When Dove flies
(Ft. Lauderdale, FL)
November 7, 2004
By Chauncey Mabe, Books Editor
Stage fright drove Rita Dove to poetry. In her Akron,
Ohio, high school, the future Pulitzer Prize winner and poet laureate
of the United States wanted to be a professional cellist. "But I was
terribly shy," Dove says. "When I performed, my knees would shake. And
you can't play the cello when your knees shake."
Fortunately, Dove had more interests than music, among them reading and
literature. By the time she got to college, she decided to try writing
poetry – partly as a way to avoid performing.
Now a confident public figure with no hint of her former bashfulness,
Dove is amused at the irony. By attempting to "hide out" in poetry, she
eventually found herself pushed onstage as a leading artistic
spokeswoman for African-Americans, and also for women.
"When I was growing as a young poet I felt pressure to speak out on
behalf of my race," Dove says from her home in Charlottesville, Va. "It
comes with the territory, it's natural. I felt I had that to say and a
whole lot more. I'd be amazed if it weren't present in the work."
In accepting the mandate to speak for her people, Dove discovered
another kind of burden, what she calls "the burden of explanation."
"When a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant writes, he can assume allusions
will be understood," Dove says. "But anyone coming from other ethnic
cultures gets to the point of having to explain things to the
mainstream and thereby risk losing the poetry. Something as mundane as
hair care, say pomade stain. Every African-American knows about that,
but how many whites?"
Dove shouldered these burdens, along with the traditional black stigma
– "You have to do 150 percent as much to be half as good" – without
hesitation. She credits the support of a high-achieving family for her
strength of character. Dove's father was a research chemist who, in the
1950s, broke the color barrier in the U.S. tire industry.
"Having a successful family can backfire on you," Dove says. "But I
knew my parents loved me. They would say, `Do the best you can.' I
never had the feeling I had to get all As. And they never showed any
bitterness. Their attitude was, `Isn't it wonderful you can do 150
percent?' It's the person denying you who's the poorer for it, not you."
Dove also learned what many writers before her have known – that
arbitrary restrictions can result in artistic freedom. "Problems only
sharpen your instruments," Dove says. "You have to learn to get through
them and still make poetry. It's like training with weights."
A graduate of the nation's top writing school, the Iowa
Writers Workshop, Dove began publishing poetry collections exploring
the African-American experience in 1980 with her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner.
With her third collection, Thomas
and Beulah, based on the lives of her grandparents, she won the
Dove was only the second African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize
for poetry, after Gwendolyn Brooks, who won in 1950. "It's shameful so
much time went by between African-American prizes," Dove says.
The prize changed everything for Dove. Until then, she was quietly
writing and publishing, doing a few undemanding readings here and there.
"The prize turned on the spotlight from one day to the next," she says,
laughing. "The chairman of the English Department at Arizona called to
tell me I had a press conference in two hours. I protested I didn't
know how to do a press conference. He said, 'You'll learn,' and hung
Suddenly, instead of reading to 10 or 12 poetry lovers at a time, Dove
faced audiences of 500, some curious, some skeptical. She had to learn
to believe in herself as a reader, able to sell her poetry in
performance in the same way a singer sells a song, or a comedian the
punch line of a joke.
"People aren't there to have you look nervous and stumble over your
words," Dove says. "I thought of my parents, told myself to do the best
I could, and got on with it."
The Pulitzer Prize opened doors to Dove that she says most poets never
get to experience – things like TV appearances (she loved being on
Sesame Street) and new opportunities to bring poetry to the general
reader. It also made her "a role model and an emblem for achievement as
a woman and a black, and it gave me a forum to speak from."
Fame also altered the way she thought of poetry. Dove was astonished to
discover that when she read what were, to her, the intensely personal
poems of Thomas and Beulah,
she got back from the audience a sense of "the breadth of community."
"It was overwhelming and informs my work ever since," Dove says.
The gospel of poetry
When Dove was asked, at the age of 41, to become the
youngest-ever U.S. poet laureate, she hesitated – but it was, she says,
"the hesitation of the doomed." The chief duty of the poet laureate is
to promote poetry, to spread the poetic gospel, as it were, to the
"My heart sank, because I thought, 'There goes my work time,' " she
says laughing. "But I had to accept, because I had to put my money
where my mouth is. I've always felt poetry is something that every
person can enjoy, but we've become afraid of it. Here was my chance to
prove even the most challenging poetry can speak to someone."
During her tenure as poet laureate from 1993 to 1995, Dove decided that
she would be "absolutely truthful" about what poetry is and what it
means to her, to never be embarrassed or apologize for the special
challenges posed by poetry to a nation weaned on journalism, raised on
trashy novels, and addicted to television and video games. It worked.
People began writing to tell her home much poetry meant to them.
It was conventional wisdom in the early '90s that Americans didn't read
poetry; the entire audience for poetry, went a sad contemporary joke,
was other poets. Since then, there's been a boom in poetry and related
activities, like the spoken-word movement. Some credit must be given to
Dove and her fellow poet laureates, especially Billy Collins, and there
can be little doubt hip-hop music has increased interest in all
rhythmic, rhyming verse forms. But Dove points to the spread of
creative writing programs.
"There are all these poets working in universities making new little
poets," says Dove, who, as Commonwealth Professor of English at the
University of Virginia, is engaged in exactly the work she describes.
"They can't all get jobs at universities, so they wind up all over the
place. Some of my best student-poets are lawyers or aeronautical
engineers. More people are reading poetry because they've been taught
to be better readers."
Learning to dance
After Dove's turn as poet laureate, she "naively thought she
could go back to the lower profile" of her earlier career, but that
proved impossible. It's not that she was recognized in airports, but
she did receive so many letters and requests it was difficult to find
"private space" to write poems and plays.
Then, in 1998, lightning struck the house she shared with her husband,
German novelist Fred Viebahn. Both escaped unharmed, but the house
burned extensively, taking with it much of their lives, including
original manuscripts and other irreplaceable items. In the aftermath,
some neighbors took the bereft couple to a local benefit dance, where
Dove found herself intrigued by the sight of ballroom dancing.
Soon Dove signed up for lessons, and almost by happenstance, she looked
up one day to discover she had several poems and a central metaphor for
her eighth collection, American
Smooth (Norton, $22).
"American smooth" is a style of dance, Dove says, but it also describes
the mood and technique of this wide-ranging collection. Some of the
poems are direct dance metaphors, like "Fox Trot Fridays", "Ta Ta Cha
Cha" and the title poem. But others explore the African-American
experience with vivid language, as in the cycle "Not Welcome Here",
about black soldiers in World War I. "Count to Ten and I'll Be There"
seems written for children, while other poems are beautifully erotic. A
couple of striking poems seem to exult in the amoral perfection of guns
"I didn't start out with ballroom dancing in search of material," says
Dove, laughing – in fact, she seems to laugh a lot. "I was running away
from writing, from the stress of putting our lives back together. Life
had gotten very heavy and serious. I didn't write for a year....
"When you have something like a fire, when you've lost so much, you
feel like you can do anything you want," Dove says. "We thought we'd
dance for five or six weeks, but after three months something clicks.
It's been so much fun."