California Poet Favored to Lead Arts Agency

Times Staff Writer

California poet and arts critic Dana Gioia, who describes himself as a “working-class kid from L.A.,” is President Bush’s intended nominee for chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the White House announced Wednesday.

If the anticipated nomination is confirmed by the Senate, Gioia, a 51-year-old Santa Rosan, would be the first poet to head the federal agency, said NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter. The agency has been run by an acting chairman since January, when Bush appointee Michael P. Hammond died one week into the job.

With the nomination pending, Gioia (pronounced JOY-a) declined to comment, except to say in a telephone interview: “I’m delighted and honored. I consider the National Endowment for the Arts an absolutely invaluable American institution. If confirmed by the Senate, I will be proud to do my best to lead it.... It would be inappropriate to talk about the NEA or government arts policy at this point. When Sen. [Edward M.] Kennedy asks me questions, I’ll be happy to give him my ideas.”

A cultural commentator for BBC Radio and classical music critic for San Francisco magazine, Gioia is best known for his provocative 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Can Poetry Matter?” The essay, in which he declared that poetry was no longer a cultural force in the country and was the province of only an insular group of poets, gave him the reputation as a provocateur in some circles -- “I am the most widely attacked poet of my generation,” he acknowledged to The Times last year -- and a visionary in others.


Gioia’s nomination was hailed by eminent literary figures such as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Wilbur, a former U.S. poet laureate. Wilbur noted that Gioia is not a “vague, fuzzy-eyed poet,” but a former vice president of General Foods and founder and co-director of West Chester University’s Summer Conference on Form and Narrative in Pennsylvania, the nation’s largest annual all-poetry writing conference.

“It seems to me that Dana Gioia is about the most qualified person around for the job, and I think he’ll do it beautifully,” Wilbur said. Gioia, a father of two, said he is a Republican, but “a very unpolitical person.”

“I’m a writer, an artist and intellectual. I’ve never been involved in politics,” he said.

He grew up in Hawthorne and often speaks about the importance of writing with a California voice. The son of an Italian American cabdriver father and a Mexican American mother, he said he has had a lifelong and wide interest in the cultural and literary arts. “My poor dad used to work six days a week,” Gioia said. “I would convince him after working 12 hours to drive me to UCLA so I could see a screening of Fritz Lang or hear a talk, or have my mother and dad drive me to a museum to a Matisse show.”


He and his wife, Mary Hiecke Gioia, regularly attend theater, opera and ballet productions.

He has an MBA from Stanford and a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard. His controversial Atlantic essay also spun off a book of the same name, “Can Poetry Matter?” a collection of essays on poetry and American culture.

His nomination for the four-year term would be subject to confirmation by the Senate, which is not expected to consider it until next year.

The nomination first would be considered by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which will be chaired by Kennedy (D-Mass.) if Democrats retain Senate control in the Nov. 5 elections.


James Manley, a Kennedy spokesman, said the senator “needs to sit down and talk to Mr. Gioia about what kind of role he sees this agency having in promoting culture and the arts in this country.”

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the NEA gave grants to several artists who worked with sexually explicit themes, including Robert Mapplethorpe, and what was soon called the “culture wars” pitted these artists against conservative and religious leaders.


Times staff writers Scott Timberg, Janet Hook and Thomas Curwen contributed to this report.