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My Daily Read: Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a professor of poetry and public culture at the University of Southern California.

Q. What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

A. I’m a sad and solitary thing in the morning until I’ve had a mug of strong coffee. I resume human shape while reading The Washington Post, which gets thinner each year. (If I’m in L.A., I read The Los Angeles Times.) On Sundays I read both the Post and The New York Times. I still miss the great Sunday book sections that the Post and L.A. Times once had.

Q. What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly?  What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

A. I  usually read  two or three newspapers every day—first the local one (either The  Washington Post or L.A. Times) then later in the day The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. On Saturdays I also read Barron’s. In Washington I pick up The Onion and Politico on the street to read on the Metro.

I subscribe to so many magazines that it’s embarrassing to list them all. A partial list would include: The Economist, Atlantic, New Yorker, New Criterion, Vanity Fair, Hudson Review, Apollo, Fanfare, Value Line, Poetry, Italian Americana, Belles Lettres, Fine Books & Collecting, Image, Dark Horse, and Smithsonian.

I also love to haunt newsstands and bookstores where I buy most issues of The New Republic, Commentary, Raritan, American Scholar, First Things, Weekly Standard, TLS, New York Review of Books, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and music magazines such as Gramophone, Opera News, American Record Guide, and Jazz Times. It’s getting harder to find places that sell these journals, even in major cities.

I read all of these journals in print. I read almost nothing online except for links on Yahoo’s homepage and a few specialized sites such as Contemporary Poetry Review and Poetry Daily. I subscribe to Vanity Fair mostly to read my friend Christopher Hitchens, but I find the stench of the perfume ads so unbearable that I should probably switch to reading him online.

Q: What books have you recently read?  Do they stand out?

A. I still read a great many books. I travel almost every week, so I have long stretches of quiet time on planes and in hotel rooms. I’m also a terrible insomniac so I read for hours late at night.  At the moment I’m reading Meryle Secrest’s Modigliani as well as Peter Humfrey’s Painting in Renaissance Venice, which must seem like an odd pair chronologically.  I’ve also been reading through Rene Girard’s books on mimetic theory and just finished Sacrifice, which deals with religious violence in the classical Vedic texts.  I also enjoyed Kevin Starr’s survey of  California historians, Clio on the Coast.

I read one or two books of fiction each week.  I just finished J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which is a powerful and depressing character study—not quite a masterpiece but a serious novel of the old sort. I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was very entertaining. Out of curiosity I started her earlier novel, Look at Me, but gave up after 100 pages of thin and glitzy melodrama. Other fiction I’ve read in the past month includes Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wild Girls, Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio, Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and Nina Revoyr’s Wingshooters. This is an unusual list for me since I mostly read older fiction, but I needed a break from Henry James. I also reread a dozen or so Hemingway stories because my older son was writing his junior honors essay about them at Harvard. He wanted to talk over his ideas, and I needed to prep a bit to maintain the illusion that his dad actually knew something about the subject.

I also read a lot of poetry.  I probably get a book of poems in the mail every day. Most of it is not very good, but I always read a few poems in each book just in case. The best new poetry book I’ve read (and reread) recently is Kay Ryan’s The Best of It, which I cannot overpraise.  I also happened to reread Julia Alvarez’s The Woman I Kept to Myself and A. E. Stallings’s Hapax with enormous pleasure. I carry poems in my wallet and try to memorize something new each week, though I now often find myself relearning passages I once knew by heart.

Finally, I’m reading a small-press book that is by no means small—Jack Foley’s 1,294-page, two-volume history of modern California poetry, Visions & Affiliations. This brilliant, idiosyncratic, omnivorous study is simply the best book ever written on West Coast poetry, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Q. Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?  How so?

A. Yes, it has.  I used to follow a great many journals in my field, which is modern and contemporary poetry. Today I read far fewer.  Most publications now seem more or less interchangeable—the poetry mostly forgettable and the critical prose generic. Perhaps I’m getting old and tired, but I’ve noticed that most of my peers also seem to follow these publications with less interest. Perhaps we are in a poetry slump.

I now read about half a dozen journals regularly, plus the online Contemporary Poetry Review. I also check Poetry Daily, which provides links to poetry reviews from across the U.S. as well as the U.K., Ireland, Canada, and Australia. I also rely on friends who constantly send me links, off-prints, and copies of journals.

Q. Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?

A. I don’t read any blogs regularly, although half the people I know seem to be blogging.
I read them only when friends send me links in their emails.

Q. Do you use Twitter?  If so, whom do you follow?

A. I  never use Twitter. In fact, I am deeply suspicious of the massive communications overload that the media obsesses over and glorifies. So much of this activity is just covert advertising for products and celebrities. The objective is to capture and commercialize every moment of people’s time. What we really need is more quiet and less phony connectivity.

Q. What are the guilty pleasures of your media diet?

A. Well, for starters, I watch TV for an hour so most nights. I watch Fringe and Supernatural with my sons and Mad Men, Castle, and 30 Rock with my wife. We all watch The Simpsons. I also watch CNBC financial news in the morning when I work out. All that financial anxiety gets my adrenalin going. I am also a sucker for any Twilight Zone marathon—but only the old black and white episodes.

Q. Anything else?

A. Yes, I really do read too much. I’m going out for a walk.

Sketch by Ted Benson

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