When she was eleven years old, Rita Dove came home from the library crying. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she told her that the librarians wouldn't let her read a book she wanted to read. Her mother sent her back with a note: "Let her check out any book she wants."
It was this trust and encouragement that enabled Dove to become the youngest writer -- and first African American -- to be named Poet Laureate of the United States thirty years later. Even today, she names her parents as her biggest influences: "The one thing that was important was the fact that you never said, 'I don't get it, I'm going to give up.' You start small and you work at it a little bit at a time." Growing up in Akron, Ohio with three siblings (now all chemists and mathematicians), Dove spent her time reading everything on her parents' bookshelves and then going to the library for more. Although she had several inspiring teachers, she remembers relishing the fact that, in the library, she chose the books to read -- they weren't assigned.
"I loved to write when I was a child," she says. "I wrote, but I always thought it was something you did as a child, then you put away childish things…. I didn't know writers could be real live people, because I never knew any writers." She saw "her first live author" at a book signing on a high school field trip. That experience hinted at something for Dove: that if this seemingly normal man could be a writer, maybe she could too.
After high school, Dove attended Miami University as a National Achievement Scholar. She graduated college summa cum laude and added on to her new English degree with two semesters in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar. Back in the States, she earned her master's degree at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop and met her future husband, German writer Fred Viebahn. By this time she was well into her writing career. "…I realized I was scheduling my entire life around my writing courses, and I said 'Well maybe you need to figure out if this is what you want to do.'"
By 1980, Rita Dove (now married to Fred Viebahn) was already garnering national press through her work in magazines and anthologies. But it was her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner, that added fuel to the fire. It was followed by another poetry collection, Museum, and the birth of a daughter, Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Vieban, both in 1983. Dove, a creative writing professor at Arizona State University, was planning her husband's fortieth birthday surprise party when she received a call from the chair of her department. "…He said 'Rita, this is very important,' and I realized his voice was several octaves higher than usual…." She had won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The winning poetry collection, Thomas and Beulah, was an interrelated series of poems based on the life of her grandparents. "They were living their lives in this quietly heroic way like many people in this country. And that that book was chosen for the Pulitzer, was wonderful for me, I think, personally." Dove would go on to publish more than seven new works, but her life had taken a distinctly public turn. Four years later she was named Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress (she would be renamed Consultant in 1999).
Dove published four poetry collections after Thomas and Beulah, as well as a book of short stories, an essay collection, and a novel. In 1996, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured the world premiere of her play The Darker Face of the Earth; it was subsequently produced in Washington, D.C. and London. Later in her career, Dove took a chance and combined two of her passions, music and writing. Collaborating with composer John Williams, she wrote lyrical poems for Seven for Luck, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra. Sung by Cynthia Haymon, it was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1998. On New Year's 1999/2000, as part of the White House's "America's Millennium" celebration, she read a music-accompanied poem to Steven Spielberg's documentary The Unfinished Journey. "I think music," she says, "was one of those first experiences I had of epiphany, of something clicking, of understanding something beyond, deeper than rational sense."
In 1985, Dove chaired the National Endowment for the Arts poetry panel, and in 1997, she served on the Pulitzer Prize jury in poetry. In addition to many other positions in the literary and academic fields, she also had responsibilities as a Poet Laureate. As the official spokesperson for literature and poetry in America, Poet Laureates have to answer to many different people. They plan reading series at the Library of Congress and advise the librarian there, but more important is their role to the public. "It means," says Dove, "that one becomes an automatic role model. It means that people write me from all over the country, asking me, and sometimes even telling me, what they think a Poet Laureate should do." In all of the letters Dove received, there was one overwhelming message: "'You need to talk with children. You need to talk to teachers and make sure they get poetry in the curriculum early.'"
Though she is no longer the Poet Laureate, Dove still works on that goal today. She realizes most people afraid of poetry have, at some time, been told they were "wrong" about it. But she insists poetry is instinctual and natural for us, so she asks students, "Have you ever heard a good joke?" Both rely on words to create a mood, and timing and gestures to tell a story. "If you've ever heard someone just right," she says, "with the right pacing, then you're already on the way to the poetry. And you know, who can resist a good joke?"
Photos copyright by Fred Viebahn. All rights reserved; reprint/use granted to the Ohio Reading Road Trip only.