"If Any Fire Endures beyond Its Flame": An Interview with Dana Gioia

By Snyder, Robert Lance | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

"If Any Fire Endures beyond Its Flame": An Interview with Dana Gioia


Snyder, Robert Lance, Christianity and Literature


Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since 2003, has been noted for his work as a poet, critic, and anthologist. He has published three volumes of poetry, and his poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. His 1991 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "Can Poetry Matter?," is often viewed as one of the most influential literary essays in recent history, and his critical collection, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Award in Criticism.

Gioia was born in Los Angeles in 1950 and earned B.A. and M.B.A degrees from Stanford University as well as an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. He worked for 15 years as a business executive, eventually serving as a vice president at General Foods. In 1992 Gioia left the business world to become a full-time writer.

The following interview was conducted by Robert Lance Snyder, editor of Christianity and Literature from 1989 to 2004.

INTERVIEWER'S NOTE: During February 2002, while teaching Interrogations at Noon in an upper-division course titled "Studies in Genre: Poetry," I first corresponded with Dana Gioia regarding his third collection of poems, which subsequently won an American Book Award. In response to my letter, Mr. Gioia graciously forwarded various materials on his career and poetry. A few months later we discussed the possibility o fan interview for Christianity and Literature. I had thought that this project might be undertaken at the CCL Southeastern Regional Meeting held at Mercer University in April 2003, where Mr. Gioia delivered the keynote address, but before that meeting his confirmation as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts escalated immeasurably his responsibilities and commitments. Over the next eighteen months other circumstances arose to render a face-to-face interview extremely difficult. Accordingly, by mid-2005 I sent Mr. Gioia a series of questions that we collaborated on refining in light of his responses. Several redactions later the exchange assumed its present form. I am immensely grateful to Mr. Gioia for his patience throughout this process and especially for his characteristic generosity in permitting Christianity and Literature to reprint eight of his poems in this issue in conjunction with the interview.

RLS: In God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable (2002), Paul Mariani quotes the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens's "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour":

   Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
   We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
   A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

   Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
   We say God and the imagination are one ...
   How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Mariani states that the passage indicates this poet's "self-humbling before the Sublime," but he also points out how shiftily evasive is the modernist qualifier "We say" in the line: "We say God and the imagination are one" (246). How do you construe Stevens here? Are God and the imagination one?

DG: Stevens's splendid "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" is one of his last poems, written after a lifetime of meditation on the problematic meaning of existence in a world without God. Stevens tried to posit the human imagination as an adequate substitute for divinity. He developed a complex and subtle worldview in which all values were created by the human imagination.

On his deathbed, however, Stevens reportedly asked the hospital chaplain to baptize him into the Catholic Church. Once you start to ponder that spiritual decision in the face of death--which is at once both extraordinary and commonplace--you notice that Stevens's late poetry is saturated with his longing for faith in some transcendent reality. I would, therefore, interpret Stevens's famous line in light of his own spiritual journey. …

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