In an interview with the Register, Gioia described how his Catholic faith informs his art and why beauty is vital to evangelization.This autumn, Dana Gioia, California’s poet laureate, has resumed his teaching duties as Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is currently teaching “The Art of Poetry” to undergraduates and the graduate course “Arts Leadership and Arts Entrepreneurship.” At the same time, Gioia is spreading the love of poetry across the state.
“I first fell in love with poetry as a little boy,” Gioia said. “My mother used to recite poems to me. She was a working-class Mexican-American without much education, but these poems, which she had learned in school, meant a great deal to her.”
As for his own calling, he commented, “It happened quite mysteriously, just as I turned 20. I found myself constantly reading and memorizing poems. I kept scribbling in a notebook. Nothing else gave me such pleasure. Without planning to, I had become a poet. That’s how a vocation happens: You don’t choose your calling. It chooses you.”
As California’s poet laureate, Gioia said his duties are a “few public appearances each year to celebrate and support poetry. But anyone who accepts public office, even one as humble as mine, should try to serve the public in a meaningful way.” His goal is to reach all 58 counties. Gioia gave an example of an upcoming event in Orange County: “I will read with my Vietnamese translator, who is also a poet and editor. A Vietnamese-American musician will accompany us on the bamboo flute. She will also perform Vietnamese folk songs. … It is important to bring literature beyond its small academic subculture and reach new communities. I think that is a very Catholic point of view: Everyone deserves a seat at the banquet.”
Gioia, who started the “Poetry Out Loud” competition in 2006 when he headed the National Endowment for the Arts, considers poetry to be essential to culture.