A CONVERSATION WITH RITA DOVE
BELLIN: I wonder if you'd mind starting by telling us how you came to be a writer, and why. Were there
experiences in your childhood that were key ones?
DOVE: I grew up reading; that was the first step. Our television viewing was rationed. There were books
in the house, and we were encouraged to read as much as we wanted and anything we wanted, which was an important
element. I would read everything from comic strips and comic books straight up to Shakespeare, and I didn't see
any problems with the transition [laughs]. At first, I didn't distinguish much between high and low literature.
Books were places I could go to, where I could be anywhere in the world. Writing was a natural next step-to
want to do the thing itself instead of allowing it to happen to me, to create my own world of possibilities.
I began by imitation-doggerel verse, Easter and Christmas poems, stuff like that. Around the fifth or sixth
grade I began writing plays-satirical musicals à la Mad magazine, with new lyrics based on the tunes
to popular songs. My brother, who is two years older, loved science fiction, so I would read his science fiction
books after he was finished and then try to write my own stories about robots and Venusians and suspended animation,
that sort of thing. I didn't think any of this was unusual. I never thought to myself, "Oh, I'm going to be
a writer someday." Writing was simply another way to pass the time, another way of having fun, of playing.
I think there were a number of reasons for that lack of literary ambition. First of all, I didn't grow up in a
literary household. My father was a chemist (he's retired now), my mother a housewife; my sisters and brother all
ended up in the sciences. Oh, there were lots of books on the shelves at home; but no one ever said, "Wouldn't
it be great to be a writer?" I knew nothing about the personal lives of the authors I was reading; I really
didn't think about the authors that much at all. The stories were what gripped me, though most of them had no discernible
similarities to my own life, and none of the characters ever looked like me. So becoming a writer wasn't something
I thought about; it wasn't even a blip on the radar screen.
Then, when I was in eleventh grade, my English teacher took me to a book signing at a downtown hotel. I hadn't
told her that I liked to write; I had shown her nothing beyond the critical papers we were required to compose
for school. She must have suspected something, though, because she called up my parents for permission to take
me and another student to this book signing, and that's how John Ciardi became my first walking, speaking, breathing
author. I didn't know who John Ciardi was, but I was sufficiently impressed to buy a copy of his translation of
Dante's Inferno, and for the first time in my life the author's photo on the back of a book meant something.
Personally, Ciardi was a bit of a curmudgeon, but the point was that that experience first put the notion into
my head that writing could be a viable vocation, that one could consider a life built around writing.
Then I went off to Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, and stumbled into my first creative writing class. And
I do mean stumbled! I had tested out of Freshman English, and since most literature seminars were reserved for
upperclassmen, I had signed up for a sophomore-level Advanced Composition course. Now, I wanted to read, not compose;
but Advanced Composition was the only class open, and it filled a requirement to boot. Well, about three weeks
into the semester, the professor fell ill and had to be hospitalized. Another professor was asked to take over
the course-and that was Milton White, the fiction writing instructor [laughs]. So fate gave me a rather significant
shove. I remember Milton White striding into class that first day and announcing, "Now we're going to tell
stories." And I was hooked.
BELLIN: Did you begin with poems, or with stories? Was there any separation at that point?
DOVE: In college I would take fiction writing one semester and poetry workshop the next; I never took
both in the same semester. Earlier, in my childhood, there was no separation at all-I'd write a poem one day, a
story the next. But there had been indications that I preferred poetry. For several summers, for instance, my brother
and I would start a neighborhood newspaper. We never finished an issue because we would get into an argument: I
wanted to be editor-in-chief, but my brother declared himself chief by virtue of seniority, so I would quit and
form my own magazine and call it Poets' Delight. Every year, it was Poets' Delight, and I'd write
one poem, design a meticulous cover with a woman reclining in the shade of an autumnal tree, and that would be
it [laughs]. I don't think I ever finished a single issue, but the evidence was damning: if I could be my own boss,
I would always choose to be a poet.
I must stress the fact that none of this was conscious at all. Living poets simply didn't exist in the world
I grew up in. Becoming a poet was not only unrealistic; there wasn't even a question of such a thing being remotely
BELLIN: How about now? Is it difficult to alternate? Are there special requirements for each genre that
you have to go through?
DOVE: Each genre has its own routine for me, its little demands and particular problems. I don't have
as much difficulty switching now, particularly between the short story and poetry, or between poetry and drama.
Going from short story to drama is a bit of a stretch, and the novel is an entirely different matter altogether.
I've only written one novel, so my conclusions are based on insufficient data-but there was a point, at the beginning
of writing the novel, when I could switch back and forth between prose and poetry; the closer I came to the final
draft, however, the harder it became to switch, because I had to devote all my attention to the fictional world
to make sure that everything fit. At first this was simply a technical necessity-making sure that everything happens
on the day that it's supposed to happen, making sure the characters stay "in character," can be an all-consuming
task-but in the end the problem is one for the imagination, because the only way to do right by the creation, without
being a civil servant about it, is to live, breathe, and dream the novel's world. Only then do you have a chance
of getting it right.
BELLIN: There's always been a strong narrative trend in your poems as well. Do you see connections between
what you were doing with the novel and what you were doing with the poems?
DOVE: It's hard for me to see the connections. I think I've always-well, the first book was a kind of
hodgepodge, but after that-I've always tried to stretch the limits of whatever genre I was working in. I'm curious
how much narrative can be sustained by a lyric poem, how much lyricism can float through a narrative poem. Initially,
when writing short fiction, I was attracted by two kinds of short stories: those that pivot on epiphany, like in
James Joyce's Dubliners, and the traditional tale à la Thomas Mann, which builds its world like a
nineteenth-century novel and then unscrolls on a bed of accumulating details. My story "The Vibraphone"
unwinds in that manner, whereas a story like "Zabriah" is a string of epiphanies. When writing my novel
Through the Ivory Gate, on the other hand, I consciously tried to avoid writing a "poet's novel."
I wanted structure, character development, a firm narrative base-not an extended tone poem [laughs].
BELLIN: You're Poet Laureate this year. Obviously, you're a very prominent public figure for poetry now,
but you have a novel out at the same time. I'm assuming you have to make some kind of connection between this public
persona that you have, and then having a private life at the same time. Are there difficulties with that, or is
it possibly productive?
DOVE: It is very difficult, and it's not productive at all. I didn't think it would be productive, and
I made a pact with myself that I wouldn't get uptight about not writing. In other words, rather than trying to
be Superwoman by squeezing in an hour of writing between airplanes or interviews and being continually frustrated,
it would be better to give myself leave not to write so that any writing that might happen would arrive as a boon.
That my time is so fragmented makes it difficult to get any decent writing done; but the worst part is exactly
what you mentioned-switching between public and private personae. I've discovered, as Poet Laureate, that I've
assumed the mantle of the public servant. I find myself dealing with people who have little concept of what a poet
does, how poems are made or read. They may have liked poetry at some point in their lives-I'm not saying they're
utter Philistines-but they're frightened of being thought stupid, which means that they tighten up at the mention
of any word over two syllables. And they've been brought up to believe that reading poetry means interpreting it,
that talking about poetry is going to be an elaborate intellectual ritual, a game of one-upmanship. Trying to get
through all those layers of fears is crucial, but it's exhausting, too. So there's a "Poet Laureate"
persona I find myself employing in self-defense. I catch myself thinking: forget the private person, cut out the
self-reflection and just deal with the situation on a public level. That, more than anything, stops the writing.
Since becoming Poet Laureate, I've written a few poems-and though the ideas are there, there isn't the right kind
of time nor the right mind-set there to nurture those initial sparks into a blaze. Interviews for newspapers and
slick magazines and radio talk shows are the most tiring because I have to say the same thing over and over again.
That kind of repetition is deadening. But if I can implant the word "poetry" in people's minds, if I
can bring poetry into the common discourse, then I will have accomplished something significant. And the way to
do it, for better or worse, is through the media. The other day I was listening to the car radio, and the announcer
dubbed some physicist "the Poet Laureate of Science" [laughs]. Say what?! A few years ago, that wouldn't
have happened. Poetry's making a comeback; it's been coursing under the surface all the while, and every little
bit of media attention is one more increment in the elevation of the water table.
BELLIN: With the last few Poet Laureates, there seems to have been a lot more media attention given to
you, that I've seen.
DOVE: It's mind-boggling. I expected there to be a little more interest because I represent a break with
tradition, which is news; but I also thought it would die off fairly quickly, too. I think the whole country is
poised on the lip of change; with the change in the Administration there's a generalized excitement in the air,
a feeling that things are beginning to happen once more. My appointment might be part of that new wave.
BELLIN: Can you talk some about direct influences on your styles? Are there any poets in particular who
have nourished your work, any that you feel that you have to face down, the way Harold Bloom says poets have to
in The Anxiety of Influence?
DOVE: Anxiety of Influence is such a male-oriented book. There's so much of that "I'm going
to wrestle you down and take your style." Certainly there are influences on me; but I never have a pat answer
to this question because I resist cataloging my creativity. My list of influences is constantly changing: as soon
as I become aware of their influence, it means that I'm no longer being influenced by them. There are poets I return
to again and again for sustenance: I read them, shake my head and wonder, "How did they do that?" I go
back to figures like Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy, for example, and Langston Hughes and Shakespeare, and some
prose writers as well-James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love Derek Walcott's work, but I
don't think I'm influenced by it. I don't know about Elizabeth Bishop-Elizabeth Bishop is someone I can't read
if I intend to write that day [laughs].
BELLIN: It's very intimidating!
DOVE: She's so completely her own. Nabokov is like that, too-so utterly Nabokov that you must either
give yourself over to his aura, in which case you can't possibly write an original phrase, or you must resist succumbing
and stand outside the spell thinking, "How clever, how amazing!"-terrifically envious but somehow unmoved,
because you haven't permitted yourself to give in entirely-and then you can't write anything, either.
BELLIN: In Bishop's work there's such modesty-almost as if the poem itself doesn't even come from the
poet, it just exists as a modest piece of writing that exists on its own strength. I've always found that interesting.
DOVE: That's very well put.
BELLIN: There's a very strong sense of history in your work, an almost intimate sense. The past is very
close to the present, or coexists with the present, almost side by side at times. I was wondering if that was a
conscious intention of yours, or whether or not it was just an integral part of your way of looking at the world.
DOVE: Sometimes it's conscious, other times it's not. I think there are two main reasons for my looking
at the world that way. First of all, when I was growing up, relatives would gather and tell stories about our ancestors-some
great-great-grandmother or great-great-grandfather. I enjoyed a sense of intimacy with these "characters,"
because they were part of the family. Years later, while studying history in school, it was all very abstract,
you know: "This-and-that occurred in 1846, this-and-that transpired in 1898." But if we're lucky, something
happens to bring the dry facts to life. For me it was the simple realization that a hundred years is really not
that long ago. In 1965, I was in junior high school. The year 1865 sounded ancient then. But if you say "one
hundred years ago the Civil War ended," it becomes an entirely different matter. After all, more and more
people live to be over one hundred, and many of us had grandparents who were alive one hundred years ago. So that's
when it hit home for me. I began to understand that history isn't merely facts and isolated events to be memorized,
but that it is lived through people. Trying to fit my own history, and the history of my race and gender, into
the Grand Chronicle-History with a capital H-led me to the realization that the underside of History, as
it were, was infinitely more interesting. So in my work I make a conscious effort to treat History and history
BELLIN: History, with a small h, in comparison with History with a capital H, it's kind
of a method of offering different interpretations, presenting different sides of this one story we think of as
the historical one.
DOVE: History with a small h consists of a billion stories. History with a capital H is
a construct, a grid you have to fit over the significant events in ordinary lives. Great historians, those who
can make history "come alive," realize that all the battles lost or won are only a kind of net, and we
are caught in that net. Because there are other interstices in that large web. Whereas History is a chart
of decisions and alternatives, history is like larding the roast: you stick in a little garlic and add some fat,
and the meat tastes better.
BELLIN: Has it been difficult working in that area of Washington? It seems that you're right in the middle
of History-with-a-capital-H's stronghold.
DOVE: I'm having a blast. Everyone keeps saying, "Oh, Washington's so sterile; it's such a power
node." I'm enjoying myself-maybe because I look at its machinations with a certain measure of bemusement.
The Poetry Office at the Library of Congress is tucked in a corner of what is called the "attic" of the
Jefferson Building; someone once commented that the location was an indication of how the nation regards its artists,
but I walk out on the balcony that looks out over the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian and even
the Jefferson Memorial on a clear day and think: "best view in town." No, it doesn't bother me at all.
BELLIN: In some of your earlier poems, I'm thinking specifically of "Nestor's Bathtub" or "Catherine
of Siena," myths and legends, not exactly true histories, but those impulses are there as well. I was wondering
what it is about myths or legends which make them such fertile ground for reinterpretation through poems?
DOVE: Let's look at it this way. I have a more recent poem called "The Gorge." The gorge is
what's left of the river that passed through the city; all kinds of stuff-a dead man's shoes, rubber inner tubes-has
been left behind. I call this detritus "a trail of anecdotes." Myth begins in anecdote-telling a story
in order to entertain-but it also constructs a narrative as a way of explaining our place and our progress in the
Little Cuyahoga's done up left town.
No one saw it leaving
No one saw it leaving
Though it left a twig or two,
And a snaky line of rotting
Fish, a dead man's shoe,
Gnats, scarred pocket-
Books, a rusted Garden nozzle,
Rats and crows. April
In bone and marrow. Soaked
With sugary dogwood, the gorge floats
In the season's morass,
Remembering its walnut, its hickory,
Its oak, its elm,
Its sassafras. Ah,
April's arthritic magnitude!
Little Joe ran away
From the swollen man
On the porch, ran across
The muck to the railroad track.
Lost his penny and sat
Right down by the rail,
There where his father
Couldn't see him crying.
That's why the express
Stayed on the track.
That's why a man
On a porch shouted out
Because his son forgot
His glass of iced water. That's
Why they carried little Joe
Home and why his toe
ain't never coming back. Oh
This town reeks mercy,
This gorge leaves a trail
The poor man's history.
A myth or a legend becomes indispensable through the retelling. Generations repeat and elaborate upon the basic
story; the really great tales are stolen by other cultures and changed to fit their new surroundings [laughs].
You may ask what's so compelling about an anecdote that others had to steal it; why is it still provocative, even
though we don't believe in the Greek gods, or Isis and Osiris, for that matter? Why do we still repeat these tales
and listen to them with such pleasure? Because they touch the yearning inside us; they explain our impulses on
a level deeper than logic but do not require blind faith, because they are allegorical. They explain some of the
mysteries of our existence and our relationships with each other. Parables affect us in nonverbal ways, too, because
of the resonances between the parallels. For me, to work with myths is a way of getting at the ineffable. By exploring
a myth-nothing anthropological or psychological, I'm not into rooting out all the extant variations or analyzing
every symbol-but by reimagining the myth, we can find so many resonances to our own lives. James Hillman's wonderful
book, The Dream and the Underworld, talks about the dream not as a Freudian concept, as a tool to piece
together the puzzle of just how sick you are, but as a realm with its own rules, much like the Greeks' idea of
the underworld. Not quite an anti-cosmos; a parallel universe, an actual world deeper than we can allow our feelings
to go . . . but it exists, it's there always, waiting. Myths tap into that well.
I've been writing a lot of poems lately around the myth of Persephone and Demeter. But let me backtrack for
a minute. Donald Hall once said that sometimes when you're trying to write a poem and you get close to the source,
everything shuts down. To you, that's when it feels like you're furthest away from the answer; but you're actually
standing right outside the door. It's just been slammed in your face, is all, and you have to find a way to coax
it open. No amount of sitting at the desk and beating at the page can get the door to open. What you have to do
is to trick it-take out the trash, wash dishes, pretend you don't care [laughs]. And suddenly the Muse thinks,
"Oh, she's busy doing something else, I can relax now"-and revelation slips in. Myth, in an interesting
way, can function in the same way as taking out the trash. By following the trajectory of a myth, by reimagining
its principal characters or exploring a tangent, one can stumble upon the crucial stuff-what one really thinks
and feels. My Persephone and Demeter poems, for instance, actually began as a technical exercise. One day I was
thinking, "I'm tired of all the male gods; what's a good female deity?" Since Rilke had written sonnets
to Orpheus, I decided to write sonnets to Demeter. For a while I believed I had chosen Demeter because of Rilke's
Orpheus. When I look back now, it's so obvious-my daughter Aviva was about five years old at the time, just about
to enter kindergarten, to go out into the world. I had some readjustment to do as a mother. If I hadn't been oblivious
to the actual reason, if I had tried to write about mothers and daughters consciously, I wouldn't have made it
to first base. As it was, I simply decided to explore this myth which had attracted me for whatever reason, and
I began by writing sonnets, not thinking at all of the personal implications [laughs]. It really didn't dawn on
me until-let's see, Aviva was five then, so I began writing these six years ago, and since then it's gone beyond
sonnets to double sonnets and all kinds of strange things. Then, when Aviva was in third grade, she had to give
a report on Greece, so she had been reading this book on Greek myths for weeks, just loving it. One day she came
into my room with the book under her arm and said, "Hey! You've been writing about me!" [laughs]. I'd
been reading her some of the poems, and she hadn't paid much attention; but when she read the classic version of
the myth, it all clicked. She walked out of the room grinning, and I couldn't write a single word more that day.
"Wow," I thought, "how blind can you be?" But it was a necessary blindness, I think. Some poets
will use rhyme and meter in that way, and some use persona poems or journal entries, notebooks. In this particular
case, it was the outer structure of the myth that I allowed to guide the writing. Exploring the ways in which I
could work that structure into contemporary settings was very productive.2
BELLIN: Could you talk some more about what you've called "necessary blindness"? Is it a condition
of writing poems in general, or writing anything in general, to not know exactly what you're up to before it reaches
a certain point?
DOVE: Well, yes, I do think that's true. It's very difficult, if you know exactly what you're up to,
to produce a poem that surprises and enriches the reader-that, upon rereading, continually surprises and enriches.
That doesn't mean I just walk willy-nilly into the poem, calling out, "Here I come, ready or not!" What
I'm trying to say is best expressed by Roethke's line: "I learn by going where I have to go." I find
that the more determined people are, the more supposedly aware they are of where they're going, the blinder they
are. In other words, it's best to be open while pursuing whatever goal you've set. Frankly, I wouldn't want to
live a life where I knew exactly where I was going. Sure, you can have everyday goals, even five-year plans. You
can say, "I'll go to the grocery store first, then the dry cleaners," but you have no idea what's going
to happen to you on the way-what news report on the radio will change your perspective, what frustrating or dangerous
thing will happen in traffic, who you'll see in the rice-and-beans aisle. And that's what makes life so damn interesting-what
happens along the way. So the journey to the end of the poem is full of mysteries. In the best poems, the mysteries
will inform not only the ending, but will circle around and change the beginning, too. You may arrive where you
thought you'd end up, but you're a different person when you get there.
BELLIN: The experience of reading your poems is like that, too. There's the poem itself, and at the end
there's an epiphany, a slamming of it home. Have you noticed that about your work?
DOVE: Others have mentioned that my poems seem to turn in the last few seconds or so, but no one's said
it quite that way before! Some of that is technical. Speaking in terms of craft, one of the biggest influences
on my work has been my knowledge of the German language. In a German sentence in which a past participle or prepositional
phrase occurs, the verb may be shunted to the end of the sentence. Example: "He turned to gaze at her hair
upon which, with startling brilliance and a hushed, golden warmth, the reflection of the crackling firelight which
Mimi had laid, glimmered." [Laughs.] You have to wait. The first few times I was over in Germany, I'd have
a headache at the end of each day. "This is maddening," I would think. "How can people communicate
like this?" Then I gradually began to appreciate how this syntax kept the sentence energized. Could an English
sentence be stretched to sustain suspense like that? Could I work it so that everything clicks together at the
very end of the poem? Which is not to suggest that I treat the writing of a poem like solving a crossword puzzle,
but that I'm trying to make the final epiphany happen grammatically as well as imagistically. I played around with
this technique quite a bit in earlier poems, particularly those in Museum.
BELLIN: I can see how that is replicated in the poems. After you've read the end of a poem, you have
to go back and revise your notions of what's come before. I've always found that particularly enjoyable about your
DOVE: Or you could have said, "Oh, no-now I have to read it all over again" [laughs].
BELLIN: How has being Aviva's mother fed into your poems, or not? Do you imagine her reading the poems
later and thinking about them?
DOVE: You know, I never imagine that; maybe it's a kind of protection. Sometimes she asks what I'm working
on, and she's been to some of my poetry readings and has her favorites. I know there are poems of mine that wouldn't
have been written without her being here on the planet. It's not only the emotional aspects of motherhood, but
the idea of watching another human being enter the world and knowing you are the lens through which this being
receives so many of her basic perceptions. There's also the desire to widen her horizons without predetermining
her future-all that handmaiden stuff. Teaching demands a similar kind of witnessing, but it's not as constant.
It's really that profound moral responsibility that goes along with introducing another human to our planet-this
is the ceaseless task of a parent, and it's an amazing sensation which has informed my work even beyond the notion
of motherhood. I can't give you any concrete examples; I just know it has.
BELLIN: I remember you telling me once that there was something you called the "tyranny of the articulate"
in writing poems. I think it was that you think we're driven to say only that which can be said, only what's immediately
understandable, and that's not exactly valid. Do you remember that, and could you elaborate?
DOVE: It's a nice phrase; I hope I said it! [Laughs.] The tyranny of the articulate is a particular problem
in a workshop situation-the stakes are so loaded, yet the parameters are so circumscribed. Feedback is immediate,
though it may not be accurate or well-informed or well-meaning; the specter of public humiliation looms so large
that, rather than risk being misunderstood, the student is tempted either to entertain or to write "slick"
poems, poems which resist penetration. In such a technically oriented, defensive atmosphere, what room is there
for the notion of the poet whom Wallace Stevens calls "the priest of the invisible"?
I believe there are emotions that aren't expressible-I really do. And I think it's our duty to try to approach
expressing these somehow. Being articulate is not the key. You might have a prodigious command of language, but
it's what happens between the words that matters; so much happens in the leaps, the silences. It's something I'm
still wrestling with; I'm endlessly fascinated by it. Charles Wright is working in this direction-those long "journal"
poems in which the mundane and the profound exist side by side, with all those ellipses, all that white space.
And the cumulative effect, which is that the ineffable has somehow been given a shape. Rilke addresses the ineffable
all the time. His Ding-Gedichte-the Thing Poems-are a testimonial to the fact that if you can capture the
thing-ness of an object, you might also catch the inexpressible. What makes those poems like "The Panther"
and "The Flamingos" so magnificent is that, although they try to be true to the object-the thing itself-the
unspoken assumption is that there exists something above words, beyond words, that no language can touch. The sensation
is brief; you feel it brush by.
BELLIN: There's a similar sensation in a lot of your poems, I think. A lot of your poems are persona
poems. Is there some kind of connection between having a speaker saying words that aren't ostensibly yours and
getting at that which can't be expressed? I have a notion that persona poems are so effective because they resonate
with something in our collective unconscious.
DOVE: Well, the pronoun "I" is problematic. In fiction, it might increase the sense of intimacy;
but poetry often sounds egotistical if the personality of the poet persists through the use of the first person
singular. A few poets have managed it: Frank O'Hara imbued his "I" with such a charming manner that we
all want to be him, or at least near him. O'Hara's I/eye takes in everything indiscriminately to become this huge,
generous consciousness. Walt Whitman has this gift too, as do Allen Ginsberg and Vladimir Mayakovski. But it's
a very difficult thing to manage-whereas the third person, with its omniscience and omnipresence, gives us a wider
portal to step through. A persona poem, on the other hand, is a vehicle for defusing the potential self-consciousness
of the first person singular.
BELLIN: In Grace Notes, there's a poem called "Canary" about Billie Holiday, and the
last line reads, "If you can't be free, be a mystery." And that line's a mystery in itself. Why did you
choose Billie Holiday for that poem, and what does that last line say about her?
(for Michael S. Harper)
Billie Holiday's burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
that gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you're cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can't be free, be a mystery.
DOVE: Ah, Billie Holiday, Lady Day. If you look at the circumstances of her life-how she prevailed against
such debilitating odds to become this songbird-then you can see that her life was a study in ironies-you could
even say parallel universes. She would step onto the stage, dressed to the nines with a fresh gardenia in her hair,
and sing like nobody's business; then she'd step down after the show knowing she couldn't use the bathroom because
it was a white nightclub. So what does a person in such a universe do? Billie had style. Even when she was really
strung out on drugs, she exuded amazing presence; there was always an elegance to her musical phrasings. That insistence
on style-not "style" in the sense of putting on a show, but how you carry yourself through the world-is
what earned her the title Lady Day, why she's achieved the status of an icon. Lady Day not only refused to grovel-"grovel"
wasn't in her vocabulary-she kept her head up even if she had to walk through shit. From the head up she seemed
to be saying, "I'm smelling roses." At the same time, though, you could see in her performances a way
she had of shutting herself off from the world, because otherwise it would have brought her down much earlier than
it eventually did. That's what the last line of "Canary" refers to: if you can't be free, don't show
it; don't let them get to you.
BELLIN: Among jazz musicians of that era, there's so much of that, even among white musicians, that type
DOVE: That's right; it just floors me. Because white musicians who wanted to be part of that music, that
culture, had to go through similar humiliations, often at the hands of their black band partners. It was a ritual
hazing; it wasn't racist, but it was racial. They had to be tested; it was a crash course in bearing up under the
consequence of their skin color. If they proved their mettle, then they knew what the blues was about. They'd do
BELLIN: One last question. It's sometimes fashionable these days to characterize African-American writers
as being either Afrocentric or Eurocentric. Or male-identified, or feminist.
DOVE: So many categories.
BELLIN: How do you feel about these identifications?
DOVE: I don't find the terms Afrocentric or Eurocentric useful. I think they're divisive; they're the
province of frightened people who need to put things in categories in order to know who and where they are. Politically,
they're calculated to pit groups against one another; linguistically, they preclude open thought. Nobody I know
sits around all day thinking about whether or not he or she's Afrocentric. Life doesn't work that way. Such identity
markers seem only to make sense with fringe elements on both ends-the doggedly Eurocentric, the Harold Blooms of
the world who build a career on reinforcing their little fortresses of English stone; and the relentlessly Afrocentric
who isolate themselves in their own schools and cut out half the knowledge of the world. I'm in favor of nothing
that walls out knowledge in the name of purity. There is no way to keep yourself "pure," be it race-specific,
gender-specific, or caste-specific. The most fascinating thing about life is its flux.
Some critics persist in trying to define me, and it's tricky answering those kinds of questions. Newspapers
are looking for a sound bite-something snappy-and they won't quote the entire answer because it's too complex,
like life-so they will try to shorten the answer and they will get it quite wrong. My favorite response to that
line of inquiry comes from Langston Hughes, who published an essay in 1926 called "The Negro Artist and the
Racial Mountain," in The Nation, I believe. The "new Negro" artists of the Harlem Renaissance,
he says, intend to express their "individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame"; if white people
liked the results that was great, but if they didn't that was fine, too. He then takes it one step further: it
would be wonderful if other black people liked what the Renaissance artists were doing, but if they didn't, that
wouldn't matter, either. He ends with a declaration: "We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know
how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
BELLIN: In academic circles, it seems that this insistence on labeling might be the worst by-product
of deconstruction that there is. This insistence on identity has been making a lot of us writers uncomfortable.
DOVE: Yes. One semester when I was teaching at Arizona State, a colleague in the rhetoric program, a
prominent deconstructionist, was teaching a graduate seminar called Theories of Composition. One of his students
interviewed me for her paper-she also interviewed a painter and a musician-and the questions were extremely aggravating
because they were geared to reduce all nuance to statistics, to footnotes. I was constantly equivocating in my
answers, dancing through the tulips. Well, I guess she must have turned in some kind of preliminary report, because
one day when I was in the office getting my mail, the professor came up to me and said, "We're going to figure
out how you do it!" [Laughs.] And I thought, Who cares? The whole idea was so pigheaded and neurotic, there
was nothing to say, really. As if anyone could pin any of this down.
BELLIN: Let me come full circle. You mentioned Garcia Marquez earlier, and I was wondering if you thought
there was such a thing as an international community of writers now.
DOVE: There has always been an extended family of writers past, present and future; when you write, you
are participating in the grand conversation. Down here on earth, however, writers travel much more today, so there's
a chance to meet other writers and actually sit down for a talk. It's fun to run into old friends at writers' conferences
in Paris or Toronto or Mexico City, even if there've been several years between reunions. But let me return to
this idea about the spiritual community. Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, has one of the oldest international poetry
festivals around. One summer there I had a startling experience with language, poetry, and that spiritual community
I've been talking about. Each evening four poets would read in their native tongues, followed by an actor who would
read the Dutch translation for the audience's benefit. If you didn't happen to be Dutch or know the original language,
you were out of luck-and those evenings went on for three hours. So, out of sheer desperation and boredom, the
international poets would try to figure out what whoever read was reading. I knew German and enough Middle English
and Latin to follow the Dutch translations a bit; other writers knew French, Russian, or whatever. One evening
during a Japanese poet's recitation, when I was following the text of the Dutch translation and looked up in the
middle of the reading, I found the other writers listening, rapt. It was a remarkable feeling; we understood. That's
BELLIN: One last question, I swear. You mentioned Shakespeare earlier. What's your favorite play?
DOVE: It depends what time of my life we're talking about. When I was a kid-this is really weird-my favorite
play was Hamlet. "This is great," I thought. "Nothing happens; they just walk around talking
to themselves." Then there was Macbeth, which was a serious contender to Hamlet. Julius Caesar,
too. Today my favorite Shakespeare play would be King Lear. It's the most tragic thing I've ever read. With
Hamlet, there's still the feeling that this string of tragedies could have been averted. The despair isn't
absolute. King Lear is as empty, spiritually, as it gets.
BELLIN: What gets me about those tragedies is how much they're concerned with epistemology. How can we
ever be sure of what we know, and how can we even be sure we know anything? It seems a very modern question that
art needs to address.
DOVE: You're right. And yet it's a very old question, too. You'd think the questions raised by Oedipus-fate
versus free will, mother love and blind power-would have faded by now, but they haven't. Those are the questions
posed by great literature: unanswerable, yet forever asked.
This interview took place in Rita Dove's home near Charlottesville, Virginia, on December 14, 1993.
1 "The Gorge" is quoted from Grace Notes by Rita Dove, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., c. 1989.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
2 Rita Dove's poems "Exit," "Golden Oldie," and "Wiring Home," printed in this
Blip Magazine Archive for the first time, are part of her Demeter and Persephone project. The resulting book,
Mother Love, was completed in the summer of 1994 and will be published by W. W. Norton in May 1995.
3 "Canary" is quoted from Grace Notes by Rita Dove, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., c. 1989.
Reprinted by permission of the author.