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From Food Executive to Art Steward

New NEA head developed passion for arts during Harvard studies

By Jannie S. Tsuei, Contributing Writer

The road from food industry executive to national arts booster is not a path well-traveled. But it is the path of Dana Gioia, a former General Foods vice president, Harvard alum, poet and newly appointed chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Gioia’s turn to the arts wasn’t completely out of the blue. The first person in his family to attend college, the native Californian came to Harvard and received his masters in comparative literature before returning to his alma mater, Stanford University for a business degree.

During his fifteen-year business career, Gioia wrote on his own time. And in 1992, he left the corporate world to write full time. He numbers among his many literary accomplishments three books of poetry—one of them an American Book Award winner—and the book of literary criticism Can Poetry Matter? named for his Atlantic Monthly essay which stimulated much discussion on the role of poetry in the modern world. Gioia also leads several poetry conferences and is a commentator for BBC Radio.

Gioia describes studying at Harvard as “the most interesting academic experience of my life.” While in the comparative literature department, Gioia studied with Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop.

“They played a decisive role in discovering myself as a poet,” Gioia writes in an e-mail. “They also provided me with models of how a poet might lead a life—both inside and outside the academy.”

During his time at Harvard, Gioia studied a great deal of poetry, including Virgil’s Aeneid, which has become his favorite long poem. Before coming to Harvard, he had read the poem twice in the original Latin, but it was rereading the poem in Fitzgerald’s course on narrative poetry that “opened up its astonishing verbal beauty and human resonance” to Gioia, who attributes his love for the poem to his Italian and Mexican background.

This cultural background, Gioia says, informs his sense of personal identity—a sense that his time at Harvard helped to cement.

A self-described “working-class scholarship kid from California,” Gioia found the Harvard of the 1970s to be a place very much “steeped in wealth, privilege, and tradition.” His immersion in this foreign environment gave him a stronger “sense of self as a working class, Latin, Catholic intellectual.”

When Gioia finished school and began a business career in New York, he was faced with finding time to write outside of his eleven-hour work day.

But he continued writing throughout his fifteen years in the business world, and in fact says he enjoyed the liberation that his corporate career gave him as a writer.

“Working in business allowed me to remove myself from the dictates of academic culture and secure the freedom to write in my own way,” he says.

Gioia also credits his business experience with fortifying his conviction that poetry should not be solely the province of academics and intellectuals.

“The business world reminded me that poetry isn’t written for professors,” he says.

Gioia’s concern with broadening the range of poetry’s readership in this era is informing his major goals as he begins his tenure as NEA Chairman.

In addition to rebuilding the NEA as a premier public institution through which he can “provide leadership in building a national consensus to support arts and arts education,” Gioia says he hopes to establish what he calls “democratic access” to art as a worthy goal compatible with that of artistic excellence.

Gioia’s determination to make art relevant to the ordinary Joe will persist even in the face of the latter’s indifference.

As Gioia writes, poetry “must be created for ordinary people, even if they don’t yet care about it.”

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