon Barshinger, wrote a “director’s note” for the beginning of the program that expounded upon the themes she chose to highlight in this production. The play is well-written and rich with ideas, experiences, and symbolism. Sharon chose to emphasize the themes of mental/spiritual blindness and of “living death”: the idea that “many of us are really just living dead, unable to break free from the sorrows of our past.” In her production, Annie was conflicted and co-dependent, obsessed with teaching Helen language but unable to love her. Helen’s parents are unwilling to put Helen away in an asylum, but unwittingly treat her like a spoiled animal, refusing to require human decorum from her. Helen is selfish and uncontrolled, devoured by her impossible search for knowledge.

The most impressive technical aspect of this play is the “fight scenes.” Biographically, Annie and Helen did have a five-hour fight one day as Annie began to establish dominance and require discipline. In the play, this scene is agonizing, yet riveting, to watch as Marian and Elizabeth fight it out with naturalistic energy and pain. I could not believe how far they took the physical interactions in this fight, nor could I believe that they were acting. Slapping, kicking, pushing, pulling, Annie carrying Helen, Helen jumping over and under the table or hanging on to a chair: there were some serious bruises when that fight was over. But it was also beautifully choreographed and had a rhythmic development of its own. It fell into episodes: Helen trying to eat from Annie’s plate, then throwing spoons, then refusing to sit in her chair, then trying to get away from Annie by any means: each episode grew more violent than the last, punctuated with gentle humour in Annie’s facial expressions (she just would not give up!) and the pauses when Helen seemed to give in, then spit scrambled eggs in Annie’s face or dove for the door. It was very well done.

One more thought before I close. This is youth theatre, but only because the actors are young and the stories/shows they perform are appropriate for young (as well as old) audiences. There is nothing amateur about the acting technique Sharon requires of her young cast. While the shows are held in a church, with limited staging options available, the fact that this is “children’s theatre” should not mean it isn’t top-notch. This is not a bunch of kids in Daddy’s bathrobes acting out characters with giggles and blunders. This is real theatre. The fact that the actors are young only adds to their energy and should only add to the positive nature of their critical reception.

So, go and see it! What are you waiting for? There are still four more performances!

DATES: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 14-16 at 7 PM
Saturday April 16 at 2 PM

PLACE: Living Hope Presbyterian Church, 330 Schantz Rd, Wescosville, PA.

COST: It's FREE!!! ...but please come prepared to help the Jamaica Christian School for the Deaf.

TICKETS: email with your name, date you'd like to attend, and the number of people, or call 610-923-6742. Your tickets will be held for you at the door.

11 April 2011

Interview with Dana Gioia

This is the forty-fifth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Dana Gioia, poet and former NEA Chairman
via email 26 March & 5 April 2011

IA: What topics tend to recur in your poetry?

DG: I never choose the subjects of my poems. They choose me. If I try to write on a particular topic, it never works. So I am at the mercy of inspiration, and mine tends to address all sorts of subjects from forgotten pianists and French Surrealists to film noir, Los Angeles, and the apocalypse. But whatever the surface subject, certain themes tend to recur—love, loss, mortality, desire, redemption, and the sheer mystery of our existence.

IA: Why those?

DG: They are the unavoidable themes, don’t you think?

IA: Are they typical of poets working just now, or representative of contemporary American concerns?

DG: I’m no longer sure what typifies contemporary poetry. It mostly seems very distant and vague to me nowadays. I don’t want my poems to be of the moment. I want them to resist the moment. That’s the only chance they have of outlasting it.

IA: You have published three volumes of poetry:
Daily Horoscope, 1986
The Gods of Winter, 1991
Interrogations at Noon, 2001.
How has your poetry changed since Daily Horoscope?

DG: I’m not sure that a poet is the best judge of his own development. An outside reader might give you a more reliable opinion. But if I must venture a judgment, I would say that my poems have grown more emotionally direct and less intellectual. Although I found my voice in that first volume, I now let the music of the poems carry more of their meaning. I’ve learned to trust the reader.

IA: If anything, the meters sound even stronger and more rhythmical to my ear in your most recent book, Interrogations at Noon—is this intentional?

DG: Yes, it is. The sound of a poem is what gives it authority. The music creates the necessary enchantment that makes everything else possible. You hear it immediately in a great poet. Read ten lines of Keats or Tennyson, Stevens or Eliot. Their voices are not only unmistakable but also compelling. I take great trouble to coax the sound of my poems into a fully realized and tangible shape.

IA: So what exactly are we hearing in these poems?

DG: Part of what you’re hearing is the book’s musical variety and formal invention. Most new formal poetry is predictably iambic, usually in lines of 6 to 10 syllables. Those are powerful meters, but the English language has so many more possibilities. In Interrogations at Noon I use almost every meter available in English (except syllabics, which you really can’t hear in our language). I also invent a number of stanza shapes--in both free and formal verse—and I experiment with lines that modulate between free and formal rhythms. Readers probably don’t know exactly what I’m doing—certainly the critics haven’t figured it out—but they can hear it. The poems have a strong but often unusual musicality.

IA: Congratulations on your forthcoming new book! Will this collection, Pity the Beautiful, depart at all from the themes and techniques of your previous three volumes? What new concerns have you been working through recently?

DG: The new book is not a departure, but I hope that it goes deeper into the heart of things. The central poem is a long narrative, a sort of short story in verse, called “Haunted.” It is, on the surface, both a ghost story and a love story, but it eventually turns into something different and unexpected. I was able to work at lot of things into this poem that I had never before found the right form to express.

IA: I detect a sense of sympathetic melancholy in your work: the melancholy of the narrative persona and of the reader, and a sympathy of both with each other. Is there something about our era that calls us to share one another’s sorrows more particularly than previous eras?

DG: I can’t speak with any authority about the past, but how can anyone contemplate the present age without some melancholy? It’s not the political or economic problems, as serious as they are, that sadden me. It is the cynical materialism that pervades our culture at every level, even in education, government, and the arts. There seems to be no other measure of value in society but wealth and power. And so few voices seem raised in opposition, except to demand the transfer of wealth and power elsewhere.

IA: The term “New Formalism” first appeared in a 1985 essay by Ariel Dawson: what is “New Formalism”?

DG: New Formalism was the name given to a movement among younger American poets in the 1980s who had unexpectedly started writing in rhyme, meter, and narrative. At that point in literary history, free verse was the dominant style, and these young poets were attacked—sometimes extravagantly—by the poetry establishment. Some of the so-called “New Formalists,” myself included, responded by publishing essays defending and explaining their notions of poetry, and the literary debates went on for the better part of a decade. The controversy was sometimes called the “Poetry Wars.”

IA: When you wrote the poems published in Daily Horoscope, how intentional were you about joining a radical new literary movement?

(N.B. You can read some poems from this book on Dana’s website:
“The Burning Ladder”
“California Hills in August”
“The Country Wife”
“Sunday Night in Santa Rosa”

DG: I knew I was writing poems that went against prevailing fashions. But I never wrote them to be controversial. I composed in meter and rhyme, and explored poetic narrative because these were things that gave me pleasure. They were modes of expression which lent themselves to the sort of musicality and narrative energy I wanted in my work. I guess I wasn’t surprised to see myself attacked for my stylistic choices, but the possibility of those reactions had never influenced my aesthetic.

I should probably mention one other thing. I was unusual among the New Formalists—a term I’ve never liked, by the way—because I also wrote in free verse. My poems tend to fall into three almost equal groups—one third in rhyme and meter, one third in meter without rhyme, and one third in free verse. I also tend to experiment with metrical forms. I’ve always felt that a poet should be free to use all the techniques available. Versatility and range seem to me underrated qualities in a poet.

My openness to both free and formal verse annoyed some of the more conservative New Formalists, who also attacked me. I suspect I was the only member of the movement to be attacked by both sides. I was also eventually championed by poets and critics on both sides. Literary life takes strange turns.

IA: Why do you dislike the term “New Formalism?”

DG: The term seems both dull and reductive. For me, form was never an end in itself—only one of the ways to create a more immediate, expressive, and memorable kind of poetry. Reclaiming meter allowed me to summon a more physical and musical sound, just as reviving verse narrative permitted me to communicate some of the things that can only be said as stories.

The term “New Formalism” also misses one of the most important things that many of us were doing: namely, rejecting the confessional and autobiographic poetry so prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. We wanted to regain some of the ground that poetry had lost to movies and novels—their ability to capture a wider human world. Poetry needed to escape narcissism. It needed to tell stories about people other than the poets.

IA: Is there a term you think would fit your work better, or do you dislike all of these tidy academic labels?

DG: Labels are usually unsatisfactory, though they are probably necessary to make sense of a crowded and complicated literary culture. I slightly prefer a term that had a certain currency at the time—“Expansive Poetry,” which did at least capture our effort to break outside the narrow fashions of the poetry subculture. But labels mostly just obfuscate the specific things that make an author either weak or strong. A lousy writer can often exemplify the general trends of a literary movement as clearly as a superb one.

IA: Robert McPhillips, in The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction, says that you “consciously endeavored to restore to American poetry clarity, music, and objectivity”—did you? Do you still?

DG: I don’t write poems to change American poetry. I try to write them to be moving, memorable, and true. I do value clarity, music, and objectivity (in the sense that the poems shouldn’t just be subjective or autobiographical ramblings). If anything, I have grown more concerned with the musicality of my poetry over the years. I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths. These are not the virtues most touted by today’s critics, especially in academia.

IA: In 2003, McPhillips wrote: “New Formalism remains one of the most influential—and controversial—poetic schools to have emerged in the United States since World War II.” Was that true in 2003? Is it still true now?

DG: Twenty years ago conventional literary opinion declared that rhyme and meter were dead techniques. Most magazine editors refused to consider formal poems for publication (one journal went so far as to declare that it wouldn’t consider “rhyme or pornography”). Now one sees formal poetry everywhere. The bulk of writing may still be in free verse, but the literary landscape is more diverse and inclusive. That change in literary climate is mostly the result of the notorious “New Formalism.”

More important, there are a number of significant poets who emerged out of this movement. (And it is important to remember that is wasn’t a unified group that had a single common aesthetic or agenda but rather a diverse group of younger poets reacting to a moment in cultural history.) Perhaps the best of these poets is David Mason, who is a narrative poet of stunning skill.

IA: Does American literature need another shake-up now—another sharp turn in the direction of literary technique or subject matter?

DG: American poetry seems pretty dull at present. It seems to have lost much of its energy and exuberance. It reminds me a little of the doldrums poetry found itself in a hundred years ago between 1900 and 1914. Except for the work of E. A. Robinson there was very little produced still worth reading. Then suddenly Modernism exploded on the scene. Who knows? Perhaps there is something amazing about to happen.

IA: Who are some of the best up-and-coming young poets whose work you admire?

DG: Some of the younger poets I admire most are A.E. Stallings, Christian Wiman, and Diane Thiel. I am also greatly impressed by David Yezzi and Ernest Hilbert’s powerfully poetic work in the opera libretto. There are surely other fine young poets whose work I don’t know.

But let’s not forget older poets. Many fine poets write for decades with little recognition.
Anne Stevenson is one of the great living poets in the language. She is well known in England but almost invisible in the U.S., her native country. Jared Carter and Timothy Murphy are both wonderful poets that few people read. There are many more. They aren’t young, but they are neglected.

IA: Now, in addition to writing poetry, you are also highly accomplished in writing about and promoting poetry—bringing it to a wider audience. During your time as chairman of the NEA, you initiated many excellent projects:

Operation Homecoming
Shakespeare in American Communities
Poetry Out Loud
The Big Read
How are those endeavors faring now, after your tenure as chairman?

DG: I’m proud that during my tenure as NEA Chairman we launched the largest programs in the agency’s history. For the first time we reached almost every community in the country. The Shakespeare program alone reached nearly 3000 municipalities and millions of students. It also gave employment to thousands of actors, directors, designers, and crew. The Big Read became the largest literary program in federal history, and Poetry Out Loud is now probably the biggest single poetry enterprise in the U.S. I hope that the NEA will preserve these superb programs with vast democratic reach. but one can never be sure what will come. I have been gratified that in some cases, such as the Big Read, the U.S. Congress has insisted that they be continued as a requirement of the agency’s appropriations.

IA: Can you comment on the life of the “sacred” in contemporary poetry?

DG: Many of the poets I most admire are equally alert to the visible and invisible aspects of our existence. They see and celebrate the physical world, but they also sense the presence of what lies beyond it. This metaphysical sensibility is probably the great tradition of English-language poetry from Donne, Shakespeare, and Herbert through Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats (as well as Americans like Dickinson, Whitman, and Poe) up to Hopkins, Eliot, and Auden, to mention only a few of the great names. These were all poets alive to the sacred. Even an agnostic like Frost or an atheist like Larkin wrote elegies for the metaphysical longings they could not satisfy. No wonder Stevens, another spiritually alert skeptic, sought baptism on his deathbed—one final speculative leap into “the undiscovered country.”

An alertness to the sacred also teaches a poet a useful humility. It puts the individual human life into perspective against the immensity of creation. Ironically, that humility gives breadth to poetic vision since it requires writers to look outside themselves for meaning. So many poets today write only about the minutiae of their own lives.

IA: Economics and culture are becoming increasingly globalized. How does this affect the American arts and poetry?

DG: I worry that one of the great dangers to contemporary art is its globalization into vague categories like world music and world poetry. These things greatly appeal to politicians and administrators who see them as delivering ideological benefits. But beware of art or aesthetics created by committees. The arts are best, I think, when they are rooted in a particular place or sensibility. Art is also both created and received by individuals. I’ve noticed just in my lifetime how the sound of orchestras has become homogenized into a sort of safe international sound. When I was studying music and German in Vienna forty years ago, you could hear the difference between a Russian and German orchestra, or a French and Russian singer. There were distinct and expressive national styles. That’s all gone now. And culture isn’t richer for the loss.

IA: What are some projects you have in hand now?

DG: I am finally about to leave Washington, D.C., after 8 years spent mostly at the NEA. As I return to my native state of California, I want to return to my real life, which is being a writer not a public official. I want to write poetry, essays, and opera libretti. That last goal will puzzle some literary people, but I consider the libretto the one form of poetic drama that is still viable. There are certain types of poems that can only be written as drama. But writing poems is my main goal. I hope that my Muse has not deserted me. I was very inattentive to her during my years in public office.

IA: Can you name any composers with whom you would like to collaborate on operas?

DG: Yes: Mozart, Bellini, Verdi, Strauss, and Britten. But they all seem unavailable.

Fortunately, there are some other fine composers around. I’ve already done operas with Alva Henderson and Paul Salerni, and I am working with both of them now on other projects. I’ve also done songs with Lori Laitman. Perhaps one day she and I will both be free at the same time so that we can do an opera together. Speaking of songs, I am also planning a jazz song cycle with pianist-composer Helen Sung. Finally, Morten Lauridsen, a composer of Olympian stature in my judgment, is writing some songs based on my work. It is astonishing to work with composers of this stature.

Dana Gioia with Placido Domingo

IA: Do you have a new opera in mind?

DG: I do have a well-formed idea for a new libretto. I’ll have to find the right composer. It’s unheard of in the opera world for a librettist to originate a project, but that’s probably one of the reasons why most libretti are so poor. They are done as work-for-hire rather than original literary works. I am only interested in working on an opera in which the words are taken seriously. You wouldn’t mount a Broadway show with lousy lyrics. Why is opera any different? As an art form, it should have higher not lower standards than popular entertainment.

IA: Can you make some predictions for the future of American poetry?

DG: Poetry is an irreplaceable art. It is the most concise, expressive, and memorable way we have to describe in words what it means to be human. Poetry has survived since the prehistory, so it will probably even survive the experts and their committees.

photo by Lynda Koolish