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An Interview with Rita Dove by M.W. Thomas


Rita Dove
talks to M. Wynn Thomas
August 12, 1995

MWT: Youíre coming to the end of your term as Poet Laureate of the United States. Clearly itís an honour and has involved ceremonial duties, does it seem to you that it has also served a more serious purpose?

RD: The ceremonial duties for the American Poet Laureate are not that onerous or defined. I rarely felt that I was being forced to "popularise" poetry or in any way make it simple or tailored for some kind of ceremonial rite. Since I wasnít required to write occasional poems, if I was ever asked to "say a few words" at an event, I had the freedom to do whatever I wished: either to talk, or to recite a poem if I already had a poem appropriate to the moment. I was very careful not to compromise the art itself. A lot of what Iíve done these past two years has involved educating young people in matters of poetry, and bringing real poetry into real life - and by that I mean serious and difficult poetry. My experience has been that as soon as people are relaxed, even very difficult poetry becomes accessible. Itís when someone is told: "This is great literature; you should appreciate it" that they get uptight and donít do very well with the poem. So by helping introduce people to poetry and widening the audience for poetry, I do think my term has served a more serious purpose.

MWT: Youíre a poet: Youíre also African-American. Are you an African-American poet?

RD: Iíve never been sure what exactly itís supposed to mean, to be called an African-American poet or a woman poet. Iím a woman, Iím an African-American. My poems often reflect those two aspects of myself. With some of my poems, obviously, you cannot tell race or gender. A recent poem called "Evening Primrose", for example, is about that particular flower. How can one tell who wrote that? My own reluctance with being labelled an African-American poet comes from battling the assumption that this means writing in a racially programmatic way. As far as Iím concerned no programmatic poetry, no matter how well meant the ideology, can be truly as free. So long as we agree that thatís not what you mean, Iíll say yes, Iím an African-American poet; Iím a woman poet; Iím an American poet: all those things. But Iím a poet first.

MWT: Could I ask a similar question, but in a different way. Have you got a sense of your place, vis-ŗ-vis other American poets, Langston Hughes, for example, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael Harper, Robert Hayden - or, for that matter, to think differently about you, James Wright, and his poetry relating to Ohio. Is that the way you place yourself...?

RD: I donít try to place myself. Iíll leave that up to the critics. This sounds corny, but I feel a part of a literary family, a community of both living and dead poets. In the way of families, I may argue vehemently with other relatives sometimes, but the empathy - the fact of inclusion - is always there. I feel a deep affinity with Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright - indeed, with what one would call the African-American canon of literature. I remember discovering Langston Hughes in an anthology when I was in my teens and reading a poem like "Dream Boogie", where the language just hops and leaps all over the page, and recognising a part of my life that I hadnít ever encountered in a poem before. That recognition is incredibly vital to my personal and spiritual identity. I donít know if my own work reflects this, but I know the influence is there. I donít think anyoneís ever mentioned James Wright as a possible influence before, but I do feel an affinity to him as well - because Ohio is my home state and I recognise, in his work, a certain attitude and inflection - that Midwestern, flat, no-nonsense tone - thatís part of me, too.

MWT: What about that other side of Wright that interests me, the sense you have that he speaks for the socially mute, as you might say; that his is a poetry flaring out of deprivation. I get that in Thomas and Beulah, for example. Is that a fair comment?

RD: Thatís more than fair. One of the things that attracts me to James Wright is his way of speaking for the mute. Iíve been fascinated by what Iíve called before "the underside of history", the dramas of ordinary people - the quiet courage of their actions, all which buoy up the big events. In Thomas and Beulah, for instance, I had great fun with the chronology at the end, because it gave me the chance to intersperse important historical events with things that never really stand a chance of appearing in history texts, such as the birth of a grandson. Putting these private events on equal footing with historical occurrences is a way of saying that the personal and historical are equally important.

MWT: I think the question comes partly out of my own Welsh background, and by the way, a feature of Welsh poetry in Welsh and English has been its sense of responsibility for the collective. Now that, up to a point, has been absent from American poetry, where the ethos of individualism has been very strong. I sense it in you, though, and I wonder whether that comes from a black tradition - you get it in Hayden, for example.

RD: You certainly get it in the black tradition, yes. You get it in Robert Hayden, and in Michael Harper - when he writes those homages to blues musicians, itís as if heís saying: "And remember this person in the community...and remember this one, too". Heís paying his respects. The ethos of collective responsibility is present not only in the poetry, but in real life. One is always conscious that everything one does can reflect on the community, and every decision made is not entirely oneís own to make. But Iíve never felt this to be oppressive; rather, the tenor is more: "Do what you have to, but just understand what effect it will have, what legacy you will leave." Thatís all. But thatís enough! As for me - I never think of my audience when I write a poem. I try to write out of whatever is haunting me; in order for a poem to feel authentic, I have to feel Iím treading on very dangerous ground, which can mean that the resulting revelations may prove hurtful to other people. The time for thinking about that kind of guilt or any collective sense of responsibility, however, occurs much later in the creative process, after the poem is finished. At that point, I must decide what I will do with it - publish it, or put it away.

MWT: You also seem to me to explore relationships in your poetry - Mother Love, for example, deals with this in a very complex way, and in a way that suggests to me you may feel relationships are constitutive of a womanís being to a degree greater than they are of a manís. Is that fair?

RD: I havenít thought it through on a rational level yet, because this book is still very fresh. I do find relationships to be kaleidoscopic and infinitely changing; no relationship is ever clear or safe, no matter how intrinsically wonderful it is and all that. The relationship between mother and daughter, for me, is incredibly rich ground. But, simply because I am both mother and daughter, I canít speak for the male sense of relationships in the same way. For instance, Iíve been working on a group of poems about the black soldiers in World War I, who fought under the French command. Theyíre in voice - that is, theyíre persona poems - and I find them to be some of the hardest poems Iíve ever written. Those poems are taking a long time; I will finish them eventually, or theyíll finish me. But Iím finding great difficulty with entering that masculine world, that particular sensibility. Sometimes it feels presumptuous even to attempt it...

MWT: ...although you did it in Thomas and Beulah, didnít you? There you managed to even-up the relationship...

RD: Yes, thatís true - and though I didnít write the poems chronologically, I did begin with the Thomas poems. I think one of the differences sprung from the fact that Thomas was based on my maternal grandfather, so there was a feeling that I was writing about family, and I felt that I knew him well enough. The chief difficulties with the soldier poems lie in the different period - all the poems occur during the first world war - plus the fact that each poem is about a different soldier, so I canít simply spend the entire book exploring the thoughts and emotions of one character. Each soldier is represented by one short persona poem, and each man is discovered in a situation that for centuries has been considered the domain of the masculine. All these factors make the writing quite challenging.

MWT: Again, and related to what Iíve been asking you about, it seems to me you alternate between the subjectivism of the lyric, as you might say, exploring your own world very intensely, and on the other hand a generously empathic sense of other peopleís lives. Is this, to use Whitmanís expression, the systole and diastole of your imagination?

RD: Mmmmm...thatís kind of nice, isnít it? Because thatís what our heart does all the time...that rhythm, that push-and-pull, feels natural to us. For me, it goes back again to the community. The storytellers from my childhood basically told stories about other people - eccentrics in the family, neighbourhood. What made these stories effective, and what qualified someone as a great storyteller, was the degree of intimacy the story conjured - which meant in another sense, how metaphoric and lyric the stories were. It wasnít about getting to the point: "What did Uncle Bob do with that broken-down car?" Rather, the journey of the narrative was interesting, and therefore the telling of that journey was paramount. So you could say that even before I began to read, I had discovered the delight of shaping life with words. I think Iíll never want to be rid of this delicious tension between the telling and the tale - which, when translated into the lyric and the narrative, is part of the systolic and diastolic of poetry. In Thomas and Beulah, for instance, I was consciously trying to put a narrative into short lyric poems - stringing the lyric moments one after the other like beads on a necklace; I was working the lyric moment against the narrative impulse, so that they would counterpoint each other. In the States there has been an unfortunate division between narrative poetry and lyric poetry; frankly, Iíve never felt that much of a difference. A good poem usually has both. A lyric may not have a traditional narrative line, but it all depends what you define as story. Even a leaf falling from a tree is a pretty dramatic story...to the leaf!

MWT: Now Iím going to hazard another generalisation! It seems to me that in your poetry a recurrent dialectic is that between the attraction towards the safety of closure, on the one hand, and the impulse to surrender to "the lack of conclusion / the eternal dťnouement" on the other. And your stance as a poet is for me captured in the opening stanza of ĎThe Other Side of the Houseí:

I walk out the kitchen door
trailing extension cords into the open
gaze of the Southwest

RD: This was especially interesting - exactly this tension - when I was working on the poems in Mother Love. Most of them are some variation on a sonnet, so even while they are encaged, they felt very dangerous to me.

MWT: And yet you donít write processual poetry, do you? Youíre attracted to the closed forms...

RD: Iím attracted to them, but I think theyíre ultimately false. The temptation of being charmed by a well-made box is very great. To me, the pleasures to be gotten from a well-made box are not as great, ultimately, as opening the box and letting the stuff out. I love boxes - Iím a crossword fanatic - but I realise that no box is ever that perfect. Maybe thatís why I like playing around with them! While I was writing the sonnets in Mother Love I worried incessantly, because I didnít want to be lured into an end line that only sounded right, an ending that underscored complacency. Sometimes you can trick yourself into thinking that something - a line, a rhyme, an image - is really interesting, when all it really does is complete a predictable or clever fit. In a review which included Thomas and Beulah, Helen Vendler speculated what each of the poets might be tempted to try next. I loved that gesture - because to the writer, all thatís important is what comes next. Anyway, she wished for me an attempt at looser poems. But what did I do but head right for the sonnet! And yet...even in this book of sonnets there is a seven-part poem in free verse, set in contemporary Paris, called ĎPersephone in Hellí, which ranges all over the place in terms of voices, dialogue, rhythms, dictions. I had so much fun writing that poem; the freedom was exhilarating. Though it was very frightening not to have my box!

MWT: Another way in which you tighten not form but sound, is through exploring the musicality of language. I know Grace Notes is itself a musical expression, but I was thinking beyond that. In that collection particularly, again as a Welshman I suppose, I was very aware of the play of sounds going on there. Now youíre an accomplished musician. Does that carry over, or is it something quite different? Music, and music in poetry - are they something quite different from each other?

RD: I donít think theyíre much different from each other. In my case, at least, they complement each other. I played the cello from my tenth year all the way through college and a little beyond, and then I switched to viola da gamba, which I still play. I also sing - opera, strictly amateur. Consequently, I have a good sense of phrasing, the movement of the musical line both within and across measure bars. I guess itís true to form that I prefer Mozart over Beethoven. Music and poetry have much in common: the sense of a poem moves in and out of sync with the music of its language, which creates a marvellous kind of vibration - a frisson - and all unsaid things between those two poles keep a poem churning. And for me, if a poem doesnít have a sense of music, its own cage of sound against which the denotative struggles...then that poem probably wonít move me very much. Thereís a corollary to my music connection: when it comes to learning a foreign language, I tend to be very empathetic. I hear the music of the language first: cadences in phrasing, predominant sounds - fricatives, sibilants and so forth. Then I pick up the intricacies of that language as if learning a piece of music. There are definite drawbacks to this empathy; for instance, my husband claims that I adjust my speech, chameleon-like, to imitate the person Iím speaking with. When weíre in Germany and I meet somebody who speaks a different dialect - like Swiss-German, which has a distinctive lilting cadence - after about an hourís conversation Iím using the same inflections, and my husband is nudging me, because heís afraid theyíll think Iím making fun of their speech. Incidentally, Iíve had a lot of trouble here in Wales trying not to talk with a Welsh accent!

MWT: So youíre very receptive to rhythm and pitch of speech, and that helps you presumably when you dramatise, when youíre speaking in voices...

RD: Yes, I think so.

MWT: An apparently new interest of yours in myth surface in Mother Love. On the other hand youíve always been fascinated by the way humans live in a highly coloured and phantasmagoric reality, by the way, for example, that silos can look like cigarettes if weíre middle-aged, or like a fresh packet of chalk when weíre children. Youíve said earlier that this may be related to your earlier background. Is there any other way youíd account for it?

RD: I was reminded, when you referred to a "highly-coloured and phantasmagoric reality" - among the black oral tropes are the traditions of Signifying and Toasts. Toasts are improvisations on standard tales which are orated in a kind of doggerel. The Toast revolves around a semi-mythical character and his or her adventures, which are always wildly exaggerated versions of what possibly could happen. The point is to improve upon the story, adding incidents, embroidering the death-defying feats. In many ways, Toasts are allegories, and their legendary figures, Shine or Stag-o-lee, are the black American equivalents to Odysseus or Perseus. Signifying, on the other hand, is the art of speaking sarcastically about someone while they are listening; but you must be creative and sophisticated in this verbal abuse, or youíll have failed. A sub-genre of Signifying is called "playing the dozens", where the point is to malign your opponentís mother, and to do so with insults that are absolutely outrageous and gorgeously creative, for example: "Your motherís so ugly, you could put her face in a bowl of dough and make gorilla cookies". Now, in a manner similar to Toasts, a myth stays the same and yet it always changes. We know the story-line of most myths; the Greek myths have been rammed down our throats for centuries. So why do we still like to hear them told? Because even though we know every detail of their plots, theyíre still ultimately mysterious; their meaning deepens. As we grow and learn to traffic in the world, we can bring our experiences to the template of this or that mythic allegory, and it will provide both a grid upon which to batten our own emotional confusion and a frame - an aperture setting - through which to contemplate our inner selves.

From The Swansea Review, Published by the Department of English, The University of Wales, Swansea


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