If you have not heard of Rita Dove or, more importantly, have not read Rita Dove, here is why she is among the nation’s most celebrated poets: the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1987; U.S. Poet Laureate, 1993 to 1995; Poet Laureate of Virginia, 2004 to 2006. She has amassed more than 25 honorary degrees, and in September her new book of collected poems made the short list for the National Book Award.
She has worked as a high-profile professor at the University of Virginia since 1989, teaching in the creative writing department, and now serves as the Commonwealth Professor of English.
She has read at the White House, appeared on Sesame Street and Prairie Home Companion, worked with the composer John Williams, performed on live television at the dawn of the new millennium. President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2011, saying she “illuminated American poetry and literature and cultivated popular interest in the arts.”
UVA President Teresa Sullivan says Dove “has a profound influence here on Grounds.” Mary Szybist (Col ’92), who won the National Book Award for poetry herself in 2013, says as an undergraduate she was in awe of Dove. Lisa Russ Spaar, a poet and Dove’s colleague in the creative writing department, perhaps sums it up best: “I mean, she’s a star. There are very few poets who have that kind of name recognition.”
With her fame and distinction, Dove is one of the nation’s foremost ambassadors of poetry.
“There are so many people out there who love poetry or want to love poetry. But they’re afraid of it. They’ve been taught to be afraid of it,” says Dove, sitting in the living room of her Charlottesville home in late August.
Maybe you’re one of those people who says you don’t get poetry.
That was Rita Dove’s father. He worked at the Goodyear tire factory in Akron, Ohio, as a research chemist, the first African American at the company to hold that title. If she wanted to become a poet, fine, she remembers him saying: She could do anything. Lawyer, doctor, engineer. She had won a U.S. Presidential Scholarship and as a result met Richard Nixon as a high school student. She enrolled as a premed student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and as a freshman, she took an advanced composition class, first writing short stories, then poems. It was during her sophomore year, after reading Sylvia Plath, when she heard the call. “I knew I wanted to be a poet. That was it,” she says.
She wanted to be a poet. “Great,” her father said. And then: “I don’t understand poetry so don’t be bothered if I don’t read it,” she remembers.
“I think they wanted her to have something else in case [poetry] didn’t work out,” her brother Tom Dove says of their parents. “They didn’t discourage her.”
After graduating from Miami, she attended the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, then taught at Arizona State University. When her third book of poems, Thomas and Beulah, based loosely on her grandparents’ lives, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, several universities began wooing her. To celebrate, her hometown of Akron, elated about its newly honored native daughter, held a Rita Dove Day.
“She’s like a rock star. She’s already a celebrity,” says Charles Rowell, a former UVA English professor who now teaches at Texas A&M University. Rowell attended the Rita Dove Day event against Dove’s wishes and was acting as an ambassador for the University that day. After meeting her family, he made his pitch: Just visit Virginia.
At the time, Dove was feeling the pressure of following up on the Pulitzer, and Rowell was the founding editor of Callaloo, the highly respected African-American literary journal, which he had moved to UVA when he joined the faculty. So she visited and stayed at Rowell’s house while he was touring overseas. On her second visit, Rowell held a party in her honor.
It took two years from Rowell’s initial pitch for Dove to agree to join the faculty. “I was a northern Midwestern girl. Virginia just sounded like the South, and I didn’t want to be in the South,” Dove says. “When I got here, I realized it was different. Everyone I met, I was just impressed by their curiosity, from student, to professor. … I felt I would be challenged to think outside of the box.”
Quiet is a key part of Dove’s hectic life.
She is nocturnal, often waking up at 1 p.m. and working until the early morning when the sun rises. “That’s the time my body is alive,” she says.
Her home office features a giant window overlooking a dead-end, tree-lined street with the Blue Ridge Mountains shadowed in the background. Sometimes she works through the night at a standing desk her father built. (One of her idols, the poet Goethe, also used a standing desk.) Sometimes she sits in a Swedish ergonomic chair without a back that she says improves her posture. Next to her computer is a printout of the actor Idris Elba, with the words, “Shouldn’t you be writing?”
Most nights she listens to instrumental music or the sounds of the radio, maybe Leonard Cohen, who died in November.
To start a new piece, Dove writes with a pen and paper in traditional composition books and notepads, too frightened by the blank screen and blinking cursor of the computer. Occasionally she will begin by dictating a thought into her cell phone. From there, her process entails a relentless series of edits, sorted into color-coded folders, in which she questions how each sound, each consonant, conveys the feeling she wants. A printout of a poem in progress may have every line written over in her cursive.
When a draft gets to this stage, “It feels like I’m in a really great forest trying to work my way through where you can see the path. It doesn’t frighten me anymore. What frightens me [is] when it’s like that,” she says, pointing her finger to a poem in a notebook with three short lines. Her fingernails are colorfully designed, as they have been since she was 14 when she was first allowed to paint her nails and used pastel blues and greens for Easter. She describes her fingernails as a kind of visible art.
She works nearly every night. Standing at her desk, she explains what she was working on the night before: “It was just something someone said the other day that I thought was kind of wonderful, and I dictated it to my phone and then wrote a couple of variations. What strikes me often and really excites me is when I can hear the beauty of language. What an amazing expression, something like ‘brain freeze.’ You say, gosh, that’s what the human mind is capable of.”
Consider her poem “O,” from her first book, Yellow House on the Corner, which finishes this way, employing common phrases but then adding a twist:
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing’s
like it used to be, not even the future.
In the classroom, Dove holds court with a celebrity glow and also “a fierceness” and a sense that “we’re not here to make pretty things,” Szybist says. Now a professor at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, Szybist reflects regularly on something Dove told her at the end of a workshop in the 1990s: “Go for the jugular.” It’s a sentiment that requires her to ask “What does it mean to be brave in a poem?”
“Poems are never polite,” Dove says. “If you’re writing a poem, you’re not pussyfooting around anything. … If it’s an ugly moment, you write about the ugly moment.”
This is evident in Dove’s poem “Parsley,” in which she seeps into the mind of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo and how he ordered 20,000 Haitian workers killed because they could not pronounce the r-sound in the Spanish word for parsley.
... God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. …
Dove’s workshop, usually taught in the early afternoon, carries a sense of the unconventional, and a series of her teaching assignments have garnered attention over the years. In one, she asked her students to mimic each other’s voices and styles. In another, she asked students to find the beauty in clichés, the scourge of so many English papers, by deconstructing them until they become meaningful again, a lesson in appreciating everyday vernacular.
Perhaps, most famously, Dove has assigned her students what’s been dubbed “wildcards,” a kind of personalized assignment “geared to knock them off their comfort level.” For example, the writing prompt might read: “You’re the last person on Earth—write your poem on the object you see. This is a message to the world that’s no longer there.”
One student in the assignment wrote on an emptied Perrier bottle a poem about reflection that required looking through the object.
And if her teaching methods work, “I see it in their eyes. I get really excited when their voice becomes uniquely theirs.”
She’s as devoted to her students’ work as to her own. “People come to our program because of her,” Spaar (Col ’78, Grad ’82) says. For end-of-the-semester student readings, “She’s right there in the front row.”
In May, W.W. Norton released her Collected Poems 1974–2004 to critical acclaim. Dove insisted the book was “collected poems,” not selected poems, the nuanced difference between a greatest hits album and an all-inclusive box set. She wanted to show her journey as a poet, warts and all, and she wanted younger readers to see each poem as part of its greater whole.
Dove holds up the book to the light as the conversation turns to her legacy.
“It’s difficult for me to look at the book because there is that aspect. There it is,” she says as she turns it from side to side, as if its 432 pages were too thin. “That’s all?”
And then in a beat, she laughs and talks about the first poem in the book, “In the Old Neighborhood,” the only one published out of chronological order. It’s what she describes as an ode to reading, an ars poetica of sorts.
I’ve read every book in this house,
I know which shelf to go to
to taste crumbling saltines
(don’t eat with your nose in a book!)
and the gritty slick of sardines,
silted bones of no consequence
disintegrating on the tongue. …
Dove is on sabbatical this semester, in part for a book tour. Her passions are swirling. She’s excited about a couple from Argentina coming to Charlottesville for a week in the fall to offer tango lessons.
Dove and her husband, the German-born writer Fred Viebahn, are renowned in the Charlottesville area for their ballroom dancing. When rebuilding their home after a fire in 1998, they added a giant ballroom.
“I love being a [dancing] student. I find every time I’m a student something gets broken down and put back together; it helps with the writing,” she says. “Tango is a conversation. It’s more than a prescribed dance.”
The back-and-forth of dance is not too different from how she describes the allure of poetry. For all the discussion of quiet and reflection, that has always been Dove’s goal—the conversation, the common ground, the understanding.
“For me, the end is to have someone else respond,” she says. “At some point, as Emily Dickinson said, ‘this is my letter to the world.’ … And if someone else says, ‘I get where you’re at’ … that’s what pulls us together. That’s what makes poetry essential.”
This year marks Dove’s 27th in Charlottesville.
She has quiet, at least as quiet as her life can be. She has inspiration from students, “really good students,” she says, who show her fresh nuances in language. And when night falls, as she moves to her study, with her handcrafted desk and color-coded folders, she has her work.
“I’ve never had a desire to leave,” she says. “Never. I can’t imagine where I’d want to go.”