Diane talks with Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones and author of the book, “Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America.”
Guest Host: Derek McGinty
Rita Dove’s poetry career has spanned more than 40 years. During that time she has received just about every honor available to a poet. In 1987 she won the Pulitzer Prize for “Thomas and Beulah,” a novel in verse based on the lives of her grandparents. Six years later, she became the nation’s first African-American poet laureate. Determined to make her art form accessible to the public, Dove transformed the position into that of poetry ambassador. Since then, she has continued to leave her mark on the world of verse through her own work and as editor of the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Now she’s released a book of collected poems. Rita Dove on a life lived in verse.
- Rita Dove Former U.S. Poet Laureate, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal; Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia
Listen To Dove Read Her Poetry
Even listeners who have a difficult time reading poetry enjoyed our interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove. "I'm not really a poetic person," caller Virginia, from Columbia, Maryland, said. "I love poetry, but I find it hard to read. Listening to her read her poems, I'm charmed!
MR. DEREK MCGINTYThanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. She is recovering from a voice treatment. The great American poet, Robert Frost, once said "poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words." Well, poet Rita Dove's words have been provoking thoughts and emotions for more than four decades now. She's won a Pulitzer Prize. She was Poet Laureate. She received a National Medal of the Arts.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYAnd in announcing that honor, President Obama stated that Dove's work blends, we quote, "beauty, lyricism, critique and politics." Dove has just released a new compilation of 30 years of poems and we're really, really fortunate to have her here in the studio. Rita Dove, welcome.
MS. RITA DOVEThank you.
MCGINTYGood to see you.
DOVEIt's good to see you, too.
MCGINTYYeah. I'm wondering, it occurs to me that as you look at 30 years of work, as you look back to the earlier things, do you think, I am so much better than this now?
DOVEWell, you know, one of the reasons why I wanted to put together 30 years and not make any kind of edits on anything was to show people the whole journey of a poet. So I look back on those early poems -- and some of them, I kind of go, oh, really. I could, you know, tweak this here or there. And I said, no, no, no. One of the things that I realized was how fearless I was when I was younger, in a way.
DOVEYes. I mean, just this feeling of I have things to say. I'm just gonna step out there and say it. And there's that brashness of youth that I can...
MCGINTYSo wait a minute. Are there things that you want to say now that you think, well, wait, hold up?
DOVEIt's not that I wouldn't say them. It's that now I know -- I'll write down something and I'll say, no, that's not good enough and I will just -- and I'll keep -- I'll work it, you know, almost to death. But so in other words, I've -- my technique has gotten to the point that I feel like I just really won't put it out there unless I think it's absolutely perfect. When I was younger, I thought, this is the way I want to say it. This is the energy I want to say it in. This is how I can say it now so I'm putting it out there.
MCGINTYSo you do believe that you are significantly better than you were when you first started this.
DOVEI do, I do indeed.
MCGINTYYou know, I wonder, so as someone growing up, did you say to yourself I'm gonna be a poet? When did it strike you that this was who you were?
DOVEOh, I did not think I was going to be a poet, though I read poetry all the time. When I was 9, 10, I remember pulling out this book on the shelf and I'm sure my parents got it through one of those kind of "Reader Digest" programs. It was Louis Untermeyer's collection of best loved poems. And I just read it, I mean, I dipped into it like you'd kind of go to a smorgasbord. Oh, that looks good, let's try this. I just didn't know any living poets and certainly no poets even in these books that reflected my life, you know.
DOVEThere was, you know, no black poets. Women poets were few. And I just thought that was something for another time, another era. I was going to have to get on in life and I was going to become a credit to my race, which meant doctor, lawyer, teacher.
DOVERight? Well, I did the teacher part, but it wasn't until, I think, well, two times. When I was in -- a senior in high school, my English teacher took a few of us to see a poet and to go to a book signing. It was John Ciardi, was the poet. I had never shown any -- I was writing poems, but I never showed anyone anything. They were just for me. And so she got our parents' permission and she took us all to this book signing and I looked at this man signing books and I thought, he's a real poet. He's breathing.
DOVEAnd so that was the first little window that opened up.
MCGINTYWas there a poem that this person did that struck you or was that farther down the road?
DOVEThat was farther down the road because at that point, if I remember correctly, he was actually signing -- he had done a translation of "Dante's Inferno," so he was reading from that, which, you know, for a, you know, person in the 12th -- it didn't make any sense at the time.
MCGINTYThat didn't make any sense to you at the time, right.
DOVEBut he was a living, breathing poet and I looked him up and he had other books. It wasn't until I was college, actually, that it -- I thought this is what I want to do forever.
MCGINTYDo you remember the first poem you did?
DOVEIn college? Actually...
DOVEOh, ever. Well, the first poem I ever did was -- I think it was in fourth grade and it was an assignment to do something creative for Easter so I wrote a poem about a rabbit with a droopy ear. And the thing about that poem that -- I do remember it, but the thing about that poem that was so wonderful for me was that I didn't know how it was going to end until it ended. I kind of wrote myself into the ending.
MCGINTYOkay. So you remember that poem?
DOVEI think I do. Want me to say it, don't you?
MCGINTYI would love for...
DOVEYou do. All right, all right, all right. So "Mr. Rabbit was big and brown, but he always wore a frown. He was sad, even though spring was here because he had one droopy ear. They were the handsomest ears in town, except one went up and one went drooped down. And to think Easter was almost here. Alas, for the rabbit with the droopy ear. He went one night to the wise old owl and told his tale twixt whine and howl. The owl just leaned closer to hear and said I know the cure for your droopy ear.
DOVEThe next day, everyone gathered round to see the incident at the old oak tree. The rabbit was hanging upside down from a branch on the tree and gone was his frown. Hip, hip hooray, let's toast him a cup, for now, both ears were hanging up. Everybody raised a cheer, hooray for the rabbit with the two straight ears."
MCGINTYThat was in your fourth grade?
DOVEYes. That was in my fourth grade. But it rhymed and so I kind of...
MCGINTYOkay. Wait a second. That, I mean, you know, obviously, you have a tremendous gift and it has served you well, but that's brilliant for a fourth grader.
MCGINTYI mean, that -- for a fourth grader, that's amazing. I mean...
DOVEWell, gee, thank you. I mean, I just remember being so excited to have the language itself actually lead me to the ending 'cause I had to rhyme with these kind of things.
MCGINTYRight. And, of course, the poems you do now do not rhyme.
DOVEThey don't rhyme in the same way. I mean, they will not rhyme -- some do rhyme at the end of a line, but most of the rhymes are kind of internal. It's more syncopated. It's more like jazz, I would say, rather than, you know, a traditional ballad. But music is -- they have music. Let's put it that way.
MCGINTYAll right. Maybe you could share one with us that's a little newer than the fourth grade rhyme. The Maple Valley Branch Library from 1967 is not brand new, but you were far beyond the fourth grade.
DOVEI was far beyond the fourth grade, that is correct, and this is a kind of my love poems to librarians because the one place I could go as a young person on my own without much explanation was the library. "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1976." "For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty to do, browse the magazines, slip into the Adult Section to see what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic, decolletes, and the plague of too much money. There was so much to discover, how to lay out a road, the language of flowers, and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.
DOVEThere were equations elegant as a French twist, fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf. I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure of a pineapple Jell-O mould or take the path of Harold’s crayon through the bedroom window and onto a lavender spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch the rough curve of bound leather, the harsh parchment of dreams. As for the improbable librarian with her salt and paprika upsweep, her British accent and sweater clip. mom of a kid I knew from school, I’d go up to her desk and ask for help on bareback rodeo or binary codes, phonics, Gestalt theory, lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire, the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting.
DOVEI would claim to be researching pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding, but all I wanted to know was, tell me what you’ve read that keeps that half smile afloat above the collar of your impeccable blouse."
MCGINTYI'm gonna stop you right there because what strikes me about this poem, and perhaps a lot of your work, is the attention to detail. What makes this work is that you've pointed out things that a lot of us wouldn't notice, but would remember because you said it.
DOVEWell, you know, one of the things I always tell my students, my creative writing students, is that detail -- we live in detail, You know. We do not live in generalities. We do not walk through and say, oh, you know, the day is just icky. We might say that to someone, but we will walk and notice and feel it on our skin, you know.
MCGINTYAnd that makes you -- that's what sort of inflames the creative portion of what you do?
DOVEIt does. I think that one of things that -- when I start to write a poem, I am not thinking I am going to write a poem about the injustice of this, that or the other. I start with a moment because that moment has arrested me, has made me perk up. And I trust that it made me do that for a reason.
MCGINTYAnd as you find that the little things in that moment that strike you, that pulls -- you pull that together into...
DOVERight. That pulls that together. And part of that experience of being at the library in this poem, part of that -- it's about that idea that anything can strike your interest. I mean, and it can be math and it can be phonics or it can be art or it could be a recipe.
MCGINTYThere you go. Rita Dove, she is a grand poet, grand American treasure. She's collected her poems in a brand new book called "Collected Poems: 1974 - 2004." I'm Derek McGinty for Diane Rehm and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYWelcome back. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. And I'm having the pleasure of a wonderful conversation with poet Rita Dove. And I know you'd like to talk with her as well. The number here is 800-433-8850. And Patricia in Little Rock, Ark., thanks for calling.
PATRICIAGood morning, Eric.
PATRICIAHi. I've been a teacher for 36 years at the K-12 and university levels, from Arkansas all the way to California and back. I would like to encourage Rita -- I'm sorry I didn't get her last name -- to put "The Rabbit" poem in a child's book so that others will be inspired to create.
MCGINTYAll right. Well, thank you, Patricia. By the way, it's Rita Dove who's with us. What do you think about that idea?
DOVEThat's a wonderful idea, Patricia. And, you know, I've never -- it's never occurred to me. So I will credit you for that. Thank you so much. I think it's good idea. It's time for "The Rabbit" to meet the page.
MCGINTYI think it's a wonderful idea. I think it's a great -- I think there are a lot of adults who wish they could write a poem that good. But we will talk about that later. You mentioned that you found your love of poetry in the library. And do you still go to the library? Or what, you know, do you still?
DOVEI, you know, it's getting increasingly difficult to go to libraries because they're all going digital.
DOVEAnd that's one -- I think, it's the way of the future, but I'm clinging desperately to the past. I -- the thing about a library -- and I do go to libraries still -- is that you can happen upon something by chance. And it's simply by noticing a blue cover or something on a book. And it can open up an entirely new world to you. It's little more difficult when you're, you know, going through the Internet, to happen upon something like that. So, it's a beautiful place.
MCGINTYYeah. You talked about the details and the writing. Has it gotten easier now?
DOVENo, it has not gotten easier. It's still, I mean, if it had -- if it got easier, I'd think something was wrong.
DOVEI really would. Because I feel like, that in order to -- well, perfection is beyond all of us. So to keep pushing toward getting the absolute -- the best that I can do, is always a little bit terrifying and infinitely difficult. But I wouldn't have it any other way.
MCGINTYSo you don't imagine a time when you'd say, you know what? This has gotten too hard. I'm not going to do this anymore.
DOVENo. I couldn't imagine that at all. I mean, there is always a point -- I think there's always a point when I'm writing where I kind of say, this is not going to work. This is, you know, I can't get there. But that's because I'm actually almost there, I'm almost really there. What has gotten easier is the fact that I can look back on what I've done and say, Rita, you've done it before. Don't despair. You can make it. You know, just strike out on that road. But every poem, every book has been a venture in a new territory.
MCGINTYYeah. As I read through your collected poems -- and obviously I didn't read them all, but I read a good number of them -- you know, some of them are very sophisticated and I'll be honest and say I didn't understand them all the way.
MCGINTYAnd I'm wondering is it -- how important is it to you that people read your poems and understand what you were trying to do?
DOVEIt is important for me that they understand it. But they do not have to understand it at the first, you know, boom, like that. Some poems you just live with and you -- they kind of seep in and then you say, oh, now I get it. There are many things in life which we don't understand at first blush. It's just that, I think, when people read poems, they feel like, oh, I've got to come up with an interpretation.
DOVEIt's more -- it is really much more like music or like looking at a painting and getting a feeling from it. You come away with what you gather from the poem and then the rest of it can work at you a little bit more later.
MCGINTYI'm going to get you to read more poetry for us. But I'm wondering, in the meantime, do you ever go out to, say, a poetry slam or something like that, just to see what the young folks are doing these days?
DOVEIt's a little hard for me to go out to a poetry slam because they recognize me and then I'm, you know, I'm trying...
DOVEThen they're watching me watch them.
DOVEBut I do try to go out, I mean, or even participate in things which are not, quote, unquote, "so grand or official," like reading in a bar.
DOVEYes. I've -- I did a wonderful -- I had a wonderful evening with a bourbon tasting. And then we kind of read in between bourbon tastings.
MCGINTYSo as the evening got on, the poetry got better.
DOVEThe poetry got real good. Audience was right there. No, but it's that kind of atmosphere, feeling that the poetry's in the world and not in some kind of rarified atmosphere.
MCGINTYNot up in the ivory tower.
MCGINTYAll right. Let's go to Simi in Fredericksburg, Va. You're on the air. Go ahead.
SIMIHi, guys. Glad to have you here. I was wondering, Ms. Dove, if you would consider transforming your early poetry into an adult novel? That's my question. I'll take the answer off the air.
DOVEMy early poems as an adult novel.
MCGINTYWell, is there anything in particular that you had in mind?
SIMIYou know, just in the same vein as the earlier caller, when she said to take the poem of "The Rabbit," and turning it into a children's story. That's great. Great idea. I have a bunch of children's stories that I -- I'm consider transforming into an adult novel. So, you know, childhood stories, adventures and such.
SIMIWe -- since we do look at everything in detail, there's a bigger picture out there. And I was wondering if you had considered picking up those details and then transforming them into a story, like "The Rabbit" may be a bigger story.
DOVEHmm. It's an interesting idea, Simi. I have not really thought about taking the earlier poems and making them into a novel. So -- and the reason why is that when I wrote them -- and whenever I write a poem, I tend to -- I've -- it is a poem. I mean, I think in that kind of language and it has that kind of rhythm to it. So then to take it again and to put it into an adult novel would be like taking apart the poem.
MCGINTYOn the other hand, back in 1987, you won the Pulitzer...
MCGINTY...for your book, "Thomas and Beulah," which was about your grandparents and was designed to be read in order, because it does tell a story.
DOVEYes, it does. In fact, it tells the story of a marriage. And there are two parts, Thomas' part and Beulah's half of the book. And I do say at the beginning, these are meant to be read in sequence...
DOVE...to tell two parts of the story. And in that book, what I was -- the daring thing that I was trying to do was to push the concept, the idea of poetry. I mean, poetry can both tell a story and it can sing and it can tell both sides of a story, that kind of simultaneity. So it was -- you're right, all those poems are, in the husband's side, there are these lyric moments in his life. And then you get his wife's side. And you see that sometimes they're right in sync and sometimes they see a situation entirely differently. But in the end, it's the story of a life -- two lives.
MCGINTYYou have a poem called "DayStar" that you want to share with us from that...
DOVEYes. Ah, yes.
DOVEThat's a good, yes. This poem is from Beulah's or the wife's point of view. And it is a moment in her life when she has children. And anyone who's had children knows that there are points, you love them to death, but there may be a point where you just need to get away from them, you know? For a moment, let's put it that way. This is her moment.
DOVE"DayStar. She wanted a little room for thinking. But she saw diapers steaming on the line, a doll slumped behind the door. So she lugged a chair behind the garage to sit out the children's naps. Sometimes there were things to watch. The pinched armor of a vanished cricket, a floating maple leaf. Other days, she stared until she was assured, when she closed her eyes, she'd see only her own vivid blood. She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared pouting from the top of the stairs. And just what was mother doing out back with the field mice? Why, building a palace.
DOVE"Later that night, when Thomas rolled over and lurched into her, she would open her eyes and think of the place that was hers for an hour, where she was nothing, pure nothing, in the middle of the day."
MCGINTYI think every mother in the world can relate to exactly what you're talking about there. But you're talking about your grandparents here. And, you know, I just barely remember my grandparents and certainly don't have that knowledge and detail of their lives. How did you get it? Or did -- were you filling in the blanks from your own experiences?
DOVEIt was actually a very interesting mix of things. My -- by the time I had started writing these poems, both of my maternal grandparents were dead. I had spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was 13 or 14, right after my grandfather died. And she would tell me stories from his life -- his life, when he was a young man, which I couldn't even conceive of, you know, that my grandfather had once been young. So they stuck with me. And that started the book. But then I had to fill in the blanks, as you say. And I asked my mother for help. I asked her -- I told her was writing these poems. And, bless her, she did not ask to see a single poem. She said, I'll see it when you're finished.
DOVESo she trusted me. And because she gave me that trust, I needed to up my game. And she told me details as she remembered them. And then I had to go, like, roll it back a little further and kind of put myself in my grandmother or my grandfather's place. But there are places where I simply had to fill in the blanks.
MCGINTYHmm. What does your mother say, when you wrote -- when you finished the book?
DOVEWhen I finished the book, I gave her the first copy and wrote in it, you're the only one who knows what's true and what's not. You know? And she read it. And she said, that's not bad. You did good. I mean, this is good praise from my mother. Because it was about her parents. And I -- but I wanted to honor them. But I also wanted to be very truthful about the struggles that they had gone through. And, you know, and all the things, the vicissitudes in any marriage. And it did me really, really -- it made me good to have her approve.
MCGINTYHmm. In reading it, I got to tell you, it seems so personal. And it was, you know, it really did, I think, tell the story as you hoped that it would. And then that's coming from someone who didn't know your grandparents at all. I felt them in the story you were telling.
DOVEOh, thank you. I really also wanted to make sure -- up to that point, I had not -- there had not been much poetry, I guess, which really dealt with the inner, everyday life of African Americans. We were more of a symbol, you know. And I really thought, no. For people to be able to, you know, eliminate their fears about other and this and all of that, they need to experience the very personal, intimate moments. So I wanted to make it as intimate as possible.
MCGINTYAnd, you know, we are halfway through this interview now and that's the first time we brought up the issue of race. And it's central, I think, in that book, but not central necessarily to a lot of your work.
DOVEIt's not central to everything. Because, I mean, to be truthful, every one of us, as we walk down the street, as we live our lives, we don't walk around thinking, oh, I'm African American, oh, I'm Caucasian. We don't live our labels. We might live under them at times. But we don't live them. And so that to me, is, if I look at a flower and I want to describe it, why would I bring in the fact that I'm African American?
DOVEThat seems to me false. And so I try to be very, very consequent about that.
MCGINTYDo you ever feel any pressure to be a black poet?
DOVEOh, yes. And to be a woman poet. And to be whatever kind of poet people want to make me. I'll leave the labeling to other people. I mean, it's natural to want to try to organize, you know, their perceptions. But, and I am an African American poet or a black poet, but I'm also every other kind of poet hopefully.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty and I'm chatting with Rita Dove on "The Diane Rehm Show." The phone number here is 800-433-8850. Or you might want to drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or you could even send us a tweet or two. Let's go back to our phones. Sarah in Newburgh, Ind., you're on the air.
SARAHHi. I am, like, totally excited to be listening to Ms. Dove. Your poetry totally inspired me as a young woman also in the libraries. I just took home every poetry book written by a woman and was very excited to hear you on the phone or on the radio today.
MCGINTYAll at one time, or you just spread them out over a period of time?
SARAHOver time. Over time.
SARAHAnd in collections and just, I'm very inspired by everything you're saying. And I was wondering if you struggle or have ever struggled with continuing to write? I really appreciated what you said earlier about kind of censuring yourself as you write, saying, oh, this isn't good enough now. I also struggle with that in my own, both poetry and songwriting and wondered if you could speak to, you know, your inner dialog about overcoming that inner critic and how you continue to create and kind of work through it?
DOVEOh, thank you for that question, Sarah. It is a difficult thing because you do, as you say, you can actually silence yourself. You can block everything by wanting to be perfect. And one of the things that I do do, is that I save all of my drafts, which makes a big mess. But it is important to look back at -- whenever I feel really stuck, I'll look back at a poem that I thought was successful and then look back at the very earliest drafts...
DOVE...so I can remind myself, that thing started, you know, oh, my god, you know? What was I writing? You have to, in a certain way, you have to write through the draws in order to get to the pearls. And in other disciplines, people will just accept that. I mean, if you're training to be an athlete, you just have to start with the first pushup or sit up, and it's going to be, you know, terrible. But you have to keep going. I think that with the arts, many of us imagine that it's just going to descend on us in a, you know, kind of a mist and gold glitter. And there's a lot of hard work to get to that point. So...
MCGINTYYou spend a lot of time just kind of hacking away at it.
DOVEA lot of time just looking, think, well, this is not the right word. I need a one syllable word. I need this. Or I can't even -- how can I describe, you know, bad love? You know?
MCGINTYWell, let me, you say that you leave quite a mess, which makes me think you're writing it out longhand. Is that your process? You don't use a computer?
DOVEI do use the computer at the end. But a lot of -- I start out longhand. I do start out longhand. I -- it's just -- I like to feel the pen. It's almost a bodily experience. And also because, then, if I'm writing longhand, I cannot tell how exactly it's going to look on the page. But I can feel how it will hear...
DOVE...and how it will sound.
DOVESo that's -- and then when I get to the point where it's a total mess, I type it in, you know, I put it into the computer.
MCGINTYYou know, it's funny. I -- my father wrote plays while he was still alive. And he said to me, he would write it out on a typewriter. Dad, why don't you use a computer? He said, I can't write that fast. I need to use -- I think he felt a connection with the typewriter in a way that you don't have with the electronic keyboard.
DOVEWell, I don't -- I mean, I don't. But I know that younger poets now are completely into the computers. They live -- they grew up that way. So things will change.
MCGINTYYeah, they will change. They have changed.
DOVEYeah. They have, indeed.
MCGINTYAnd continue to. Rita Dove is my guest. And we're talking about her collected poems, between 1974 and 2004. And our phone number here is 800-433-8850. And we're going to take more phone calls right after we come back. I'm Derek McGinty and this is "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYWelcome back. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're having a wonderful conversation with Rita Dove. Her poetry is collected in a brand new book called "Collected Poems: 1974-2004." And we're going to take more of your phone calls in just a minute. But I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your process. When you're just sitting around the house, do you find your head is filled with poems and lines and things, and you're just sorting through it? I mean, how does it work?
DOVEWell, I do -- I do keep a notebook, and I have one with me all the time. So I just jot down in there anything that catches my interest. It could be, you know, a car going down the street, you know, or something like that or an overhead bit of conversation. But when I'm walking around doing things, I think it's not floating around in my head, but it's kind of settled somewhere a little deeper. I guess I'm just weighing things out.
DOVEI do try to have a set time to write, if possible, because...
DOVEYeah, every day. Sometimes that doesn't last for -- sometimes I don't have enough time, and it's going to be only an hour or something like that, but I try to do this every day because I think that I start preparing to write a little bit beforehand. And I try to write at my optimal time, which is actually from midnight to 5:00 in the morning.
DOVEI'm so nocturnal it's ridiculous.
DOVEWhich of course messes up the rest of life, but anyway.
MCGINTYI was going to say, that must be difficult, and the family must think, good grief, what's happening.
MCGINTYWell luckily, my husband, who's a novelist, also is a night person, and he's even worse. He stays up to like 7:00 in the morning. And so that kind of works in sync. Or daughter who's now in her 30s and, you know, out and a professor and all that, she just kind of went with the flow. But she's a morning person now.
MCGINTYWho'd have -- who'd have figured that? Let's go back to the phones, Deborah in Princeton, New Jersey, you're on the air. Thanks for waiting so long.
DEBORAHHello, Ms. Dove. I set some poems of yours a number of years ago, (unintelligible) and "Taking in Wash" and sent you the performance. And you were very generous, and you said they were enthralling. So it's kind of like when you took your grandmother's poems to your mother, and I heard the sigh in your voice about how good it felt for her to be satisfied and happy with your poems. It's very precious to me that...
DOVEIt's so wonderful to hear your voice and to be able to say thank you again.
MCGINTYThank you so much, Deborah. I'm wondering, you know, she brought up setting your poems to music, and I wonder if you feel any artistic connection with today's rap artists in terms of their poetry.
DOVEWell, I think that rap is really just picking up the oral tradition of poetry. I mean, poetry began as an oral tradition, and in -- and still is in some societies. And for a while, in this country at least, it went to the page and was staying on the page, and now they've simply brought it back off the page, so to speak. So I do find the playfulness of language, the way in which it makes -- tells you that language is also a musical instrument, that is part and parcel, I think, of every poet's ethos. It's just one of the languages, a tool you use in order to kind of orchestrate people's emotions. So I do feel a kinship.
MCGINTYYou know, it's funny because you being who you are, poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winner, you know, all of these things, they would think that perhaps you were too much in the ivory tower to appreciate what's going on in the streets, so to speak.
DOVEOh, the streets is where we live. I mean, that's where -- the poetry really -- it really does come from the people. It's about life. So yes, I'm right down there, too. I remember once being on -- it's a bit daunting sometimes. I went on "Def Poetry Jam" once.
MCGINTYOh my goodness.
DOVEAnd they had this wonderful idea of kind of mixing page and stage, as they said, and -- but these young people who were out there just performing, and then I would get out there and read, and I'd say, okay, this is -- this is the trajectory. This is where, you know, where we're going.
MCGINTYLet's get to Gwendolyn, who's in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Gwendolyn?
GWENDOLYNHi, it's so nice for you to take my call. But when I flipped on my radio, and I heard her, Rita, start talking, I immediately felt a kinship. I write children's book. I grew up in a military family, and the library was my sanctuary. So I understand that. My question is, she mentioned that some of her -- she uses syncopation in some of her poetry, and I was wondering if she could give an example of a poem using it and exactly how does she do that.
DOVEOh, how do I do that? Oh, well thank you for your call, Gwendolyn. I -- let me think. There is a poem, I'm going to have to find it, but it's called "Foxtrot Fridays," and it's -- it's a poem about foxtrot, but it also kind of dances on the page. And that was one of the things I was trying to do in the poem, and I'll just read you a little bit of it. Let me see, 347, okay.
DOVE"Foxtrot 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 heel, ball, toe. Smooth at Nat King Cole's slow satin smile, easy as taking one day at a time, one man and one woman, 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.
DOVESo in that poem you hear the -- actually the movement of a foxtrot, stride, brush, stride, quick, quick with a heel, ball, toe. And the words were intended to do that kind of fast, slow, fast, slow, you know, up and down.
MCGINTYThe other thing I heard was a sort of carefree joy that you get if you're dancing cheek to cheek, as it were, and it's -- and everything's going well.
DOVEYes, yes, so all the -- all the words have to have that kind of ease to them and that kind of joy.
MCGINTYLarry in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, you're on the air. Go ahead, Larry.
LARRYHello. I just wanted to pass along greetings to a fellow classmate from Simon Perkins Junior High School in Akron, Ohio.
DOVEOh my gosh.
LARRYRita was very special in more ways than anybody could ever count. She was very pretty. She was very witty, always making people laugh. She was very artistic in Mrs. Whitmer's art class. And she was the star of our class, if not one of them, and I heard her on Garrison Keillor and on other NPR programming, and so I just wanted to say hello and wish her continued success and say how nice it is to bring a little more notoriety to your high class of 1967.
DOVEOh my gosh, that's so fabulous. It's so great to hear your voice.
LARRYAnd I wonder if Warren Cobb still has a crush on you.
DOVEI have no idea.
LARRYOr Bill Finley, Bill Finley.
MCGINTYDo you remember these names?
DOVEI do remember these names. I mean, it's amazing. We had -- we had a wonderful class, actually, didn't we? It was great.
MCGINTYThanks for calling, Larry, that's a real pleasure.
DOVEThank you, Larry.
MCGINTYRita Dove, wow.
MCGINTYA time a lot of us would like to forget, but yours apparently went pretty well.
DOVEWell, you know, there are moments I have wanted to forget junior high, too. I think that's -- yes, but -- in art class, I was not a good artist. So I kind of -- you know, you have to make jokes if you can't make the pottery hold together.
MCGINTYI know the feeling well. Maritza in Rockville, you're on the air.
MARITZAHi, it's so wonderful to hear Rita again, and it's really important to hear real-life poets and see them in person. I fell in love with Rita and her work when I heard her read her poem "Parsley" at one of the (unintelligible) and my question is, I heard that you had had a fire in your home a few years ago and that your computer and the work that you had had been destroyed. Has your process changed any, if that's the case? Has your process changed any in terms of how you save and store your work?
DOVEThat's a wonderful question. We did have a fire, 1998 I believe it was. Lightning struck the house, and it burned down. We built it up again. But in the process there was a lot of stuff that was destroyed, notebooks and my husband's computer was, like, you know, completely destroyed. They -- what's interesting -- the fact that I read, "Foxtrot Fridays," was the first poem that I wrote after the fire.
DOVEAnd it sounds odd that it would be such a carefree poem, but there was a moment when we were going through the rubble where everything was recovery and not devastation. You kind of looked, and you'd say, oh, that survived. And so it became a way of -- I felt that I was alive, the most important people in my life were alive, I should celebrate that. And one of the things that changed, I must say, in terms of my -- I do store things obsessively, it's true.
DOVEI, you know, send them to myself and all that kind of thing. But I also -- my husband and I began dancing ballroom right after the fire. It was a feeling of, well, grab life while you can. You never know when lightning is going to strike. And that changed our lives. We met a whole group of friends, a new group of friends to add to others. The poems began to dance a little bit more. So yeah.
MCGINTYWow, that is quite a story. I wonder, as you talk about that, she said listening to your work inspired her, and listening to your work, I can tell the difference between hearing you do it and reading it to myself. It's a very different experience.
DOVEI think that one of the things -- when people tell me that they're having trouble understanding poetry, I tell them to read it aloud. I say read it aloud and read it in many different ways not declaiming but as if you were just talking to a friend across the table. And then you can see where the, you know, the beats are and where the music is. We clench when we read something in a book, often, and it looks like a poem.
DOVEBut poetry is language at its most distilled and its -- I think at its most eloquent, and it's -- that means that all aspects of the language have to be considered, not just the meanings but the way the word sounds, the way it fills your mouth. So if you speak it aloud, it can often really help.
MCGINTYYou know, you talked about being an ambassador for poetry. I'm now really understand what you mean by that.
MCGINTYYou want people to understand this and to find it accessible.
DOVEAbsolutely because it was -- for me, I think when I grew up I had the great good fortune of being able to discover poetry on my own before people told me it was difficult and that -- or that, you know, tell me the meaning. So I would read poems, and if I didn't understand it, I just went to another one, eh, so what. It was my way of passing the time in the summer. And so I grew up with it. And if kids could just be read a poem, for instance at the school day, and then sent home without commentary, just let them live with it, I think this fear would abate.
MCGINTYRita Dove, she's a former poet laureate, she's a Pulitzer Prize winner, she's now professor of English at the University of Virginia, and her book is called "Collected Poems: 1975-2004." I'm Derek McGinty, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's talk to some more listeners. Virginia in Columbia, Maryland, you're on the air.
VIRGINIAGood morning. I was just listening to Ms. Dove read, and I will confess I'm not really a poetic person, I'm a singer, and I love poetry, but I find it hard to read. And listening to her read her poems, I'm charmed. She reads them like a real person, not like she's declaiming. But I'm charmed, and I'm hoping there are recordings of her poetry that she's reading, not somebody else, that I could find and listen to your poetry, Ms. Dove, I adore it.
DOVEOh, well thank you so much. And you say you're not a poetic person, but if you're a singer, you're a poetic person, I would think. And in terms of recordings, I've not put together a CD or anything like that. There are recordings online you can find of individual poems and even readings. So that's a possibility.
MCGINTYBut, you know, there are books on tape or -- not tape anymore, I don't know what you -- audiobooks these days. And would you ever consider, for example, reading a book of your poems and then making it an audiobook?
DOVEOh yes, absolutely, I would consider that, and I think there are some -- I can't remember, but I think that, you know, there is -- there are poems out there. I have done some readings of selected -- selections from books. Whether they're available now anymore I don't know.
MCGINTYWorth finding out.
MCGINTYVirginia in Washington, D.C., you're on the air.
VIRGINIAHi. First of all, I'm a great fan of Ms. Dove, and I'm glad to hear you interview her today. I was particularly taken by your poem about the librarian. I grew up in Washington, D.C., I'm a native Washingtonian, in Southwest Washington, before what they now call urban removal. And for me the library was a special place to attend. And it made such an impact on my life. First of all, just getting into the building, the books, et cetera, but also the librarian.
VIRGINIAThe librarian was a very calming, gentling, just a wonderful person, welcoming person.
VIRGINIAAnd having grown up when I did, which was in the early '50s in D.C., it was also before many public buildings were open and welcoming to African-Americans, especially young children. And for me the public library and the Smithsonian remain the two places that will always have shaped my life and my being. So I just want to thank you for recognizing librarians and the role that they play in the community.
DOVEOh, thank you so much, Virginia, they are really some of our guiding lights, agree.
MCGINTYIndeed, even in a time when we -- people tend to, as you say, deal with books electronically and go online and so forth. There are still libraries. As you deal with the subject matter today, we were talking earlier today about Donald Trump and what's going on, do you write poems, or have you written poems you think deal with what people are looking at, maybe not this second but this year or whatever?
DOVEI think I do. I mean, what I do is that I write about what moves me and the tenor of the moment. It may not be absolutely specific all the time, but I do, in fact, do that. In fact when I was poet laureate, I was so moved by the opportunity to talk to a larger audience and that there are poems such as one which is called "Lady Freedom Among Us," which deals with the statue on the top of the Capitol Building, which had been taken down for renovation, or cleaning actually, it's kind of ironic, freedom being cleaned. But I made her into a homeless person in the poem, you know.
DOVESo I have done that. But to make it absolutely topical is rarer, actually.
MCGINTYYou are rare, Rita Dove. Thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it. It's been a lot of fun.
DOVEOh, well thank you, I've enjoyed it so much, Derek.
MCGINTYThe book is called "Collected Poems: 1974 - 2004," and now you have no excuse for not going out and grabbing one. I'm Derek McGinty. You've been listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
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