An Interview with Rita Dove

Rita Dove is one of our national treasures and an intensely important poet whose work has inspired and shaped the present and future. She is a former U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-1995) and recipient of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Thomas and Beulah. The author of numerous books, among them the 2009 tour de force Sonata Mulattica, a poetic treatise on the life of 19th century violinist George Bridgetower, and, most recently, Collected Poems 1974-2004, she also edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011). Her drama The Darker Face of the Earth premiered in 1996 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as the Royal National Theatre in London, among other venues. In 1998 the Boston Symphony debuted her song cycle "Seven for Luck," with music by John Williams, under the composer's baton. Among Rita Dove's many honors are the 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Obama, the 1996 National Humanities Medal from President Clinton and 25 honorary doctorates. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Poetry Center in anticipation of her reading tomorrow. Presented with special thanks to Chet'la Sebree. Note: some answers are edited or excerpted for length and/or clarity. 

Poetry Center: Your Collected Poems: 1974-2004 was just named a National Book Award finalist, which is just one of many incredible achievements, including serving as the United States Poet Laureate. How has the way you’ve thought about writing changed over the course of your career?

Rita Dove: I don’t know that the way I’ve thought about writing has actually changed. What has changed is the amount of time I have in which to write and the amount of public scrutiny I feel peering over my shoulder when I sit down to write.  For me, writing is an intensely intimate activity that begins in absolute stillness, then progresses through a series of rewrites in which I try to make sure that what I’ve written is intelligible – that is, able to be felt by stranger –and hopefully ends up in a resurrection of that original intimate experience, so that the reader will be drawn into the space that the poem has shaped and will feel what I as the writer have tried to create.

I approach all writing that way, whether poetry, drama, or prose. When I began writing seriously – and by that I mean writing and rewriting with the intent to communicate to strangers – I felt there was no one really listening.  I was trying to bring my story and viewpoint, to others and have them hear it.  Now I feel that there are many people listening.  On the one hand, that’s absolutely lovely; on the other hand, it means taking care not to pander to that imaginary audience, and not to accept compromises.  The work must reflect that original isolate impulse. 

PC: Engaging with other art forms and disciplines has long been essential to your work, whether music, dance, history, or otherwise. Do you see this interaction as a kind of collaboration?

RD: Absolutely! I’ve always been interested in collaborations, be they structurally strict – that is, working with an artist from another genre to create something original together – or more intuitive, like being influenced by another genre in my own work.  An example of the strict genre would be collaborating with the composer John Williams to create a song cycle for mezzo- soprano. We began with nothing between us; I didn’t hand him a poem and say, “Here, write some music to it” (which from my side would not have been not a collaboration at all); instead, we started by talking about what each of us imagined a cycle was meant to do, how the genre of the song cycle is very similar to that of the poem cycle, and we educated each other on the way those two things worked.  I would begin writing a poem I imagined being sung and would send him fragments, a line here or there; or he’d call and say, “I hear flute, and a woman’s voice” and actually hum a few bars!  Then I’d write words to fit that melody, and eventually we were completing each other’s sentences – whether melodic lines or actual lines of poetry.  So that’s one example of a strict collaboration. 

A more one-sided collaboration involved composing poems for the federal courthouse in Sacramento, CA.  In this case, the interior designer came to me with his design for the lobby – twelve marble chairs arranged around the oval perimeter of the space – and it was up to me to stretch my genre to meet his.  That resulted in poetic fragments, sort of like contemporary haiku, which were engraved upon the backs of the chairs; visitors walking through may at some point notice the words on the chairs and walk around the circumference in order to see what each juror was thinking.  I  love these collaborations because they challenge what I think I can do with language.  In the case of the courthouse, for example, I realized there could be no beginning or end to those wisps of thoughts, which meant I had to start each fragment from its emotional center and work outward.  That exercise really helped me write the poems in “Recollection, Preempted” and “Esterhaza, Prodigal” in Sonata Mulattica which are built on the wisps of memory, for instance.    

And finally, there is the collaboration between imagination and fact, which is perhaps the area where I’ve done the most work – whether embodying characters from the Civil Rights era as in the poems from On the Bus with Rosa Parks or reimagining the life of a mixed race violinist living during Beethoven’s time, as in my book Sonata Mulattica.  In a way, every artistic work is a collaboration between reality and imagination.  My historical poems have at least three layers:  There’s a kind of Uberreality – the Reality of Known Facts, what we’re taught is “true” – followed by the Reality of the Quotidian, which we walk through each day; and finally the third layer of Interior Reality, that incredible whirlpool of imagination, memory, and emotion.



PC: In reviews of Collected Poems, the most common descriptor of your language, the reading experience, and what the poems reach for, is “pleasure.” What role does pleasure play in the way you use and consider language?

RD: I never realized that was the most common descriptor of my work!  But if I accept this for truth, then I would have to say at some level –during the writing, or completing a poem, even my own reading experience –  one of my chief goals is to feel pleasure.  Now that pleasure shouldn’t be defined simply as forgetfulness or the unwillingness to look at the darker sides of life; there are uncomfortable pleasures as well as moments where the writing itself will elicit from the reader a feeling of connectedness, of revelation. The experience of revelation or connectedness gives pleasure, even if what it is connecting us to is a moment of grief. After all, we feel better when in moments of extreme grief others can commiserate and be there with us – and that communal sensation is pleasurable, though it is soaked in grief.   And there are uncomfortable situations, such as – well, I’ll take as an example a poem of mine, “Parsley”, which is about a horrific massacre.  While writing this poem, I realized that it did no good to make the poem ugly; that in fact what made this event even more horrific was the fact that the then-dictator of the Dominican Republic, General Rafael Trujillo, used such a creative and essentially beautiful method to slaughter tens of thousands.  Because of that, I thought the poem must become a litany; it must pull us, however reluctantly, into its spell in order to convince us of its horror – and in a strange way, there is pleasure associated with being drawn into that moment.

In terms of writing itself, I’m never happier than when I’m in the middle of a poem, wrestling with something as small as a half a syllable – is this syllable right, is this comma right?  Or do I use a dash, and what kind of dash,  and where do I put it,  at the end of the line in the middle , at the beginning – these kinds of deliberations are ways of pacing, of orchestrating the poem in order to bring the language out in its fullest. The 3D-ness of language – not only what a line  means and how it sounds, but how it resonates in terms of its place on the page – wrestling with all of these elements generates for me a measure of intense and palpable pleasure.   


PC: What would you say your obsessions are? What are you obsessing about in your latest poems?

RD: Ah . . . obsessions are very squirrely things, because you might not realize you’re obsessed until the obsession has passed!  For instance, I wasn’t aware that I was infatuated with surrealism until I was long finished with my first book, which contains several dream-like poems.  But if I had to choose an obsession that the rest of the world would probably agree with, I would say I’m obsessed with the underside of history – that is, what happens to the ordinary individual in times when history is being writ large?  What does the radio operator feel in the middle of the D- Day invasion – someone safe behind enemy lines, with just the crackle of voices on the radio and not actually storming the beaches?  Or the soldier’s wife – what is she doing at the very moment he lands on Omaha Beach?  These things interest me because I believe this is the way we move through our lives.  We progress from moment to moment, some of which we may later recognize as significant – we all know where we were when Kennedy died or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  But there are also moments which are perfectly insignificant, except to the person living them – and these insignificant moments, which pour through every single day, define who we are; they actually make us feel like we are living a full life.  My obsession with the underside of history really has to do with everything that gets lost when a person die, all of the moments that get lost in each of us.  A lyric poet will often sing out of one these moments – time has stopped because the poet has made the moment memorable, has delineated and illuminated it.  And a narrative poet will not only take a string of events but say “Look at the character of the person moving through this,” and will chart how they live out those ordinary moments while on the midst of the story – at least that’s how I like to think of narrative poetry. 

As to what I’m obsessing about in recent work – I’ll talk a little about this in my reading, but I’ve been thinking about the word “ghetto”, and how the concept of “ghetto” has evolved over the years.  I was asked to participate in a project aimed at commemorating the founding of the Venetian ghetto:  This year marks the 500 anniversary of the first mention of the word in 1516,   when the Serene Republic of Venice issued a decree banning all Jews to a portion of land designated as the “ghetto.”  The word has had many transformations, evolving through the centuries; from shtetl to slum to acting “ghetto”; also the idea of ghettoizing thought, of ghettoizing emotions, and of course the glass ceilings imposed on race, gender, age – all of these things are part of my exploration and from which poems are still emerging. 


PC: For many, your work has been groundbreaking and instructive. Which poets (or what poetry) excite(s) you right now?

RD: It’s almost an impossible question – one that, to be frank, I always avoid answering, mainly because I picture students poised with their pencils, ready to write down names and neglecting others.  The poets that I love may not be the ones will change your lives.  Sorry, I won’t go further than that.  Editor's note: Fair enough!


Rita Dove image credits: Fred Viebahn