Interview: Rita Dove

              

Rita Dove’s works include the poetry collection The Yellow House on the Corner (Carnegie-Mellon Press, 1980);  the verse-novel Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon Press, 1980), winner of  the Pulitzer Prize; Museum (Carnegie-Mellon University Press 1983); the short story collection Fifth Sunday (University of Kentucky Press, 1990); the novel Through the Ivory Gate (Pantheon, 1992); the poetry collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems (Norton, 1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award;  the poetry collection American Smooth (Norton, 2004); and Sonata Mulattica: Poems (Norton, 2009). Dove has also written lyrics for composers including Tania León and John Williams, and her work Thomas and Beulah was staged as an opera by Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2001.

 

Dove’s numerous honors and awards include a Heinz Award in the Arts and a Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal. She is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Rita Dove was the youngest person to ever serve as US Poet Laureate when she was elected to the position in 1993.

 

Rita Dove’s Collected Poems: 1974-2004 was released by Norton in 2016 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Over three decades of work, Dove maintains a lovely tension, dwelling in the everyday beauties of a person, a day, a single moment while also commenting on that moment’s place in the broader world. To read Dove’s work is to range far afield while always coming home.

 

Danielle Kessinger for The Florida Review:

Reading your poems, I was in awe of your consistency of style throughout the years. I was trying to come up with a brilliant opening question, but the first thing I came up with was what is it like having a Collected Poems the size of the doorstop, something with such heft?

 

Rita Dove: 

It is a mixed kind of joy. It’s very interesting, because when I agreed to do this my wonderful editor said, “We can put together the whole collection, and it would be great to have the poems under one roof.” I thought, oh yeah, that would be wonderful, but as I started putting it together it felt like I was building a tombstone. It is strange because you feel like I’m not done. I’m not done. I’m just in the middle of things.

 

It was wonderful in the end, especially going to copyediting when I didn’t expect to actually read the poems together at that point. To go back and see them almost as a stranger would see them and say, “Oh, wow, did you write that?” It’s still kind of amazing to me to look at the book itself, as you said, something with that heft, and say, I did this, really?

 

TFR:

You mentioned copyediting, and I wondered if you had done much editing of the previously published poems, if you’d given in to the compulsion to tweak.

 

Dove:

I did not give into the compulsion to tweak. I made a vow to myself years ago that I would not go back and edit poems once they were published. It just seemed to me that if I believed in them enough to put them out there not only for magazine publication—because I did obviously tweak things between publication in a journal and collected in a book—but in a book, I thought well, that was how I felt at that time. I would be falsifying that particular stage of my life, you know, the eye of the poet, if I changed them. So, I didn’t tweak anything, but when copyediting I was looking for typos and things like that. I’m a terrible reader, so I read it backwards.

 

TFR: 

You literally read it backwards?

 

Dove:

Well, not word for word backwards, though sometimes I would read word for word. A lot of times I would read backwards line by line. I wanted to shake myself out of the sense of the book because you can be lulled by the narrative.

 

TFR:

As you were going through some of the pieces did you find that you encountered things that you wanted to explore more that led to new work?

 

Dove:

I think I’m still in the process of sorting that out. I do know that there are some of the poems, particularly in the very first volume that I published, The Yellow House on the Corner, where I feel like I want to explore a certain almost dreamlike landscape that I abandoned after the first book. With every book I tried to go off in a different direction in the sense of where the eye goes, where the vision goes, what the vision is.  I know that from the first book to the second book, I remember turning my gaze more outward instead of inward and looking at the world. The way the world stamps things is important hence the name of that volume—Museum.

 

I’d love to go back now after all these years and after all these other books and look at that interior more. In fact, I have started writing a poem which is a counter to one of the poems in the first book. So, it has inspired me.

 

TFR:

I noticed that, from the first one, “In the Old Neighborhood,” many of your poems describe gardens—gardens and flowers are a consistently repeated image. Did you ever take up gardening?

 

Dove:

[laughs] It’s really crazy because both my parents were excellent gardeners. My father had a vegetable garden and all these roses that you see a lot in the poems. And my mother was also really, really good with flowers, and I have a little black thumb. Things will die if I touch them. I do love flowers and gardens, but I’m truly hopeless, which is probably why they appear so much in my work. If I can’t grow one, I might as well write one.

 

TFR: 

In many of your poems, and certain books in particular, you explore history. Do you feel that the poet has a responsibility to history as much as being in the moment or that one infuses the other?

 

Dove:

I think that every poet has their own things that they cannot deny when they’re writing. I would say that every poet has a responsibility to be absolutely honest and true to whatever is compelling them to write, whatever emotions are compelling them to write. That may result in poems that have historical connections or not. For me, growing up as I did as a young black girl, the connection between history and the lives that I saw was so apparent that I would have been false if that had not entered the work. It seems to be a part of life. So, for me, I considered it absolutely imperative and necessary to always have that balance of history there in the work.

 

TFR:

Do you find that sometimes it’s harder to spend time in the present in your work than at others?

 

Dove: 

That’s a really fascinating question because after I started to work on the Collected Poems I did give myself an assignment. I often will do that after one book, to go off in different direction.  My assignment this time was to stay in the moment, so you really nailed it on the head. To just stay in the moment is something that I’ve been pushing myself to try to do. I think the last poems in the volume, the poems that appear in American Smooth, are about trying to capture that moment, the moment where you’re absolutely in the present and everything else falls away.

 

TFR:

When you go through people’s bios they always like to mention firsts, and you have a number of firsts such as the youngest poet laureate at the time. Did you ever feel that was an undue burden being qualified as the first and somehow having to break new ground?

 

Dove:

The burden comes from, first of all, feeling like I didn’t do anything but be myself and be there at the right time. Then there is also the burden of the attention which can sound a little bit facetious to people who say, “Oh, come on, the burden of getting this or that?” But what happens, especially for a poet, is that your work happens in a very intimate space, a very introspective sphere, and suddenly the lights are turned on and everyone’s looking at you. And you’re going, “No, I can’t write if you’re looking at me.” I would have young people write and say, “You’re my role model. I want you to mentor me.” Mentoring is really finding someone who is living near you in life so you can figure out how to shape your life in the world that you exist in. Me being your mentor makes no sense, because I don’t know you. There’s also that feeling that, as a role model, someone would take everything I said as gospel. I don’t take everything I say as gospel, so that was an undue burden. I felt like I would have to think three times before I said something for fear someone would just write it down and think that was the end-all and be-all, and it certainly isn’t.

 

TFR:

For a poet you have a very and broad readership, broader than a lot of poets, but do you have an ideal reader? If someone could airdrop a case of your Collected Poems, where would you want it to go?

 

Dove:

Oh my gosh. I can’t predict that ideal reader. When I write a poem, I don’t think this is for this kind of reader. I’ve been constantly and pleasantly surprised by the responses to the work from people that I would not have imagined could be moved by it. I remember in England once, a young black guy with lots of braids came up to me and he said he really loved this poem “Daystar,” which is a poem about a mother who was looking for a moment’s peace from her children. He said he just really connected to it. To this day I do not know why he connected, but I would not have predicted that. So, the ideal reader would, in the abstract, be someone who would take each poem as it is, without any preconceived ideas of what kind of poet I am.

 

TFR:

Because you are such a well-known poet, have you ever had people shy away from the idea that they might appear in one of your works or people who were trying to put themselves  in a piece?

 

Dove:

I think that happens probably more with novelists than it does with poets. Among family members, there was a time when I felt that some wanted to get their story told. They would tell me a really good story and say, “You oughta write a poem about that.” Sometimes people didn’t want things told. I have never published a poem about anyone that I knew or a family member without showing it to them first. I feel that I can’t stop myself from writing it, but I can certainly stop myself from publishing it. More than people trying to get into the poems, people have suggestions for poems.

 

TFR:

Have you ever taken one of those suggestions for a poem?

 

Dove:

My husband is a novelist and journalist, and often, when we’re driving and such, we give each other ideas. He says, “I’ll give you that one,” and I say, “I’ll give you this one, I’ll give you this line.” Then we kind of sort them out. But, yes, I have taken some. Sometimes, I’m like yeah, that is a good idea.

 

TFR:

Being married to writer, do you find yourselves exploring the same territory or do you stake your claims to different territories?

 

Dove:

I don’t think we’ve ever had a dispute over territory in any way. Maybe it’s because we’re from different disciplines. Fred sees things with the novelist’s eye and a journalist’s eye, and I see it from a poetic eye. As far as I’m concerned, a novelist and poet can write about the very same incident and it will come out remarkably different.

 

TFR:

Do you find that your process has changed at all through the years, not just how you approach the beginning of poems but how they come to completion?

 

Dove:

I think in terms of how they come to completion, it has stayed the same. I’ve never known how they come to completion. Usually there’s a moment of great despair where I think this is going nowhere, and it’s a process that remains mysterious to me that at some point things begin to click and come together.

 

How I approach the beginning of the poem has changed slightly in terms of the editing. I always write first by hand. I need the physical thing. Of course, I’ve graduated from manual typewriters, to Selectrics, to the computer. I do miss the old banging, that physical punctuation. Now I print things out instead of having a typed sheet, and I still mess it up by hand.

 

TFR:

Do you keep all of those drafts?

 

Dove: 

I do.  It’s a mess. [laughs] You know, sometimes I will actually find a line that I’ve discarded in a poem that’s long completed, but it really belonged somewhere else. I am also experimenting more with dictating certain portions, mainly because I’m traveling so much.

 

TFR:

I was compiling these questions some time ago, and a lot has happened since then.  Earlier, I was asking about writing about the present and writing about the past. In moments when you feel you’re caught in the midst of history, does it change how you feel about what needs to be said, or people’s expectations about what needs to be said?

 

Dove:

I think that people are looking for someone to articulate what is happening to us and how we can move through it, not only practically—which is more the politicians’ role, or more the activists’ role—but also emotionally how we can handle this. That’s really the task or the challenge that we want our writers, our poets to do. That’s the age-old call that one has. I wouldn’t consider it a burden. I really consider it a kind of a clarion call. I know that I and many of the writers that I know—because we’ve been communicating—we feel compelled to keep working even more vigorously than ever, but also to articulate this. Now that can come out in many ways. It can come out in overtly political poems. It can come out in poems that remind us who we are as human beings. That is exceedingly important in this time. So much of the beauty of being a distinct individual in a tribe of individuals has been battered and obliterated. We need to take the language back and claim it. That’s what poets do.

Danielle Kessinger

Danielle Kessinger has work published in Bartleby Snopes, the Drunken Odyssey, Baltimore Review, Burrow Press, and the anthology Jack’s Porch.  She has lived and written in the mountains of Colorado, North Carolina, Japan, and Costa Rica but now resides in the flatlands of Florida where she is on the Board of Directors of The Kerouac Project writing residency. This is her second interview for Aquifer: The Florida Review Online.