The Huntington Acquires the Papers of Dana Gioia, Former California Poet Laureate and Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts

Published on Jun 28, 2020

Dana Gioia. Photography by Star Black.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has acquired the papers of Dana Gioia, an internationally acclaimed poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from 2003 to 2009 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2019.

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays, a Huntington Library statement said.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent – anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington, said. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author – he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne – and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

Gioia is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

Having published poems for many years while working as a businessman, Gioia exploded onto the national poetry scene in 1991 with the publication of his provocative essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic.

In the next two decades, Gioia made literary writing his life’s work and exerted great influence on contemporary culture, not only as a poet and essayist but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, opera librettist, teacher, and advocate for the arts.

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” Gioia said.

The range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, although the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant, The Huntington said. Through his work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present, scholars will be interesting to scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate, the statement continued. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century.

At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

“The papers of Dana Gioia join a long and distinguished roster of collections at The Huntington whose authors have helped shape literary history,” Sandra L. Brooke, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington, said. “This collection will provide scholars with a wealth of material to explore the cultural vitality of literature and the arts not only in California but across the nation.”

Gioia was born in Los Angeles of Italian and Mexican descent. The first person in his family to attend college, he received a BA and MBA from Stanford and an MA in Comparative Literature from Harvard. For 15 years, he worked as a businessman before quitting at 41 to become a full-time writer.

Gioia teaches each fall semester at USC where he holds the Judge Widney Chair of Poetry and Public Culture. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County.

Henry E. Huntington, who established The Huntington in 1919 with his wife Arabella, first focused on collecting literary materials, particularly in the area of poetry, and in the history and culture of English-speaking peoples. Now, these broad and deep collections are anchored on The Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and outstanding Shakespeare print holdings.

Among the exceptional Romantic poetry holdings at The Huntington are Percy Bysshe Shelley’s autograph notebooks and the illuminated books of William Blake, as well as important manuscripts by Robert Burns.

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