For the 44th yearbook Author week, University of California, Riverside Department of Creative Writing, in collaboration with the LA Review of Books, Awarded three US Poets Laureates with Lifetime Achievement Awards: Rita Dove (1993–95), Juan Felipe Herrera (2015–16) and Joy Harjo (2019– today). Crystal AC Salas, a third year MFA student at UCR, interviewed each award winner by phone and Zoom in commemoration of the occasion to honor these poetry greats – three visionaries who break barriers in their side, stage, and community work.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of National Poetry Month, in this first part of the series of conversations with each poet, Rita Dove discusses her role as Poet Laureate, the curiosity of young people and the role of poetry in healing from the grief of the pandemic.
Crystal AC Salas: Who would you identify as your ancestors in your legacy of the poet as an ambassador, community organizer, and activist? How are these ancestors present in your work with the public?
Rita Dove: I feel like I’m in a very large family of ancestors, the kind that poke at you, the kind that sit back and say, “Uh, you did well,” and the kind that just let me look at me know that I’m not treading on the plate. And that would include people you wouldn’t think of, like Shakespeare, who was always there for me, or Emily Dickinson – because even though she was sitting there by that window, she was talking to the world.
But in a practical sense, I would have to include my grandmother, mother, and father, who was the first African American chemist in the rubber industry but ran an elevator in the same industry for three years before they finally recognized him. My dad used an example to show me that I have to be 150 percent better to be successful, but I should never get bitter because bitterness means you have won. Bitterness means being taken over; You don’t really bring out your best things, you back off.
When I was young, not a poet, as a teenager, I only dreamed of a world where I could read because from reading I realized that there was a big world out there and I had a place in it. I would read Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and I would think, “You are talking to me, this little black girl who sits here in Akron, Ohio!” They made me feel like I can do anything. And that’s the power of words. I didn’t even know these people! But I started reading her words on the page; I felt like they had just walked into the room that minute. Literary heroes – certainly James Baldwin. Adrienne Rich, of course. I’m talking about artists who have used their gifts to mobilize people. They remind us that words are important. Words enable us, they embody our needs. Words can be the articulation of our dreams, our most private desires and fears.
This articulation gave me permission to respond to these longings because I realized that other people also have longings. I thought that if I were ever good enough as a writer to move someone deeply, to really touch them, then it would go without saying that I would also be an ambassador.
But I was a very shy kid. I still am – nobody believes me, but I am. And I thought I would never be able to stand in front of others as a leader. I was perfectly content to be a devotee and have a quiet life. And whenever there were moments in my life when I was called to the plate, the person I immediately thought of was my grandmother, who would have said, “Get out there.” And my father, along with this crowd of writers who had accompanied me through my youth and beyond. I would think: If they could recharge my inner life then part of my mission was to pay it forward and do the same.
Salas: How did you understand the position of the American poet award winner prior to your appointment and how did this develop during your tenure? Additionally, could you talk to your process of approaching your award winner’s central project? What surprised you to learn about the accessibility of poetry programming resources?
Dove: Well, before I became a poet laureate, my understanding of the position was that it was mostly honorable, filled with poets much older than me at the time. You could say they were at the peak of their careers. When Gwendolyn Brooks was named “Poetry Advisor” (as the position was then called) she made a lot of contact – I remember attending one of her sessions with students in Washington and it was fantastic to see her see interact with youth. Most of the other award winners, however, did not see the position as an opportunity. They were sitting in the poetry office, writing a poem or two. It was just an honor.
I wasn’t expecting to get that call from the Library of Congress. Ironies of ironies, I had just finished reading with Gwendolyn Brooks in Chicago and was packing up to go home; It was May, the semester was over, and I was ready for a summer of writing poetry. When the call came, I had no doubt that I would take it – although my first thought was: Well, there goes the writing. I was at a crossroads: appointing a poet so much younger than her predecessor was a call for youthful energy, for change.
Before my term officially began in October, I went to Washington to visit the Poetry Office (which was amazing) and asked two questions. The first – “What’s the hierarchy like here at the Library of Congress?” met with blank looks; the second – “What’s my budget?” – embarrassed shrugs. Ok i thought: no budget. But if they like what I’m doing they’ll find the money, so I’ll just keep going until someone says, “Stop!” And when there is no fixed infrastructure and no easily identifiable chain of command, I just start at the top.
The arts are not supported because our government does not understand that culture is the fingerprint of a nation in the world.
In both cases, my strategy seemed to work. There was quite a bit of press about my appointment so I decided to use the media to promote the poetry to the public. The public certainly seemed interested in poetry – I was inundated with letters that began, “I don’t know much about poetry, but …” or “I don’t understand poetry, but there is a poem. . . ”Always the“ but ”- which suggests that a nation suffers from a collective inferiority complex, even though the same correspondents – lawyers, youth, mothers, massage therapists – told exquisite stories about their first encounter with poetry or described a particular one Sonett had kept his composure in her wallet twenty years ago and was still reading it. They understood the poetry very well; They were just afraid – somewhere on the line they had been taught there was a “right” answer to every poem, and they were afraid of getting it wrong. Why is this country so afraid of poetry? This is because we don’t have poetry in our daily life. It was cut out. The arts are not supported because our government does not understand that culture is the fingerprint of a nation in the world.
My Poet Laureate project was developed to satisfy this hunger. I tried to bring poetry into the world by putting it in the most unlikely places. That meant talking to kids about poetry and reading in places they had never read a book of poetry – like the Naval Academy where all these young people were training to fight, and I thought: They don’t know, but they need poetry too! It meant going on Sesame Street. It meant taking poetry out of the ivory tower and showing that poetry is about everyday life. It’s about all the little things that are important to us all. If a teenager who said her nickname was “pizza” – I’ll never forget it – if pizza could refer to a poem about an old black man, that was exactly the kind of unifying force we have in this country need.
It meant taking poetry out of the ivory tower and showing that poetry is about everyday life.
I didn’t have a project per se. My idea was to mess things up. For the bi-weekly readings at the Library of Congress (I’m sure Joy and Juan will talk about it too) my idea was to work with other artistic disciplines: I brought jazz musicians with me to improvise with poets. I invited Native American students from the Cree Nation to read their poetry and they said, “Only if we can bring our parents and lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” I said, “Fine, we’ll make it!” And we did it! Something like that breaks the idea of Washington, DC, as a citadel of power. Instead, it’s for everyone.
Salas: After Amanda Gorman’s captivating performance at the President’s inauguration, many people seemed shocked that such a young person could write and perform with such powerful articulation. Personally, as someone who works with teenagers while in awe of their performance, I was not at all surprised by the sharpness of vision that has arrived at their young age. What were some of your favorite learnings about the potential of poetry emerging from working with children and younger poets?
Dove: So many adults have forgotten what it was like to be that age – the dreams we loved, what energy and curiosity. One reason we forget is that most of us look at anyone who is under twenty-one and assume they want to grow up. The question is always: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” not “What are you doing now?” As if who they are now is nothing or nothing yet.
What did I discover while working with young people? You reminded me how joyful it is to be curious (because I buried this too) – this incredible openness to wanting to eat everything.
Also the willingness of young people to question what they do not understand. . . That sounds strange, but so often adults are so busy impressing others that we dare not ask if we are betraying our ignorance. But how can we communicate if we don’t ask? If we are not open to one another, then how can we merge our diverse talents to move forward as a whole? We should not underestimate the energy of the young people, their ability, all this curiosity and their drive to work on a project.
I also saw that younger poets felt that their lives were trivial. The adults did not seem to notice what they were going through, so their experiences were not important. Even among the popular children, even the most successful, I could see that doubt nibble at their edges. I’ve worked hard to help them find their own worth. I want to try not to say anymore, “Your stories are important.” I would say, “There is no one in the world who can tell your story. How are you going to tell it now? Are you going to play it? Are you going to sing it? Are you going to write it? Are you going to paint it? Look – all of these Options are available to you! “
Another thing: young people don’t understand the need for the boundaries that adults have created between all kinds of things, especially when we talk about creative disciplines. You have no problem combining visual art with music or projecting words onto a dancer’s body. Or, as in the case of Amanda Gorman, merging the rhetorical essay with rap and poetry. The personal with the public – it’s all a sphere they are in.
We sell our young people briefly. They are able to learn much more than is available to them.
Part of growing up, adults proclaim, is learning to divide yourself. . . to decide what to do and then to pursue a goal, a path and forget about everything else. You’re welcome! We sell our young people briefly. They are able to learn much more than is available to them. We fear tangents will confuse them, but they’d love the opportunity to merge calculus with geology or apply chemistry to history. Which architect is not a mathematician? Or is a cook also a chemist?
I just do not understand. I played the cello from elementary school through college. I was serious, which also meant music theory. Yet the attention I paid to poetry was just as serious. People kept telling me that I had to choose. And when I finally decided to do an MFA, they said, “Why are you still doing all this music? It’s going to take your poetry away!” Even though I was young and unproven, I thought they were crazy. I cannot imagine living without accepting everything that interests me.
I cannot imagine living without accepting everything that interests me.
Salas: We are at a time of renewed investment in activism when we will hopefully also ask about the ethics of these gestures and our position to provide services in a way that is sensitive and even desirable to the communities we seek to nurture. As a literary activist and ambassador, how do you stay in touch with this cause? What questions do you ask yourself?
Dove: It’s not so much the questions I ask myself – because I subconsciously adapt them to the prejudices I already have – but rather the questions I ask others. I think each of us would do what I perceive. However, when I reach out to a community to elevate them, the important thing is to ask them what they want and listen to them, listen and actually hear them. To ask them who they perceive themselves and how they think the world sees them. In other words, to give legitimacy to their perceptions. To let them talk and listen. And then, but only if they ask me to tell them where I come from, so that hopefully there are parallels. Then hopefully a connection will be established. Going into a community with a prepackaged program and yelling, “Hey, isn’t that cool?” When I haven’t even asked if they think it’s cool. . means I wasn’t listening.
Salas: The concept of a public mandate for a county, state, and / or national art ambassador has always intrigued me in our nation – it’s a remarkable contrast in a culture where being an American artist means, always social To have legitimacy of the siege. Being a BIPOC artist often means enduring the added complexity of the rejection of personality and lived experience of the dominant culture alongside their art. The national and institutional recognition of a poet as a necessary ambassador to the republic has always made me curious about the joys and precariousness of the post. How did you reconcile the promise of this post with the devaluation of the arts and humanities in our racist and capitalist culture?
Dove: Wow, that is such a beautiful question, and you describe the dilemma accurately. This is exactly the dilemma, and it is so strange to have a poet-winner in a country that devalues art so much. Had it not been for Gertrude Clarke Whittall, a benefactress of the arts, to mark the position (funding for the library’s Stradivarius stringed instruments also came from their coffers), I doubt we would even have a Poet Prize winner. But here we are. And as I said before, words are important; Titles make an impression. The title “Poet Laureate of the United States” bears a certain imprimatur, a stamp of legitimacy that honors the art of poetry. When I was in office, people would write to me who had never heard of a poet award winner, but they loved the idea that we had one. I became a cultural and spiritual lightning rod that people could turn to.
Historically, the poet is ultimately at the center of tribal consciousness; as Shelley said, “Poets are the world’s unrecognized legislators.” The griots, the poets, were not only responsible for recording all the activities of the communities, but also for articulating their longings and worries. The award winners, the griots, acted as mouthpieces; they conveyed what was happening in the church –The Iliad, the Odyssey –But the words they used woven a kind of sensory magic that helped people deal with what was happening to them emotionally. It wasn’t the same as running a report. Instead of “Yesterday we had the great battle of so and so” they stood up and intoned: “When the morning put on their light robes. . . ”So that people can actually relive that fateful dawn. Poetry is the repository of our collective emotional memory.
Poetry is the repository of our collective emotional memory.
People may not know exactly what is meant by the title “Poet Laureate”. Even so, they can hear the word “laurel” lurking there, and it lifts them up. You can smell the flower garlands and think: This is something important.
Many of the poets who have been laureates in recent years have used this survey to tell the truth to power by returning poetry to the people they came from. It’s really important.
When I was a poet laureate, I was often invited to lunch on Capitol Hill across the street. I’m sure it was only because it looked good to have “The Poet Laureate” at lunch at Congress or something like that. Interestingly, I would always sit next to a Conservative Republican senator or representative. But the awe with which I was treated because I was a poet-laureate gave me the opportunity to engage them on a very personal level and actually disarm them; I mean that in the truest sense of the word – not to bewitch, but to dismantle their defense. I asked personal questions like, “When did you first remember reading a poem?” or “Do you even like poetry? Why? “And these unbelievable stories poured out – the first library card to wait for the bookmobile as a little boy, stuff like that.
Poet Laureate: The title gave me access to these events; Although the same senators may have voted against a literary bill, they heard my title and sat up, which gave me an opportunity to undermine their prejudices about artists. You would go changed by our exchange.
Salas: What did you observe about the role of poetry and its role in community awareness when the nature of public space changed so drastically? What do you hope for the role of poetic engagement in the community if the nation does not go back to “normal” but resumes at a time of reckoning with the grief and post-trauma of its recent events?
Dove: Obviously things have changed. Even before the pandemic, social media had begun to permeate every aspect of our lives, making communication more immediate – more public yet strangely intimate. Someone will confess some embarrassment on Facebook, someone you don’t even know – and yet you sit in their living room singing to their colicky two-month-old while other strangers comment on undeveloped digestive tracts and alternative lullabies. Neither of us know how it will turn out because we are in the middle of it – but this is such an interesting mix of the very personal space with a different type of public space. And of course, the intimate arena we refer to as social media has been changed and intensified by the pandemic, as our contact with the outside world is now almost entirely virtual.
In terms of art, we’ve moved away from the awe of the written word – as something that was printed and wrapped in a book between the covers – and moved to audiobooks so that people would listen more.
For generations, poets didn’t have to be nuanced speakers of their own poetry as the audience visualized the words on the page. Gradually we realized what a poem sounded like. it got ok to emote a bit! And then came slam poetry and spoken word, where the musical aspects of poetry that had been neglected for so many years came to the fore again.
And then came social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – places to share poetry online, changing the way poetry reaches audiences and who that audience is. It changes the filters to judge whether a poem is “good” or “bad”. We need to read more material and rely more on our own reactions to come to a judgment. Then the pandemic forced us all into the house – so we are strangely reading a lot more now than before, because that’s all we have – a tweet, a Facebook post. People spend hours and hours on their smartphones or laptops. At least they read!
But with the pandemic. . . something else is happening. We lost camaraderie, immediate contact. We miss the human touch. We miss the physical electricity of being in the same room with other people and breathing in sync while the poem pours within us.
We miss the physical electricity of being in the same room with other people and breathing in sync while the poem pours within us.
So we have to rely on other things with a virtual presence. We have to look at each other. Not only is it listening, but it now looks like we have masks most of the time, right? We have to look each other in the eye, not just look, we have to look. We look to see if someone else’s gestures can convey the emotions behind them to judge whether what they’re saying is exactly what they want or not. That will change the way we pay attention to or receive, should I say, words that are spoken in public. It will change the nature of poetry in the sense of how much space there is for spoken poetry – poetry given orally and visually to a public. And whether this poetry can also exist on the page. . . does it even want to exist on the site? Are there any hybrid forms of it? I mean, a lot more has been brought to the fore, a lot more than before the pandemic. I am very excited to see what will happen.
I think if there is anything that helps us anticipate this grief, it is the arts, and especially poetry. If left unattended, grief will fester inside; it eats away at the soul. Poetry opens a portal into a space where we can share our feelings with others.
I think if there is anything that helps us anticipate this grief, it is the arts, and especially poetry.
I remember something the pianist and Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer once said. She had survived Theresienstadt (Theresienstadt), the concentration camp to which most composers and musicians were sent. In the evening they secretly played music together on makeshift instruments; they would hum, sing, put Beethoven’s together ode to Joy, like this. And one of the interviewers asked her, “Why should you do this? It was so dangerous and you need that energy to live. “Do you know what her answer was? “We lived on beauty,” she said, “and that’s what kept us going.”
What do you do when everything has been stolen from you? Art: the words in your head, the music under your tongue. Poetry can be carried in the heart. And it will feed you. It will feed you. We can see this in the response to Amanda Gorman’s opening poem, as it has only inspired people – how necessary it was for a wounded and closed nation to hear.
So I believe poetry will continue to play a huge role in our national consciousness – at least when I have something to do with it!