A Pulitzer-Prize winner before she was 35 and Poet Laureate of the United States at age 40, Rita Dove talks about her life, her poems and her efforts to take poetry to the people.
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RITA DOVE, Poet Laureate: [reading] This alone is what I wish for you – knowledge.
I keep feeling like telling people, ”You don’t know what you’re missing.” – to know we are responsible for the lives we change. Each hurt swallowed is a stone. Last words whispered to his daughter as he placed her fingertips lightly into the palm of her groom. I would like to be able to make poetry much more of a household word than it is now. If I can reduce the anxiety that people have about poetry, I think poetry could do the rest itself. If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the next hour, Poet Laureate Rita Dove. I’m Bill Moyers.
OFFICIAL: The Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove.
RITA DOVE: [reading excerpts from “Lady Freedom Among Us.” Please refer to end of transcript for full text of all poetry read by Ms. Dove.]
“Lady Freedom Among Us”
don’t lower your eyes
or stare straight ahead to where
you think you ought to be going
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As America’s new Poet Laureate, Rita Dove’s first official act was to write and read a poem commemorating the bicentennial of the US capital.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
with her stained cheeks and whiskers and heaped up trinkets
she has risen among us in blunt reproach
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] “Lady Freedom Among Us” was her meditation on the statue of freedom being returned to the Capitol dome after its restoration.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
having assumed the thick skin of this town
its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear
she rests in her weathered plumage
no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is each of us
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] She is our youngest Poet Laureate in a line that has included such venerables as Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Frost. Success came early for Rita Dove. In 1987, at age 35, she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Thomas and Beulah, a series of poems about her grandparents. While her poems have won her a national following, she has also published a novel, a book of short stories and, just last month, a new play. Even as a child back in Akron, Ohio, Rita Dove stood out, becoming a Presidential Scholar in high school, one of the 100 best students in the country. The recognition kept coming – summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, a Fulbright scholarship to Germany. She is married now to the German novelist Fred Vieban. In the last year alone, she was named Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia-
EMCEE: Woman of the Year, Rita Dove.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] -celebrated in the popular press and honored
by the NAACP.
RITA DOVE: [reading] He is all the world there is.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Audiences delight in the range of her subjects. And at the recent Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, her versatility won ovation after ovation.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
Why do I remember the sky
above the forbidden beach,
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] She writes of painful moments from hard times past, when segregation was law.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
Why does Aunt Helen
laugh before saying “Look at that –
a bunch of niggers, not
a-one get out ‘fore the others pull him
back.” I don’t believe her –
just as I don’t believe they won’t come
and chase us back to the colored-only shore
crisp with litter and broken glass.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] She calls on the memory of the fabulous Billie Holiday.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under seige
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] She captures the pride of tall dark women, come to Paris from distant places.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
“The Island Women of Paris”
skim from curb to curb like regatta,
from Pont N euf to the Quai de la Rappe
in cool negotiation with traffic,
each a country to herself
transposed to this city
by a fluke called “imperial courtesy.”
not to get in their way. And better
not look an island women in the eye –
unless you like feeling unnecessary.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] She writes most often of family-
RITA DOVE: [reading]
“After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed.”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] – of memories bitter and sweet, of tender moments of discovery between mother and child.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
My daughter spreads her legs
to find her vagina:
hairless, this mistaken
bit of nomenclature
is what a stranger cannot touch
without her yelling.
She is three; that makes this
innocent. We’re pink!
she shrieks, and bounds off.
Every month she wants
to know where it hurts
and what the wrinkled string means
between my legs. This is good blood
I say, but that’s wrong, too.
How to tell her that it’s what makes us –
black mother, cream child.
That we’re in the pink
and the pink’s in us.
BILL MOYERS: That one’s not easy for your audience.
RITA DOVE: No. It’s not easy for me, either, to read. And yet I think it’s absolutely necessary to talk about these things. I think that, particularly in the United States, but in other societies as well, we have gotten to the point that we try to ignore our bodies. We’re really ashamed of the fact that we’re in bodies. And yet that is part of our very being. And if we can’t talk about them, if we can’t talk about our bodies and actually how – what a marvelous thing a body is – it works! I mean, to me it’s an amazement that it works.
BILL MOYERS: And yet there is – everything’s so public now. I mean, we have soft porn on television night after night. We have Oprah and Donahue and Geraldo all talking about sex and the techniques of sex. I mean, it seems like some of us are old-fashioned to think that maybe a private moment like that shouldn’t go public. On the other hand, the audience responded and I have to report that my wife, Judith, when she heard it, said that kind of wonderful intimacy between a mother and a child was not possible in her generation, between her mother and her.
RITA DOVE: Or between my mother, you know, and me. The real point of that poem – it’s not the sexual organs or any of that. It is – as your wife said, it’s the moment of intimacy between a mother and daughter, something that one generation can teach the next. And to bring the intimate public and still maintain the quality of intimacy is something that poetry can do.
BILL MOYERS: Well, the ultimate sweetness of it, it seems to me, is the commitment to – quote – “us – black mother, cream daughter.” Was that a real moment between you and your daughter?
RITA DOVE: Parts of it were real. It’s real, but compressed time. It’s not that this happened on one afternoon, but it’s also being able to answer without embarrassment the questions that a child, who doesn’t have sense to be embarrassed, as we would say, asks about their body. You know, they say, ”Well, what is this? And why does this person have that and I don’t?” And to be able to answer those questions without making a child feel ashamed is something that I had to learn. It taught me something. But this occurred over a period of time and I compressed it into one poem.
BILL MOYERS: When did the thought first come to you, “I can be a poet”?
RITA DOVE: Wow. Well, it was in college. I had been writing for a long time. I wrote when I was 10, 11. I wrote stories, poems. But I never thought of it as something I could do in the real world. It was my private thing. It was something that I did as my own enjoyment. And I think, because I never really came in contact with another writer when I was young, it didn’t occur to me that this was even possible to dream about. When I was in college and began taking creative writing courses and met other people who were trying to write, it gradually dawned on me that I was doing everything to have my creative writing classes. I would reschedule my entire course of events just to have this class. And that’s when I realized that I was trying to be what I thought society wanted me to be. I was trying to become a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, that somehow was going to be a credit to my community, my race – you know, the whole schmear. And what I really wanted to do was write.
BILL MOYERS: Were you a voracious reader, as a child?
RITA DOVE: Oh, I read everything I could get my hand on. I read the backs of cereal boxes. I had to have something to read all the time. And sometimes it was agony to be at the dinner table. We would say, “Don’t bring a book to the table.” This was one of the things we used to say in our family because everybody would be dragging a book along. One of the most valuable things, I think, that happened to me in my childhood was the fact that my parents allowed us, me and my siblings, to read whatever we wanted to. They encouraged reading. There was a freedom involved in reading, so that we felt that we had a whole world of books to explore. And some of my most wonderful memories are wandering along the bookshelves in the solarium of our family house and thinking, “What book am I going to read this time?” and not knowing what’s behind it.
BILL MOYERS: I like your poem, ”The First Book.” What’s behind it?
RITA DOVE: I think so many kids growing up today are afraid of books. They’re much more adept with computers and with media, but I was shocked when I visited some classes at my daughter’s school and realized that some kids were afraid of reading, that it wasn’t enjoyed, but it was somehow something that they were afraid they were going to fail at. And so this poem, “The First Book,” is about encouraging someone to discover the joy of reading.
“The First Book”
Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well … maybe a little.
More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.
You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.
Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use
knife and fork? Dig in:
you’ll never reach bottom.
It’s not like it’s the end of the world–
just the world as you think
you know it.
BILL MOYERS: How is reading like eating?
RITA DOVE: Well, one answer would be to say it nourishes the soul and the imagination. For me, reading, as a child, it was a very physical sensation. I really felt like I was kind of chewing my way through the book. And also, I associated reading with eating. I would take snacks and match them to books. I know that sounds very odd, but –
BILL MOYERS: You matched them to books?
RITA DOVE: I would actually – there was a summer when I was about 12 or 13 when I had decided to read all of Shakespeare. I didn’t make it, but this was one of those ambitious goals you have when you’re that age. And so I began to read the plays and – I couldn’t read them in one sitting, but I remember going through “Macbeth” and thinking that it was such a dark and bleak thing that I should only eat toast. And I think because I was so –
BILL MOYERS: Toast?
RITA DOVE: Toast. There’s something – nothing extravagant. It had to be dry bread, you know? And I think that was also because I got pulled so much into that world that I wanted to feel a little like it, too – again, trying to engage all the senses. So it became a kind of game. “What food, what snack am I going to eat when I read ‘Romeo and Juliet?’”
BILL MOYERS: That’s why, somewhere, you talk about Shakespeare being pleasure, in the same way that food is delicious.
RITA DOVE: Yes.
MOYERS: And you were how old?
RITA DOVE: About 12 or 13 then. But you see, I had this wonderful advantage. No one had told me at that point that Shakespeare was supposed to be difficult. It was on the shelf. It was a book there. No one asked me, “Are you sure you understand that?” or something like that. I picked it up and the language was so beautiful already. It was so – it was like going on a ride.
BILL MOYERS: I remember Maya Angelou telling me once many years ago, when I went to Stamps, Arkansas, with her, her home town, that when she first read Shakespeare, an explosion went off into her mind. “To imagine that a white man can write like that!” she said.
RITA DOVE: He’s definitely got soul, yes. I mean, every word has its texture. It throws a shadow and –
BILL MOYERS: Were your parents driving you? Were they putting these books in front of you? Were they saying, really, ”You’re going to succeed. You’re going to have to give your summers to Shakespeare”?
RITA DOVE: No. No, they never did that. But they drove us in the sense that they said, “Education is the key to doing whatever you want to do.” And they never even tried to dictate what we were going to be. They just insisted that we do our homework, that we do the very best we can. The question always was, if we brought home a grade that was less than perfect, “Did you do the best that you could?” Not, you know, “How could you bring home this C or B or – “Did you do the best that you could?” So that the standard became ourselves, you know, and –
BILL MOYERS: They were middle class in Akron, Ohio.
RITA DOVE: In Akron, Ohio.
BILL MOYERS: And education was the way, right?
RITA DOVE: It was the way. They were also first generation middle class. My father was the only one from 10 children who made it through high school, actually, and into college. And for him, you know, this was absolutely true, that education was his way, you know, into a middle class existence. And my parents were very determined that we understand how important education was. They also, though, showed us how it enjoyable it was, and by example as well. My father had a dictionary next to his chair and whenever he read anything, if he didn’t know a word, he’d look it up. And we saw that, so we couldn’t go to him and say, “What does this word mean?” We knew exactly what he would do. “There’s the dictionary. Look it up.”
BILL MOYERS: I get that in “Flash Cards,” which is one of the poems you’ve written about your childhood. Read this.
RITA DOVE: Oh, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a fun one.
RITA DOVE: This is my daughter’s favorite poem because I made her do flashcards, too. I had sworn I would never do this to a child.
BILL MOYERS: I did flashcards down in Marshall, Texas, when I was going up – hold it up.
RITA DOVE: It’s important.
In math I was the whiz kid, keeper
of oranges and apples. What you don’t understand,
master, my father said; the faster
I answered, the faster they came.
I could see one bud on the teacher’s geranium,
one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane.
The tulip trees always dragged after heavy rain
so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.
My father put up his feet after work
and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln
After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark
before sleep, before a thin voice hissed
numbers as I spun on a wheel. I had to guess.
Ten, I kept saying, I’m only ten.
BILL MOYERS: You felt that stressed, that –
RITA DOVE: Oh, there was some stress there, mainly because – flashcards really gave me stress because they never end. I didn’t realize that they were really preparing me for life because things don’t end in life. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Was there any pain in your childhood?
RITA DOVE: Oh, yes. Sure. I was a very shy child. I think I still fight against shyness. I think that I was a good student and there was some pain in school, sometimes, being teased –
BILL MOYERS: For being good.
RITA DOVE: For being good – being called “brainiac” and, you know, things like that. That kind of thing, wanting to be popular, wanting to fit in, but not ever really fitting in because I got those good grades.
BILL MOYERS: Was race ever the source of pain?
RITA DOVE: Uh-huh. Yeah, there were some incidents, as well. I described one of them in my novel, a moment when a person I thought was a very good friend, a girl –
BILL MOYERS: A white girl.
RITA DOVE: A white girl. We would – we played together. We usually went home from school together. And actually, it was related to grades because I had shown her my report card. I assumed everybody had good report cards. I was really not quite with it. And she got angry and she called me “nigger” and it was moment when I thought – when it all kind of crashed in on me [that] sometimes you can have wonderful relationships with someone and then it comes down to this bottom line. It was quite a revelation.
BILL MOYERS: Did you tell your parents?
RITA DOVE: Yes, I did. I told my mother – yes, I told them both.
BILL MOYERS: Had your father’s life been hard?
RITA DOVE: It had been hard. I didn’t realize it, at that point. My father kept his trials and tribulations secret from us. He kept them apart from us for many, many years. I did not know, at that time, that my father had been one of the top students in his graduating class, master’s in chemistry, and that all of his classmates got jobs with the tire and rubber industry in Akron, which is the industry, and he was given the job of elevator operator, so that for years, while he was raising his budding family, he was ferrying his classmates up and down on this elevator. Finally, one of his professors from the university kept bugging the administration, saying, “This is absurd. There’s this incredible student and, you know, you have him employed as an elevator operator,” so that finally he became the first black chemist in the tire and rubber industry. I knew nothing of all of that. Not until I was in college did I know about that. And my mother would sometimes say, when I thought that my father was insisting a little bit too much, that – you know, that we do it on our own and all of this stuff, and she would say, “Your father really means the best for you. He knows what it’s like. Just trust me on this.”
BILL MOYERS: That explains the poem that I actually brought with me, “Elevator Man, 1949.” This is about your father.
RITA DOVE: Yes, it is.
“Elevator Man, 1949”
Not a cage but an organ:
if he thought about it, he’d go insane.
Yes, if he thought about it
he was a bubble of bad air
in a closed system.
He sleeps on his feet
until the bosses enter from the paths
of Research and Administration
the same white classmates
he had helped through Organic Chemistry.
A year ago they got him a transfer
from assembly line to Corporate Headquarters,
a “kindness” he repaid
by letting out all the stops,
jostling them up and down
the scale of his bitterness
until they emerge queasy, rubbing
the backs of their necks,
feeling absolved and somehow
in need of a drink. The secret
he thinks to himself, is not
in the pipe but
the slender breath of the piper.
BILL MOYERS: This is a man who went home in the evening, as you said, and read “The Life of Lincoln.”
RITA DOVE: Yes. Yes. And he let out that little bitterness by giving them a rough ride on the elevator, so that he could, I think, return to his children and be a kind man. And it’s a lesson that – I don’t know if I could have been – I’ve thought about this. Could I have been a person not to talk about this in front of my children and what that did for us? I think what it did for us was that it gave us a sense of – while we were growing up and while we were very fragile – a sense of believing that if we studied hard, we would get our due. And yet, being aware of discrimination, I mean, but still believing that things were changing, so that we had confidence. And by the time I learned of it, the confidence was there, or at least the confidence that I would always try to do my best. Then, to be aware of some of the kinds of obstacles that were there didn’t crush me.
BILL MOYERS: One of my favorites, and maybe the favorite, of what you’ve done is also about your father. I think it’s about your father: “Father Walking Out on the Lawn.”
RITA DOVE: Yes. Yes. This poem was written around the time when the first photographs from Saturn, from outer space, were coming back in. And you would see them come across the screen, like, one little slice at a time.
“A Father Out Walking On The Lawn”
Five rings light your approach across
the dark. You’re lonely, anyone
can tell — so many of you
trembling, at the center the thick
dark root. Out here on a lawn
gone under the haunches of a neighbor’s
house, American Beauties
lining a driveway the mirror image of your own,
you wander, waiting to be
can I say to a body
that merely looks
like you? The willow, infatuated with its
surroundings, quakes; not that violent
orgasm nor the vain promise of
a rose relinquishing
its famous scent all for you, no,
not even the single
a blue jay loses in flight
which dangles momentarily, azure scimitar,
above the warm eaves of your house —
nothing can change
this travesty, this magician’s skew of scarves
issuing from an opaque heart.
Who sees you anyway, except
at night, and with a fantastic eye?
If only you were bright enough to touch!
BILL MOYERS: “If only you were bright enough to touch.”
RITA DOVE: I think that all of us struggle with one or the other of our parents, to understand them as people, not just in their function as parent, but what made them what they were. And even while I didn’t know that there were things my father had not told me about his life, I sense that he carried in him just a host of pain and experiences that made him who he was. I felt that there was something he was holding back for some reason. And this poem is a lot about that, trying – recognizing that and saying, “I want to be able to talk to you on that very, very personal level.”
BILL MOYERS: There’s a sign above your desk over there that says, “One lives by memory, not by truth.” What do you mean by that?
RITA DOVE: Memory is very untruthful. It’s very inaccurate. What we remember, I think, the memories that inform us and haunt us are actually probably very skewed. They aren’t exactly what happened, but it’s how we felt they happened. You know, you can get three people in a room and they can all talk about the same situation. And for one, all they can remember is how embarrassed they felt when they said something silly and the other person doesn’t remember them saying it at all. Each person has their variant on the truth, which would be – one truth would be, I suppose, a camera just recording the whole thing. But how we act in our lives is actually dependent upon how we remember ourselves in different situations. You know, our sense of ourselves is formed by how we felt in certain situations and that’s not truth. It’s a kind of truth, but it’s not the absolute kind of truth.
BILL MOYERS: And what we make of the experience that is past, how we interpret it, that’s an ongoing processing.
RITA DOVE: It’s an on-going process. And I even think that even when we begin to understand how wrong we might have been about a certain situation, we still carry the memory of how we felt about it when we thought it was a certain way. That also helps to make understandable how we react in certain situations. So what’s really strong in us is memory. Truth isn’t.
BILL MOYERS: The poet James Merrill said that, “One only knows eternity in a grain of sand and one only knows history in the family around the table.” Is that why you write so often about your family?
RITA DOVE: That’s so well put. Yes, I think that we understand history through the family around the table and those who aren’t there any more, but yet who are kind of called in from the past. And I think that, particularly in the poems in “Thomas and Beulah” –
BILL MOYERS: About your grandparents.
RITA DOVE: About my grandparents. One of the things I was trying to do was to show how grand historical events can be happening around us, be we remember them in relationship to what is happening to us at that particular moment, what happens to the individual. And the idea of how an individual fits into the flux of history has always fascinated me.
BILL MOYERS: How did you come to know about their lives? They were dead, were they not, when you were a child?
RITA DOVE: Well, my grandfather died when I was about 13 or 14.
BILL MOYERS: Oh.
RITA DOVE: My grandmother then died when I was in college, by that time. But by the time I began writing the poems, they were both dead. They were great storytellers, though. And, of course, a lot of the stories I half remember because of the impatience of youth. You hear them telling stories and I thought, “Oh, another story.” And after they were gone, though, those stories floated back to me and I found that I wanted to write more about my grandparents, in a way, to learn who they really were. Who were these people that were my grandparents? Not just in their function as my grandparents, but as individuals who had made a life and brought my mother into the world.
BILL MOYERS: But you had to create some of the events. I mean, you couldn’t know everything that’s in these poems.
RITA DOVE: Oh, yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So what you do is to get us into their world, into their emotions, not necessarily into the literal truth of their lives.
RITA DOVE: Exactly. I mean, obviously, I could – I was not even there. How could I – some of these things would have to be imagined, at some level. Again, it’s that idea of that “Memory is stronger than truth.” It began with an actual event. It began with a story that my grandmother had told me about my grandfather, coming north on a riverboat. And that story, which was already mysterious to me, that – because I had no idea that my grandfather had been part of a song and dance team working on a paddleboat – all this romantic stuff. I had no idea that his best friend had drowned, swimming in the Mississippi River and that he had drowned because an island sunk. I said, “Grandma, islands don’t sink!” And she says, “Well, this one did.” And it was those kind of, you know, discrepancies I – that was what I was left with to work with.
BILL MOYERS: This is the poem – this is that part of the poem called “The Event”?
RITA DOVE: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Okay. Let’s get it as it is.
RITA DOVE: All right.
BILL MOYERS: Page 141. This is “The Event.”
RITA DOVE: This is “The Event.”
Ever since they’d left the Tennessee ridge
with nothing to boast of
but good looks and a mandolin,
the two Negroes leaning
on the rail of a riverboat
were inseparable: Lem plucked
to Thomas’ silver falsetto.
But the night was hot and they were drunk.
They spat where the wheel
churned mud and moonlight,
they called to the tarantulas
down among the bananas
to come out and dance.
You’re so fine and mighty; let’s see
what you can do, said Thomas, pointing
to a tree-capped island.
Lem stripped, spoke easy: Them’s chesnuts,
I believe. Dove
quick as a gasp. Thomas, dry
on deck, saw the green crown shake
as the island slipped
in the thickening stream.
At his feet
a stinking circle of rags,
the half-shell mandolin.
Where the wheel turned the water
BILL MOYERS: I’ll wager your grandfather felt some guilt over having suggested to Lem that he swim out there.
RITA DOVE: Yes, I think so. And that was the question that drove, in fact, the other poems into existence. The question for me was, “How did this man, who must have been wracked with guilt over the death of his friend – how did he come to terms with this guilt in his life? How did he become, then, this sweet, wonderful, quiet man that I knew as my grandfather?” So I was writing poems, in a way, working toward the man that I knew.
BILL MOYERS: Did it, in part, if – as one reads this, by falling in love with your grandmother. One of my favorites in “Thomas and Beulah” is “The Courtship.” That one has – that resonates with a lot of people I’ve heard talk about it.
RITA DOVE: [reading]
Fine evening may I have
the pleasure …
up and down the block
waiting – for what? A
magnolia breeze, someone
to trot out the stars?
But she won’t set foot
in his turtledove Nash,
it wasn’t proper.
Her pleated skirt fans
softly, a circlet of arrows.
King of the Crawfish
in his yellow scarf,
mandolin belly pressed tight
to his hounds-tooth vest –
his wrist flicks for the pleats
all in a row, sighing …
… so he wraps the yellow silk
still warm from his throat
around her shoulders. (He made
good money; he could buy another.)
A gnat flies
in his eye and she thinks
Then the parlor festooned
like a ship and Thomas
twirling his hat in his hands
wondering how did I get here.
China pugs guarding a fringed settee
where a father, half-Cherokee,
smokes and frowns.
I’ll give her a good life —
what was he doing,
selling all for a song?
His heart fluttering shut
then slowly opening.”
All of those machinations we go through, you know, for courtship, and I really wanted to try to get across how you can be doing one thing and your mind is going off in a thousand different directions, like, you know, ”Well, I make good money. I can get another scarf. I’ll give her this scarf,” because he’s trying to convince her to loosen up to him. And how chance can fly into our most important moments, like a gnat flying in his eye and makes him look like he’s crying and she softens because of the gnat, you know? Suddenly, there he is, proposing and asking for her hand.
BILL MOYERS What about Beulah? What’s your favorite in there about her?
RITA DOVE: Well, one of my favorites about Beulah is one where she’s ironing in the back room of a dress shop after she’s gone back to help out with the family finances. And she’s kind of angry because she was not allowed to sell the clothes in the front room of the dress shop. What she does in that poem, and the reason why I like it so much, is she has taken to reading books in the library about going to Paris. She’s always wanted to go to Paris. And so she knows she’s not going to get there now, but in order to feed her dreams, she makes do with what she has. She goes to the public library and starts reading up on all things French. And that kind of resilience, you know, of the spirit, saying, ”Well, I’m going to get my France some way,” is what I liked about that poem.
“The Great Palaces of Versailles”
Nothing nastier than a white person!
She mutters as she irons alterations
in the backroom of Charlotte’s Dress Shoppe.
The steam rising from a cranberry wool
comes alive with perspiration
and stale Evening of Paris.
Swamp she born from, swamp
she swallow, swamp she got to sink again.
The iron shoves gently
into a gusset, waits until
the puckers bloom away. Beyond
the curtain, the white girls are all
wearing shoulder pads to make their faces
delicate. That laugh would be Autumn,
tossing her hair in imitation of Bacall.
Beulah had read in the library
how French ladies at court would tuck
their fans in a sleeve
and walk in the gardens for air. Swaying
among lilies, lifting shy layers of silk,
they dripped excrement as daintily
as handkerchieves. Against all rules
she had saved the lining from a botched coat
to face last year’s gray skirt. She knows
whenever she lifts a knee
she flashes crimson. That seems legitimate;
but in the book she had read
how the cavaliere amused themselves
wearing powder and perfume and spraying
yellow borders knee-high on the stucco
of the Orangerie.
A hanger clatters
in the front of the shoppe.
Beulah remembers how
even Autumn could lean into a settee
with her ankles crossed sighing
I need a man who’ll protect me
while smoking her cigarette down to the very end.
BILL MOYERS: Did you feel that you had gotten to know your grandparents from writing about them?
RITA DOVE: I did. I really did. It was such a boon for me. I was writing these poems, and in the end, I realized that it was like talking to my grandparents all over again. I got them back. And so not only was there a book, you know, but there was the family back again, too. I also talk of my mother on the phone. I was living in Arizona, at the time, and we talked every weekend. She knew I was writing these poems and I didn’t know what I was looking for. She didn’t know what I was looking for, but we talked and talked and talked about her childhood and her parents. She never asked to see a poem to see if I was doing justice to them. And that trust, too, was something that was, you know, a wonderful plus in the midst of all of this.
BILL MOYERS: What does writing a poem do for you?
RITA DOVE: I can’t imagine living a life without writing. Writing a poem, for me, means putting a name to a face to memories. It means calling up emotions that I don’t quite have a handle on and, by writing about them, understand them a little better. But it also means reaching out and connecting with someone else. I think without that, it wouldn’t be worth it for me. It wouldn’t have the same pull. Because the final thing is, if someone else can come up to me and say, “I know exactly what you mean,” or “That happened to me, too,” or ”You know, that could have been my grandmother”- and I’ve heard that from people who – you know, white, middle class people from – you know, from the Pacific Northwest, as far away from Akron as possible. And to feel like we, as human beings, are more alike than we are different, that we have emotion that we can connect with, that is the final thrill of writing.
BILL MOYERS: Poetry, to so many of us in this country, is an alien experience.
RITA DOVE: I know. And it’s so unfortunate. I keep feeling like telling people, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” And I think part of my self-appointed mandate, I think, as Poet Laureate, is to tell people and to help them see that poetry is not something that is above them or that is somehow distant, but it’s part of their very lives, that it is enjoyable and that maybe that unfortunate experience they had somewhere along the line where they had to interpret a poem instead of being allowed to first appreciate it – maybe I can help to reverse that trend just a little bit.
BILL MOYERS: I remember when Lyndon Johnson sponsored a cultural festival at the White House and the poet Robert Lowell was invited. This was – you were just 5 years old, I think, about that time. And Lowell rebuked the President, came out against the Vietnam war. Lyndon Johnson said, “I don’t want anything to do with any poets. Don’t bring me any poets.” And the question is, what does poetry have to say to power?
RITA DOVE: Poetry is a way, I think, of connecting our almost inarticulated emotions, all of our guilts, all of our fears and joys, as a way of articulating them so that we can recognize them. I think very often, we may have emotions inside of us, we may have feelings or desires which get squelched just in daily life. Poetry, by making us stop – by making us stop for a moment and take it a little slower, gives us an opportunity to think about ourselves as human beings on this planet and what we mean to each other. In that way, I think, poetry becomes a voice to power that says, “Power is not the end-all and be all. At the other end of this, the connection is human being to human being. The connection is “What are we doing to make the lives of everyone better? And not just materially, but spiritually as well?” And I think that that’s the reason why poetry has often been considered dangerous or we want to put it off to the side. It’s discomforting for power because it louses up the gears, you know?
BILL MOYERS: Someone said a long time ago that you can’t really – I’m paraphrasing, but you can’t have a republic unless you first kill the poets.
RITA DOVE: Oh, dear!
BILL MOYERS: Well, the meaning implicit in that is that poetry may be – exists to tell the truth.
RITA DOVE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what makes poetry so authentic. In most cases, it does tell the truth and power, politicians – that’s the one commodity in this town that they just as soon be in short supply.
RITA DOVE: Well, because truth is difficult and slow and truth tends to make – if you’re trying to effect change, truth can get in the way, in a funny way – I mean, talking about politics. And another thing, I think, about poetry that makes it so potentially dangerous is that it can tell the truth, but it tells it in a way that convinces. You cannot set it aside. I think that people can bear the truth. I think, in fact, we long for it. We long for the truth, in all of its contradictions, because I think there is no simple truth, either, and that truth means sacrifice. But they also mean enriching of one’s inner life. And I think that the American people want that and they know that, very often, they aren’t getting it. Not only in politics, but they aren’t getting it just in the kind of entertainment that they’re being fed, you know. And there’s this incredible longing to find something that really matters, that really, really helps them in their lives.
BILL MOYERS: Last fall, at the White House, you had before you the assembled literary, cultural, artistic figures of our time, the President and the First Lady, the Vice President and Mrs. Gore. And you read them a very strange poem about a horror. What was that poem?
RITA DOVE: That poem was “Parsley.” It’s called “Parsley.” And it is based on a historical event that occurred in the Dominican Republic in 1957. The dictator at the time, Rafael Trujillo, had executed 20,000 Haitian blacks who used to work side by side in the cane fields with the Dominicans. He did this in a very bizarre and ultimately creative manner. He had them pronounce the word – all of the cane workers, the word perejil, which is the Spanish word for “parsley.” Those who could not pronounce it correctly – and the Haitians, speaking French, had a kind of Creole-like Spanish, where they didn’t roll their “R’s.” It came out as an “L” instead of that trilled “R.” And whoever, then said, ”pelejil” instead of “perejil” was Haitian and was executed. That he had them pronounce their own death sentence, this ultimate little twist in cruelty, was what haunted me. And the poem deals with that, how he arrives at that moment.
BILL MOYERS: And you read this at the White House.
RITA DOVE: Yes, I did. I read it because I thought that it was actually very apropos. Here I was, at the administration level, in the power, and I wanted to talk about the uses to which power has been put. But not only that, I wanted to talk about what’s really necessary in all avenues of life is to be able to imagine the other person, no matter what you’re doing, because that’s a way, also – that’s a way of understanding and not just carte blanche dismissing something. In that poem, I try to make us understand how Trujillo arrived at that word to – not just to say “This was a horrible dictator. I don’t want to think about it,” but to actually make us realize that evil can be creative. Evil is not stupid. You know, it can be, in fact, as intelligent as what we imagine good to be and we have to realize that, if we’re ever going to fight evil.
BILL MOYERS: Would you read that poem now?
RITA DOVE: Sure.
MOYERS: We’ll let that be the last one.
RITA DOVE: All right. The poem is in two parts and each has a title.
1. The Cane Fields
There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears
to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searchs for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,
we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R –
out of the swamp, the cane appears
and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.
El General has found his word: perejil
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears
in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.
2. The Palace
The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming
four-star blossoms. The general
pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled
all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practicing
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive
dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in this throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed –
how stupid he looked! – at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now
the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,
mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone
calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed.
for a single, beautiful word.
BILL MOYERS: What was the reaction when you read this at the White House dinner?
RITA DOVE: It was very interesting. I think, when I began the poem, when I introduced it, there was a moment of tension in the room. It was, after all, an after-dinner event and I think people expected to be entertained and that they were worried that this was somehow going to be politically incorrect. But that changed fairly rapidly. I felt that if I were invited to the White House, I should really show what poetry can do and that, in fact, it covers so many different aspects of human joy and triumph and tragedy. And that was one reason for doing this poem. In the end, I think it was very well received.
BILL MOYERS: So poetry does have something to say to power.
RITA DOVE: Oh, yes. I think it does.
BILL MOYERS: How would you like to change the world, the world of Washington, the world that all of us live in, if you could?
RITA DOVE: As a poet, I would like to be able to make poetry much more of a household word than it is now. If I can reduce the anxiety that people have about poetry, I think poetry will do the rest itself. What it does for us? I think Maya Angelou mentioned once that poetry makes us more tender to each other. A little bit of tenderness in this city would go a long way toward, I think, even helping policy decisions, all sorts of things. If I can – I’ll be a gadfly, if I have to be, on the side, you know, of government. But I would much rather be just a voice contributing and reminding people that we have an interior life that we often don’t talk about because it’s not expedient, because it isn’t cool, because it’s potentially embarrassing, but that without that interior life, we are shells, we have nothing. And we have to remember it, honor and, occasionally, listen to it.
BILL MOYERS: From the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, this has been a conversation with Poet Laureate Rita Dove. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on August 21, 2015.