For some, nothing sounds nicer than sitting in an armchair and reading poetry while listening to soothing music. Visions and Voices attempted to provide such a night with “An Evening of Poetry and Music with Dana Gioia.”
When viewers first entered Bovard Auditorium on Tuesday night, they noticed comfy armchairs with a small table between them, foreshadowing the comforting evening planned ahead.
USC president C. L. Max Nikias introduced the guest of honor for the evening, Dana Gioia. Gioia, a Los Angeles-native, is an award-winning poet and served as the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.
Kevin Starr, a university professor and associate dean of the USC Libraries, interviewed Gioia about his experiences in the NEA and his views on poetry.
Gioia used dry wit to entertain the audience and his love of the Los Angeles area to win their respect. Despite his fame, he appeared to be like anyone else in the audience. Gioia mentioned how he got the Congress to support the NEA through sympathy and personal experience. He spoke to them just as he spoke to the audience. His down-to-earth demeanor portrayed him as a passionate man — and his passion is the arts.
Poetry has also been a strong part of Gioia’s involvement with the arts. He declared one of the reasons he stepped down from the NEA is because he had no time to write, which he greatly missed.
He even admitted he was afraid to become a teacher because he believes the classroom and students occupy the imagination and could possibly deter him from writing. He spoke ardently about poetry and culture, believing poetry to be a “primal power” and culture “renews life as we grow old.”
Gioia’s humor and personable charm shines through in his poetry, allowing the audience to fully engage in his work. Following the interview, Gioia’s vivacious personality continued to amaze viewers as he offered four captivating and casual, yet refined short poems and a narrative poem with the audience.
The majority of Gioia’s poems reflected stories from his life, such as “Cruising with the Beach Boys,” a nostalgic poem that sings the praises of Los Angeles, and “Planting a Sequoia,” a sad poem combining Gioia’s appreciation for his Sicilian traditions and remembrance of the death of his four-month-old son.
Gioia surprised audience members by reciting his poetry, with the exception of his narrative poem, by memory. Gioia said he believes poetry should come from the heart and that the main muse in art is memory.
Enabling this deep connection between poetry and the heart was the emotive music of the evening, provided by composer and pianist Morten Lauridsen, along with baritone singer Rod Gilfry.
Lauridsen composed two songs for the night, using James Agee’s poem “Sure On This Shining Night” and Gioia’s “Prayer” as the lyrics for the music. The juxtaposition of Lauridsen’s soft, slow music and Gilfry’s operatic voice combined with the dark text from both Gioia and Agee’s poems created two beautiful, yet haunting melodies.
Gioia presented two concluding poems with humor and observation. His first poem spoke of a love story between an older male and younger female, both of whom are cats, and the cat take on the relationship. A comedic flair comes to light when surprise, surprise — the young female is in heat.
By contrast, the second poem, entitled “The Lunatic, The Lover, and The Poet,” renders a more serious tone as it observes the commitment issues involved with long-term love, mesmerizing the audience with his ability to switch from the comedic to the dramatic.
The evening, in its entirety, served to encourage students to engage in the arts, to fulfill our creative potential and to experiment artistically.
In Gioia’s words, “We must have faith that we can create culture in our community.” Now we must put that faith into action.