When Dove flies

Sun-Sentinel (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."

Sudden fame

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 Pulitzer Prize.

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 up."

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 nation's readers.

"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 and shooting.

"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."