Quietly, as it sometimes happens in Washington, the National Endowment for the Arts has given its literature director David Kipen a one-ticket back to Southern California.
Fellow Californian Dana Gioia, NEA chairman under George W. Bush, hired Kipen in 2005 following the death of the arts agency's original literature director. It was a comfortable life preserver for the San Francisco Chronicle book reviewer as his newspaper grew so poor it could no longer support that luxury position.
Gioia put Kipen to work shining up the chairman's Big Read Program, a copy of the one book, one community programs in America, including Allegheny County and Great Britain. Without serious follow-up programs in the various towns that won Big Read Funding, the initiative seemed to be largely a PR effort to make Gioia look good, hence my prediction made in 2005:
"Encouraging reading with bookmarks, banners and TV ads misses the point. But this is a government that won't expand support for public education, is considering cutting college-loan funding and refuses to address the Patriot Act's threat to libraries and book buyers. We probably couldn't expect more."
When I attempted to engage Gioia, Kipen and others at the NEA to discuss my concerns, the response was silence. Phone calls, e-mails and old-fashioned letters were never answered. I finally cornered the sheepish Kipen at a BEA party in Los Angeles several years ago and he admitted he was ordered not to respond to me. Your tax dollars at work.
New NEA chairman Rocco Landesman has yet to speak about the Big Read and Gioia's other flashy, superficial "literary" project, Poetry Out Loud that ironically recognizes acting talents over insights into verse. Let's see what Landesman thinks of literature in 2010. Hint: the liiterature director position isn't listed on the agency's employment opportunities Web page.