Last week, Rita Dove took delivery of a new book — a collection containing 30 years’ worth of her poems, from 1974 to 2004.
The book’s publication is a big deal, recognizing as it does the first three decades of work from one of the nation’s most-acclaimed poets. Dove, who will read from her work this week in two Oregon dates as the winner of Oregon State University’s Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement, recognizes all that.
But the day after the book’s arrival, in a conversation with a reporter, Dove offered a little confession: She still hadn’t cracked its cover.
“It’s sitting on the table,” Dove said in a phone interview with The E. “I walked by it, you know, kind of said ‘hi,’ even though I had gone through the whole copy-editing of it. It’s hard. … Looking back over 30 years feels almost like putting a lid on it.”
But there’s another reason for the reluctance: The collection doesn’t add all that much to her current work: “It’s self-reflection that actually doesn’t do the ongoing work any good,” she said.
Besides, even though Dove is best-known as a poet (she’s served as the nation’s poet laureate and has won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry), that doesn’t capture the breadth of her artistic interests. She’s a playwright (her verse play, “The Darker Face of the Earth,” was produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two decades ago). She plays the cello. She’s a ballroom dancer. She’s written song lyrics. Her day job is teaching at the University of Virginia, where she helps to shape the next generation of the nation’s poets.
It was with an eye to that next generation that she insisted that the collection on her table include all of the poems from those three decades, and not just a selection.
“It’s really a good thing for them to see the whole thing, the whole kit and caboodle,” she said. “There’s some poems from the first few books that, yes, I could have cut out. They might not be best poems that I’ve ever written, but they’re part of who I am as a poet and I think it’s important for a young poet to realize the life of a poet, how that figures in.”
And she’s not envious of young poets, who sometimes struggle to find the time for reflection, writing and revising in the midst of the clamor of today’s social media.
“When I began writing, of course, you would get mail once a day and you could really pretty much count on quiet before that, at least the sense that the world was not crashing in on you,” Dove said. “Whereas now, I wake up every morning, and there are hundreds of emails, and they just keep coming in, and there’s also the expectation that you respond right away. That means you’re constantly being kept on a leash, in a way. How can you find quiet, contemplative quiet, in which to work?”
Dove also has this additional bit of advice for younger writers: That sense of terror when a writer faces a blank page for the first time? It doesn’t ever really go away. But it does get tempered with experience.
As a younger poet, she said, “even though I was frightened of what I was going to discover about myself or my character, whatever I was doing in the poem, there was the fearlessness of youth, which of course doesn’t know that it’s mortal and all of that.”
But nowadays, she said, “I know from experience that all the revisions are going to play in there, that there’s going be a lot of bad writing as I try to prune it and as I try to tweak it and that very often, I’ll think that I’ve completely missed the boat and then, that’s the moment when things will start to click together. … I realize from experienced that (the initial) terrifying moment, that utterly terrifying moment, will be worked through.”
Dove said the Stone award, which comes with a $20,000 honorarium, came as a surprise: Essentially, she got a phone call saying that she was this year’s honoree. “That’s the kind of surprise that one always wishes the world would give you,” she said.
She hadn’t heard of the award beforehand, but she certainly knew about the previous winners, Tobias Wolff and Joyce Carol Oates: “I thought, ‘whoa, this is some very high company.’”
People who attend either of her two readings in Oregon may have some of their expectations about poets (and poetry) shattered.
“I find through the years that people expect poets to be tortured, overly sensitive, pale creatures who eschew the sunlight and are just very preoccupied,” she said. “I think they’re often surprised that a poet can actually carry on a conversation … that I can make jokes, that I know something about popular culture. In other words, that I’m in the world. But to me, the only reason anybody writes, the only reason anybody should write, is that they love life. This is just one way of expressing it.”
“I think people who don’t know much about poetry will be surprised that poetry can be funny, that it is about life, that it in fact relates to them, that it is not an exalted place, although it may lift you into an exalted place.”