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Poet-in-chief

Once, Dana Gioia sold Jell-O. And he wrote poetry. Now, he’s got a high-profile job that demands both skill sets.

For 15 years, Dana Gioia was a man whose heart was pulled in two directions. As he rose through the marketing ranks at General Foods, resurrecting the Jell-O brand and ultimately reaching the position of vice-president, he also was writing serious poetry. His first collection was published in 1986, and in 1991, when his controversial essay “Can Poetry Matter?” ran in The Atlantic Monthly — the essay argued that current poetry, trapped in the “intellectual ghetto” of academia, needed to have its “vulgar vitality” restored and made available to all — it elicited 400 letters from readers and a flurry of media attention.

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In 1992, Gioia (pronounced “Joy-uh”) decided to leave General Foods and focus on writing full-time: on poetry, of course, and also on textbook-editing, translations, and even opera libretti. Yet at no point has Gioia been an apologist for his corporate ties, and he speaks proudly of his Stanford MBA and the years with General Foods. And now, at the age of 54, he find himself in a job that draws equally on both skill sets: In 2002, he was appointed by President Bush to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s a position for which Gioia is uniquely suited. “This is the only job I’ve ever had in which in the average week I use pretty much everything I know,” he says. “Sometimes the discussion hinges on points of aesthetic or scholarly information, sometimes on politics or finance. This morning I met with an author and musician in the morning, then with the minority leader of the Senate, then with the ambassador to Malta. And then,” Gioia is smiling now, “I handled the most burning political issue, which was the physical move into new office space where people are fighting over windows and cubicles.”

Upon his arrival in Washington, Gioia charged himself and his 160 employees with nothing less than the re-branding of a faltering government agency. Created in 1965 by Congress, the NEA had come under criticism during the so-called culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and, as Gioia puts it, the organization’s once self-evident importance was no longer quite so self-evident. “The enormous public value represented by the NEA needed to be communicated with words and embodied in programs,” Gioia says. “I thought it would be a grand thing, as my Irish priest used to say, if you could make the Endowment work according to its original vision and rebuild the public consensus out of which it was created.”

Guided by a belief that “art without an audience is a diminished thing,” Gioia has aimed to extend the NEA’s reach as far as possible. Inside the Beltway, this has meant corralling bipartisan support for an institution not universally beloved by Republicans. Yet Gioia, himself a Republican, managed to win a $10 million increase in the NEA’s budget, to $131 million.

He also has targeted new audiences by establishing five new “National Initiatives.” Perhaps the most popular is “Operation Homecoming,” which offers writing workshops taught by established authors to U.S. troops and their families; the idea is to get down on paper, for reasons both cathartic and historic, unmediated individual experiences. “It struck me as a missed opportunity that in 38 years, the NEA had never done a program for the military,” Gioia says. Other initiatives include “NEA Jazz Masters” which honors jazz artists and sponsors tours, and “Shakespeare in American Communities,” which sends professional theater companies around the country to perform for schools and military bases.

Driving all these programs is the notion that good art (and Gioia, who describes himself as a “populist elitist,” is under no illusion that all art is good) allows us to see the world in new ways — including from the perspective of those unlike ourselves — and increases our empathy. And if not everyone can or will come to art, it logically follows, then art ought to go to everyone. “Those people who need the arts the most are the ones going through enormously challenging and threatening circumstances,” Gioia says.

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The initiatives are working, arguably, precisely because Gioia’s two personas mutually reinforce each other — just as they did in the business realm. “With each promotion at General Foods,” he recalls, “I found that my background in the arts and humanities was more relevant. The higher you get in a corporation the more you’re dealing with qualitative issues. By the time I was in senior management, I was very effective in rebuilding businesses and creating new businesses because I had good creative judgment — I had kept parts of myself alive that most business executives did not.”

While it might seem extreme to credit Gioia with single-handedly turning around the NEA, the extent of his involvement is undeniable. He works seven days a week, often attending evening functions. One night not long ago found him at Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library, at the regional finals of an NEA-sponsored national poetry recitation contest for high school students. Endearingly gawky teenagers dressed in their best clothes stood on stage interpreting works by Langston Hughes and Lewis Carroll, and Gioia’s presence — in person, he comes off as elegantly erudite without being stuffy — affirmed that they were doing something important. Gioia himself spontaneously recited Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”; he estimates he has memorized “a couple hundred poems.”

So strong is Gioia’s love of language that he insists on writing everything that appears over his name, which he admits is both an annoyance to his staff and a breach of protocol in Washington. Yet, inconvenient as it might be for those around him, this passion is part of what gives him credibility: How many bureaucrats stay up regularly until four in the morning reading novels? “I have not slept since I arrived in Washington two and a half years ago,” Gioia jokes.

In fact, what he really hasn’t done is work on his own poetry and other creative writing — which is why he says he won’t stay in D.C. for very long. (Gioia turned down the job when it was first offered, happy with his family in northern California and protective of his time as a writer.) In the mean time, he’s motivated by the knowledge that his work matters — that in ways both pragmatic and less so, art matters. “The arts,” Gioia says, “are ways of knowing the world and becoming fully human.”