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Your exposure to great books growing up in Hawthorne was partly thanks to an uncle, a merchant seaman who taught himself five languages and read the classics in them.
He was something we hardly think of existing anymore: a working-class intellectual. Growing up with my Sicilian and Mexican relatives in this house full of books in different languages proved to me that you didn't need anybody's permission to master things. One can always benefit from mentors, but the responsibility is yours.
It's much more difficult to be an intelligent young person today. There are more opportunities than 40, 50 years ago, but you are overwhelmed with nonstop commercial media. Perhaps I was lucky to be raised in the last generation where childhood had a lot of downtime. We would walk miles to a drainage ditch to find frogs. We'd talk and read books. It allowed us to build an inner life, which is very difficult when you're constantly being bombarded from the outside.
You were once misquoted as saying there were no great poets in California. What did you actually say?
What I said was more complicated: that Los Angeles was perhaps the only truly great city that had never produced a great poet. Most of the reality of L.A., which people all over the world see in movies, has never been definitively and memorably shaped into a poem. We've had crime novelists, literary novelists, science-fiction novelists, musicians who've captured L.A., but the poetic history is relatively thin compared to San Francisco or Chicago. Los Angeles has had a really magnificent but somewhat lopsided cultural history.
I am chauvinistic in the old-fashioned sense about California, and that's why I've come back. I want to take an active role in the cultural arguments of my time.
You spent 15 years working at General Foods by day and writing poetry by night. Like a secret identity.
I did have a double life! I became the only person in history to go to Stanford business school to become a poet.
[At General Foods], by the time I got reasonably high up in management, I was the one person who had kind of kept the creative side alive. This is the dilemma of American corporations: They don't know how to deal with creative thinkers. Most American companies are created by slightly wild visionary people that the company would never hire 50 years later.
In business I learned that it's important to create win-win situations. Artists live for the most part in win-lose situations. You get the part; I don't. You get the award; I don't. You can create communities -- of artists, of arts administrators and arts supporters who worked together. I think that's one reason I succeeded at the NEA.
What would you count among your successes?
When I went off to the NEA, my [artist] friends said go and fight the fight. Fighting was the wrong metaphor. The metaphor was reconciliation. This country was fighting over something that it didn't really need to fight about -- the arts, [in] an unnecessary and terribly destructive antagonism. I saw as my role to take people who thought they opposed this and convince them that [arts support] was the right thing to do. We created a bicameral, bipartisan national consensus to support the NEA, not simply the budget but also the authority of the agency.
Is the NEA about the audience or the artist?
The NEA is not about artists, it's not about audiences, it's not about government, it's about a whole ecosystem [of arts], and [making] it healthy and vital. If you simply take one portion of it, to quote another poet, you murder to dissect.
One generation's artistic outrage is the next generation's classic. Should art sandpaper our sensibilities?
Not all art is provocative. This is a great cliche. Art is a language, and [with] language, you can say anything, from the shocking to the comforting, the hilarious to the heartbreaking. The art that survives most expressively embodies the human experience; in the same generation, you'll have a conservative and a radical survive as great artists because of that.