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Creating the Culture

Dana Gioia, poised to be the new chairman of the NEA, discusses his work in theater and opera.

Dana Gioia
The official announcement will have to wait a little longer to conform to the government's ceremonial timetables, but arts advocates across America already know who President Bush has chosen to be the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Barring a major upset, the position will be filled by Dana Gioia, a 52-year-old poet, critic, translator, anthologist, dramatist, and librettist.

Gioia (pronounced JOY-uh) is the author of three books of poetry, including the 2002 American Book Award winner Interrogations at Noon; the co-editor of four popular anthologies, among them the nation's best-selling college literature textbook, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama; a vice president of the Poetry Society of America's board of governors; a critic for San Francisco magazine; and a frequent commentator for the BBC. However, he is best known as the author of an essay published in The Atlantic Monthly a decade ago, called "Can Poetry Matter?" In it, he discussed how poetry in this country had become almost completely relegated to academia.

The son of working class Mexican and Sicilian immigrants, Gioia had been the first member of his family to attend college. But he cheerfully admits that, after earning degrees from Stanford and Harvard, he was "not in awe of contemporary academia, to put it mildly." He made that very clear in his essay, stating that "educational institutions have [created] a stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates the art...[and] imprisons poetry in an intellectual ghetto."

Not since U.S. Customs agents made a federal case over Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in 1957 had any publication prompted so much debate about the future of poetry in America. Articles attacking and defending Gioia's essay were published in The New York Times literary supplement, The New Criterion, USA Today and the Washington Post. The piece proved so popular -- and, with other readers, unpopular -- that Gioia expanded it and packaged it with other essays in a book of the same name, published the next year and republished in 2002.

Gioia's ability to provoke passionate feelings about art has served him well so far -- "The notoriety gave me the opportunity to quit my job and become a full-time writer," he acknowledges in the book's new introduction -- but he may need to keep that ability reigned in if he is to succeed at the NEA. The track records of his predecessors show how dangerous controversy can be, not only jeopardizing their place at the agency but threatening the agency itself.

The NEA: From Cold War to Culture War

When the NEA was created in 1965, its mandate to promote arts and culture was soothing to Americans jittery about foreign Cold War enemies. But by 1992, when Patrick Buchanan declared a "Culture War" from the floor of the GOP Convention, the enemies were other Americans. Art was no longer soothing, and the NEA was being assailed from both ends of the political spectrum.

John Frohnmayer, who was appointed chairman in 1989, discovered that when the agency supported art that some people considered courageous and cutting-edge, such as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," others indignantly claimed that taxpayers were being forced to pay for blasphemous obscenities. But when the NEA revoked sponsorship of artists that conservatives found particularly objectionable, Frohnmayer was accused of censorship and became the defendant in a lawsuit filed by performance artists Karen Findley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes.

The first President Bush demanded Frohnmayer's resignation in 1992 and then astounded many progressive arts advocates by naming a lesbian, Anne-Imelda Radice, as acting chair. However, any support for Radice from the gay community evaporated when she vetoed grants to gay and lesbian film festivals in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and New York City, even after those funds had already been approved. She also alienated progressives when she yanked the funding for a show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because of its sexual imagery (prompting the rock group Aerosmith and the playwright Jon Robin Baitz to contribute money to allow the show to open as planned) and testified that she would apply a "decency" criteria in reviewing future applications.

That same year, two Pulitzer Prize winners publicly refused presidential/NEA National Medals for the Arts as a way of denouncing the direction in which the agency was moving. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim declined the honor first, saying that the NEA had become "a symbol of censorship and repression rather than encouragement and support." Novelist Wallace Stegner also spurned the award, saying he was "troubled by the political controls placed upon the agency."

When President Clinton replaced Bush, he nominated Tony and Emmy Award-winning performer Jane Alexander to replace Radice. The Senate confirmed Alexander without challenge in 1993 but continued to punish the agency during her tenure by relentlessly cutting its budget. At the peak of its funding in 1992, the NEA got about $176 million, or a mere 69 cents per American resident. By 1996, Congress had cut the budget to $98 million, or about 36 cents per American. Even so, the NEA continued to underwrite endeavors in more than a dozen categories: arts education, dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, media, multidisciplinary, museums, music, musical theater, opera, theater, visual arts, and something it calls "presenting" which encompasses many theater-related endeavors.

Alexander departed in 1997 and was replaced by former Country Music Association president William Ivey in 1998. Although he had been nominated by Clinton, Ivey was successful at building bridges with conservatives and, gradually, the agency's enemies became less successful at portraying it as a Godless porn purveyor. Funding of the NEA was not restored to its former levels, but at least the bloodletting ceased and a few more dollars were made available. In 2001, the agency was allocated more than $100 million for the first time since 1978, and the budget for fiscal year 2002 was expanded even further to $115,234,000 -- nearly 40 cents per American resident.

When Ivey stepped down in 2001, many expected President Bush to nominate Roy Goodman, the former New York state senator and Ex-Lax heir. However, as one of the few progressive Republicans remaining in politics, Goodman was opposed by conservatives in his own party. The job went instead to the uncontroversial William Hammond, a 62-year-old conductor and former composer-in-residence at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Hammond took over the job on January 22, 2002 -- and died exactly one week later.

For the past year, the agency has been helmed by Eileen B. Mason, who rose to the post of acting chair from senior deputy chairman -- a position she had only held since November 2001. Perhaps out of respect for her or for the late Hammond, conservatives have lately ceased calls to eliminate the NEA. But that could change.

For Better and for Verse

In an interview with in December, Gioia politely declined to discuss any past or potential future dramas at the NEA but said he was happy to discuss dramas of a different kind -- the ones he has written. These include several musicals he created in collaboration with various composers and, working solo, a translation of Seneca's play The Madness of Hercules. Gioia was especially pleased that when the New York production of that verse play ended in 1995, company members banded together to form Verse Theatre Manhattan. Seven years later the company continues to mount verse plays, Gioia said proudly, "and this year they went on tour."

Other projects, undertaken with composer Paul Salerni, include The Old Witch and the New Moon and The Big Sword and the Little Broom, based on Italian folk tales and presented at HERE on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Gioia also wrote the words to Counting the Children, a dance theater piece presented by the Mark Ruhala Performance Group in Westchester. "It had wonderful, delicate music by Robert Lindner," Gioia said, "and although it got extended, I am very sorry that it wasn't recorded."

Gioia is now working on his most ambitious stage project, a full-length opera based on F. W. Murnau's classic vampire film Nosferatu. The music is by Alva Henderson, the composer of the operas Medea (text by Robinson Jeffers), West of Washington Square, and The Last of the Mohicans as well as a musical of Far From the Madding Crowd. Gioia has said he was impressed by the first Henderson opera he saw, The Last Leaf, because it managed to be "dramatically powerful, stylistically distinctive, but radiantly melodic [and] inherently vocal" -- in short, "the sort of new opera that isn't supposed to exist." Henderson's music is often called "neo-Romantic" and that's a perfect match for Gioia's poetic style, which is characterized by a return to rhyme and meter and is labeled "new Formalism."

Although Gioia was eager to tackle a full-length opera, he said he had one reservation at the outset: "I didn't want to spend five years writing something that would only be performed two or three times," as so often happens with new operas. After studying the few options that existed, "We came up with something I don't think has ever been done before. We decided to premiere it, aria by aria, scene by scene, in workshops across America." Henderson and Gioia presented the first segment three years ago in Macon, GA and found that the gradual unveiling worked even better than they hoped.

Nosferatu has now been presented in nearly a dozen workshops, most recently in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That production combined everything that worked in previous presentations -- "about 80% of the score, fully staged and costumed." The Rimrock Opera Company is scheduled to debut the full opera in October, 2004 in Billings, Montana, one of the cities where excerpts have been shown.

Until then, Gioia has plenty of other things to concentrate on. He will meet with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on January 7 as the first step in his appointment to the NEA. He is also working on the libretto for another project with Paul Salerni, Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast, which he merrily describes as "one-act and very weird." He is still refining his anthologies, still writing reviews and providing cultural commentary on the radio, and still involved with the Poetry Society of America. Most of all, he continues to live by a motto that, he told TheaterMania, he has shared with his colleagues for many years: "Artists need to create the cultures that they want to live in."

"Can Poetry Matter?" contains a clue to the kind of culture Gioia envisions: "It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture," he writes. "There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let's build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes."

As chairman of the NEA, Dana Gioia will be in a position to try to do exactly that. But only time will tell if he is successful.

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