Oct. 29, 2004
For poet Rita
Dove, 'poetry is about life'
Courtesy of The Daily Progress/Andrew Shurtleff
|Rita Dove (left) shakes hands with Judge J. Harvie
Wilkinson III after being appointed Poet Laureate of Virginia on Sept.
20 at the Federal Courthouse in Charlottesville. Dove’s husband, Fred
Viebahn, was on hand to witness the ceremony.
Imagine a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet saying, “I decided to forget
about poetry for awhile.” In the aftermath and upheaval of a disastrous
1998 house fire, Rita Dove, too distracted to work on poems as she
routinely did, turned her attention toward learning something new. Her
focus helped her overcome the devastation she felt inside and
eventually return to poetry.
The disaster that struck the Commonwealth Professor of English came in
the form of lightning, which struck her house, which caught on fire,
which resulted in some irretrievable loss — but not loss of life itself.
“Everything was blasted,” including her writing rituals, said Dove, who
joined the U.Va. faculty in 1989, two years after winning the Pulitzer.
But life went on. Not long after the fire, she and her husband, German
author Fred Viebahn, found themselves dancing in the face of disaster,
literally, when they attended a benefit ballroom dance at the urging of
Taking to the dance floor “was completely serendipitous,” Dove said. “I
didn’t know where it would lead me. Ballroom dancing seemed frivolous,
but I discovered how intensely physical it is and grew to have great
respect for the dancers, because the moves are quite precise and you
need to have control.”
A formally trained opera singer, as well as a writer who loves bringing
together different artistic forms, Dove said dancing wasn’t something
she’d gravitated toward before. Being the female dancing partner, as
Ginger Rogers pointed out, means you have to do everything that Fred
Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Dove’s husband told her
she’s a hard person to lead, but they both were so captivated, they
kept at it by taking lessons. The couple now dances a varied repertoire
on a regular basis.
Although the ordeal of the house fire disrupted her life, dancing gave
it new patterns and renewed her belief that life holds an abundance of
goodness. After turning her attention to the other joys of life, poetry
came back to her. New poems came slowly, she said. They came of their
own bidding, they came in bits and fragments. Some of them were about
dancing or inspired by dances, but not all.
Dove’s latest poetry collection, “American Smooth,” includes dancing
poems spaced throughout the book. The title poem not only refers to a
specific American style of ballroom dancing, but also “an attitude, a
way of finessing your life, of being with style,” she said.
Other poems offer additional qualities: a different view of paradise,
stories about African-American soldiers in World War I based on
research she began in the 1980s, a five-part poem about learning to
shoot guns and a section called “Twelve Chairs,” poems written in the
voices of the 12 members of a jury.
She stressed that inspiration is always a matter of being ready and
receptive, which is why the fire affected her so much. With the
routines she had created for writing daily gone, she had to figure out
a different way of being receptive again.
“Poetry is about life. It can tell us something about what a human
being is like,” she said. In balance, you’ve got to live in order to
write, and seek inspiration in other things besides writing poetry and
teaching in a university, she added.
Dove said she has learned to trust that things that interest one person
can mean something else and be interesting to others as well – thus,
poetry can involve nearly any subject. It’s one of the ideas she
imparts to her students. As a teacher, she preaches what she practices.
encourages her students immerse themselves in other activities.
She likes to shake up their notions about writing by giving each of
them a “wild card” — an individualized creative writing exercise where
they have to do something different in their writing. For someone whose
poetry focuses on personal experience, she might suggest researching
related history or culture. For someone who concentrates on more
intellectual ideas, she might prescribe a nature poem.
much as poetry writing is a private activity — her poetic soul stirring
awake in the darkest hours to write — Dove has devoted a substantial
amount of time to bringing poetry into the public arena, through
collaborative projects with other artists and media and by taking on
positions such as her latest: Poet Laureate of Virginia.
Apppointed by Gov. Mark Warner this summer and sworn in to the state
office Sept. 20, Dove will serve for two years. She is no stranger to
this type of public service and acclaim, having been the U.S. Poet
Laureate from 1993 to 1995. Besides making public appearances, Dove has
the freedom to come up with her own ideas about how to promote poetry
within the state.
“It’s a way of giving back,” she said.
Whether she is giving a public speech or leading a poetry workshop with
children, Dove will have a strong lesson in mind. What she learned from
the fire and healing afterwards was something she has been showing and
telling her students for years: ”If something happens that unsettles
you, that shakes you up, you learn that you always come down. Look
around at where you’ve landed and what’s around you.”
You might just end up on a dance floor. You might just write about it.
|Fox Trot Fridays
Thank the stars there’s a day
each week to tuck in
the grief, lift your pearls, and
stride brush stride
quick-quick with a
as Nat King Cole’s
slow satin smile,
easy as taking
one day at a time:
one man and
rib to rib,
with no heartbreak in sight —
just the sweep of Paradise
and the space of a song
to count all the wonders in it.
Reprinted from “American Smooth”
(W.W. Norton & Co.)
© 2004 by Rita Dove.