On April 8, 1997, The Book Report welcomed RITA DOVE, Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, for a free-wheeling conversation about the importance of poetry in our lives. Interviewing Ms. Dove was Jesse Kornbluth (BookpgJK). Our online host was BookpgXena.

Bookpg JK: Good evening, a great pleasure to have our youngest Poet Laureate with us.

Rita Dove: It's great to be here.

Bookpg JK: During National Poetry Month, when Allen Ginsberg dies, poetry is suddenly front page news. Is that ironic to you?

Rita Dove: I wouldn't say "ironic." I'd say serendipitous. What is more ironic is that Allen Ginsberg's importance was in its twilight for so many years that it took his death to bring it to the front page. He electrified an entire world! And he continues to do so! There are generations who stumble across HOWL! and find it speaks to them. Yet it takes a tragedy to make people notice.

Bookpg JK: It seems to me that there is a Big Topic here... Ginsberg, as you said in an interview, was a master of the first person singluar -- like O'Hara and Whitman and Mayakovski. This is a voice that you've said isn't completely natural to you. And yet, as Poet Laureate, your public persona --- your first person singular --- was the only voice most people could recognize. How was the experience of being Poet Laureate?

Rita Dove: Much more gratifying than I anticipated. I was apprehensive. I feared I'd be dodging labels all the time. I feared every time I talked about poetry, it would be filtered through the lens of race, sex, and age. What I discovered was that there were people all over the country who were hungry for poetry and were eager to embrace the multitude of voices that can be heard through poetry... and that these different voices were not exclusionary; they just embraced the richness of the country. What I meant by Ginsberg being a master of the first person was that his first personal singular wasn't selfish. The voice came from one man, but it also came from everyone who had a similar experience. This is what I wanted to convey as Poet Laureate. Labels only keep us from specificity.

Bookpg JK: You talk of selflessness. That seems to be the case with you as well. You've said it was almost impossible to write when you were Poet Laureate. It was really an act of patriotism.

Rita Dove: I feel that there are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints. For years, I had heard about the lack of interest in literature in the U.S. and I had complained about the lack of respect artists got here. In my heart, I failed to understand how people could fail to be moved by art. When I was asked, I said, "Well, the time for complaining is up." And I had been taught by my parents and grandparents to pay my dues.

Bookpg JK: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as Poet Laureate?

Rita Dove: I can't name one incident.

Bookpg JK: What effect did being Poet Laureate have on your writing?

Rita Dove: Being Poet Laureate made me realize I was capable of a larger voice. It's too early to tell, but I realize there is a more public utterance I can make as a poet. For many years, I thought a poem was a whisper overheard, not an aria heard. I have come to realize there is also a poem I can write that has a larger presence. When I wrote "Lady Freedom" (which was written for the 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol), I felt that larger voice. I knew I'd be reading the poem at the celebration and that the statue, which had been cleaned and refurbished, would be put back on the dome, and that gave me a larger sense of the event.

Question: When you're reading for your own pleasure, do you read poetry or prose? And who do you read?

Rita Dove: I read everything. Reading is a pleasurable experience for me. I'm very eclectic. Right now I just finished Jamaica Kincaid's AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER. Just getting around to SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW and Derek Wolcott. And some German satire from the 20's and 30's.

Question: Why do you think so many people are intimidated by poetry? Do you think something can be done to solve that problem?

Rita Dove: The first thing that could be done is to bring poetry into our children's lives at an early age --- without pressure.

Bookpg JK: Some would say that already happens --- and it's called rap. Do you agree?

Rita Dove: Rap is only one end of a whole spectrum of verbal play and virtuosity. Rap is geared for aural pleasure. I'm also talking about many-layered poems you may have to read several times. I believe even 5-year-olds can get something from a Shakespearean sonnet... as long as you DON'T tell them, "This is really hard."

Question: I would like to know about your creative process. Are you very disciplined?

Rita Dove: I'd like to think so. I have a high guilt quotient. A poem can go through as many as 50 or 60 drafts. It can take from a day to two years --- or longer. I carry a notebook with me everywhere. I write down lines that come to me... words that sound good...overheard conversation...anything that takes me out of daily existence. But that's only the first step. Then some of those jottings make it onto paper. I work on more than one poem a month. I keep the drafts of each poem in color-coded folders (I don't want to think about the poems in terms of themes... I just say, "This feels green") and when I come back to write --- and I try to write every day -- I pick up the folders according to how I feel about that color that day.

Question: Do you just write poetry? Have you written any novels? Any desire to?

Rita Dove: I have written one novel, published in 1992, called UNDER THE IVORY GATE. I write short stories and I wrote a play, which was produced this summer.

Question: As a grandparent, I truly appreciate your efforts to bring good literature to children and was impressed by your recommendations for The Western Canon, Jr. Have your efforts proved as successful as you had hoped?

Rita Dove: Yes. They have exceeded my hopes. I'm talking person-to-person... and from the responses I've received, I see a resurgence of interest in poetry. That is immensely exciting. I am less optimistic about the prospects for the arts when it comes to federal funding. It seems Congress is diametrically opposed to the general trend. People seem more excited about the arts --- and they keep taking the money away!

Bookpg JK: Your successor, Robert Hass, has used his term to raise hell. He has kicked the government about the environment, and pretty much said that you can't sell poetry to people who are poor, hungry, and disillusioned. I'm thinking of your poem THE GORGE, which addresses some of these issues. In retrospect, do you wish you had been more "political" or outspoken?

Rita Dove: I think I WAS political and outspoken. I did it a different way. I took Washington kids into the Library of Congress to read their poems and to be recorded for the Archives. They lived around the corner --- and they'd never been there. I brought Crow Indian children to Washington. They told their Congressmen what poetry meant to them. They forced their Congressmen to listen to them. I had an evening of poetry and jazz to join those audiences. When I was Poet Laureate, the Congress was just beginning to kick up a fuss. And I fought that. I wanted to have some kind of evening at the White House to honor "the art of the story" (and that could include quiltmakers) but the bureaucracy was so tough, it just never happened.

Question: If poets have been divided into camps, as some say they have, would you be able to put yourself into any one of them? Do you think that there are no camps at all?

Rita Dove: There are camps. But I can't put myself in one. I hope I can't.

Bookpg JK: Of the many wonderful things about you, that may be the best --- your refusal to be bound by history, gender, race, circumstance. You really write in the most "universal" and "detached" voice. There's no ax. Where does that come from? Was that something you had to work for... or is this simply a matter of character?

Rita Dove: I can't tell you if I was born like this. I do know that, as a child, I knew that being out of control or biased doesn't serve your cause well. As a child, I was told by my mother and father, "Don't assume anything. Look at the situation as clearly as you can... then do the best you can with what you know." The point was not to rely on friends or circumstances. I also think that reading Shakespeare's plays when I was young was extremely important. He had the ability to make utter strangers come alive. That expanded my sense of what differences there can be in a human being.

Question: Who are your favorite poets? And who has been an influence on your work?

Rita Dove: I wonder why people always want to know that. My favorite poets may not be your bread and butter. Also, I have more favorite poems than favorite poets...Langston Hughes: A THEME FOR ENGLISH B... Cavafy's MARC ANTHONY LEAVING ALEXANDRA... I don't know why, but those poems change my life every time I read them. My early influences were Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Heine... and Mother Goose. For each stage of life, there are groups of poets --- the list is too long!

Question: Do you believe that there are "gifted" poets... those that are born with the insight, intuitiveness to grasp thoughts, emotions, feelings, and convey those qualities, and state of being via the written form as expressed through poetry?

Rita Dove: I believe that people may have a predisposition for artistic creativity. It doesn't mean they're going to make it. Hemingway said, "More writers fail from lack of character than lack of talent." I think children have talent and insight, but it gets beaten out of them. It's interesting that people never assume that a basketball player or pianist doesn't have to practice --- we know they do. Same for writers.

Question: I heard Philip Levine and Mark Doty (two of my favorites) read their own poetry. I was completely amazed at the difference in my response to their work when read by the poets. Have you had any feedback of this type from people who hear you read your poetry?

Rita Dove: Yes. Especially when I was Poet Laureate and read to audiences that weren't accustomed to hearing poets, I'd get, "I didn't know poets could be that way."

Bookpg JK: We did. And we are so grateful that you have joined us. Please return to cyberspace any time you like.

Rita Dove: Thank you. I will.

This was donated to this page by Sean Doorly, Producer of THE BOOK REPORT on AOL

Copyright, 1997 THE BOOK REPORT, INC.




We have no connection with, nor do we know how to contact, Ms. Dove.

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This page was inspired by and is dedicated to Gloria Watkins Aniebo Williams.