Dana Gioia on Exploring Lyrical Forms in “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” [INTERVIEW]

Dana Gioia is the former Poet Laureate of California. An internationally recognized poet and critic, he is the author of seven collections of verse, including Interrogations at Noon (2001), which won the American Book Award, and 99 Poems: New & Selected (2016), which won the Poets’ Prize for the best new poetry volume of the year. His critical collections include Can Poetry Matter? (1992), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award, and Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life (2022). His poems have been set to music by numerous composers, including Morten Lauridsen, Ned Rorem, Lori Laitman, and Dave Brubeck. Gioia has also written four opera libretti and edited twenty literary anthologies.

James Morehead interviewed Dana for the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to discuss his latest collection “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” (Graywolf Press, 2023). Below is an edited excerpt from the full interview (which also includes Dana reciting selected poems.)

James Morehead: You had a book launch event at Arion Press, a publisher of hand-made, limited-edition books. Publishing has changed dramatically since the days of books printed by letterpress and bound by hand. Poetry is published online, books are digitally printed and self-published. How have these inevitable advancements in technology helped poetry and hurt poetry?

Dana Gioia: “Poetry is in a very good place at the moment. English Departments are declining, certain kinds of reading are declining, but the art of poetry remains lively. Although many people believe that poetry is declining, it’s actually growing. This is because poetry, at its core, is an oral and performative medium that naturally fits into electronic culture. Poetry developed before the invention of writing. It grew out of speech, not the alphabet.

“Fifty years ago when I started as a poet, I thought of the art primarily as a written medium, something published in books and magazines. If you were well-known, you might be invited to give a poetry reading at a college campus. However, my personal experience was at odds with that theory: I had mostly experienced poetry as a musical art, closely related to song. Poetry was akin to song. In the ancient world poetry and song were the same art. 

“I realized early on that it was this aspect that I wanted to focus on – creating poems that were meant to be read and heard out loud. They needed to work on the printed page, but they needed to be spoken and heard to reveal their full power.

“Now, the culture has caught up with me. I still reach readers by publishing poems in magazines and books, and my books tend to go into multiple printings. But that’s only a small part of how I reach an audience. Most of my ‘readers’ hear my work in-person or on a recording. 

“I recite my poems in various public venues such as libraries, jazz clubs, public ceremonies, cafes, bars, churches, concert halls, and college campuses. Recordings of my readings are found all over the internet. I am heard in podcasts and on radio shows. I even have my own YouTube channel to share my poems and talks. Who would have predicted such a thing when I started writing? The combination of all these media and venues–many of which didn’t exist fifty years ago–reach a huge audience. I have a large audience that has never seen my work in a book.

“The new electronic media has been a boon for poetry because it’s focused on speech. Podcasts, radio, and Zoom have all become platforms where poetry can thrive. These are not great platforms for fiction. When was the last time you heard a novel via Zoom? Poetry easily accommodates these platforms. It moves as easily as music from medium to medium since it is an art that elevates speech to the level of song. It’s a good time to be a poet.”

James: I completely agree. As Poet Laureate for Dublin, California, I’ve had several opportunities to participate in events where you wouldn’t naturally think poetry would fit. For example, we’ve held poetry open mics at a local pizza place. At one event, we had 15 poets ranging from an 8-year-old reciting in public for the first time to an 80-year-old man who had written his whole life but never shared his work publicly. This experience showed me that poetry is not dead. There are so many people who enjoy and create poetry, far more than the media perceives.

Dana: “It’s true that anyone who wants to participate in public performances can do so, given the availability of open mics, clubs, and other venues. The country is awash in poetry. It is the fastest-growing art form in the United States, expanding among every age group, race, gender, and education level. This is not just my personal opinion. These statistics come from the National Endowment for the Arts survey on arts participation, the largest survey of its kind in the world.

“However, it’s also true that English departments are struggling. Fifty years ago I saw the beginning of this decline, as the academic sense of literature became disconnected from ordinary people, even from bright undergraduates. English departments grew more ideological, pre-professional, and narrow in scope. They took the joy out of the subject. Students now pursue other fields. There’s not enough excitement in most English departments to draw them in. That trend is disappointing for me. I loved my teachers and education.”

James: During your tenure as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–2009) the national arts education program “Poetry Out Loud” was launched. In my role as Dublin’s Poet Laureate I’m bringing the program back to Dublin High School next year. What role can schools play in helping students connect with and appreciate poetry?

Dana: “The ‘Poetry Out Loud’ program has significantly impacted the appreciation of poetry among young people. Around six million students have participated. The program not only engaged the students themselves but also their parents, teachers, and classmates. We’ve managed to reintroduce poetry into teenage culture. As this cohort has aged, we’ve seen the number of poetry readers in the 18-25 and 26-30 age groups double over the last decade. It’s not coincidental that the growth in poetry’s audience is contemporaneous with the program’s emergence.

“Schools play a crucial role in helping students connect with and appreciate poetry. Your efforts as Dublin’s Poet Laureate in bringing ‘Poetry Out Loud’ back to Dublin High School have a more significant impact on the American poetic audience than many more sophisticated and well-known organizations. This grassroots approach is essential in cultivating an appreciation for poetry.

“Additionally, as a Poet Laureate, you hold a civic office, which speaks to the idea that poetry has a civic role in society. The poet’s ability to create clear, memorable, and evocative speech serves a vital function in public life.”

James: As Poet Laureate, I’ve found opportunities to incorporate poetry into various events because it can be done in a short amount of time. For example, I recently suggested presenting a poem at a volunteer recognition event. It took only two minutes and was well received. It’s very easy, logistically, to insert poetry into just about anything.

Dana: “Five or six years ago, I received an invitation to speak at the Presidio in San Francisco on Memorial Day in the veterans’ cemetery. Thirty thousand veterans are buried there. I was puzzled by the invitation, but I attended. I found myself among notable figures like Nancy Pelosi and the mayor of San Francisco. We spoke to an enormous audience, many of whom had lost loved ones in American wars. It was a solemn occasion.

“They asked me to read two poems, and the audience loved it. They approached me afterward, expressing their appreciation. There’s a civic wisdom in summoning poetry to memorialize the dead. A good poem is like a magic spell that evokes memories and emotions from the listeners, helping them feel closer to their departed loved ones. Poetry serves an essential role in these poignant moments.”

James: “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” employs many different forms. I’d like to focus on “The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz”, a long poem with rhyme and meter, and straightforward language. The poem’s narrative drives steadily forward and wants to be read out loud. It reminded me of Rocky Raccoon by The Beatles. A short excerpt:

"Three thousand head of cattle
Grazing the prairie grass,
Three thousand head of cattle
Pushed through each mountain pass.
Three thousand head of cattle
Fording the muddy streams,
And then three thousand phantoms
Bellowing in your dreams."

Share the origin story of this poem, and why you chose the ballad form. 

Dana: “My great-grandfather was a vaquero, a Mexican cowboy. He was killed in a bar in Lost Cabin, Wyoming, when a man who couldn’t pay his bill shot him after being cut off by my great-grandfather, who was tending bar during the winter. I heard this story as a child from my grandfather, who had also been a cowboy in his younger days. Later, when I was chairman of the NEA, I received all the documents related to my great-grandfather’s murder, trial of his murderer, which made the story real to me.

“I wanted to write a poem but struggled to find the right form. My early attempts felt too literary, and I abandoned them. One day some lines came to me, and I realized they were ballad meter. Initially I felt embarrassed. ‘Literary’ poets are no longer supposed to write ballads, but I understood why this form made sense. What the Muse was telling me was that if I was going to write about the death of a poor Mexican cowboy, the poem should be accessible to the people I described. I wasn’t writing for college professors. I was writing for the people I came from–the working poor and immigrants. 

“I’ve read this poem to agricultural workers and inner-city residents, and whenever my audience is largely Hispanic, they respond deeply because they recognize it as their story. The ballad form makes it familiar to them, drawing from Mexican corridos, pop music, country western music, and folk ballads. I’ve given the story a medium that resonates with English-speaking audiences.The ballad is how poor people traditionally shared their stories”

James: You make a key point about not discarding a form simply because it’s not in vogue or for any other reason. I wrote a poem about a powerful experience I had visiting Normandy that I initially wrote in a very formal structure. It wasn’t working, so I converted it into a prose poem in the form of a screenplay with nine scenes, and then it came to life. How important is finding the right form for a poem?

Dana: “The form you choose for prose or poetry determines much of the content. If you get the wrong form, the content won’t come through. Form and content are two sides of the same thing, two different perspectives on what you’re trying to convey. In my case, I didn’t know in advance what form my poem about Jesús Ortiz would take, but when it came in the rhythm or a ballad, I recognized that it was how the material had to be presented.

“Folk ballads, for instance, are very cinematic. They don’t editorialize; they simply show the events. Ballads were like movies before movies existed. The singer is usually very distanced from the story, only occasionally interjecting his or her own perspective. The power of the ballad lies in trusting the story. Some truths can only be conveyed as stories.”

James: In “The Underworld”, a wonderful series of poems that closes the collection, you write:


How calm you are. With such urbane composure
You notice that the woman next to you
Has turned to stone. Strange, but she now seems more 
Beautiful in her alabaster skin, 
So delicately weathered by the years.
No sudden Gorgon-gaze arrested her.
She drew this slow perfection from within."

This series of poems is rich with references, in this case allusions to Greek mythology. Throughout this collection you manage to infuse literary references while creating poems that don’t completely rely on readers being educated in those references. How do you think about creating poetry that can appeal on multiple levels?

Dana: “I believe that a poet should never condescend to his or her readers. People are intelligent, they have life experiences, they have an alertness to their own existence, and a poem should speak to the best part of a person, awakening the smartest things in them. Some academic poets believe that poems should be complex verbal mediums that require training to decode, but I’ve never accepted that. Shakespeare’s poetry, for example, could be appreciated by people from all walks of life without excluding anyone or constantly reminding them of his brilliance. A soldier and a scholar could sit in the same audience and get something.

“A poet’s goal should be to engage the reader’s attention, imagination, and emotions. When this is achieved, readers don’t need to understand everything; they can still love and appreciate the poem. People can love Bob Dylan but not know what all the words mean. I try to write poems that simultaneously engage a broad audience and offer depth for fellow poets to recognize their craftsmanship. It’s a mistake to prioritize the second audience and lose sight of the broader appeal. Robert Frost is a perfect example. When you reread his poems they often mean something different than the first time you read them.

“I aim to create poems that are accessible but inexhaustible upon rereading. A poem should offer something on the surface that arrests the reader’s attention through sound, images, story, and emotions, while also containing hidden correspondences and harmonies that reveal themselves over time.”

James: After my first read of “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” I sought out your collaboration with jazz pianist Helen Sung. The book includes three poems that are lyrics in Sung’s pieces, as well as poems you recite on her album, such as the title poem. How was your approach to form influenced by creating lyrics for songs? 

Dana: “I’ve collaborated with many musicians and have written four operas, even agreeing to write another opera libretto recently for Kansas City Lyric Opera. Working with composers has taught me essential lessons about writing for music. First, you need to keep the surface of the text clear, avoiding excessive density. When writing lyrics, you must create a finished poem that leaves room for the composer to enhance it. The composer is going to change the poem into something richer and different.

“Second, consider that someone else will perform your words. Write lyrics that help the performer understand their character, motivation, and context. Great pop songs often establish the singer’s location and emotions, making it relatable to the performer and the audience.

“Lastly, focus on expressing emotions and personality in a relatively direct way. Be lyric. Use rhyme and meter to create a song-like quality. There’s a reason that songs rhyme, rhymes have a unique impact on listeners, making them stop and think about the words. While I don’t always rhyme in my literary poems, I almost always use rhyme—regularly or irregularly—when writing lyrics.”

James: You’ve also created the libretti for several operas, and included in this collection is your poem “The Treasure Song” from the children’s opera in one-act, “Three Feathers”. I’m looking forward to seeing the Solo Opera production this Fall. How do you approach the challenge of writing for opera, arguably the most complex of all art forms? 

Dana: “A good opera has good lyrics. Writing for opera requires a good understanding of lyrics, but it’s also about effectively conveying a story within a limited number of scenes. In a tragic opera, you have to compress the plot and focus on the emotional arcs within each scene. In a tragic opera, for example, you’re trying to tell a story of life and death importance, and the life experience of multiple characters, in just a few scenes. It’s crucial to maintain a balance between creating lyrics that are transparent enough for the composer and clear enough for the audience to understand.

“Movies take a novel and compress it into twenty scenes, in opera you are compressing a story into four, five, or six scenes. You can’t talk too much in an opera, you can’t be too wordy. You have, maybe, twelve lines to set up a major scene versus forty pages in a novel. ‘La bohème’ goes from characters freezing and unable to pay their rent, to transfiguring love, in a few scenes. That’s what opera is.

“Collaborating with composers is an essential aspect of writing for opera, sketching out the plot. Although many composers may not have strong literary judgment, and they’ll hate me for saying that, it’s important to work closely with them to ensure the opera has believable characters and high-quality lyrics. I find I need to be very domineering in the beginning, and very easy going at the end. An opera should have lyrics at least as good as a bad musical. Look at the words in Puccini – they’re brilliant. I think good lyrics invite good music, and both are vital elements of a successful opera.

“Another challenge when writing for opera is considering that the audience may not hear every word the singers perform. Therefore, it’s necessary to create a text that can be understood even if some words are missed. Overall, writing for opera involves a unique set of skills, including understanding the emotional arcs within scenes, collaborating with composers, and crafting lyrics that can be understood despite potential limitations in performance.”

James: The introduction of supertitles in many opera companies has helped bring the words back into people’s awareness and engage the audience more, despite the potential for distraction. I know from talking to my father that it has made a significant difference.

Dana: “Singers and directors might dislike supertitles because people tend to look away from the stage, but I believe it helps the audience understand what’s happening. When I’m involved in a production with supertitles, I attend a private dress rehearsal to ensure the lines are timed correctly and presented as poetry. People might complain, but when they see how much more the audience laughs or engages with the opera, they appreciate the effort. Taking this extra step makes the opera 50% more effective, unless the lyrics are really bad, in which case it might not help as much.”

James: The shortest poem in “Meet Me at the Lighthouse”, Epitaph, simply states:

"Here lies D.G. A poet? Who can say?
He didn't even have an MFA."

In your 1991 Atlantic essay “Can Poetry Matter?” you argued, in part, that poetry had become too insular, poets writing for other poets, publishing less about reaching the general public and more about reaching other poets. 

How has your view changed, if it has, in the three decades since you wrote that article, and I’m thinking in particular about the impact of the internet, poets finding an audience on social media, and the ability of poets to self-publish their books?

Dana: “I’m sad to say that much of what I said in ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ remains true, and the academic environment for poetry has worsened. English departments are shrinking and losing touch with the lives of most people, too remote from the culture of the moment, focusing too much on language and terminology. However, I had hoped for a revival of poetry outside the classroom. I use the notion of a fire-spangled phoenix, that out of the ashes of the decline you’d have a revival. In my essay ‘Disappearing Ink,’ I predicted and noticed the first signs of a popular poetry culture emerging, with movements like hip-hop, cowboy poetry, poetry slams, and New Formalism. As the academic culture declines, a new popular poetry culture has emerged, reaching non-academic audiences. You are a part of that as a poet laureate, presenting poems at unacademic occasions. We’ve seen an immense revival of poetry among the very people once thought to be lost to the art form. Why? Because they hunger for the memorable power of language to describe their own experiences.”

James: Your book includes a series of Psalms for Los Angeles. The poems both capture what makes the City of Angels unique, and critique’s its challenges. In “Psalm of the Heights” you write:

"Move away, if you wish, to the white Sierras,
Or huddle in the smoky canyons of Manhattan.
You'll miss the juvenescent rapture of LA
Where ecstasy cohabits with despair,
Lascivious and fitful as a pair of lovers.
Let someone else play grown-up."

Share how you approached writing these series of poems, the incorporation of Easter eggs for Los Angeles locals to recognize and enjoy, and capturing the essence of a city in poetry.

Dana: “I was born and raised in LA, as was my wife. She was from the nice neighborhood, and I was from a rough neighborhood. My hometown, Hawthorne, California, is where the Beach Boys were from, where Marilyn Monroe went to primary school (with my mother for one year). It had a main street that was torn down to build a mall, which went bankrupt almost immediately. The mall’s primary purpose was political graft. Its ruined shell was recently voted by one architectural committee as the ugliest building in America. 

Whenever I’m in Los Angeles I return to my old neighborhood. There’s nothing much left, but the apartment I grew up in is still there. So much had been destroyed that I was so deeply upset. That pain and anger inspired me to write ‘Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles.” 

That poem, in turn, generated the others in the series. The poems aim to capture the complexities and contradictions of Los Angeles, both celebrating and critiquing the city.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Dana recite “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles”]

James: It’s wonderful to hear you read your poetry. I don’t think any other form could capture so much emotion in such a distinct way. An essay about the rise and fall of a neighborhood wouldn’t have the same impact, and you can convey in a couple of minutes what would take someone 20-30 minutes to read in an essay.

Dana: “Poetry can compress and convey meaning more quickly than prose. The music of language can create emotional resonance through echoes and prophetic language. You do it through allusion. ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ from Psalm 137 becomes, ‘If I forget you, Los Angeles.’

“Having written my angry denunciation, ‘Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles,’ I was finally able to write a poem about the weird beauty of Los Angeles called ‘Psalm of the Heights.’ This poem has resonated with many people who have shared their experiences with me. Poetry allows the reader to bring their whole life into the poem, and it’s important to honor their experiences.

“I thought I would only write those two poems, but then a third poem arrived unexpectedly. It’s about the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Los Angeles. ‘Psalm to Our Lady Queen of Angels’ explores what it means to have a city created by poor people, for poor people. And it tells how LA’s origins have been forgotten. The final sequence consists of a poem of prophecy, a poem of praise, and a poem of vision. I was surprised by the whole process, but that’s what the Muse does.”

James: In your book “99 Poems”, I was drawn to the Stories, a series of long narratives, “Homecoming” and “Style” were striking and unsettling. With so many poets exclusively, and arguably narcissistically, crafting poems from their personal experiences, what advice do you have for crafting imagined poems? 

Dana: “First of all, telling stories is a fundamental aspect of poetry. Poetry has been telling stories since before novels, movies, or plays existed. Poetry was invented to tell stories that are worth remembering. Anyone who says that narrative poetry goes against the concept of poetry, knows nothing about poetry. It’s the stupidest thing to say. Sometimes you need a graduate degree to say something truly stupid. When telling a story in a poem, it should be done differently than in prose. It needs to be more concise and more evocative. Treat it almost like an opera with emotional peaks and concise exposition.

“A narrative poem should have a balance between exposition and emotional language, never making the language prosaic. The exposition should be ‘Haiku-like’ in its brevity, to let the emotions run. For example, the “Homecoming” poem is almost like a full novel told in 15 pages, keeping the reader engaged throughout. It works as a story but has the velocity and intensity unique to poetry, different from prose fiction. The BBC recorded and broadcast it on their fiction show. It’s important to strike that balance when crafting imagined poems.”

James: I’ve found that with someone like Michael Ondaatje, who’s a novelist and poet, you can tell he has incredible skills as a poet because his novels are much more compact and dense. It seems like he worries about each word more than some other writers, like Stephen King, for example.

Dana: “It’s interesting to consider the types of stories we find compelling. If I offer you a choice between hearing what happened to me today or something that I heard about the guy down the street, you will probably choose the second story because it’s likely to be more interesting. Many poets focus mostly on themselves. While their lives may be rich and wonderful, they might not be as interesting as the experiences of other people or even imaginary characters. In my narrative poems, I include deeply personal and autobiographical elements, but I frame them within a story that has significance beyond the merely personal.”

The full interview including poems recited by Dana Gioia is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Reviews of “Meet Me at the Lighthouse”:

Gioia was born in Los Angeles in 1950. He is of Italian and Mexican descent. He was the first person in his family to attend college earning degrees from Stanford and Harvard. He worked in business for fifteen years, writing at nights and weekends, before quitting in 1992 to write full time.

Gioia served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 where he created major national programs such as The Big Read and Poetry Out Loud. He has been awarded eleven honorary doctorates and many honors, including the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame, the Presidential Civilian Medal, the Poet’s Prize, the Walt Whitman Champion of Literary Award, and the Aiken-Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. For nine served as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California teaching literature and music before retiring in 2019 to return to full-time writing.

Gioia is married with three sons, one of them deceased. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County, California.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑