Interviewer Michelle Johnson: You are often identified with New Formalism, a literary movement now thirty years old, which revived meter, rhyme, and narrative. Much of your own work, though not all, employs form. What is New Formalism’s status at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
Dana Gioia: The revival of form and narrative was one of the central events in late twentieth century American poetry, and the controversy that still simmers over this unexpected shift of sensibility only proves how significant it was. The movement connected literary poetry to the energy of the popular culture—which had remained rooted in auditory forms like song and storytelling. In this sense the revival was populist and democratic. It also helped reconcile Modernist poetic practice with the vast possibilities of traditional techniques. It moved poetry forward while also reconnecting it to its primal roots in orality and performance. (It’s no coincidence that revival of form and narrative among young literary poets exactly coincided with the creation of hip-hop and slam poetry.) This movement meaningfully enlarged the possibilities of contemporary poetry.
It’s easy to forget how odd things were back in the 1970s. Form and narrative were almost universally denounced as dead literary modes. They were considered retrograde, repressive, elitist, antidemocratic, phallocentric, and even (I’m not making this up), un-American. It was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines. One journal even stated its editorial policy as, “No rhyme or pornography.” Poems were supposed to be free verse lyric utterances in a confessional or imagistic style. I’m happy to say that journals and presses are now open to formal or narrative poetry. This is a direct result of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” the long and loud debates over these issues that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s.
I noticed that you didn’t use the term “New Formalism” in your response.
I’ve never cared for the name, though it has become the standard term. I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for—and one really did have to fight back then—was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative. I never saw the movement as a rejection of Modernism. Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry? What interested me, and many of the other so-called New Formalists, was how to combine the legacy of Modernism with neglected resources of traditional literature and also how to combine the intensity of high art with the enormous energy of popular arts like film and music. Our readers experienced and enjoyed all of these things together. Poetry needed to reflect that cultural reality.
Did New Formalism produce any significant writers—not counting you, of course?
The movement produced—or perhaps the better word is attracted—a cluster of interesting poets and critics. Any movement that includes poetic talents as distinguished and diverse as David Mason, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Tom Disch, Vikram Seth, Timothy Steele, Mary Jo Salter, A. E. Stallings, Christian Wiman, and Marilyn Nelson, to name only a few, needs to be taken seriously. Please understand that I am not talking about a group of poets sitting together in a bunker plotting a literary takeover. I am describing a Zeitgeist, a broad-based change of sensibility affecting a generation of younger poets dissatisfied with literary status quo in the 1970s. Most of these poets didn’t even know about each other at first. Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell, the editors of The Reaper, were trying to reinvent the narrative poem before they ever knew about Vikram Seth, Frederick Turner, Brad Leithauser, Andrew Hudgins, David Mason, or R. S. Gwynn trying to do it elsewhere. New Formalism was a generational change in sensibility, not a cabal. Of course, as these writers began to be published (and attacked), they discovered one another. New magazines and small presses sprang up to publish the work that the mainstream was rejecting—just as they did in early Modernism. Soon there were new conferences, such as West Chester and Sewanee, where these young poets actually met one another. I should point out that not all of these poets necessarily liked one another or even agreed with one another.
How did you fit into this history?
As a poet, I simply tried to write as well as I could. As a critic, I tried to clarify the larger issues, and to bring some recognition to younger writers. I also co-founded the West Chester poetry conference so that there would be a place for these poets to gather and discuss their work and ideas. I was praised, vilified, marginalized, and canonized, but I was not ignored.
How would you describe your current aesthetic?
I’m not sure I have an aesthetic as such—at least no abstract theory of how to write a poem. Inspiration is mostly an involuntary process. When poems arrive, I try to let them take the shapes that they themselves suggest. I want my poems to be musical, moving, and memorable. I also try to make them compressed and concise. I rely more on intuition than on any preconceived ideas. I am actually happiest when the poem unfolds in ways that surprise me. My best poems have mostly taken forms that I would never have predicted.
Some of that sounds a bit like an aesthetic.
Well, I do keep certain things in mind when writing a poem. But they seem utterly remote from what literary theorists discuss nowadays when they mention aesthetics. Let me offer just two assumptions in my idiosyncratic poetics. First, I believe that a poem must enchant before it communicates. The physical sound and verbal rhythm of a poem needs to arrest the reader’s attention and create a moment of imaginative openness and emotional vulnerability. This enchantment is what allows poetry to communicate so deeply. Without it, the language remains narrowly functional and prosaic. My second assumption is that a good poem is a sort of dance between the text and subtext. The surface of the poem should powerfully capture the reader’s conscious attention so that the subtext is free to speak to the reader’s intuition and imagination. These two notions are fundamental to my poetic practice.
Do you write mostly in traditional forms?
My poems tend to fall almost equally into three categories—one-third in free verse, one third in unrhymed meter, and one-third in rhyme. I like that sort of stylistic diversity. (Many writers I admire, such as Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Weldon Kees, and Donald Justice also work in a wide range of forms.) So you can say that a majority of my poems are formal, but I rarely use “traditional” forms. I like to invent my own stanzas or patterns. I also tend to experiment with different meters or mix free and formal verse. I am very interested in the physical sound of the line. I try to make each poem different from the poems around it. Interestingly, critics never seem to notice what I’m doing. But the purpose of poetic technique isn’t to be noticed; it is to be felt.
Has your sense of what makes a poem changed over the years?
Yes, it has. I’ve slowly learned a few things that I didn’t know when I started out. I now cut out a great deal of what I once would have left in a poem. Poems shouldn’t tell you too much. They are often stronger by suggesting things they decline to state overtly. Most contemporary poetry is too long, too cluttered, and too prosaic. There’s not enough music or mystery. The poets don’t seem to trust the intelligence of their readers. They tell us everything in numbing detail. This strikes me as very academic. These poems lecture us as if we were students—and not particularly bright ones. I prefer poems that collaborate with their readers and treat them as equals, even as intimates.
What do you mean by collaborating with a reader who is an intimate?
It’s not just about your attitude to the reader. It’s about your sense of the art itself. Let me offer a metaphor. Creating a poem is like building a room, sometimes with multiple entrances, into which you invite the reader. The room has a strong design and a tangible atmosphere, but it is only partially furnished. There are, in fact, some essential elements that have been left out which the reader must furnish from his or her own life. One reason that reading poetry is universally acknowledged as a more intense experience than fiction is that poetry compels—or entices—us to complete the text from our own memory and imagination. (Fiction gives us, by contrast, a more completely realized imaginary world through which we journey via the narrative.) A successful poem first entices the reader to enter an imaginary space and then creates the urgency to collaborate with the author in completing it.
When we spoke last year, you said you wanted your poems to be useful. How do you define a poem’s utility?
I don’t believe that poetry needs to be utilitarian in any narrow sense. I began, in fact, as someone who believed in art for art’s sake. My early heroes were Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Valéry, and Oscar Wilde. I still feel that art needs no justification beyond the joy and splendor of its own existence. I dislike art that crudely preaches some social, political, or theological message. But over the years I have come to appreciate that one of the powers of art is that it can be applied to human uses that the creators never intended. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, for instance, has been used in all sorts of contexts that would have surprised the composer, but those uses all have human meaning. My poems have been used to teach public speaking, as texts for music, or as subjects for state English exams. Ministers have employed them in sermons. Critics have used them to illustrate various aesthetic and cultural assumptions. I never imagined those uses, but they are all valid. The mayor of New York recently read—to my astonishment—a Rilke translation of mine at a 9/11 memorial service. Once you publish a poem, it exists as an independent object. You no longer control what it does. If you’re lucky, the culture puts it to work.
In addition to your own poetry, you’ve done a significant amount of translation from multiple languages, including German, Italian, Latin, and Romanian. Do you recommend serving as a translator to other poets?
Translation should be part of any poet’s education. Poetry is an international art. If you know only the poetry of your own country (or your own era), you know very little about the art. Translation is also the most intense and complete way of understanding a poem. You have to assimilate and re-create the totality of the original. Of course, you always fail to bring over everything, but the process of translation forges a deep connection that changes your sensibility as decisively as a trip to a foreign country would. To enter the imagination of a great poet is potentially to find, in Yeats’s words, “the singing masters of the soul.”
How has translating other poets’ work affected your own writing?
I’ve done poetic translation since I first began to write seriously, so it greatly affected my development as a writer. My earliest translations were mostly from German—Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Gottfried Benn. Then I concentrated mostly on Italian writers, such as Eugenio Montale, Mario Luzi, Valerio Magrelli, among many others. These are all modernists, and their hermetic styles influenced my sense of how a poem spoke. I think that immersion in European modernism (with its roots in Symbolism) is one reason why my poetry is so different from many of the other New Formalists. Mine is essentially postmodernist in that it tries to combine the intensity and integrity of modernist poetry with the sensual appeal and musical power of meter and rhyme. Even my sense of narrative poetry was shaped by modernism. My narratives have strong story lines, but they are also elliptical and elusive, communicating important things only through their subtexts. Seneca’s influence came much later and was more specific. I began translating Seneca’s Hercules Furens just as I was starting to write my first libretto. I learned a lot about poetic tragedy—which is what much opera essentially is—from translating that dark neglected classic, which influenced both Dante and Eliot.
So translation had a strong impact on your own poetry?
Yes, but let me also say something no one ever mentions. There is a danger in doing too much translation. When you translate, you always know where you are going. The original poem provides you with a map. But writing your own poems is a far more mysterious process. The poem is invisible until you write it down. There is no original, only impulse and intuition. It’s hard to make the transition back into original work.
You are also well known for your criticism, particularly your 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” Did your fame from this essay overshadow your poetry at the time?
Yes, without question the fame of this essay—which was international—overshadowed my reputation as a poet for nearly a decade. I was suddenly seen as poetry’s most iconoclastic critic, “the guardian of standards,” as the New York Times once called me. Contemporary literary life is so specialized that a writer is expected to do only one thing well. This is a very recent prejudice that originated with the academization of literary life. (The university both requires and rewards specialization.) I have always seen myself working in the tradition of the poet-critic, which has been important to American letters—from Edgar Allan Poe to T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Louise Bogan, and Randall Jarrell.
Did you resent your poetry being ignored and sometimes even attacked because of your critical notoriety?
I try to accept the good and the bad with equanimity. As Oscar Wilde observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I have been lucky to have enjoyed a degree of celebrity across my career, and the experience has taught me a lot about the nature of contemporary fame. Notoriety requires you to be simplified, usually into a neat and tidy headline. First, I was widely discussed as the “businessman-poet.” Then I became notorious as the ringleader of New Formalists. Soon thereafter I became famous as the literary maverick who wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” Then I became a public figure as the champion of arts and literacy who ran the National Endowment for the Arts. Each of these reputations contained an element of truth and a simplification. But it’s better to be noticed than ignored, and properly used, fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests as a writer. There is also a very real burden to fame. You’re besieged daily by people, mostly strangers, who want things. I hear constantly from journalists, poets, students, teachers, editors, fund-raisers, job seekers, artists, activists, officials, and occasionally lunatics—who ask for my help.
People think of a poet working alone, in solitude. While you have certainly done that in writing your poems, you have also engaged in a considerable number of collaborations with other artists, especially composers.
Writing is hard, lonely work. It demands solitude and sacrifice. I haven’t taught for a living. I have either written at night while holding a full-time job or I have supported my family as a full-time writer. My daily life often becomes very private and reclusive. That’s why I’ve welcomed the chance to collaborate with other artists. It breaks the solitude and brings a different sort of energy into my daily life. I’ve also made some very close friends this way. I’ve worked with composers, actors, choreographers, visual artists, filmmakers, and printers.
How are these collaborations different from solitary creation?
They differ in at least two ways. First of all, there are certain artistic forms that are necessarily collaborative—opera, theater, song, film, and the book arts. If you want to work in them, you’ll need partners. Second, when you are working in collaboration, you usually have a very tangible sense of how your words will be used and experienced. Writing a poem to be set to music opens different creative possibilities and responsibilities from one written for the page. There is also a give-and-take in the collaborative creative process as the work takes it final shape.
For me collaboration has not been a merely incidental activity. From the start I wanted to expand the possibilities of poetry beyond the narrow role it occupies in contemporary culture. Back in the mid-1970s when I was first finding myself as a writer, poets were supposed to write either short free-verse lyrics or big baggy modernist culture epics such as The Cantos or Paterson. Such a poverty of options! There was time when poets wrote tragedies, comedies, narratives, songs, hymns, satires, burlesques, historical epics, verse romances, topical ballads, libretti, and pageants. I hoped to reclaim some of the territory poetry had lost to prose, film, and popular music.
You worked with the composer Alva Henderson on Nosferatu. What was the collaboration like?
Alva and I work very well together. It took us a while to agree on an operatic subject. He had some good ideas, but they weren’t right for me. I needed a subject I could inhabit imaginatively in order to produce a text that was truly poetic and not simply workman-like. Once we settled on Nosferatu, which was based, of course, on F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film, I prepared a complete scenario—a detailed scene-by-scene prose summary that also proposed the various arias, duets, and ensembles. Alva helped focus this summary, and then the hard part began—writing the verse. I wanted to create a libretto that could stand independently as a poetic text but would work equally well with music. I drafted the libretto out of sequence. When inspiration came for an aria, I wrote it as a poem and then built the scene around it. I tended to send Alva texts one half a scene at a time—a key aria or duet and the text leading up to it. Curiously, this odd system worked perfectly for his creative process since he likes to compose the central musical ideas of a scene and then develop the entire scene.
So the opera was actually written and composed out of sequence?
Yes, and we also did something odd, perhaps even unique, in developing the final work. We premiered it one scene or aria at a time around the country—usually in coordination with one of my readings or residencies. By the time we did the actual staged premiere at Rimrock Opera in 2004, we had done a dozen showcases around the country, including a spectacular concert version at the Western Slope Music Festival in Colorado. This allowed the work to be heard by diverse audiences around the country—something rare in contemporary opera.
You’ve commented upon the libretto’s yet unrealized literary potential in English. What stands in the way, and what would this realization look like?
Opera is not a native form to the English-speaking world, which experienced opera for centuries in foreign languages, mostly Italian. English-language opera is a tradition only slightly more than a century old, and it was initially founded on the dubious assumption that the libretto was of secondary importance or, to put the matter more clearly, that great opera could be built on creaky theater and lousy lyrics. Opera isn’t a symphonic art. It’s musical theater. A powerful and original dramatic structure and memorable and moving lyrics are essential to the total impact. The best American operas, which are as dissimilar as Porgy and Bess, Four Saints in Three Acts, and Nixon in China have also been beautifully crafted literary works. And some modern operas with gorgeous music such as the The Tender Land and Midsummer Marriage sink from their awkward and stilted libretti.
A great libretto, in English or any other language, should present a powerful story concisely with commanding characters, moving situations, and memorable words. The lyrics should be compelling without the music and irresistible with it. Of course, a libretto can be written in either prose or verse, but it is a historical fact that nearly all of the great operas have poetic texts. My point is really quite simple. The literary elements of opera need to be taken as seriously as the music.
Who are your literary heroes in opera?
Lorenzo da Ponte, Felice Romani, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Bertolt Brecht, and W. H. Auden. They constitute a major poetic tradition. I also admire W. S. Gilbert. He wrote operetta rather than opera, but his lyrics are works of comic genius.
You have an interest in poetic theater and have been involved in two projects, a production of your translation of Seneca’s Roman tragedy The Madness of Hercules and a full-length dance-theater piece based on your poem “Counting the Children.” I’m particularly curious about poetry and dance. How did dancers perform your poem?
“Counting the Children” astonished me as a piece of dance theater. Every line of my long poem was spoken by one of the dancers or sung by a chorus. The poem’s narrator, Mr. Choi, was played simultaneously by two dancers, one male, the other female. The male dancer spoke the lines while his partner danced them to an Asian-influenced jazz score. The total effect was similar to the ritualized, mythic theater W. B. Yeats had hoped for in his Plays for Dancers. “Counting the Children” is a dark and complex poem, steeped in loss, dream, and anxiety, and the choreographer Mark Ruhala fashioned a startling full-length work. The audience was both shocked and deeply engaged by it. To everyone’s surprise, all the performances sold out, and the run was extended.
Was this a collaboration between you and the dance company, though different than the type of collaboration between you and Alva Henderson in that I assume you didn’t write “Counting the Children” with a dance performance in mind?
I had never thought of the work in theatrical terms. It was conceived only as a poem—a sort of experiment in mixing the lyric and narrative modes. The idea for the dance work came entirely from Mark Ruhala and his company after the poem was published. As soon as he mentioned the idea, however, I realized what had attracted him—the two extended sequences with the dead woman’s collection of injured dolls. I was astonished that they wanted to use every line of my text—the poem is 165 lines long. I suggested they cut it, but Mark insisted that using the complete text would provide creative discipline for the music and choreography. And he was right. The words gave the final work a richer texture—providing the pleasures of both dance and poetic theater. Probably one reason it worked so well was that I stayed out of the creative development until the dress rehearsals. The creative team made the work fully their own as a piece of dance theater. I made only one significant suggestion, which they graciously adopted. Otherwise, I just answered the dancers’ questions about the text. I have to admit that the single most interesting conversation I’ve ever had about my poetry was with those dancers. None of them were literary people, but they had tremendous intuitive intelligence. They had to become my characters and had thought deeply about those fictive identities. I learned many things about my poem from them.
In addition to dancers performing your poetry, composers have set your poems to music. Were you a part of this process?
When composers set my poems to music, I try to stay out of the process. They need to make the words their own. That often means transformations of emotion, mood, or tempo that differ from my own private sense. Whenever I first hear a new musical setting of my poem, I’m shocked. The words are the same, but the emotional subtext is usually very different. I have to approach the song as something different from my original poem. That takes a couple of hearings.
In 2007 the National Opera Association chose Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast the best new American chamber opera. What can you tell me about this project?
Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast could hardly be more different from its predecessor. Despite its supernatural theme, Nosferatu is essentially a work of psychological realism—a redemptive tragedy in the tradition of Wagner and Hofmannsthal. Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast has a nonlinear and experimental form—ten short scenes that alternate between past and present, reality and vision. The opera begins in realism but ends in visionary transformation. Parts of it are satiric. Tony Caruso contains some of the funniest verse I’ve ever written and also some of the saddest. The opera moves so quickly, and Paul Salerni’s music has such extraordinary lyric momentum that the audience is swept along, despite its innovative form and mysterious qualities.
In what ways have you performed your work, alone or in collaboration with others?
Performance is an essential concept to me. I write my poems equally to be spoken aloud and to be read on the page. I want the poem to work both ways. That is how most poets, at least since the late Renaissance, have understood the art—as an auditory or musical form that reveals additional meaning when apprehended visually in print. When I write, I do much of the composition off the page, working over the lines and stanzas aloud. I may work over lines aloud for half an hour before I write anything down. For that reason I find poetry readings very natural affairs. The poems need to be spoken and heard.
You often also bring music into your poetry readings.
There is nothing sacred about the format of the poetry reading. I believe in mixing the arts. I especially love to combine poetry and music. An audience will hear poems better if they have just been listening to music. They listen less analytically but with greater emotional and intuitive openness. I have done poetry readings with both Chico Hamilton’s and Helen Sung’s jazz ensembles. I have also read with numerous classical groups. If I give a reading at a school with a good vocal department, I often plan a short recital of songs based on my poems midway through my performance.
In “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture,” you wrote about the differing effects of poetry reading on poets like Robinson Jeffers, who began giving public readings in late middle age, and a poet whose first experience with publication was spoken. How has the spoken medium affected your work?
When you hear recordings of the great American Modernists, you can hear how uncomfortable most of them are reciting their work in public. Stevens, Jeffers, Williams, Moore, and even Cummings were quite awful as readers. Only Frost and Eliot seem confident and natural. These writers grew up in a typographical culture where literature was composed, published, transmitted, and preserved silently on the page. My generation grew up with radio, recordings, television, phones, talking films, and tape recorders. For us, language, even literary language, is as much auditory as written. I first “read” Paradise Lost by listening to the old Argo LPs—an enthralling experience that brought me into the heart of this work composed by a blind poet. I read books voraciously, but I also encounter new poetry and fiction by hearing it aloud—not just at readings but also on the radio, audio-books, recordings, and online. This changes how one conceives the medium.
What untested interarts collaborations still remain for you?
Well, first of all, I want to do more opera. Writing two libretti only scratches the surface of the medium. What I especially want to create is opera as living, surprising musical theater rather than opera as a stiff, staged oratorio. I think that means chamber opera with a small cast and orchestra where every word can be heard. I would also like to do theatrical works that incorporate poetry, music, and dance. Film would be interesting to try, but the expense of the medium makes it difficult to do with sufficient freedom. We did a number of short literary films while I was at the NEA, and they suggested some interesting possibilities. A screenwriter has taken two of my poems and developed them into short films. I’ll be interested to see if they ever get produced.
Which are you most eager to undertake?
I am most eager to work with artists I admire unreservedly. Collaboration depends upon talent—the pairing of two talents that inspire each other. Morten Lauridsen, who seems to me one of the greatest living composers, wants to create a work together. That is very exciting. Helen Sung and I are going to write a jazz song cycle. The composer William Bolcolm has suggested doing a musical setting of my narrative poem “Haunted” for a pianist and an actor. Lori Laitman is writing a song cycle using my translations of Montale’s love poems. Paul Salerni and I have sketched out a dance opera. I also have a third opera subject in mind, but it is still in the early stages. But, of course, the important thing is to keep writing poems.
You’ve just finished your fourth collection of poetry. When will it be published, and have you chosen a title?
Yes, my new book is now finished. It is called Pity the Beautiful. Graywolf Press will publish it next spring. I lost seven years as a writer by running the National Endowment for the Arts. It was an important thing to undertake for the country, but it came at a great personal price. I am a very slow and self-critical poet. I often worried I would never have another collection. I am grateful to the Muse that she didn’t desert me.
World Literature Today September/October 2011 (Volume 85, Number 5) Interview with Dana Gioia (Conducted by Michelle Johnson)