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© 2017 Grace Cavalieri

Rita Dove

"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"

An interview with Billy Collins by Grace Cavalieri

In May of 1993, Dove was named the Poet Laureate of the United States. She was the first African American appointed to the position as well as the first woman and the youngest, at 41 years old. Grace Cavalieri Interviews Rita Dove, U.S. Poet Laureate on her Inaugural Day at the Library of Congress, 1993.

Grace:
Grace Cavalieri: How do the poems in your new book answer the questions you asked in the foreword: "Why am I what I am rather than what I thought I'd be?" For instance, does the poem "Flash Cards" partially speak to that?

Rita:
I think "Flash Cards" does answer that in a way because the advice my father gave me is advice that led me toward things that really mattered to me. I always had the feeling, as a child, due to his advice, that if something seemed difficult or challenging, the thing to do was just to take it a little bit at a time and to work at it. And so the joy of working at something to find out what it means to me, is what I grew up with. In writing I apply that all the time because in working on a poem I love to revise. Lots of younger poets don't enjoy this, but in the process of revision I discover things.

Grace:
So your father said, "Take a monolith and crack away at it little by little." But aren't you really the person you always wanted to become? If anyone is, I feel it might be you. That would be a wonderful thing to think.

Rita:
I think I never dreamed of becoming Poet Laureate, but I'm very happy to be who I am.

Grace:
There is another poem which I think is really important, and that is an autobiographical poem--the newest one you've written, I think-- "In the Old Neighborhood." And I like it because it gives us so much information about your life.

Rita:
It is an autobiographical poem in which I explore a lot of the impulses in my childhood, in the home life. That, in a way, made me the person that I am. The epigraph is important, "To pull yourself up by your own roots . . ."

Grace:
Let me go back to the white rock on the black lawn. Is the childhood home of your memory where you "reside most completely?"--another question you ask yourself in your foreword ... that little girl curled up on the couch eating green olives, reading books ... is that where you feel most comfortable?

Rita:
I do feel very comfortable there. I think all of us have moments, particularly in our childhood, where we come alive, maybe for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, "This is when I became myself." And that's one of those moments--a feeling of finding rightness in reading--and thinking, "I want to do this for the rest of my life."

Grace:
I have heard a rumor that you're starting another novel.

Rita:
I've started it, but not officially. I've started taking notes on index cards. I don't anticipate that for many, many years down the road.

Grace:
Not this year, certainly.

Rita:
Not this year for sure.

Grace:
But you did get that new poem "In the Old Neighborhood" written at the eleventh hour, and I thought, if someone becomes Poet Laureate of the United States, that, may just give them the energy to write a poem. And you did.

Rita:
Well, I did. I remember that I was working on the poem, actually, when I was asked if I'd like to serve as Poet Laureate, and I wasn't finished with it. In fact, it was stuck. And I said, "Well, fine, but can you give me two days?" They said, "We can give you one and a half," And so it did give me a push.

Grace:
Did you do it, in one and a half?

Rita:
I did do it. I broke through my impasse.

Grace:
I have to talk about Thomas and Beulah because when I read that I knew that something very different was happening in American letters. And it is not the technical excellence you are cited for nor the breadth of subject matter which critics have cited. Something else is going on. I started calling you the Poet of Essence. We learned through that book to go for the breath of a poem. Here we have two characters who are like the figure eight: they just come together briefly in the middle at moments. So you just brush edge against edge, creating a brilliance for a second, very pointillistic, and yet it is more explicit than ever.

Rita:
I'm very pleased that you recognize that. I didn't think of it as something new.

Grace:
I don't know of anyone else doing it.

Rita:
I think it goes back again to that moment on the couch because I think when we are touched by something it's as if we're being brushed by an angel's wing, and there's a moment when everything is very clear. The best poetry, the poetry that sustains me. is when I feel that, for a minute, the clouds have parted and I've seen ecstasy or something.

Grace:
But, beyond that, to have faith enough that we would see it. That is the point. I mean we each have a private world. But you had enough faith in the reader to know you could touch the tips of all of these things and trust that the rest would manifest itself. I think that's something new, where you used a single word on a line and very spare words. You did not give us much information--not much linear thinking. Surely all poetry encompasses much of this. But I thought yours was a spectacular act, and I think it's something very new. I think it's influencing writing and teaching us how to write again--inventing poetry.

Rita:
I know that when I was writing the poems that went into Thomas and Beulah, I felt that I was, at least for myself, doing something very new. I felt I was moving into a territory that I wasn't quite sure of but it was immensely exciting, and the more that I wrote the more I realized that what I was trying to tell, let's say, was not a narrative as we know narratives but actually the moments that matter most in our lives. I began to think, how do we remember our lives? How do we think of our lives or shape our lives in our own consciousnesses, and I realize that we don't actually think of our lives in very cohesive strands but we remember as beads on a necklace, moments that matter to us, come to us in flashes, and the connections are submerged.

Grace:
Now I guess is the time we need to give the vital statistics about Thomas and Beulah, just who they were, in your life.

Rita:
Thomas and Beulah is based upon the lives of my maternal grandparents, and the book is divided into two parts: the first part is called "Mandolin" and basically sketches Thomas's life, my grandfather's life. The second half of the book, called "Canary in Bloom," traces my grandmother's life. So you have moments, and poems which are complements of each other, and yet there are also places in each of their lives which have no counterpart in the other mate's life. I thought that no matter how close two people are, there are individual moments which are entirely intimate and individual.

Grace:
And that's why the figure eight is so important to me when I visualize that book. I think Helen Vendler asked you what you had to overcome to write that book. Do you think there was something to over. come? Actually I think she said, "Was there anything to overcome?" and you said, "Yes." Now I would like to know--what was it?

Rita:
There were several things. The first thing was--and I think this, was the most difficult one--a moral issue in a way--was for me a question of "Can I presume to write about my grandparents' lives?" Can I presume to take on a voice and say "this is they," and to take on a voice and to say: This is what they would have said had they had the opportunity? And what helped me in that, actually, was my mother because I told her I was writing the poems. I began with the poems that formed Thomas's section and I asked her if she would tell me some details from her childhood, and she did. And she never asked to see a single poem. Her trust that I would not do anything to embarrass the family gave me confidence. If she thought it was okay, their child, then maybe I could do this. That was the first thing. There were lesser challenges--a challenge, for instance, to decide how much was going to be strictly autobiographical and at what point to begin to invent, and I began to invent very early. And once that barrier was over, it was fine. I mean invent in a sense that, for instance, my grandmother's name was not Beulah, it was Georgianna. That was a decision I made--an aesthetic decision, actually--because Georgianna, though it's a wonderful name, was first of all too male based for me, and second of all didn't have the Biblical connotations that I wanted for the book. Also, it's a long name, and a very difficult name to fit on a line. So once I broke through that, I didn't have to be absolutely faithful according to biographical truth. I could go after an inner truth. That freed me.

Grace:
Also, because our emotional lives are always partly imagined, the material is always valid. What does your mother think of it now? Does she feel there's anything in it that speaks to her? A truth beyond the truth?

Rita:
Well, my mother said to me that she really likes the book, and she also said the one thing that moved her were the two poems that dealt with my grandparents' deaths. There's one poem, "Thomas at the Wheel," that deals with my grandfather's death when he was going to the drugstore to get his heart prescription filled, and had a heart attack in the car. And there's a poem about my grandmother who basically took to her bed in the last year of her life. These were very difficult poems to write and the ones that I worried about the most because I didn't want them to be too painful for my mother. But she told me it felt absolutely right, that that's what it was like. She seemed happy that it was recorded and down on paper.

Grace:
I can't remember, did you actually know your grandparents?

Rita:
I did know my grandparents, and in fact the book began with a story that my grandmother told me. When I was in my early teens my grandfather died, and I spent Friday nights to Saturday afternoons with my grandmother, for about half a year, and so she would tell me lots of stories. She told me the story about my grandfather coming north as part of a song and dance team on the Mississippi River on a paddle boat, and I had never known that he had this whole life before her, before me. And that's what sparked my curiosity. It emerged many years later, of course, and it took me some years to finally say, "I'm going to deal with this story that haunted me."

Grace:
And you chose that to be the spine of the book. One poem I mentioned I'm fond of is "Daystar." "I felt that was Beulah's signature poem. Do you feel Thomas has a signature poem? I would choose" Variation on Pain.

Rita:
It's difficult with Thomas because in a way his life both ends and begins with his best friend's death on the riverboat.

Grace:
Perhaps you should tell us that plot, because there is a definite plot in this book.

Rita:
He is a singer to his best friend's mandolin playing on a riverboat that goes up and down the Mississippi--they're the entertainment. This is a story that my grandmother told me: my grandfather had said to his friend whose name was Lem, "Why don't you swim across the river and see if you can get some chestnuts?" There was an island there, and his friend took the dare, dove in the river and drowned. And that was the point where my grandfather gave up the riverboat life, settled down in Akron, Ohio, and met my grandmother. In a way this was a turning point in his life. Most of the poems in Thomas's section deal with the fact that his life took a dramatic turn at that point, and he's always thinking back on that friend. The friend appears to him at various moments in his life, I think as a kind of a guide through his life. And that, basically, is the trajectory that his life follows.

Grace:
And that's how you organized his pain, which is very important for it would otherwise have been free-floating. You gave it a center.

Rita:
Exactly. And so in a way there's a moment after this event happens where Thomas decides to take his friend's mandolin and learn how to play it. That, in a sense, is his signature poem, because he's learning how to survive and carry on. The poem "Variation on Pain" is the second poem in Thomas's section, and his friend has just drowned in the river on a dare from Thomas, and there's nothing really left for Thomas to hold on to at that moment but what his friend has left behind--his mandolin. So he picks it up and, in a certain way, picks up the responsibility of his friend's death. "Two strings, one pierced cry ..."

Grace:
How did you arrive at the pierced ears, and the ringing in the ears? How did all of that occur?

Rita:
That's one of those mysterious moments in poetry that keeps me addicted to writing. I was trying to imagine the sound of the mandolin, which is a very curious sound because it's cheerful and melancholy at the same time, and I think it comes from that shadow string, the double strings, and that sound. And in trying to imagine it, the humming came through. The ear lobe, the fact that he, at the end, pierces his ears, was a total mystery to me. I did not know. I thought I was writing a poem where he was going to learn how to play the mandolin, but as I was moving through the poem and trying to imagine how he would feel and what he could do as an atonement for his friend, it just occurred, it just happened, and I don't know where it came from, but when it happened it was right.

Grace:
Because it went through him. And so it went through us. I guess nothing else will do. So the first section are poems about Thomas, and he's rather a dashing guy, kind of handsome, and you get the feeling, however tormented he is, that he's quite a dazzler. Then we have Beulah, who is a dreamer, an introspective person, a person with longings and yearnings that are never realized--the meaning in "Daystar."

Rita:
I think, of the two, Beulah was the one who longed to travel and had dreams of going somewhere. Thomas's traveling days were over. He had gone on the riverboat, and he really was just trying to get through his life. But Beulah, for lack of any other means, travels in her mind. In this poem, Beulah's trying to find a moment's peace from the children and resorts to drastic methods ... that's what "Daystar". is about.

Grace:
The line, "She wanted a little room for thinking . . ." Well, that is about me. And that is about you. And that's why that poem will last longer than we do.

Rita:
That was very important for the book.

Grace:
Among your other honors, you are a Literary Lion. That means so much.

Rita:
Oh, it does mean so much because libraries are where it all begins and, of course, the New York Public Library is . .

Grace:
Where it all is.

Rita:
Right. Those two lions out there. It was thrilling for me.

Grace:
Your opening reading at The Library of Congress taught me something. I had thought that writing a poem was more private than saying a poem, but then I realized just how much was at stake in saying it. I felt that was the most significant gesture made by any Poet Laureate here at The Library of Congress and if we can talk about that poem, "After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed," I'll tell you why.

Rita:
I asked my daughter if she minded my reading that poem and she did not.

Grace:
The poem discusses your daughter discovering her vagina and comparing herself to you. I thought, by virtue of reading that poem, that things are going to be different, that we don't have to be ashamed anymore, that you were saying: I'm here to tell you that shame is all over with, that any part of a woman's body is a fine part to write about. However, in making that decision, if it were me, I would have said, "But I'm at The Library of Congress, I can't say vagina because it's so daunting here and so official." And that is where you walked through the white wall and said that who you are is official enough. That's what I took away from your opening reading. Did anything go through your mind such as ... courage? Or did you just like the poem and want, to share it?

Rita:
Oh, I thought about that long and hard. I've made a kind of vow to myself to read the poem at every reading, and actually my daughter gave me courage too because I asked her the first time she was in the audience. She's ten now. I said, "Do you want me not to read the poem?" and she said, "No, it's fine." And I thought, well, we raised her not to be ashamed, so that's great. If it's fine with her then it should be fine with anyone. But I did have a moment, I thought, "I am at The Library of Congress ... and The Great Hall" . . . and I thought, "No, I've done it before and I will do it here." And it was very hard to do.

Grace:
I'm so glad to hear that because I thought, I'm laying a lot of stuff on this. But we really have to not be anything, anywhere, where we're not anything anywhere else. That is how the world is changing, and that's why you're here to do it for us. However, I'm just that much older than you that I have a few more hangups. I had four daughters, and they remember me telling them about the facts of life by my looking up at the ceiling a lot, and my telling the older one to tell the younger ones. So when you read that I thought, "Oh, free at last, free at last." I wrote a letter to another woman poet and said, "She read that poem! She read the poem!" So you may go down in history in ways you never expected.

Grace:
Are you still associate editor of the literary journal Callaloo?

Rita:
Yes.

Grace:
And you teach creative writing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, as Commonwealth Professor of English. That sounds permanent.

Rita:
Yes.

Grace:
Tenure. That's where you are going to be, then.

Rita:
Yes, it's permanent. It's a wonderful place to live and to write and to be, so I have no plans to leave.

Grace:
And this year you belong to us. Among some of my other favorites are the women in your books. I think in Museum you take a look at some of the great figures in history which interested me, because what you did with Thomas and Beulah was to say "History isn't just kings and queens anymore, you know, this is what history is." However with Museum you did pay homage to the great symbols of our cultures.

Rita:
That's true, and in a way I think that Museum, which is the book that preceded Thomas and Beulah, prepared the way for Thomas and Beulah because, though I did pay homage to important figures in history, we see another side of them. We see the side that no one sees when the lights are on. And then moving from there to the underside of history, looking at history through two "ordinary people," was a natural step.

Grace:
I am interested in your poems about the two Catherine saints: Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena. Let us look at "Catherine of Siena." The line "You walked the length of Italy . . ." That was an important first line. Do you know how you got to that? And also tell me about why you focused on Catherine's clenched fists.

Rita:
Partly through imagining or reimagining what it was like to be a woman of intelligence and fervor in a period where women were not supposed to be any of those things, and imagining what kind of passionate inquiry, the need-to-know, were in these women saints: there must have been incredible tension as well. We are presented with a benign image of the saints, but to me there must have been tension and so the fists came in, that even as she sleeps she has the fists--which are also the curied fists of a child. Also, the language itself, in a certain way, helped me to that moment. The poem proceeds and becomes more of a litany, so that at the very end there's this feeling of being very alone in the world, even though she's been writing letters to people, there's this feeling of being. somehow, not understood except perhaps under the "star-washed dome of heaven," her heaven. So when I got to the line, "no one stumbled across your path," I knew that the next line also had to start with "no one," and I don't know why but I knew that there had to be an emphasis that there was no one there, and then came the fists.

Grace:
But it leads me to believe that you feel there's more available to us. You have more faith in relationships now because, to have said that means that now there might be somebody who would unpry your fists.

Rita:
Yes, I think you're right, there is this feeling that "this is how it was then." Aren't we lucky, now there is more of a chance. Then there was really no chance that you would find someone.

Grace:
What permeates your work is an incredible trust in relationship, which is not an ordinary thought today. You really believe it's all possible.

Rita:
I do believe it's possible. I'm not saying it's something that happens every time. My feeling is that, as human beings, if we really want to be full and generous in spirit, we have no choice but to trust at some level. That's not saying we should be gullible or foolish, but it's the "courage of our own tenderness" as D.H. Lawrence, I think, said in Lady Chatterley's Lover, that we have the courage to be open to someone. It's the only way to get a relationship started, it's the only way to get a relationship going and to keep it sustained. Sure, we can be hurt, but there's no way to even start unless we open ourselves to that.

Grace:
Did your parents, long marriage make you feel that people can have long marriages?

Rita:
Yes, I think so, and the example of their marriage, the example of family life, a feeling of love and, well, unconditional love in that no matter what we do they would still love us but they might tell us about what we did wrong. We had a feeling that love also means caring enough about someone to be honest with them, too, and being able to bear that kind of honest exchange. That has a lot to do with trust, too.

Grace:
Well said. If we were going to talk about another poem what would be your choice? What comes first to mind?

Rita:
I think the poem that comes to mind is one called "The Island Women of Paris." It's a humorous poem and a poem of praise. Poetry so often gets this misbegotten reputation of being dour, of being melancholy all the time, and I like to show that it doesn't have to be that way.

Grace:
I think you always preface that reading by saying that in Paris you learned how to be looked at. How did you do?

Rita:
It was difficult, I think I'd give myself a B minus. It's really true that gazing at another person was not construed as being impolite in Paris. If you could bear up under the pressure of a gaze gracefully, you would win, in fact, admiring approval from passersby. It taught me something about being able to bear up under scrutiny with grace.

Grace:
Previously you mentioned that you were collecting index cards for another novel. When I read Through The Ivory Gate, I wouldn't have known that you'd written that. There was enough of your consciousness in it, but it was so different from your writing--of course, you were very faithful to structure--the classic way that a novel is presented. I was wondering what preparations you made for that book as compared to the preparations you make for the poem.

Rita:
It's very odd with that novel. One of the things I wanted to do was to write a novel that was a novel, not a poetic rendition of something. I felt that the genre demanded that of me. Of course, I also tried to expand the notion of language and what it can do in prose, but the structure of the novel was very deliberate. It got me in a lot of trouble. I wanted to have a novel where the main character explores her options in life, and the main character is a puppeteer who is trying to create an artistic space for herself, She explores her prospects in life by flashbacks, by remembering things from her past, by filtering what she learns from people in her present. That's the way we go through life. So I thought it would be wrong to write this novel as a standard kind of plot with a bell shaped curve that has a climax and a denouement which seems to proceed in an orderly fashion. I thought, my life isn't like that. There is a sense of flux in our lives that's also peppered by flashbacks. So I entered into this rather difficult structure of having her move through a month's time and to have all of the happenings of the past keep coming in and forming the present.

Grace:
You also got a chance to give some thinking to the politics of the sixties ... which must have been floating around, waiting for a place to land. And we can't always do that in poetry.

Rita:
This is true. It was a real pleasure to be able to get the ambiance of the times. In this case it was the late sixties, early seventies, to get that ambiance into the language, even.

Grace:
And where were you during those years?

Rita:
In the sixties, in the seventies, I was growing up in Ohio and in Miami University in Ohio. I was a student there in the early seventies. My main character is a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which was also a real vibrant place at that time, so she was right in the thick of it.

Grace:
And, finally, we could not finish this conversation without talking about Toni Morrison and that Nobel Prize. What is going on. I tell you, when I read Alice Walker, The Color Purple, I thought, she is the Mark Twain of our time. Then with Toni Morrison's Beloved, I thought, she could write the Bible if she wanted to.

Rita:
Yes. It's a phenomenal book.

Grace:
The layers of all our selves. The invisible and the visible and the historical and the personal. Then Rita Dove, with Thomas and Beulah. Is that what eternity is, that each one transcends the other, and everyone just gets better and better and better? Is that the definition of eternity?

Rita:
I think it's one definition of eternity--the feeling that we are not alone on this planet, that there are those who've gone before and those who will come, and that there is in fact a community of spirits, let's say. I don't mean spirits in the sense of ghosts, I mean a community of hearts, you could say, that's there. To me that's immensely and profoundly comforting, and in the case of Toni Morrison I have felt for so long that we were having our own conversation somewhere. She's from Ohio.

Grace:
Did you know her in Ohio?

Rita:
No, not at all.

Grace:
Did you talk to her since she won the Prize?

Rita:
I have not talked to her since she won the Prize. I wrote her, I was thrilled, because I remember very distinctly when I first met her through her work, and read no blurbs because it was a library copy and the jacket cover was off. I had no idea who Toni Morrison was. When I started reading this book I had the feeling this person was like my next door neighbor who had been talking to me, and in a way, she was. We grew up about forty miles apart.

Grace:
Finally I want to mention the poem that is an homage to Billy Holiday. It's called "Canary." Dove: Canaries are the birds that, of course, have a beautiful song; it's also a term that musicians use for the female vocalist. And the canary is the type of bird that miners take down to the mines to test for poison gas leaks, and if the bird dies they know that the mine is not safe for men.

Grace:
Thus your line: ". . . sharpen love in the service of myth." May we shift gears--you went to the White House for dinner! What did they serve?

Rita:
I have the menu so I know what they served but I can't tell you that I tasted it. Actually they served a wrapped halibut with a vegetable salsa, which was great, and many baby vegetables, they call them.

Grace:
I said, well I'm glad I wasn't invited over by the Clintons because if they have you to dinner you have to have them back, and it just starts one of these back and forth things, and you just never get through with it. But I'm sure you handled it.

Rita:
I tried. I really did. And I'm enjoying it all.


Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. Her latest book of poetry is Water on the Sun c2006 (Bordighera Press.) The Xoregos Performing Company recently presented a staged reading of her new play Hyena in PetticoatsÓ at New York City Public Library. Contact information gracecav@comcast.net. Grateful acknowledgement to Word Wrights! Magazine, 2002, and to www.cortlandreview.com whose streaming audio first featured this program