California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia leads an exploration of poetry and song in Santa Monica

By Bliss Bowen

Dana Gioia dreamed of being a composer before poetry caught his ear

Though it isn’t always recognized as such, music exists inside language — in the human rhythms of syllables, sentences, diphthongs, breath and accents. That relationship between language and music will be explored throughout “Poetry Through Voice,” a presentation at The Broad Stage this Sunday.

Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann, accompanied by musicians from the Salastina Music Society, and composer husband Eric Whitacre (also a Grammy winner, and the LA Master Chorale’s artist-in-residence) are among the artists who will perform between readings by California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, Poetry in Motion co-founder Elise Paschen and USC Dornsife Fellow Douglas Manuel. Red Hen Press Managing Editor Kate Gale, the driving force behind the event, has composed music that will be performed, and the program will also incorporate music by Mark Abel, Julia Adolphe, and Philip White.

“I believe that poetry originates in song — poetry and song are related arts, and too seldom do we combine them in the same performance,” says Gioia, a native Californian who served as chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts from 2003 to 2009, and for the past six years has been teaching poetry at USC. “When you combine them, you hear both of the arts differently. You respond more deeply to the music of the poetry, and you respond to the literary content of the song.

“It should be unique. For me, personally, it’s an exciting moment to be able to meet Eric Whitacre and share a stage with him; he’s got this gift for setting poetry to music. It’s surprising to me that even in Los Angeles we rarely have these events that cross the arts.”

Pointing out that poetry began as an oral transmission, Paschen concurs. Like longtime friend Gioia, she is drawn to form, and is preparing to read a ballad, a pantoum, a short lyric in rhyming couplets, and some of her persona poems, most drawn from her recently published book “The Nightlife.” Now based in Chicago, she served as executive director of the Poetry Society of America throughout the 1990s, and calls poetry “the most immediate form of expression in terms of the literary arts.”

“I feel very strongly that the poem needs to be able to stand alone by itself on the page, and that’s why I spend so much time revising,” she says. “But I also feel that the poem really comes to life when you can hear the poet read those words.”

Also like Gioia, Paschen “believes strongly in the musicality of poetry.” It was instilled in her early in life, when the self-described “backstage baby” toured with her mother, Maria Tallchief, a prima ballerina in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Paschen recalls spending a great deal of time watching ballet and absorbing the music. Additionally, around the time she decided she wanted to be a writer, at age 8, she became enchanted by the “Oxford Book of Poetry for Children” and memorized poems from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that are performed as songs.

“‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright’ by William Blake also made a huge impression on me,” she says. “It was those cadences, those rhythms, those formal structures and that music; these were things that infiltrated my imagination. Those are the things that I tend to look to when I myself write a poem — I think about the musicality of the line.”

In an interview with me last year, Gioia described poetry as “a special way of speaking that invites and rewards a special way of listening. It is using the sounds of the language to raise speech to the level of song.”

Growing up as “a working class kid in Hawthorne,” Gioia learned to play numerous instruments and dreamed of being a composer, until he began writing poetry in college and discovered his true calling. Over the years several of his poems have been set to music by classical artists, and he has composed three opera libretti. His 2016 collection “99 Poems: New & Selected” includes “Pity the Beautiful,” a punchy lyric he wrote for jazz artist Helen Sung that he expects to read Sunday.


Red Hen Press presents “Poetry Through Voice” at 4 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 10) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $40. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit