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Rita Dove: On the Genesis of "Parsley"

Excerpts from an interview with Dove by Stan Sanvel Rubin and Judith Kitchen in 1985.

dove.gif (10795 bytes)Rubin: ["Parsley"] is based on this historical incident, but you get as imaginative as a novelist, if I might say so. You have Trujillo’s mother die baking "skull-shaped candies" on the Day of the Dead. Is this, in fact, a product of research?

Dove: No, it isn’t. In fact, the only thing in that poem which is a product of research is the actual fact that Trujillo made this happen and that the Haitians worked in the cane fields. And then the fact that when someone cannot roll an "r," it usually comes out as an "l"; hence, you get "Katalina" instead of "Katarina." But the rest of it – what goes through Trujillo’s mind as he tries to find a way to kill someone – is my own invention. …

Rubin: … Do you find your imagination compelled by historical events, by fact, very frequently?

Dove: I do, especially in Museum [the collection in which "Parsley" appeared]. When I started Museum, I was in Europe, and I had a way of looking back on America and distancing myself from my experience. I could look at history, at the world, in a different way because I had another mindset. I found historical events fascinating for looking underneath – not for what we always see or what’s always said about an historical event, but for the things that can’t be related in a dry historical sense.

Rubin: … Could you comment on the lyric moments of the poem and the formal aspects of the poem, the repetition?

Dove: That poem took a long time to write! I started with the facts and that in a certain way almost inhibited me, the fact that he thought up this word, was already so amazing that I had a hard time trying to figure out how to deal with it. So when I wrote the poem I tried it in many different ways. I tried a sestina, particularly in the second part, "the palace," simply because the obsessiveness of the sestina, the repeated words, was something I wanted to get – that driven quality – in the poem. I gave up the sestina very early. It was too playful for the poem. A lot of the words stayed – the key words like parrot and spring and, of course, parsley. The first part was a villanelle. I thought I was only going to do the entire poem from the Haitians’ point of view. And that wasn’t enough. I had this villanelle, but it wasn’t enough. And there was a lot more that I hadn’t said, so I tried the sestina and gave that up. I think part of that driven quality remains in the second part.

Rubin: Well, it doesn’t seem accidental to me. Every line seems to have two or three words with an "r" prominent in the English language. It seems that "parody / of greenery" is a good example of something uou seem to be playing with throughout the poem. Was it to call our attention?

Dove: I didn’t think of it consciously, but I was very conscious of sound in the poem. And I didn’t think consciously, "I’m going to get American ‘r’s and Spanish ‘r’s in it." But the "r" sound has a kind of growl to it even in English, a subdued growl I suppose in American English, that was essential to the sound cage of the poem.

Rubin: … Are you worried at all that you create a Trujillo so fully that even though he’s a monster he’s not beyond us …?

Dove: … It was important to me to try to understand that arbitrary quality of his cruelty. And I’m not afraid of making him too human. I don’t believe anyone’s going to like him after reading my poem. Making us get into his head may shock us all into seeing what the human being is capable of, and what in fact we’re capable of, because if we can go that far into his head we’re halfway there ourselves.

From Rita Dove, " ‘The Underside of the Story’: A Conversation with Rita Dove" (with Stan Sanvel Rubin and Judith Kitchen, 1985), rep. in Earl G. Ingersoll, Judith Kitchen and Stan Sanvel Rubin, Eds. The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets in the Eighties (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson P, 1989). 154-155.

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