A conversation with the former U.S. Poet Laureate.
Question: What was the first thing you read that made you want to become a poet?
Rita Dove: This sounds really weird, but when I was about 10 or 11 I stumbled across the Iliad at home. My father had bought the great books of the western world and one of the first books there was the Iliad. I had no idea what it was, but it was a very long thing and I thought this is the beginning of literature, so I’m going to read this and I understood probably about half of it, but it was fascinating. It was an incredibly tense and interesting story and once I got into the whole way that the poems worked it read like a swashbuckling mystery in a way, so that made me feel like gosh, this is exciting. I’d like to do that too.
Question: What was the first poem you wrote?
Rita Dove: I do. I wrote poems before this, but the one that I consider the first real poem was about that time too. It was an Easter poem. In school we were supposed to write or paint or do something artistic for Easter, so I wrote this poem called “The Rabbit With the Droopy Ear” and I remember it because when I began writing the poem I had no idea how it was going to end. I just had this idea of a rabbit, the Easter Bunny who had one ear that you know drooped down and he was distressed, so I kept writing and it rhymed and all that and it was actually the rhyme itself that helped me solve the problem of the rabbit with the droopy ear, so the end of the poem it goes: “Hip-hip hooray. Let’s toast him a cup. For now both ears are hanging up.” He hangs himself from a tree and his ears hang straight and everybody is cheering and I was just… I don’t know. It was very exciting to find that ending.
I actually had to read it aloud in class. That was another thing. Gosh, those were the days when you did these things in class, but you know people showed their paintings if they had something for Easter and I had to read my poem aloud and people like it. The kids liked it, my friends, so that was an instant success story.
Question: Has your method of writing poetry changed throughout your life?
Rita Dove: It hasn’t totally changed. It’s changed in the sense that to some extent I know… Let’s say that the goal is not to come to some kind of neat solution as that did, but it hasn’t changed in the sense that at some level I’m never quite sure how the poem is going to resolve itself and that I’m always in some way surprised. I make a discovery in a poem as I write it. By now that means more accessing the subconscious and the fact that if I begin writing a poem that means I’m intrigued in some way by whatever it’s about and that if I’m not trying to find something new and pushing the envelope in the poem I can’t expect my reader to be particularly excited about it either.
Question: Where does your inspiration for poetry come from?
Rita Dove: I wish I could. It’s different every time and in fact, years ago there was a… I did do something like that for a magazine where a journalist actually followed me around and we tried to, but it’s slightly different every time. My inspiration comes from everywhere, just walking down the street and I never know where it’s going to come from, so I keep a notebook with me at all times and the only criteria for anything making it into that notebook is if it stops me in my tracks for even an instant, if it catches my eye or my ear and I just write it down. That means there are recipes in there you know. There are words and sometimes there is a character description or sometimes it’s a line and after that point though what happens is kind of odd. I work in fragments in this instead. I’m not going to sit-down and say first line is this and now I’m going to just write my way through it. It’s like piecing it together like a pot, so I might have a line that I might write down in the middle of a page and I still write things down with a pen on paper.
I go to the computer when it gets too messy and use it like an elaborate typewriter because I print it out and then I mess it up again, but when I do sit down to write in my room or my study and I try to write, there is a certain time every night. I’m a night person. My best times are midnight to six actually. I’ll leaf through my notebooks and if something catches my eye and I feel like I want to transfer it from the notebook to the page, I do, and then comes this very strange process which is difficult to describe in that I’ll write until I get stuck or I can’t go any further or I’m boring myself or whatever and then I might go to another poem. I might go to another folder where there are other drafts of poems in various stages of completion and the only way I have for keeping track of all this fragmentary stuff is by color and I have different colored folders, red folders, blue, yellow. So I might go into my study let’s say one evening and say I feel like the blue folder today and I’ll pick up the blue folder and see what is in there. So it’s something that I’ve kind of worked out over the years, but the colors are only because I didn’t want to put anything… I didn’t want to file anything in a straight… I think if you put something in a file that says “war poems” or “love poems” that you already restrict the way in which the poem might move. If I put it in blue it could be sad blue. It could be happy blue. It could be peaceful blue, but my mood at the moment when I’m about to work on that poem will tell me where I want to go. So it’s an odd process, but I do lots of revisions and I love to revise, so 30, 40 revisions is not unusual.
At this stage I do most of my revisions by myself until I reach a point where I either need to give it lots of time because time is a great reviser too you know, just months of putting it aside or I will show it… A lot of times I’ll show it to my husband who is a novelist and as a pro’s writer he has a totally different take on things, so he comes at it in a different way. I yearn for those old days you know from graduate school where you go into a workshop and people would give you all these ideas and you’d take it away from, but at this point that just doesn’t… It’s not in the cards, so.
Question: Do you believe that it takes a wealth of experience to be able to write a poem?
Rita Dove: I think it’s both. I think that you certainly don’t have to be aged and travel the world to write a poem. In fact, sometimes traveling the world is a way of not writing a poem, but it’s the quality of experience. It’s being able to experience something and when you begin to write about it be able to apply the tools that you need for writing, you know a mastery of the language and a way of piecing together the language I guess, that those two factors have to come together, so you do need to be… to work at it, but you also have to be able to know when to take the experience as it happened, when to tweak it a little bit, what part of the experience is going to move somebody else and what part is really your own private moment, so I’ve seen poems written by very young people which are absolutely stunning and of course we have examples, Baudelaire. These are amazing poems, so he obviously didn’t have a wealth of experience or age or anything like that and I’ve seen poems which of course could only have been written by someone who was older and had lived certain you know stages of life and gone through certain stages of life, but it’s a combination of the two. It really is.
Question: What’s your process of turning historical moments into poetry?
Rita Dove: Well you know I’ve always felt that the poems I’ve written which have historical context are hopefully not just simply plucking something out of history and saying great, let’s write about that. In every case what has happened is that I’ve become fascinated or haunted by something and couldn’t shake it. As an African-American, as a woman I think that I’ve been sensitized to the way in which history privileges the white male and the way in which certain aspects of history, the things that we are taught in school, the things that are handed down never, never entered the picture though they might have been very important. Anyone can tell you that, at the risk of oversimplification, let me say that anyone can tell you that how you’re raised as a child has a great deal to do with how you behave as an adult and whether you have complexes or whether you need to prove yourself or all that kind of stuff and yet the mother in a traditional family who has raised a child never makes it in the history books. I mean so those kinds of things have always irritated me. Let’s put it that way. And I’m always reminded when I see someone, Napoleon’s stocks through the battlefields and I think yeah, but how did he get that way? How did this guy become who he was?
So that’s the predisposition I had I think as a writer, as a person who wanted to create poetry. That’s one of the things that has always been one of the things I carry along with me. Each time it’s different. For instance, in this new book, which tells the story of a black, a mixed race violinist, George Bridgetower, who grew up in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. I came upon him because I was watching a movie Immortal Beloved and there was a scene in which Beethoven walks by a group of musicians and there is this black violinist. I’m like, what? I’ve heard of colorblind casting, but this is a bit strange and so I looked him up and I didn’t intend to write poems about it. I just wanted to know more about him and I kept reading and the more I read the more I realized the only way I was going to get him out of my head was to get into his and start to write about him. So in each case it’s been something like that.
Question: In this day of digital media and short attention spans, what is the future of poetry?
Rita Dove: I think it’s going to be a mix of things. First of all, poetry of all the forms of literature I think is the most suited for the digital age and for the shorter attention spans and all of that. It Twitters very easily, some lyric poems and it’s very easy to zip a poem to someone, so that’s one of the things I think is wonderful about poetry in the digital age. I think that it’s going to be a mix between people who will really only need to see a book on a page and those who will only want to hear it on the stage or want to hear the oral word. What is interesting about the digital age is because of all of the ways in which we have of transporting moving images now and making it very portable.
The oral aspect of poetry is coming back. I mean poetry began as an oral discipline and then we had the printing press and then it became gradually something which began to lose a little bit of its musicality because now we could read it, so all of the rhymed poems which… You know all of the formal poems which certainly began as a way of helping us remember a poem, as an aid to memory, it rhymed, that wasn’t necessary anymore. We moved away from that. Now we have spoken word. Rhyme is coming back in, so it’s absolutely fascinating to me. I think it’s going to change a little bit more, become a little bit more musical and we’ll have a whole range of things, but it’s an exciting time.
Question: What is your advice to an aspiring young poet in today’s world?
Rita Dove: My first advice would be to read, read, read, which sounds interesting coming in a digital age, but it’s so much easier to listen to a poem than it is to sit down and actually read it and to hear it in your head and that is something that every poet or aspiring poet needs to be able to do, I think to hear it in their head. What I wish someone had told me. I wish someone had told me that my stories are really mine to tell. In other words, anything that I think is important or that has moved me has the ability to move somebody else. It was a long process to… for me and I think for many young poets to be able to realize that even the smallest, the most domestic experience can move someone else. It doesn’t have to be about the Trojan War. You know it doesn’t have to be the Iliad. It doesn’t have to be something that again, here we get to history, that makes it to the front page of the news, but we live our lives in detail, all of us. We walk down the street. We breathe. We hear things. We try to transcribe it generalities and the details are what make us come alive and I wish someone had said that just at the beginning, so I wouldn’t have felt so discouraged when I began writing and thinking who would want to hear the stories of a young black girl growing up in the Midwest. You know that’s not interesting. I have to live in Paris. No, you don’t.
Question: Should poets be thinking of their audience as they write?
Rita Dove: I’m not thinking of my audience, which does not mean that I’m doing it for myself. At the very beginning when I begin writing a poem I try not to think of the audience or anyone at all except for trying to get at the very center of what is driving that poem. In a way it’s like analyzing myself. Why did I even sit down to write this? Why is it even interesting? What is it that drives this thing? That means going down into the very deepest psychological moments, things that can frighten and scare you and I think that to think of an audience at that point would actually drive those thoughts away. But and during the process of revision in what happens is that I’m thinking about the language and how I can use the language, which is my tool to convey whatever this experience slash emotion is, so that if anyone else sits down to read it they can also feel it, so it’s beyond just saying, talking about describing something. It’s also using words which help to shape the emotion so that if it’s supposed to be something very hectic or a frantic moment then the words probably would be shorter and clipped and you know things like that. During that revision process it becomes less and less a private matter and more and more something for an anonymous audience. I don’t try to imagine an audience at that stage. I don’t try to imagine an audience in the sense of well these are all educated people you know from the ages of 18 to 45. I just think of there is someone out there who might want to read this. If they read this I want them to get to feel the same thing that I’m feeling and that’s my audience, but that in the end I’m thinking only of them and I’m not there anymore.
Question: Are we striving toward post racial literature and art?
Rita Dove: It would be wonderful if we were striving toward a post racial literature and certainly the election of Obama is a big step on the way. I think that we shouldn’t get complacent and think oh gosh, now we’re post racial. We are not. We haven’t had the conversations we need to have about race and privilege and all of that stuff. We’re starting, so on our way, but one of the things that I’ve always dreamed of is to have a post racial literature. You waste so much energy and good talent either trying to insist upon your presence, which is certainly what happened in the black arts movement in the 60’s for instance and you also waste a lot of energy then. You waste a lot of energy insisting upon your presence, but then you also can waste a lot of energy explaining things, explaining things which are specific to a certain racial culture, which if you think about it in terms of the mainstream we don’t mind looking things up if we don’t understand them, but we kind of expect to be clued in on various things that happen in the culture.
One of the things that I have always found frustrating are the little reference points that I might have to explain in a poem that I wouldn’t have to explain if it were a mainstream detail. For instance, I know exactly how a white woman would do her hair every morning. I know the washing and the blow drying and all of that kind of stuff, but so that if I see that in a poem, if it were to occur in a poem then I would have no problem with it whereas for me to even to get up and to explain getting up and rushing in how to do my hair it would require all sorts of glosses. You know I’d have to say well yes, there is the hair pomade and there is the this and so my hope is that in a post racial culture all these kind of details we will just assume that we can figure them out or we will assume that it’s something as we read them that we’ll have to look up instead of demanding that our writers give us a gloss right in the middle of the poem. I think we’re on our way.
Question: What were your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?
Rita Dove: It’s so funny. When I was Poet Laureate, when I was named Poet Laureate I went down to Washington a little bit beforehand to meet the assistant and meet the librarian of congress and all that and to kind of acclimate myself and I did ask what my duties were. The only official duties are to sponsor a reading series at the Library of Congress twice a month. That was fun to be able to invite poets from all over the world actually to come to read and to read for the archives. That was one official duty. The other duty was to advise the Library of Congress, the librarian of congress and also- and this was the funny one- to promote poetry in any way that I see fit. I said, “What does that mean to promote poetry?” And they said, “Well.” I said, “Well, what is the budget because if you’re going to promote you need a budget?” And I got a kind of a blank stare, so I thought okay this means that you make it up as you go along. You know I’m an artist. I can create. And I decide to just do things and figure they would stop me if they didn’t have enough money, which was probably a good way to go about it because they did find money for various things, but what was interesting, it’s sort of like being Miss America for poetry in that as the Poet Laureate you have an immediate cache and you have status. People see you. You have some kind of publicity, some kind of public stage and I thought of myself as being more like a lightening rod. People would say there is a Poet Laureate, let’s ask her or let’s tell her what to do and I got so many letters right from the beginning from people all over this country telling me what I should do and some of them were really good ideas, so and I couldn’t implement all of them in the time I was there, the two years I was there.
The one thing that I found very, very helpful was to remember that many people are very frightened of poetry and as Poet Laureate I had chance to travel around to just inject poetry into everyday life whenever I could and so I visited grade school kids or the Naval Academy, I mean all sorts of places where you thought you know didn’t know they liked poetry or poetry was absolutely necessary. So each Poet Laureate decides how they want to use that public arena and I decided to try to just be there in people’s faces whenever they turned around and to make poetry something that was all around us, so I went on “Sesame Street” for instance and yeah, it was really fun.
The other thing that happens with the Poet Laureateship is that when I was in Washington there was an opportunity to inject poetry into the government and though the Poet Laureate does not have to write official poems for anything there were many occasions when I would be asked to say a few words, which is of course a kind of a euphemism for do you have a poem, but there is always poem. You can always find a poem for almost any human situation, so I didn’t write poems for specific events, but I could look and see if I had a poem which would fit because I think is always important. It’s important if there is a celebration for some bill being passed it’s nice to have a poem there to remind us all of the human element and the human effort that went behind it, so that was important too.
Question: What makes a classic poem?
Rita Dove: The “Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry” is a gargantuan project and basically I’m trying to make sense poetically of the twentieth century in America, so it starts really right there with Edgar Arlington Robinson and goes up until anything published in the year 2000. So what the difference in this anthology is, instead of just a poem here, a poem there, two poems by this person, I’m trying to give a sense of major poets who then influenced other poets as well, so there may be quite a few poems by say let’s choose someone, William Carlos Williams and then show how he influenced all sorts of other poets who may have a few other, not as many poems in the anthology.
What makes a classic poem? I think that when a poem can move readers across generations and across its specific class or race then it becomes truly classic. I mean in other words, if the poem is so moving that even if you have no experience in that particular setting be it 1920’s Harlem let’s say. You still are so moved that you can put yourself in that position. That means that the writer has managed to go beyond the personal and touch the humanity in all of us and it’s really a blast to read it because I realize how that this does hold true for the truly great poems.
Question: What poem has inspired you over the years?
Rita Dove: Gosh, no, there is not a specific poem. It changes. It changes depending on what I’m working with, where I’m at, at the moment, but there are just poems that are just so amazing to me and if I named one then I of course lose another, but it goes in and out. I think that… Let me think. I can’t name a specific one. Lines flow through my head. There is a very beautiful German poem by Gerta which I often say to myself because it’s like a little prayer, but it’s also totally untranslatable. I’ve never been able to translate it and it’s humbling because you realize that we need translators. Please, please, please, we need our translators otherwise we’ll never have any of these poems. We would never know how Baudelaire moves us or anything like that, but you also realize how much gets lost, how necessarily poetry is so bonded to the language in which it is composed that it’s you’re always going to lost something and I find that very humbling. So yeah, but it’s a wonderful little poem and it rhymes, but it rhymes in odd ways.
[Poem recited in German] That’s it and you can hear the rhymes and basically translated it says: “Over all the mountains tranquility rests. In all of the tips of the trees…” And that is veitful, [ph] which is a great little word. “In all the tops of the trees you can hardly feel a breath. Wait. Just wait. Soon you too will rest.” And it’s just it’s because of the lines it makes it’s such a calm poem and it’s just… and certain words are totally untranslatable like veitful, [ph] which does mean tips of the trees, but that doesn’t sound very good in English, but it almost rocks you to sleep and I just find it an incredibly amazing poem for its tightness and yet tranquility
Question: “The Undressing”
Rita Dove: I could. Let me think. What could I do? I’ll read a short one and but I have to give you a little gloss for it, if I can find it. All right, in this poem… This is from my new book “Sonata Mulattica,” which tells the story of George Bridgetower, a mulatto violinist from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this poem he was a prodigy. He was a little boy, ten years-old in England playing his violin in front of all the music lovers of London and his father is sent away from London. The Prince of Wales says, “I’ll take care of the little boy.” And so you have this little boy who is… has the best job in the world for a musician, but at the same time he has no family and in this poem the prince has ordered him to go into his room and to change into British clothing. “The Undressing:” “First the sash, peacock blue. Silk unfurling round and round until I’m the India ink dotting a cold British i. Now I can bend to peel off my shoes, try to hook the tasseled tips into the emerald sails of my satin pantaloons. Farewell sir monkey jacket, monkey red. Ado shirt tart and bright as the lemons the prince once let me touch. Goodbye lakeside meadow. Goodbye hummingbird throat. No more games. I am to become a proper British gentleman, cuffed and buckled with breeches and a fine cravat, but how? My tossed bed glows while I, I am a smudge, a quenched wick, a twig shrouded in snow.”
Recorded on November 19, 2009