“Shape the lips to an o, say a. / That’s island”: So begins the last poem in Rita Dove’s debut collection, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980). The poem starts with the architecture of the body—the mouth piecing together familiar shapes to make way in foreign terrain—and opens onto a meditation about the potential of precise language to reroute unfolding history. At once grounded in the body and extending across space and time, the exacting and ambitious “Ö”—and the collection that contains it—heralded a new voice in American literature.
Across eight collections, Dove (b. 1952) has created a poetic landscape that claims the intimacy of history, dismantling facile binaries of good and bad, inside and outside. Her oeuvre unites lyric and narrative traditions. For example, her third book, Thomas and Beulah (1986)—which won the Pulitzer Prize—imaginatively renders the story of her maternal grandparents, making sensory and immediate the Great Migration and the industrial landscape of 1920s Ohio. Alongside members of her own family, Dove’s wide-flung engagements include Persephone, Rosa Parks, eighteenth-century African-American scientist Benjamin Banneker, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and many others. Inflected by abiding interests in African-American history, German language and literature, classical music, and ballroom dancing, Dove’s work comprises a world all its own that brings readers back to what we know with new eyes.
Dove’s literary accomplishments extend beyond poetry. She is the author of a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985); a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992); a play, The Darker Face of the Earth (1994); and many significant essays, some of which are collected in The Poet’s World (1995). She also has written lyrics for several composers, including John Williams.
Beyond her own vast literary work, Dove has formatively shaped the world of contemporary American poetry. Appointed US Poet Laureate in 1993, she transformed the position into one of advocacy and outreach, bringing poetry to spaces varying from schools to hospitals. More recently, she edited the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011), which, in the words of poet and scholar Evie Shockley, is “illuminated to the point of burning”—drawing widespread critical attention that generated a crucial and ongoing dialogue about the increasing diversity of the American poetic canon.
Dove has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including some twenty-five honorary doctorates, the National Humanities Medal, the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, a Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service, the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, and the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
For our 2015 interview, we met in Professor Dove’s office, where photographs and ephemera evoke some of her many artistic collaborations. Summer had begun to draw people outdoors with its endless distractions, but inside, Dove was wholly present—turning over each question, offering profound insights.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Claire Schwartz: In May 2015, you gave a stunning reading at the Museum of Modern Art as one of ten African-American poets who wrote in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series. How did you come to that project?
Rita Dove: Elizabeth Alexander—who’s an old, dear friend—had asked if I would be one of the writers to respond. I must say, I don’t normally like to do commissions. They go against my creative impulse. Also, the idea of ekphrastic poetry—I have trouble with that as well. My gut response is, If the art was great, why would you even mess with it?
But this was Jacob Lawrence, whose work is amazing and very stylized. There’s an essence of the scene, and, because his rendering’s not a simple description, any response to it can’t be a simple description. I had seen some of the panels from Migration before, but I had never seen the entire collection. They sent me the color reproductions of the panels, and I was so moved that I thought, Certainly I can do something as a tribute to this masterpiece.
So, this project became not merely a response to the Lawrence panels but also a communion of souls across genres and across history, an incredible outpouring of artistic empathy saying, Yes, I understand this, even now, in this day and age.
In your poetry collections Museum, Sonata Mulattica, and On the Bus with Rosa Parks, you engage other art forms as well as take on the life of historical figures. How do you decide to do this?
The trigger at the beginning of trying to write a poem—any reaction to, or communion with another work of art—is some “ping” inside of me that resonates beyond genre. That was the case, for instance, with [the 1929 German painting] Agosta the Winged-Man and Rasha the Black Dove. I encountered the double portrait face-to-face in the museum. I knew nothing about the artist at that point, but I came around a corner and there they were, this incredible pairing—Agosta the Winged-Man and Rasha the Black Dove— staring back at me. I was still reluctant to write anything about the portrait until I did a lot of research on the artist, Christian Schad, because what I was interested in poetically was less the final product—what’s already been done and done beautifully—and more what was behind it, the whole process. For me that poem is not a description of the portrait; it is about an artist seeking common ground with his subject as well as a meditation on being “exotic,” being thought of as “other.”
That theme runs throughout my work. I think of George Augustus Polgreen Bridge-tower [a biracial violinist who at age nine performed for Thomas Jefferson in Paris] and the whole of Sonata Mulattica, which of course is also playing against the existing facts. I’m not after the actual artifact. I’m after what swirls around that artifact—all of the preconceptions that inform it.
One thing I’ve never wanted to be, and try to make sure that I’m not, is what I would call a “historical tourist.” I don’t want to be looking around for something interesting to make a poem out of. That should not be the impulse behind a poem. That’s not why you do it. You do it because it haunts you, and you write to discover what it has new to say to you.
You’ve mentioned that before you allowed a green parrot into your poem “Parsley,” you needed to know that such a green parrot exists in the world.
If there are facts, I want to honor them. The facts are absolutely sacrosanct. They’re what got us there. Let’s take “Parsley.” I had the facts of that moment, but I had very little else. First, I corroborated that indeed Trujillo massacred 20,000 Haitian cane-workers because they couldn’t roll the “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley—and, of course, it had happened—then I checked the numbers. I was haunted; but only after I shook the notion that evil was a generic state of being was I able to start writing. Instead of thinking of evil as a force just blazing through, destroying things, I began to understand that evil could be creative, devious—that evil is human and, therefore, part of us. This is what was haunting me. This is what I needed to get behind. So, I opened myself up to possibility. And in that realm, I was completely free to imagine a scenario which humanizes evil, but also would explain why Trujillo chose that particular word, perejil, for his shibboleth.
In the midst of that imagined realm—who knows what Trujillo really thought? Or Beethoven, or Schad?—there are certain things which are absolute. Schad had to get to his studio; where was it located? If that street is really there, I just can’t plop it down on any old street. That’s the kind of detail that, for someone reading the poem who knows the facts, destroys your credibility completely.
Trujillo’s parrot was totally imaginary—I didn’t know if he had a parrot or not—but it was not an act of imagination to describe that parrot accurately. In the process of writing, I got stuck because I had to make sure that a parrot with plumage the color of parsley actually existed. And when I found that Australian parrot, I didn’t just stick it in the poem. I thought, How could an Australian parrot end up here? Well, doesn’t that kind of extravagance befit a dictator? The parrot is also an exile. The general, too, has come so far from his roots, where the children all chew sugarcane. And part of that estrangement from his humanizing past has landed him with an Australian parrot. He’s come that far.
You say that evil can be creative. Can evil be beautiful?
It’s terrifying to think so, but it behooves us, I think, to realize that evil can, must, have a human face. And to have a human face means that all of the desires and the fears and the yearnings of, let’s say, a human soul can also be ascribed to someone who does horrible deeds. I’m not going to go so far as to say, “Evil can be beautiful,” but someone evil certainly can apprehend beauty and appreciate beauty, be moved by it; and then, in the next instant, destroy a human being.
Right now, I’ve been working on some stuff for the Terezin Music Foundation. Terezin was the model concentration camp. The Nazis put it together so that when the Red Cross came, they could say, “Oh, everything looks fine.” There was bread, and there was music. A lot of composers and musicians were interned there, and they regularly gave concerts for the German officers. And then, periodically, these amazing composers and artists were sent off to a deadlier concentration camp. It’s haunting, this juxtaposition, this frisson, that arises when finer sensibilities and vulgar violence coexist in one human being. It’s something I don’t really want to consider, but it is there before us every damn day. It’s one of the driving forces of history, unfortunately.
When you say that you don’t want to be a tourist in history, how does that inform the ways you engage history? How, for example, does this work in Museum, whose titular concept certainly calls up tourism, at least on its surface?
Well, I think one way it’s different is that I don’t look for these things. I’m not looking for examples of oppression and exile with which to fill out a book called Museum—and, in fact, the title Museum came last. Come to think of it, with all of my books, even the ones which seem very themed, like Sonata Mulattica or Mother Love or Thomas and Beulah, I was far into the manuscript before I even realized there was a book.
With Sonata Mulattica, althoughI had the facts of Bridgetower’s existence, I resisted the writing mightily. After Thomas and Beulah and On the Bus with Rosa Parks, I didn’t want people to think that all I do is write about historical characters. That was also why I just got the story out of the way in the first poem. I’m not interested in the facts per se; I’m interested in how different “difference” was in that time and place. Turns out it was complicated, not black and white at all. It’s never black and white. I entered those poems thinking, Let’s see what racism was like then. I was assuming that our racial mindset could be applied to their era. But it was totally different. I didn’t ask for these subjects; they were kind of thrust on me.
To be a historical tourist means to take a few snapshots of the surface of things. You’re only passing through. Then the reader, too, can say, “Oh, wow. Isn’t it terrible that that happened?” but not feel troubled by it; not feel, in some way, a participant in it. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that people call me a poet who writes about “the underside of history”—that phrase gets bantered about a lot. And that’s fine. But I never want to just take a few snapshots and get out. I never want to say, “Ooo, isn’t this exciting?” and then leave.
Interiority as alternative to a narrow definition of what black poetry can look like has been a poetic concern of yours from very early on. I’m thinking of “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee in a Dream.” Why do you turn to dream space when so much of your work claims in the waking those unlikely juxtapositions and sensations we attribute to dream space?
Well, as a young artist, I fretted and struggled against the Black Arts Movement. It’s not that I was opposed to it—it just wasn’t my movement. That is, I approached poetry differently. I was lucky to have come of age when I did; I don’t know what would have happened if I had been ten years older and had to write through that. The Black Arts Movement was the battering ram that first began to break down the bulwark of American artistic institutions. It’s necessary that blackness be part of the national conversation, but the Black Arts Movement’s insistence on projecting only certain aspects of black life was limiting if you wanted to talk about the complexity of being black or explore the negative spaces of racial identity—feelings of inferiority, beauty standards—this was sometimes shot down as being “not black enough” or “What do you want to do that for? That’ll only give them ammunition.” “Them” being the white establishment. So, for me the Black Arts Movement was artistically compromising. I was very young. It was my first book. I needed to take a stance and say, “This is not me.”
On the other hand, I did not want that poem to be an unconditional confrontation. It’s almost more like the daughter breaking away from an overprotective family: “Let me be me!” That’s why I set the poem in a dream space: It was what one couldn’t say, what one didn’t want to say to the outside world, and yet still felt pushing up through the subconscious. In that space I could talk honestly with one of the heroes of the Black Arts Movement, someone whose work—when I was fifteen, sixteen—actually moved me deeply. But it wasn’t me.
How about the importance of your relationship to German?
When the 1848 Revolution happened in Germany, a huge wave of immigrants came to my hometown of Akron, Ohio. I grew up among people with German-sounding names. The school I went to, Schumacher Elementary, was named after a German immigrant who was instrumental in introducing oatmeal to America. There was a kind of wash of German all around me, so when I had to choose a language in seventh grade, the choice wasn’t difficult.
When you study another language, you understand your own a little better. You’ll think: Oh, that’s how they build a sentence! And suddenly grasp how English does it. I love the fact that every language has its own sound cage. And, interestingly enough, all of my German teachers in public high school were native German speakers. One was a Swiss woman, one was a German woman. I came out of high school with a pretty good accent and a pretty good reading comprehension of German. I didn’t think I was going to do anything with it beyond reading German in the original.
The turning point came when one of my undergraduate German professors asked me if I was going to apply for a Fulbright. I thought: But that’s for people who really want to study the language, and I just want to read. He asked: “Do you want to see the world?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, then, make up something!” I made up a project tailored to my love of reading—I proposed translating German poetry. But I didn’t really want to translate! I just wanted to get to Germany.
In Germany, I began to experience what it was like to think in another language. Also, the way Germans looked at me—with curiosity but no racial baggage—was so different than Americans. I began to understand a little bit more about my own country and how I fit in or not.
German syntax showed me ways in which English could be stretched to accommodate consciousness. If there’s a past participle in German, for instance, the entire verb always comes at the end of the sentence. I thought it was so amazing that Germans were able to hold onto incredibly complex clauses until the verb brought it all together. And I thought: If you could do that in poetry, you’d get the epiphany—ping!—right at the end. That changed the way I was working in my own poems.
And then I met my husband. I was in my second year of graduate school at Iowa. He was a German writer invited as part of the international writing program, and because I spoke German I was supposed to translate his talk. So I translated his lecture, and we kept on going! Germany, and the German language, became a part of my life. As I learned to straddle languages and cultures, my world changed.
In graduate school, you would check out books from various disciplines—math or computer science or whatever. Are there any language systems that you’ve been working with recently that have been useful for you?
Our daughter’s field is visual-and-cultural studies. A crucial part of her work focuses on how the site of visual presentation influences our quality of looking—from walking through an installation to looking at a painting in a museum to watching TV or diving into Facebook—ever smaller areas which, oddly enough, open up wider and wider linguistic interactions.
For example, think of all the people who’d never dream of writing a letter but can tweet their little butts away or send messages on their smartphones all the time. I am fascinated with that kind of chattery language. I’m intrigued by it vocabulary-wise, but also syntactically. My tendency is to be as economical as possible in my poems, so I like to push myself toward looser syntax. It goes against my grain, but that is exactly why I do it. It’s partly why, when writing Sonata Mulattica, I was interested in language that likes to hear itself talk. And, if you look at my early books, that’s not exactly where I was coming from.
I’m also interested in the language of voice-overs. A lot of voice-overs play out as thoughts in someone’s head; but it’s a very public head, a very public thought. It’s as if you were telling your biography to your mirror, or going into confession knowing the booth’s been wired for sound. It’s not interior, really, and it’s not exactly a pronouncement. It’s somewhere in between. I don’t know what my poems will do with that. I have no idea. But I am interested.
Poetic engagements with Twitter are fascinating. Elizabeth Alexander had Twitter poems for a while, and Fady Joudah has a book of “textu,” poems of 160 characters. It’s at once, as you say, this chatty language, but with profound spatial constraints.
I have not entered the world of Twitter. For some reason, I refuse to go there, I don’t know why. Partly because Twitter has the rigor of poetry in terms of spatial constraints—but it’s not actually a lyric rigor because Twitter does not presume it is to stop time. A haiku wants to cast a spell, to lift you out of the stream of time and say, “Look at this.” But a Twitter poem does something else; I’m not sure what yet.
I like the notion that there’s a subset of human intercourse occurring—I guess this is more Facebook, Instagramland—where you follow the progress of someone’s life. You’re more intimately involved with a distant friend’s life than you ever could have been via standard letters or phone calls. And yet, you’re also quite distant, estranged, even—because it isn’t really a conversation. Pick up a phone or sit across from someone, and that discussion is an immediate back and forth. That’s a direct connection between your emotional state and theirs.
Would you talk about the “sound cage” with reference to poetry?
Well, I’ll go about it first with the obvious ones, which are the sound cages of each language. Every language has a certain latticework of sounds and cadences that we work with or against as poets. In my case, the German influence has been profound—because it was through going to Germany and becoming fluent in German that I began to hear my own cadences within the framework of American English. Not just my midwestern patterns but my native tongue writ large, a mapping of our language’s vocal terrain.
Here’s a great example: When our daughter was born, we wanted to raise her bilingually. My husband’s oldest friend is a native Greek whose parents immigrated to Germany when he was ten. At the time, he knew not a word of German. Of course, now, he’s bilingual. When our daughter was about six or seven months old, we asked his advice, and he said, “Just do whatever you do. She’ll figure it out. She’ll be able to hear the differences in the language. I’ll prove it to you.” So he went up to our daughter, Aviva, and began talking to her in German. She was babbling at that time; so she babbled back. She just babbled. And then he switched to Greek. She looked at him, cocked her head, and then she started babbling in Greek. There was a different cadence, a whole different sound system. Then he switched to English. And she babbled in English. I began to hear it: Separate from the sense of the words, there was a river, a cadence of sounds out of which one produces words.
How does it work with translation?
Well, I think the reason why we have so many translations of Rilke, for instance, is because each translator is attempting to capture the colloquial aspect of Rilke’s work. In the time in which he wrote, his poems would have presented a level at which an ordinary reader would recognize quotidian speech and then be able to see how he’s taking that and making it strange, layering it. A direct translation has to reflect that, which means trying to find a level of everyday language against which to bounce your translation.
A really great writer is going to be using language in ways that are absolutely untranslatable. For instance, if I write “twitching stars,” they’re not twitching! [Laughing.] But there’s a difference between “winking stars” and “blinking stars” and “twitching stars.” It’s in the sound as well as the sense—but it’s mostly in the sound. Now, translate that to another language, whose word for “twitch” might not be as itchy. What are you going to do? You have to find a way to convey that itchiness and still make it the right amount of strange, different than winking or blinking or jostling or whatever else.
Rilke uses the very Germanness of his language to its utmost. He’s just brilliant at making up words, because German is great for putting together compound words. Or he’ll take a word apart, like erinnern, which is “remember.” But its German syllables boil down to “the process of making something very interior.” The prefix “er” works by supersizing the verb’s energy, so that “inner” becomes a focused action—the process of making something very interior. Rilke will apply both meanings of that word—the denotative “to remember” and the deconstructed “to internalize”—at the same time.
How in the world are you going to translate that? You could say “remember,” which has its own mixtures—take a member and then put it back together. But the act of putting something back together, re-membering it, is different than the action of super-interiorization. So you can’t use “remember.”
Does that have anything to do with sound cage? At first blush, no—but it has to do with the way a language is constructed, how it deploys and stretches itself along that arc. And that’s part of translation, too.
Sound is one of the most persuasive elements in poetry. If a poet is musical—and most really great poets tend to be, because they understand that music will convince when all else fails—the translator has to find a tonal tapestry that doesn’t feel foreign in your own language but still conveys the sense of the original.
I’m thinking of “Ö” and the way that poem calls attention to the body moving in language. What influence has dance had on your writing?
Oh, wow! Well, another way poetry persuades us is by making the body participate in the work subconsciously. As we read, somewhere inside we are breathing along. We hit the end of a line, and the body thinks, take a little breath; if the sentence spills over into the next line, then it’s a very little breath. So, a syncopation builds up against the normal in-out iambic pentameter. Langston Hughes does this better than anyone. Even if the reader is not reading the poem aloud, the tongue and the palette are subconsciously engaged in pronouncing the words. You come to the word “ugly” in a poem, and it is ugly in your mouth. It stops you. It feels ugly. Just like “twitching stars” feel jittery. I’ve always been very aware of enjambment, alert to working sound against sense.
Then I took up ballroom dancing, and in a certain way, the process was reversed: How do I get the movement of the entire body—through space, against music—into a poem? While writing, I found myself telling my reader, Dance with me. Let’s go—not only with your mind. Not with just your face, your lips, and tongue. Not only with just your lungs, as you breathe in and out. I want your whole body to move.
And that was the fun of my poetry collection American Smooth. I was trying to engage the entire body—not only in the dance poems, but in the other poems as well. For instance, in “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove,” several of the sentences are so long—thanks, German!—that you don’t know where to take a breath; when you finally reach the period, you’re practically gasping. There’s the passage where Hattie McDaniel is remembering being six years old, walking hand in hand with a white girl. They’d been friends before … life intervened. But to get to that surprising moment, I had to tumble the reader back so quickly, they can’t take that breath. First, I woo them with a litany of her stage names: “High-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, blah, blah, blah.” Now we’re dancing; it gets faster and faster, leaping into the next stanza—and then I stop the sentence. The scrolling back of memory until we land, six years old—but at the same time, Hattie’s still walking toward the Coconut Grove. So, the brain is racing at the same time as, inexorably, she’s approaching that restaurant.
Edward Hirsch talks about the line that exceeds the breath as entering a space of prophecy, taking us out of the common sense of the body and into a different space. You have poems that call us out of that space, but others seem to work inside of it. I’m thinking of “Geometry” in particular. Both the iambic pentameter and the content seem to be setting us somewhere we already know, or think we do.
Well, first of all, that’s an early poem; I needed to step outside of the cage of common perception. The world of “Geometry” is a very regulated world. There’s a house. There are walls. Things fit together. It’s all neat. “I prove a theorem and the house expands.” What I’m saying is, “Even though that cage of the normal world is still there, the mind can soar.” You needn’t fear that you’re going to tumble off into space and never come back again; simply by proving these absolute facts of math, you can enter a realm where there are no walls. I never really thought about it that intellectually, but it did feel very important for it to be in tercets—the kind of numbers we associate with stability, the threes and the fours. These three-line stanzas: This is the world in which we exist. Curiously enough, it’s also the world in which most music exists. Four-four and three-four, the basic time signatures, ballads and waltzes. But within that world of rules, there’s a whole outer space full of possibilities and variations.
How do you navigate the dual identities as a public advocate of poetry and as a poet, someone deeply invested in interior life, the private act of the encounter with the page? After winning the National Book Award, Terrance Hayes talked about “losing the critical reader.” Is that something you’ve contended with?
He’s absolutely right. You do lose the critical reader, and it’s the most grievous loss caused by this kind of fame. It seems disingenuous to say, “I wish I were just out there sending out my poems anonymously.” But there is a sense that anything I write will be published just because of my name. Negotiating that has been difficult. I tend to send out less and less and less. For instance, I didn’t send a single poem out from Sonata Mulattica until the entire book was finished. Because I did not want someone to say, “Oh, this is so wonderful.” I needed time to decide myself if it was holding together, if it was good enough. And then, only after the whole book was done, I did this crazy blitz of submissions, sending all the poems out in a single weekend. I also didn’t show my editor the book until it was already done. Bless Carol Smith! She was very patient. She just waited. If I cannot have a critical reader, then I have to rely on time. If I look back over a draft a year later, or six months, does it still hold up? It is not an easy thing to do. I long for a critical reader.
Any writer, any artist will tell you that whatever they’re working on next is the most querulous, frightening new space that you can move in. Even if a book has just come out, with any luck you’re knee-deep already in something else, which is very different and scary and you’re insecure about it. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want to feel insecure. I want to feel like I’m opening up something completely new, not just banking on my old collateral. That sounds like a very boring way to live.
What does the vantage point of “lifetime achievement” look like for you?
The idea of receiving a lifetime-achievement award of any kind is actually very off-putting and frightening. It makes me feel like I’m dead, when I’m thinking, No, no. I’m just beginning! In 2016, Norton’s going to publish my collected poems, and that feels also like a tombstone. But I appreciate the wisdom of publishing a Collected, because I also realize there are a lot of young writers and readers who start their reading lists from the year when they come of age. They don’t read the earlier work, even though the earlier work was so essential to the later work. So, having it all in one volume makes a lot of sense.
Every time I sit down to write I try to feel that I’m starting over. It’s all new. It’s all fresh, and I’m learning as I go. I don’t want to do what I did before. I have to trust my inner artist who knows that there will always be sympathetic strings, and that I will pick up on them. I do know objectively that—even though I might feel terrified before a blank page every time—it’ll work out somehow. Maybe this poem won’t come off, but I don’t think of utter failure. Still, when I’m writing I find it actually counterproductive to imagine anything about my life.
Now, that’s my personal stance as an artist. But as someone who has become an inadvertent role model, I think it would be ungenerous not to acknowledge the power such recognition carries, and that my experience can be helpful to young writers.
I’m proud of what I’ve done. I didn’t imagine I would ever do any of it. I’m proud that, when the circumstances presented themselves, I stepped up to the plate, and I did all right. All I ever wanted to do was write the best damn poem that I could write—a poem that was true and honest and the very best I could write artistically, linguistically. And if that meant looking at the inner lives of two very ordinary people, that was what I did. At the time I was writing Thomas and Beulah, narrative poetry was not very in. I remember thinking, People are going to rake this over the coals. But I didn’t care. It was what I needed to do at that moment. And I try to keep that feeling whenever I’m writing. It’s helpful for younger writers to know that this is how we start out, and that the best thing you can do—really the biggest kind of success—is to feel that what you’re writing is what you want to write, what you need to write. If you can find some time and space in which to do that kind of work—hey, that’s the best. The rest of the stuff just gets in the way.