California at the Center of the Poet's Imagination
by Maggie Paul
Maggie Paul: You were raised in California, but spent a number of years as a businessman living on the east coast. What made you decide to return to California and take up writing as a full-time career?
Dana Gioia: Ten years ago I quit my business job to become a full-time writer. (Until then I wrote at night and on weekends.) Since I no longer had to live near a steady job, I had the freedom to live anywhere I want. I decided to come back to California. I had always intended to come back.
California has always been at the center of my imagination. It is the landscape I see in my mind's eye. It is odd to live here again after having spent twenty years in New York. It is also odd to be so near my family again after having lived among the executive and bohemian classes of the Northeast. But one needs to touch native ground. So here I am.
MP: In addition to writing poetry, you are well-known as an essayist, reviewer, translator, and editor. How do these other forms of writing effect your poetry? Is it difficult to keep your hand in so many different forms, or do they feed off one another?
DG: I think of myself first of all as a reader. That is the core of my identity as a writer. I have loved books--and poetry-- since childhood, and they have played a huge role in forming my life. Only then do I think of myself as a poet. That is the center of my creative identity. Finally, as a reader and a poet, I find the rest of my writing a sort of natural extension, a way of talking about the things that interest me, the art that I love. Poetic inspiration is an infrequent and intermittent thing. One writes prose to occupy the rest of the time. But the most fun is to read something wonderful.
MP: The inadequacy of language to express what it is like to live in this world is a theme that is threaded throughout the book. Yet, as a writer, you continue to try. What is your impetus for writing poetry? What satisfaction is derived from practicing this ancient art?
DG: Words are imperfect, but they are all we have as writers. And they work well enough in the right hands to do the job. Part of poetry's job is to make language work better than it does in everyday conversation or writing. That is why poetry is so hard to write well.
MP: One of the recurring themes in your new book, Interrogations at Noon, is stated in the poem, "Corner Table," which reads, "what matters most/most often can't be said." You seem to imply that the things we don't say, the things we don't act upon, play as important a role in our lives as those that we do. Can you comment on this perspective?
DG: In the past ten years, I have come to the conclusion that what one leaves out of a poem is nearly as important as what one includes. The same is true of speech. What we imply is an essential part of what we communicate. The decision not to say something that is hanging in the air between two people is sometimes the most essential element of their meeting.
There is a second part of this issue--less personal and more academic. My work has always tried to address the narrow-minded post-modernist view that language is a self-contained system of signs that has no direct relation to reality. Like all half-truths, this idea seems plausible until you really think about it. My recent poems have tried to acknowledge the shortcomings of language without pretending that it is useless to get at truth. Language remains the best means we have to articulate our experience not only to each other but even to ourselves.
MP: In your poem "The Lost Garden," the speaker asks, "What if we had walked a different path one day,/would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere?" These are questions I think we all ask ourselves. Do you believe in fate?
DG: Yes, I believe in fate. I have lived long enough to see it operate. It is a typically American delusion to imagine that we control our own lives. I believe in Seneca's advice, "If you resist your fate, it will drag you behind it. If you follow it, fate will guide you."