Rita Dove Tom Cogill

Rita Dove, professor of English, once wrote a poem paying tribute to a library she used when she was young. To her, the stacks of books represented a whole world waiting to be discovered.

Now, a library has returned the favor by paying tribute to the world of Dove’s writing. In September, the Library of Virginia honored Dove—whose distinctions range from receiving a Pulitzer Prize to being the former Poet Laureate of Virginia and the United States—with a lifetime achievement award.

The honor is particularly meaningful because after nearly two decades in the state, Dove says, she views herself as a Virginian and because it encompasses her entire body of work. “That tells me that these people have followed my literary career and found it worthy. Not just one book, not a flash in the pan.”

With another book of poems, Sonata Mulattica, scheduled for publication this spring, Dove recently talked about elements of her life and her art.

You’re a poet, primarily, but have written in other genres. What specifically about the nature of poetry draws you as an artist?

To me, poetry is the bones and the music of the language. It’s the real heart of literature. Once you’ve dealt with every syllable and every breath of a word and the history of that word and how that will be referenced or how it will echo in a specific syntactical context—well, that to me is getting down to the absolute core of language. I think I’ve always been drawn to that kind of intensity.

Given the breadth of your work, what would you like people to think of when they think of your writing?

I have to leave it up to them. I try not to think of myself as a writer or what a poem might mean to other people, because that’s the critics’ angle. I just have to keep writing and hope. If something I’ve written causes someone to stop for a moment, consider what they’ve read and be changed by it—that’s enough.

You have a number of videos on YouTube. How has the role of literature in our lives changed in the digital age?

The role of literature has changed so drastically, we don’t know yet how drastic it is. Our attention span has been shortened dramatically. Translation: We want our thrills quick. So literary pacing has gotten faster.

I resist e-books because I firmly believe the pleasure of reading is also wrapped up in the pleasure of holding the book and seeing the text on a page you can feel.

One positive thing about the whole digital age is that it has made literature much more accessible to many people. You can actually see your favorite author on YouTube or hear them read.

You have been at UVA nearly two decades. What is it that makes this community a good place to live, teach and write?

The sheer physical beauty of the area, for one. And Charlottesville is really a charming, kicking kind of town.

The intellectual energy generated by the University is fairly amazing. It’s not harsh, driven—rather, it’s intellectualism born out of curiosity. Teaching here also has been very rewarding. The students are topnotch; they’re ready to work, they’re ready to be curious, they’re ready to be scared, they’re ready to push themselves—what more can one ask for?