Shaking Things Up: A Conversation with Poet Rita Dove

April 6, 2021
A photograph of Rita Dove, who is smiling while looking at the photographer
Rita Dove / Photo © Fred Viebahn / Courtesy of UCR Writers Week 2021

For the 44th Annual Writers Week, the University of California, Riverside Department of Creative Writing, in partnership with the LA Review of Books, honored three US Poets Laureate with Lifetime Achievement Awards: Rita Dove (1993–95), Juan Felipe Herrera (2015–16), and Joy Harjo (2019–present). As part of honoring these poetry luminaries—three visionaries representing barrier breakage in their page, stage, and community work—Crystal AC Salas, third-year MFA student at UCR, interviewed each laureate over phone and Zoom in commemoration of the occasion.

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of National Poetry Month, in this first of the series of conversations with each poet, Rita Dove discusses her role as poet laureate, the curiosity of young people, and poetry’s role in healing from the grief of the pandemic.

Crystal AC Salas: Who would you say are your ancestors in your legacy of poet as ambassador, community organizer, and activist? How are these ancestors present in your work with the public?

Rita Dove: I feel like I am in a very large family of ancestors, the kind that prod you, the kind that will sit back and say, “Uh huh, you did alright,” and the kind that just, with a look, will let me know that I’m not stepping up to the plate. And that would include people you wouldn’t think of, like Shakespeare, who was always there for me, or Emily Dickinson—because even though she sat there at that window, she talked to the world.

But in the practical sense of stepping up to the plate, I’d have to include my grandmother, my mother—and my father, who became the first African American chemist in the rubber industry but ran an elevator for three years in that same industry before they finally recognized him. My father showed me by example that I’d need to be 150 percent better to succeed, but I should never get bitter about it because bitterness means they’ve won. Bitterness means being taken over; you’re not really putting your best stuff out there, you’re withdrawing.

When I was young, not yet a poet, in my teens, I was just dreaming about a world where I could read, because reading made me realize there was a large world out there and I had a place in it. I would read Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and I would think: “They’re speaking to me, this little Black girl sitting here in Akron, Ohio!” They made me feel like I can do anything. And that’s the power of words. I didn’t even know these people! But I began reading their words on the page; I felt as if they had just walked in the room that minute. Literary heroes—James Baldwin, certainly. Adrienne Rich, certainly. I’m talking about artists who have used their gifts to mobilize people; they remind us that words do matter. Words enable us, they embody our wants. Words can be the articulation of our dreams, our most private yearnings and fears.

That articulation gave me permission to act on those yearnings, because I realized that other people have yearnings, too. I thought if I ever became good enough as a writer to move someone else deeply, to really touch them, then it went without saying that I would also be an ambassador.

But I was a very shy child. Still am—no one believes me, but I am. And I thought I would never, ever be able to stand in front of others as a leader. I was perfectly content with being a follower, living the quiet life. And whenever there were moments in my life when I was called to the plate, the person I thought of immediately was my grandmother, who would have said, “Get yourself on out there.” And my father, along with this host of writers who had accompanied me through adolescence and beyond. I would think: If they could charge my inner life, then it was part of my mission to pay it forward and do the same.

Salas: What was your understanding of the US poet laureate position prior to your appointment, and how did this evolve over your term? Furthermore, could you speak to your process of approaching the central project of your laureateship? What surprised you to learn about the accessibility of resources for poetry programming?

Dove: Well, first of all, before I became poet laureate, my understanding of the position was that it was chiefly honorific, filled by poets who were considerably older than I was at that time. You could say they were at the peak of their careers. When Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed “Consultant in Poetry” (as the position was called then), she did a lot of outreach—I remember attending one of her sessions with high school students when I was in Washington, and it was fantastic to see her interact with youth. But most of the other laureates didn’t think of the position as an opportunity. They sat in the Poetry Office, wrote a poem or two. It was just an honor.

I was not expecting to get that phone call from the Library of Congress. Ironies of ironies, I had just finished giving a joint reading with Gwendolyn Brooks in Chicago and was packing up to go home; it was May, the semester had ended, and I was ready for a summer of writing poetry. When the call came, there was no doubt in my mind about accepting—although my first thought was, Well, there goes the writing. I was standing at a crossroads: to appoint a poet laureate who was so much younger than her predecessors was a call for youthful energy, for change.

So, before my term officially began in October, I went to Washington to visit the Poetry Office (which was amazing) and asked two questions. The first—“What’s the hierarchy here at the Library of Congress?” met with blank stares; the second—“What’s my budget?”—embarrassed shrugs. Okay, I thought: no budget. But if they like what I’m doing, they’ll find the money, so I’ll just go on until someone says, “Stop!” And if there’s no firm infrastructure, no easily discernible chain of command, I’ll simply start at the top.

The arts are not supported because our government fails to understand that culture is a nation’s fingerprint in the world.

In both cases my strategy seemed to work. There had been quite a lot of press about my appointment, so I decided to use the media to keep poetry in the public eye. The public certainly seemed interested in poetry—I was inundated with letters that began: “I don’t know much about poetry, but . . .” or “I don’t understand poetry, but there’s one poem . . .” Always that “but”—suggesting that a nation suffering under a collective inferiority complex, even though these same correspondents—lawyers, teenagers, mothers, massage therapists—told exquisite stories relating their first encounter with poetry or describing how they’d kept a certain sonnet in their wallet twenty years ago and were still reading it. They understood poetry very well; they were just afraid—somewhere along the line they had been taught there was one “right” answer to every poem, and they were afraid of getting it wrong. Why is this country so afraid of poetry? It’s because we don't have poetry in our everyday lives. It’s been cut out; the arts are not supported because our government fails to understand that culture is a nation’s fingerprint in the world.

So, my poet laureate project evolved to meet this hunger. I tried to get poetry out in the world by insinuating it into the unlikeliest places. That meant talking about poetry to children, giving readings at places where they’ve never read a poetry book—like the Naval Academy, where all these young people were training for battle, and I thought, They don’t know it, but they need poetry, too! It meant going on Sesame Street. It meant bringing poetry out of the ivory tower and showing that poetry is about everyday life. It’s about all the little things that matter to all of us. If a teenager who said her nickname was “Pizza”—I’ll never forget that—if Pizza could relate to a poem about an old Black man, then that was precisely the kind of unifying force that we need in this country.

It meant bringing poetry out of the ivory tower and showing that poetry is about everyday life.

I didn’t have a project, per se; my idea was to shake things up. For the biweekly poetry readings at the Library of Congress (I’m sure Joy and Juan will talk about those too), my idea was to collaborate with other artistic disciplines: I brought in jazz musicians to improvise with poets. I invited Native American students from the Crow Nation to read their poems, and they said, “Only if we can bring our parents and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” I said, “Fine, we’ll get it done!” And we did! So, it’s that kind of thing, breaking down the notion of Washington, DC, as a citadel of power. Instead, it is for everyone.

Salas: After Amanda Gorman’s riveting performance at the presidential inauguration, many folks seemed shocked that such a young person could write and perform with such powerful articulation. Personally, as someone who works with youth, while I was in awe of her performance, I was not at all surprised by the keenness of vision that has arrived at her young age. What were some of your favorite insights to arise about the potential of poetry that came from working with children and younger poets?

Dove: So many adults have forgotten what it was like to be that age—the dreams we cherished, what energy and curiosity. Part of the reason we forget is because most of us look at anyone who isn’t twenty-one yet and assume they want to be an adult. The question always goes, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” not “What are you doing now?” As if who they are now is not anything, or not anything yet.

What have I discovered, working with young people? They have reminded me how joyous being curious is (because I, too, had buried this)—that incredible openness, of wanting to eat it all.

Also, the willingness of young people to question what they don’t understand . . . that sounds odd, but, so often adults are so busy trying to impress others, we don’t dare ask lest we betray our ignorance. Yet how can we come to an understanding if we don’t ask? If we aren’t open with one another, how can we meld our diverse talents in order to progress as a whole? We shouldn’t underestimate the energy of the young, their ability to apply all that curiosity and drive to a project.

I also saw that younger poets were fraught by the feeling that their lives were trivial. The adults didn’t seem to notice what they were going through, therefore their experiences weren’t important. Even among the popular kids, even in the most successful, I could see that doubt nibbling at their edges. I worked hard to help them embrace their own worth. I’d to try to get rid of saying, “Your stories are important.” I’d say, “There’s no one else in the world who can tell your story. Now, how are you going to tell it? Are you gonna play it? Are you gonna sing it? Are you going to write it? Are you going to paint it? Look—all these avenues to explore, at your disposal!”

Another thing: Young people don’t understand the need for the borders adults have set up between all sorts of things, but especially when we’re talking creative disciplines. They have no problem blending visual art with music or projecting words on a dancer’s body. Or, as in the case of Amanda Gorman, melding the rhetorical essay with rap and lyric poetry. The personal with the public—it’s all one sphere that they’re in.

We are selling our young people short. They are capable of learning much more than they’re given to tackle.

Part of growing up, adults proclaim, is learning to compartmentalize . . . to decide what you want to do and then pursue one goal, one path, and forget everything else. Please! We are selling our young people short. They are capable of learning much more than they’re given to tackle. We worry that going off on tangents will confuse them, but they’d love the opportunity to merge calculus with geology or apply chemistry to history. What architect isn’t a bit of a mathematician? Or a chef also a chemist?

I just don’t understand it. I played the cello from grade school through college; I was serious, which meant music theory as well. And yet the attention I paid to poetry was just as serious. People kept telling me I had to choose. And when I finally decided to go for an MFA, they’d say, “Why are you still doing all that music? It’ll take away from your poetry!” Even though I was young and unproven, I thought they were out of their minds. I can’t imagine living without embracing everything that interests me.

I can’t imagine living without embracing everything that interests me.

Salas: We are in a time of renewed investment in activism, where we are also hopefully asking about the ethics of these gestures and our positionalities in offering service in ways that are sensitive to and even desired by the communities we seek to uplift. As a literary activist and ambassador, how do you stay checked in with that concern? What questions do you ask yourself?

Dove: It’s not so much the questions I ask myself—because I’ll subconsciously tailor them to suit the preconceptions I already have—but rather what questions I ask others. I think any of us would, to what I perceive. But what’s essential, whenever I approach a community with the intent to provide uplift, is to ask them what they desire and to hear them out, to listen and actually hear them. To ask them who they perceive themselves to be, then how they think the world sees them. In other words, to give their perceptions legitimacy. To let them talk and to listen. And then, but only if they ask me, to tell them where I’m coming from so that hopefully there will be parallels. That’s when, hopefully, there’s a connection made. To go into a community with a ready-made program, exclaiming, “Hey, isn’t this cool,” when I haven’t even asked if they think it’s cool . . . means I haven’t listened.

Salas: The concept of a public mandate for an arts ambassador on a county, state, and/or national level has always fascinated me within our nation—it’s a notable contrast in a culture in which to be an American artist is to constantly have the societal legitimacy of one’s artmaking under siege. Furthermore, to be a BIPOC artist is often to endure the added complexity of the dominant culture’s dismissal of one’s personhood and lived experience alongside their art. And so, the national and institutional endorsement of a poet as a necessary ambassador within the republic has always made me curious about both the joys and the precarities of the post. How did/do you reconcile the promise of this post within the devaluation of arts and humanities within our racist and capitalistic culture?

Dove: Wow, that’s such a beautiful question, and you describe the dilemma precisely. This is exactly the dilemma, and it’s so strange to have a poet laureateship in a country that so devalues art. Had it not been for Gertrude Clarke Whittall, benefactor of the arts, who underwrote the position (the funds for the library’s set of Stradivari string instruments also came from her coffers), I doubt we would even have a poet laureate. Yet here we stand. And as I said earlier, words matter; titles do make an impression. The title “Poet Laureate of the United States” carries a certain imprimatur, a stamp of legitimacy that honors the art of poetry. When I was in office, people would write me who had never heard of a poet laureate, but they were thrilled by the idea that we had one. I became a cultural and spiritual lightning rod, someone people could turn to.

After all, historically the poet is at the center of tribal consciousness; as Shelley said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The griots, the poets, were not only responsible for chronicling all the activities of the communities but articulating their longings and sorrows as well. The laureates, the griots acted as mouthpieces; they conveyed what was happening in the community—The Iliad, The Odyssey—but the words they used wove a kind of sensory magic that helped people come to grips with what was happening to them emotionally. It wasn’t the same as making a report; instead of “Yesterday we had the great battle of so and so,” they would stand up and intone, “When the morning donned her bright robes . . .” so that people would actually relive that fateful dawn. Poetry is the repository of our collective emotional memory.

Poetry is the repository of our collective emotional memory.

People may not know what precisely is meant by the title “Poet Laureate.” Even so, they can hear the word “laurel” lurking in there, and it lifts them up. They can smell the flower garlands and think: This is something important.

Many of the poets laureate in recent years have used that uplift to speak Truth to Power by giving poetry back to the people it sprang from. That’s really important.

When I was poet laureate, I would often be invited to lunches over on Capitol Hill, just across the street. I’m sure it was only because it looked good to have “The Poet Laureate” at some Congressional lunch or the like. Interestingly, I would invariably be seated next to a conservative Republican senator or representative. Yet the reverence with which I was treated, because I was poet laureate, gave me the opportunity to engage them on a very personal level and, in effect, disarm them; I mean that in the literal sense—not to charm but to dismantle their defenses. I would ask personal questions like, “When was the first time you remember reading a poem?” or “Do you like poetry at all? Why?” And these incredible stories poured out—the first library card, waiting for the bookmobile as a little boy, stuff like that.

Poet laureate: the title gave me entrance into these events; even though these same senators might have voted against some literary bill, they would hear my title and sit up, which gave me the opportunity to undermine their preconceptions about artists; they would leave changed by our exchange.

Salas: What have been your observations about the role of poetry and its role in the community consciousness when the nature of public space has changed so drastically? What are your hopes for the role of poetic community engagement as the nation returns not to “normal,” but resumes in a time of reckoning with the grief and post-trauma of its most recent events?

Dove: Obviously, things have changed. Even before the pandemic, social media had begun to permeate every aspect of our lives, making communication more immediate—more public, yet weirdly intimate. Someone will be confessing to some embarrassment on Facebook, someone you don’t even know—yet there you are in their living room, singing to their colicky two-month-old while other strangers comment on undeveloped digestive tracts and alternative lullabies. None of us know how it’s going to play out, because we’re smack dab in the middle of it—but this is such an interesting mix of the very personal space with a different kind of public space. And of course, the intimate arena we call social media has been altered and intensified by the pandemic, since our contact with the outside world is almost exclusively virtual now.

In terms of artistry, we’ve moved away from reverence for the written word—as something printed and bound between covers into a book—and gravitated toward audiobooks, so people are listening more.

For generations, poets didn’t have to be nuanced orators of their own poetry, because audiences visualized the words on the page. Gradually we grew to appreciate how a poem sounded; it became alright to emote a little bit! And then came slam poetry and spoken-word, where the musical aspects of poetry, neglected for so many years, burst to the forefront again.

And then came social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—places where poems can be shared online, which changes the way poetry reaches its audience, and who that audience is. It changes the filters for judging whether a poem is “good” or “bad.” We have to read through more material and depend more on our own reactions to reach a verdict. Then the pandemic forced us all indoors—so that now, oddly enough, I think we’re actually reading a lot more than before because now, that’s all we’ve got—a tweet, a Facebook entry. People spend hours and hours on their smartphones or laptops. At least they’re reading!

But with the pandemic . . . there is something else happening. We’ve lost companionship, immediate contact. We’re missing the human touch. We’re missing the physical electricity of being in the same room with other people, breathing in sync as the poem pours into us.

We’re missing the physical electricity of being in the same room with other people, breathing in sync as the poem pours into us.

And so, we have to rely on other things with a virtual presence. We have to look at one another. It’s not only listening, but now it is looking even with the fact that we have masks on most of the time, right? We have to gaze into each other’s eyes, not just glance, we have to gaze. We look to see if someone else’s gestures can convey the emotion behind them, to judge if what they’re saying is exactly what they want or not. That’s going to change the nature in which we pay attention to—or receive, I should say—words spoken in a public space. It’s going to change the nature of poetry, in the sense of what space is there for spoken poetry—poetry that’s going to be given orally and visually to a public. And whether that poetry can also exist on the page . . . does it even want to exist on the page? Are there hybrid forms of this? I mean, much more has been brought to the forefront, much more than when we were before the pandemic. I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen.

I think if there’s anything that’s going to help us reckon with that grief, it will be the arts, and poetry in particular. Grief, if left unattended, will fester inside; it eats away at the soul. Poetry opens a portal into a space where we can share our feelings with others.

I think if there’s anything that’s going to help us reckon with that grief, it will be the arts, and poetry in particular.

I’m reminded of something the pianist and Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer once said. She had survived Theresienstadt (Terezín), the concentration camp where most of the composers and musicians were sent. In the evening, they would play music together surreptitiously, on makeshift instruments; they would hum, sing, piece together Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, that kind of thing. And one of the interviewers asked her, “Why would you do that? It was so dangerous, and you needed that energy to live.” Do you know what her answer was? “We fed on beauty,” she said, “and that’s what kept us going.”

If everything is stolen from you, what’s left? Art: the words in your head, the music beneath your tongue. Poetry can be carried inside the heart. And it will feed you. It will feed you. We can see this from the response to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, how it just buoyed people—how necessary it was for a bruised and shuttered nation to hear it.

So, I believe poetry will continue to play a huge role in our national consciousness—at least it will if I have anything to do with it!

February 2021

Editorial note: US Poets Laureate Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Rita Dove were honored with the 2021 LA Review of Books (LARB) – UCR Department of Creative Writing Lifetime Achievement Award during the closing event of the 44th annual UCR Writers Week, which was held virtually February 13 and 16–19. The yearly festival is free and open to the public. For more information regarding the event schedule, featured writers, and postevent recordings, please visit the Writers Week website.

Author’s note: Crystal AC Salas is grateful to the poets laureate for their graciousness of time and wisdom and Professors Allison Hedge Coke and Sara Borjas, as well as her colleague Abbie Reese, for their guidance and assistance on this project.

Photo © Fred Viebahn

In 1993 Rita Dove was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1993–95), making her the youngest person—and the first African American—to receive this highest official honor in American poetry. In 1999 she was reappointed Special Consultant in Poetry for 1999–2000, the Library of Congress Bicentennial year. From 2004 to 2006, she served as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner (Thomas and Beulah, 1987), author of numerous poetry books, a novel, short stories, a play, and, as editor, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Her honors include the 1996 National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton and the 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama (she is the only poet ever to receive both medals) as well as the Heinz Award in the Arts & Humanities, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, lifetime achievement medals from the Library of Virginia and the Fulbright Commission, as well as twenty-eight honorary doctorates and an NAACP Image Award (for Collected Poems: 1974–2004). She has served as president of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and as chancellor of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. An elected member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters, she is the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. Her next volume of poems, Playlist for the Apocalypse, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in summer 2021.

Crystal AC Salas is a Chicanx poet, essayist, educator, and community organizer. Her work has appeared in Northwest Review, [PANK] Magazine, PCC Inscape, Chaparral Poetry, the Acentos Review, and others. She is currently pursuing her MFA at UC Riverside. She is a founding member of the BreakBread Literacy Project, which works alongside youth to elevate the voices of young creatives under twenty-five, and serves as poetry editor for their quarterly publication, BreakBread Magazine.