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If you like Rita Dove's story, you might also like:
Maya Angelou,
Ben Carson,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Coretta Scott King,
Audra McDonald,
W.S. Merwin,
Story Musgrave,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Rosa Parks,
Suzan-Lori Parks,
Wole Soyinka,
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Amy Tan,
John Updike and
Oprah Winfrey

Rita Dove's recommended reading: Arabian Nights

Rita Dove also appears in the videos:
Justice and the Citizen: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 2,
So, You Want to Be a Writter,
Justice and the Citizen: From the Indian Reservation to the Inner City, The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
The Power of Words,
Media and Social Responsibility

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Rita Dove in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Martin Luther King Day
The Genius of Creativity
The Power of Words
Poets & Poetry

Related Links:
Norton Poets

African American Literature

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Rita Dove
Rita Dove
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Rita Dove Interview

Former Poet Laureate of the United States

June 18, 1994
Las Vegas, Nevada

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  Rita Dove

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When did you first know what you wanted to do?

Rita Dove: It was a gradual thing. It really wasn't until I was in college. When I was in college, I took creative writing courses and I began to write more and more, and 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." That was the point.

I loved to write when I was a child. I wrote, but I always thought it was something that you did as a child, then you put away childish things. I thought it was something I would do for fun. I didn't know writers could be real live people, because I never knew any writers.

The first inkling that maybe it was a possible thing happened in my last year of high school. I had a high school teacher who took me to a book-signing by an author, John Ciardi, and that's when I saw my first live author.

Here was a living, breathing, walking, joking person, who wrote books. And for me, it was that I loved to read but I always thought that the dream was too far away. The person who had written the book was a god, it wasn't a person. To have someone actually in the same room with me, talking, and you realize he gets up and walks his dog the same as everybody else, was a way of saying, "It is possible. You can really walk through that door too." That was the important thing.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

That's why I know it's so important to show kids that there are real live people doing these things. I was in twelfth grade. I didn't know his work. Afterwards, of course, I began to read his work.

I've read there was a moment when you discovered verse. Can you tell us about that?

Rita Dove: My parents had two half-walls of bookshelves. And they encouraged us to read whatever we wanted.

Going to the library was the one place we got to go without asking really for permission. And what was wonderful about that was the fact that they let us choose what we wanted to read for extra reading material. So it was a feeling of having a book be mine entirely, not because someone assigned it to me, but because I chose to read it. There was an anthology up there. One anthology of poetry. It was a purple with gold cover, I'll never forget. It's really thick. It went from Roman times all the way up to the 1950's at that point. And I began to browse. I mean, I really was like browsing. I read in it a little bit. If I liked a poem by one person, I would read the rest of them by that person. I was about eleven or twelve at this point. I had no idea who these people were. I had heard of Shakespeare, sure, but I didn't know the relative value of Shakespeare, of Emily Dickinson, or all these people that I was reading. So I really began to read what I wanted to read, and without anyone telling me that this was too hard. You know, "You're only eleven, how can you possibly understand Sara Teasdale, or something like that?" And that's how my love affair, I think, with poetry began. This was entirely my world and I felt as if they were whispering directly to me.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

And there was a moment when you read a slightly rude poem by Sylvia Plath?

Rita Dove: Oh, yes. That happened in college and it seems kind of late.

It was a poem by Sylvia Plath called "Daddy." Which is an amazing poem, a hate poem really, to her father, which ends up saying, "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through." Now, it's an incredible poem because it's sort of like a nursery rhyme. It rhymes in that way and yet it has this incredible vehemence. And it was the first time that I realized that you didn't have to be polite. You know, you're raised by parents who are always concerned to raise you so you aren't a little animal, you know, in society. And I think that though they never really said directly there are things that you should or shouldn't say in writing or in learning -- they always encouraged us to go as far as we could -- still, I think there was this feeling that you had to be nice. I felt that. And that was an enormous release to be able to say, "Well, it is not only the happy moments are things that should be talked about, but every moment." All the moments that make up a human being have to be written about, talked about, painted, danced, in order to really talk about life. So it was liberating in that sense.

Rita Dove Interview Photo

How would you explain to someone who has never read poetry, what it is that so enthralls you?

Rita Dove: I would try to show them what it is about language and about music that enthralls, because I think those are the two elements of poetry.

Very often, people who are not familiar with poetry, or don't know much about it, are operating out of fear. At some point in their life, they've been given a poem to interpret and told, "That was the wrong answer." You know. I think we've all gone through that. I went through that. And it's unfortunate that sometimes in schools -- this need to have things quantified and graded -- we end up doing this kind of multiple choice approach to something that should be as ambiguous and ever-changing as life itself. So I try to ask them, "Have you ever heard a good joke?" If you've ever heard someone tell a joke just right, with the right pacing, then you're already on the way to the poetry. Because it's really about using words in very precise ways and also using gesture as it goes through language, not the gesture of your hands, but how language creates a mood. And you know, who can resist a good joke? When they get that far, then they can realize that poetry can also be fun.

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This page last revised on Sep 21, 2010 20:36 EDT
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