First Person Singular

(Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)
Sunday, March 16, 2008

I travel a lot with members of Congress, to go back to their districts and meet with the arts leaders and artists. I can't tell you how many student band concerts and jazz concerts I've attended. As an old high school band member myself, I'm oddly touched by the worst performance as well as the best performance of student musicians, because I once sat in that pit trying to play in tempo and in tune.

My first prolonged and serious involvement as an artist was music. I began taking piano lessons in second grade from Sister Camille Cecile. Sister Camille Cecile was a believer in the necessity of corporal punishment in musical instruction. And she was quite strict. Sister Camille Cecile was the least scary thing in my neighborhood.

I'm a working-class kid from L.A. I was raised in a rough neighborhood. My music classes were the great thing of beauty in my life. I think for $2 a week I got two lessons -- one private lesson and one group "theory" lesson. And in my college years, when I wanted to be a composer, I realized that the sister had gradually gotten me up to almost the level of college theory. You know, she had her mean streak, but she was committed to taking a poor, clumsy child like me and turning me into a musician.

When I went to college, I thought I would be a composer. But by the time I was a sophomore, I realized that I wanted to be a poet. And then I faced the practical issue of: How does someone make a living as a poet? I was the first person in my family ever to go to college. But it was quite obvious to me that I would have to make my way in the world. I was a realist. At Harvard, I realized that I was being trained to write and to speak about literature in a way that excluded most people. I didn't want to be a poet if it meant writing in a way that excluded the very people where I came from.

I spent the next 15 years in business. I was the vice president of marketing at General Foods. But I wrote every night and on the weekends. After about 15 years, I felt I could quit my job and make a living.

I have what the poets call a checkered career. I moved between classes, between states, between professions. It was unusual for a poet to go into business. It was unusual for a businessman who was enjoying great success in his career to quit. Without knowing it, I spent my whole life preparing to be chairman of the NEA.

Interview by Cathy Areu

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