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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Rita Dove, thank you for being on Explorations in Black Leadership.
DOVE: Thank you for inviting me.
BOND: I want to begin by asking you a question about the Brown decision. It says in my script to ask what did it mean to you at the time. Of course, you were but two years old, but what do you think it has come to mean?
DOVE: Hmmm — Well, first of all, I think that for my parents, it meant quite a deal and I knew of it when I was growing up. I knew that it had happened when I was a little wee toddler and I was constantly being told that this was important and that I was lucky to be born when I was born, so I grew up knowing that this is a legacy that had far-reaching consequences and I think that obviously education was one of the key elements. It has become — I think that it's really become something that people have accepted and know that's the baseline which means that every struggle to try to get a school not just integrated but up to par is based upon an acceptance that that's the way it should be. That may not be the way everyone really thinks deep in their hearts, but — they know that that's the way it's going to be and so it's incredibly important.
BOND: That sort of carries on to the next question. What do you think it has come to mean as opposed to what it might have been meant to mean?
DOVE: That decision has come to mean that I believe most Americans do accept the fact that education becomes the prime mover in terms of advancement for anyone, that this decision was necessary at a time to try to rectify this imbalance to realize how important it is to have equal opportunities for education and that these kinds of things can be, shall we say, these kinds of things can be slid by in various ways, not just through out-and-out segregation but also through redistricting or even just white flight. All of these things affect something which is essential to us which is to have a very good education. Without that basis it's very difficult to get ahead in this country and that's an important realization for an entire country to make, whether they accept it or not, whether you fight against it or not. To make the realization education is a key is something that Brown vs. the Board of Education brought to the forefront.
BOND: Now, when you were growing up and going to school in Akron, what kind of schools did you go to? Were they integrated, segregated, segregated by neighborhood? What were they like?
DOVE: They were integrated. The Akron Public Schools were integrated actually in the '30s and so the idea of having a segregated school was something that just didn't happen in Akron, Ohio. However, there were natural segregations due to the zoning and where one lived and in fact we knew that Firestone High School — we called them the cake eaters — because in the class system, these were the rich kids and it was whiter than the other schools. I grew up always on the cusp of a white flight in terms of my school, so that even in grade school and in junior high school and in high school, I would enter and it would be 30% black and when I left, it was 30% white pretty much, but the interesting thing about that was that I had many white classmates. We actually learned to get along together because things were — It was an interesting mix and we still at class reunions, it's kind of remarkable that everyone's out on the dance floor, black and white doing the same dance — oh, I remember this — and a few years later, that didn't happen because I have two younger sisters and their experience at the same schools is remarkably different because by that time the neighborhoods had begun to shift and they were predominantly black and it was a different sensibility.
BOND: And the dancing was different?
DOVE: [laughs] The dancing had changed. There were two different sorts of dancing.
BOND: These must've been good schools. You were a good student but you became a Presidential Scholar.
DOVE: I did, yes.
BOND: One out a hundred in the country.
DOVE: That's true, I did, and I had a remarkable education. I was really lucky to have teachers who believed in teaching, were dedicated. I had quite a few white teachers. My first black teacher was in 5th grade, Miss Ford, and I remember being tremendously excited to have my first black teacher. She was phenomenal. After that point there were others, but most of my teachers actually were white and didn't seem to show any kind of discrimination, so we were pushed.
BOND: That's a great segue to the next question. Who were the people who were important to your life, your growing-up years? Your parents, I'm sure.
DOVE: Absolutely. My parents — Even today, I am realizing the ways in which they sacrificed and stepped back and pushed but still stepped back. My parents were absolutely essential. My father is a chemist. He's retired now. He's about to turn 92, but he inspired in all of us the sense that you are your own judge. You know what you've done. You know what you haven't done and you should always be ready. You should be 150% ready and expect that people will only acknowledge 50% and just let it go because you know what you've done. There were books in the house. We weren't discouraged from reading any of them, so that if I wanted to read Shakespeare at 11, which I did because it was the biggest book in the house — no one said, oh, that's too hard — they just let me at it, thinking, well, she'll either get it or she won't and I took away what I could and I left the rest, but that kind of process of discovery in terms of learning was absolutely invaluable. My mother was a housewife. I found out many many years later that at 16 she had graduated from high school early, she'd skipped two classes, and her parents wouldn't let her take a scholarship to Howard because they were afraid of their little girl in a big city and they said, well, she'll just get married anyway. But this woman would stand there making dinner and slice up the roast beef and start quoting Macbeth, "is this the knife I see before me?" and I thought that's just the way mothers talked. I didn't realize it was Shakespeare until I found out, but that's okay. So, these little examples.
DOVE: Then there were a couple of very very influential teachers. My high school English teacher, Miss . . .Margaret Oshner, everyone was terrified of her. They said, oh, she gives automatic Fs and she did, but she told you what you shouldn't do and then you didn't do it and that was fine, but she brought literature to life and she was absolutely dedicated to it. She made us love Victorian literature, believe it or not, and she did something that was absolutely essential. She took me and a couple of my classmates on a Saturday — got our parents' permission — to a book signing by a poet, John Ciardi. He was in town. I didn't know who John Ciardi was, but what was important to me at the moment was to see a real living writer and I thought, oh, this is possible, this thing I've been doing all my life secretly because I hadn't even shown her any poems, that this was actually viable. You could do this.
BOND: So you saw a living person who did what you had done in secret?
BOND: And knew you could bring it out in the public then?
DOVE: Well, I knew that it was possible to be a poet in this world. I just had had no examples of this in my life so I didn't even begin to dream that that was possible. I wrote since I was about — I think since the time I actually learned to write in response to the things that I read, I would kind of write the story and put a black girl in it or something like that, but I think I thought that this was something you did as a child and when you got older, you had to get serious and get a real job and I didn't know what was going to happen to that passion. Meeting John Ciardi showed me that in fact there was a way to live your passion.
BOND: And so you held onto it?
DOVE: I held onto it. I still didn't like come right out and say I'm going to be a poet or anything like that because I also had been brought up in a very strong black community where it was just assumed if you got good grades you were going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher and be the credit to your race and to be a credit to your race, you had to be one of those three things, so I entered college, the University of Miami, Miami University of Ohio, I entered there thinking that I would be one of those things and I changed my major about six times my first year, kind of I wasn't going to be a doctor because I didn't like the sight of blood and thought maybe a lawyer, but it wasn't until I was a junior that I admitted to my parents that I wanted to be a poet. I kept gravitating over to the writers and I finally declared English as my major because I had heard that you could be an English major and still be a lawyer, so my parents were happy, I thought. Another piece of serendipity and a teacher that really influenced me, I was in an advanced composition class. It was a core curriculum at Miami University, so this was a class I had to take and though I loved it, I was in this class when the professor got ill and they asked the fiction writing professor to take over. They figured fiction, composition, close, and he came in and he said, "we're going to write stories and you'll learn composition from that, because that's what I know," and so I was actually kind of catapulted into my first writing class and I thought, you mean you can take courses in this. I can get a degree in this? And what's what started me on that path and so I came home when I was a junior and told my mother, "I'm going to be a poet."
BOND: What did she say? She was encouraging?
DOVE: Well, we were in the kitchen and she said, "you tell your father." That's what she said.
BOND: And what did he say?
DOVE: It was really great, actually. I was terrified, but I went in and he was reading the paper as he did every evening from cover to cover and I said, "I want to be a poet." And he stopped, put down his paper, swallowed, and then he said, "well, I've never understood poetry. Don't be upset if I don't read it." And I took that as an expression of faith. I was happy he didn't blow, you know, say, "what? Are you kidding me?" But I think it was an expression of faith. It's like, well, this is a path you want to go down. It's not one that I've ever looked at, but I still love you.
BOND: But he obviously loved language. You told me before we started that he was self-taught in German and Italian and that as a young girl, he taught you German, so he was language conscious.
DOVE: He was very language conscious and he did. There were German books in the house, there were Italian books in the house and he had taught himself German and Italian before going into the war, the Second World War because he didn't know where he was going to be deployed and later when I asked him, he said, "well, I wanted to learn the language of the enemy. It could come in handy." [laughs] And so as a child, I saw those books on the shelves and, in fact, one of the German books was a book of poetry, a very beautiful volume of [Friedrich von] Schiller, a long poem called "The Song of the Bell," and it had illustrations and I would look through this book and think, "I can't read this. I want to read this." So he was very conscious of language and if my brother and I — My brother's two years older and so we were the ones who were always the battering ram I guess in the family kind of leading things. Whenever we asked him a question about something, he would go to the dictionary and say, "well, let's look it up together" and then we'd spend about a half an hour or so looking up the etymology of a word so he was very language conscious. It's true.
BOND: What about other people, Scout leaders, or church leaders or people of that sort, outside your family and outside of your school?
DOVE: Well, my parents were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in town and we went there every Sunday. The preacher, the minister there, was a man by the name of Reverend [E.E.] Morgan [Jr.] who was an absolute natural orator. Sometimes those sermons would go on for about an hour but what was incredible — I think that very early on I appreciated the way he would shape that sermon from the reading, from the scriptural reading. You'd get a couple of lines out of the scriptures and sometimes he would choose very very strange ones that people were looking through — what does this mean and then he would lay it out for you and then he would give you examples or he would build this and to watch that and to experience that Sunday after Sunday and sometimes he could reach quite a high pitch and sometimes not, but I could say, oh, here he goes and then sometimes my father would actually say, okay, here's the turn [laughs] so he was leading us in that and what was really quite influential.
DOVE: I do think that when I go to University, that there were quite a few people who were influential just by the people that you wouldn't imagine that would be influential like a German professor who said to me at one point — I was taking German, it was the language that I chose because it was all around me — and he said, "well, why don't you apply for a Fulbright?" and I said, "but I don't want to study German, it's just what I need to get on," and he said, "well, you want to get to Europe, you don't you? You want to travel, don't you? Make something up. Find — " So, in other words, he sent me home for the summer to write my grant proposal and so I learned how to write a grant proposal because I said, well, I want to get there. What do I have? What skills do I have that will interest the Fulbright Committee and still be true to what I wanted to do and so I said, yeah, I want to translate German poetry and that's how I got my Fulbright and so I learned something about that kind of pitch as well.
DOVE: And the community — My neighbors, the whole community, was so much more closely knit than communities as I see them today. I knew that neighbors were watching out. Sometimes that was good and sometimes for ill, but the fact is you knew that everybody had your back and that if something good happened to you, you could be sure that when you were walking down the street, they would yell it out or something and if you did something wrong, they would give you lots of advice. I had come to value that kind of connection and I think it made quite an impression on me in terms of my own writing to realize that all of these people who never make it into history books or anything like that are full and complete and heroic people actually who had survived and were making it and were teaching I think the young people just by example that you take care of yourself and your kin and someone is always watching you and so just don't try to slip by. All of those examples.
BOND: How did you choose your career? I saw in some of the research we did for you that you had begun a novel in the 2nd grade.
DOVE: I did.
BOND: Did you ever finish it?
DOVE: Well, it wasn't that kind of novel. [laughs] What happened was this — we had these spelling lessons. I don't know if they still do it the way they used to do it, but you got 20 words a week. You had to learn how to spell them. The last three were always kind of the same word, but the past participle and some kind of verb that changed and our teacher would make us do the homework in class so that we would do it actually, so I would finish it early and I was just sitting there twiddling my thumbs so I started writing each week a little chapter of a novel using all 20 words from the spelling list and it was a game I was playing with myself. The last three words were particularly challenging because they were all the same word, just different verb tenses, but because of that I actually began to look forward to my spelling homework because I wanted to finish it quickly so I could write this chapter so it was about robots taking over the earth. I called it "Chaos" because that's exactly what it was, [laughs] truly chaos, but it was fun. And I think that I started writing at that point. The idea that the language itself could lead you along just as well as a prescribed plot, was thrilling, I think, to me. It was thrilling. And I had had such examples from relatives, from the community, from my minister, all of these examples of the power of language, that if language used — If you get the right word with the right inflection, how you can persuade and create realities through language, that the idea of being able to write language that way and to create a story was just immensely exciting to me.
BOND: Some of our research said among the people you admired were Alice Walker, Stephen Henderson, Adam David Miller, Nikki Giovanni. What was it about these four particularly that grabbed you?
DOVE: Well, when I was coming of age as a writer, let's say, moving from high school into the college years, I began to roam the library shelves looking for voices that spoke to my life and my existence. I had read Shakespeare and I had read all sorts of white writers who were immensely moving and did speak to me as a human being, but I also was very — I wanted to know if anyone spoke to my particular life and the black arts movement of the '60s was just about at that time, so the writers who were beginning to come out were those very writers. Stephen Henderson had published an incredible anthology of African American poetry, literature, and Alice Walker's first two books of poems had just come out. It was incredibly — It was deeply important, I would say, for me to realize that I was not alone in this enterprise, that in fact, there were others who were addressing what it was like to be an African American in America at that time in this language that I wanted to grow to learn. So, they kind of led me along the way.
BOND: And did you see in them yourself, not particularly as a mirror of exactly what you wanted to do or how you wanted to write but just a mirror of yourself — I can do this.
DOVE: Well, yes, I saw in the possibility that I could do this. I didn't see myself in terms of who I was, a first generation middle class Midwestern black, but I saw the possibilities. For instance, Adam David Miller wrote wildly different poems than Alice Walker. His poems were spread all over the page. They looked like paintings. The words kind of went — And I thought, oh, you can do that with words, too. With Alice Walker, it was the sense that I could write very deeply about the interior life and trust that someone else who may not be black would also say, oh, I've also felt that kind of thing, that common thread of humanity, so I didn't see myself and, in fact, as I first began writing and revising my poems which is when I think of it as serious writing, I remember feeling very very alone in the sense that I had not yet come across someone writing from the Midwestern black sensibility. Then when I was — I still remember, I was in graduate school, I was the University of Iowa, the Writers Program, where you can really feel alone [laughs] as a black person in the middle of a cornfield and I had taken to going to the library every weekend, just going to the poetry section, taking out 20 books and just reading them, just didn't matter what, and trying to educate myself and also just wandering the stacks. This was a time when you could actually wander stacks and I came across a book which was a fiction book. It was a novel, and the cover attracted me. They had stripped the cover, but there was a blue binding on it. It was called The Bluest Eye. I had no idea who this writer would be, but the blue attracted me and I pulled it out. I opened it up and I still remember reading that first page which is going to see Dick and see Spot and I knew that this person was writing from the Midwest and this was someone — They were speaking directly to me. I stood there reading it. I turned to the next page and I saw Ohio, I was like, whoa, a quiet whoa, because I was in a library. I took it out and that was my first exposure to Toni Morrison who, of course, grew up in Lorain, Ohio which is about 30 miles away from me, but what was interesting, and I look back on that was that was that first page was just not race specific and it doesn't say, but I knew. I knew. I don't know why I knew.
BOND: I'm guessing you found something in Nikki Giovanni and even Alice Walker that was race specific as well as these others, but here you're finding something that's not, so that is like a light going on?
BOND: That you have to do this?
DOVE: There are many lights going on, yes. With Nikki Giovanni, I mean there was this young black poet who had such an exuberance of speech and the oral element of her work was energizing. American poetry had seen nothing quite like that before and at the end of "Nikki Roses," she says what people don't understand, it's that for all, and I'm paraphrasing terribly, we really were quite happy. The insistence that understand, don't make me into a victim. We really were quite happy. That spoke to me and then with Toni Morrison, there was a sense that here's another aspect of black experience. This is not the southern aspect. This is a differentiated, incredibly subtle way of looking at being black in America and how it works, how being invisible and no one says it overtly, but that subversive way in which you're made to feel less than the human race with capital "H" and capital "R." That's what Toni Morrison was doing with those first pages of Bluest Eye and on. It was something that I had lived and felt because although I've talked about getting along with like my classmates and we did, there were still moments. We always had to be on guard. Second grade, I remember one of my classmates who I thought was a good friend and we were going to walk home together, a white girl, and I was dawdling for some reason in the playground and she said, "hurry up, nigger," and I turned and looked and that moment —
BOND: You're talking about me?
DOVE: And then it was interesting, because then a shield went up. I didn't collapse. A shield went up and I remember thinking even then, what's that. How did that happen? I realized I'd been taught it somewhere along the way, just be ready. Okay, it happened, and that's what Toni Morrison was. . . It's there, but you just have to ferret it out.
BOND: Now, what parts of your education were instrumental in developing your leadership skills and don't say you're not a leader.
DOVE: [laughs] Elements of my education?
BOND: For example, were you president of the Girl Scouts?
DOVE: Hmmm — No, I was not president of the Girl Scouts.
BOND: You were shy.
DOVE: I was very shy.
DOVE: I was extremely shy, and I'm still shy, but you just have to suck it up and get over it. I was in Student Council in high school and this is very interesting. I hadn't really thought about it in terms of leadership before, but when I was in 7th grade, I and a group of my classmates were put into what was then an experimental idea of tracking and putting people into accelerated classes. As a result, I basically shared certain classes with the same group of students from 8th grade on and so we were pushed into AP English and History and math. What happened was that we did form a community and yet we also were often put into leadership roles, but I think that having that community was also very important.
DOVE: My father — I remember my father studying index cards at home and I asked my mother what he doing and she said, "well, he has to give a presentation and he's studying these cards," and he would study them for days, quietly, to himself and so even without thinking about it, I realized you have to prepare these things. My father is a very shy man. You'd never guess it, but I knew that he was shy and then I knew that he had to do this thing. He never complained. He just did it. And I should back up on this to say that at the time that my father was doing it and practicing these speeches, I was not aware of the fact that what he had to go through to become a chemist in the rubber industry. He was a chemist and he was the actually first black chemist in the rubber industry in Akron, Ohio and what had happened with him was that he wasn't hired because they didn't have — They weren't going to have a black chemist and in fact, what he did was he was an elevator operator at Goodyear for a while leading his classmates, the ones he had helped in organic chemistry up and down the floors in order to make ends meet, he was married, he had a child, and it wasn't until 1952, the year of my birth, that they finally hired him because of his old chemistry professor at the University of Akron who lobbied and said this is insane, you've got the best chemist among your group as an elevator operator, and they hired him. He never told us this until we were much older. I must've been about 18 going to college and I asked him "why? Why didn't you ever tell us?" He said, "I didn't want you to be bitter." He said, "there's no reason for you to have that burden until you're ready to take it," and as long as I could — It was interesting because at one time they were also counseling us to be prepared that you may run up against racism but he didn't give us the example which is an overwhelming thing and so that was another little lesson I learned. He said bitterness means that they've won, whoever is trying to make you that way, so that example.
DOVE: I am a reluctant leader. Okay. Fine. But I became the co-head majorette in high school.
BOND: I've seen you twirl.
DOVE: Yes, you've seen me twirl, but I became a majorette mainly because I had been teased so often as a kid for being smart. I was called brainiac and stuff like that. This is what you get used to. But I thought if I became a majorette, maybe I could become popular, too, so I learned how to twirl and went out for the squad and I was accepted into the squad. I and another black girl kind of integrated the squad. There'd been one other black majorette years before but that was that, so we were on the squad and then the next year I was voted to become co-head majorette. They couldn't make me head, so I was co-head, but that meant that I had to lead the troop, the squad every once in a while in football games which was a very interesting thing. And I played the cello and occasionally I would become first chair in cello and that's an interesting way of leading, too, because you lead by example. You don't lead by exhortation or word, but by the very posture, by the very way you move, you lead the entire section and that I think has helped in terms of when people say, oh, you're my role model and that kind of drives me nuts, but I also know that it's incredibly important to have role models. I know from my own life, so how to become that role model, how to lead by example. Other examples of leadership, in 19 — , and I'm so terrible with dates, so I'm going to think about this, 1985 I believe it was, I was elected to the board of the Associated Writing Program which is the leading organization for writers in academia and it was a learning experience. I went to my first board meeting and another board member took out a calculator to figure out the deficit and we're all poets. Calculators? Please. And his response, he was an editor of a magazine, was that you gotta balance the books. You can't go anywhere, even as a poet, so I learned to use a calculator that time. The next year we had terrible deficits due to improprieties, let's say, in the administrative staff because these poets did not know how to use calculators. That's why we had this problem and a long story short — the rest of the board — no one wanted to be president and so they tried to elect me because they figured, well, put it on the youngest member, and I remember thinking to myself. I said I can't be president. I don't know how to lead anybody and I said I have to call my husband, so I went into another room where the phone was. This room was in a hotel but this room was the room where the executive actually was supposed to be. There was a conference room and there was the executive room, a huge mahogany table and every emblem of leadership there and I had to sit behind this desk to call my husband to tell him the horrific news that I might become president of an organization that was about to go down the tubes financially and as I sat behind there and I called him and Fred said, "oh, my God," and then I stopped and I said, "I'm going to do this" because there are ways to do this. Someone has to do it and I'm going to do it and so I squared my shoulders and went back out, said, "I will be president," and did the necessary firing of the people who were skimming, and we pulled it back up. We pulled the whole organization out of the dumps, so that was — And I remember thinking of my father at that moment with his index cards and realizing I was 150% ready even though I was shy. You just do it.
BOND: A moment ago before this train of thought, you said you were a reluctant leader. Then you immediately went to two episodes in high school where you in effect volunteered for leadership and then you tell this other one when you're older, when you are reluctant once again, so what's the story here.
DOVE: Well, when I say reluctant, I mean that my natural inclination is to just sit in the background because I am shy, but I also had the examples of a father who was shy who just went ahead because he knew he was prepared to do this and he was ready to do it. He was the best person —
BOND: He didn't let his shyness hold him back.
DOVE: He didn't let his shyness hold him back. He just buckled down and did it, so for me, even though I didn't, you know, I didn't want to be out there in the limelight, at the same time, I knew I could do it. Also, music — I think that music has in a certain way taught me how to be a leader because the music itself carried me away and when I played the cello in the orchestra and I felt this sound all around me, it wasn't just me even if was leading my section. It was everyone in that room playing and being a majorette, it wasn't just me. It was a whole band behind, so I always felt that I was being buoyed on that and I was terrified every time.
BOND: But you did it.
DOVE: I did it.
BOND: When you look back over your life, did a point come when you said I am a leader and if so, what was that point?
DOVE: Hmmm — I don't know if there was a point where I said I am a leader.
BOND: Or people think of me as a leader?
DOVE: Well, yeah. When I got the Pulitzer which came for me completely out of the blue. I was, in fact, sweeping the floor at the moment when I heard about it, preparing for a surprise birthday party for my husband. It was his 40th birthday. When I got the call from my English department chair at Arizona State University, he said to me, "you got the Pulitzer," and I said, "no." He said, "yes." I said, "no." And then he said, "I'm going to arrange a press conference." I said, "I've never done a press conference. I don't know how to do a press conference." He said, "you'll learn." We hung up and in that moment I stood there [laughs] and I felt the world's lights come on and at that point, I think I did feel that I was becoming a leader of some sort.
BOND: That was kind of a stamp of yes, you are.
DOVE: Yes. And I said, okay, I'm going to learn. When I became Poet Laureate, it was reinforced because people would write in to me and say things like, "you are my role model," or I realized that the office itself of being Poet Laureate made me into the representative of poetry for the country and that was another one little step up on that leadership board. All right, somebody said, okay, whether you want it or not, you are representing poetry and how can you best do that.
BOND: Now having admitted that you are a leader, how does leadership as the poet, not the Poet Laureate, but the poet, the notable poet, different and I know it's different, from the leadership in a musical ensemble or even in the cheerleading squad or the majorettes.
DOVE: Majorettes and cheerleaders don't mix.
BOND: I know they don't mix.
DOVE: Don't mix them up. [laughs]
BOND: But does this differ? The other things seemed like a group effort; there're other people doing this, too, but being a poet is solitary.
DOVE: Yes, being a poet is solitary and even the act of reading poetry is a solitary thing. It's an intimate thing. The poet meets the reader on the page, and yet there's also a very public aspect of it when I go and give a reading or when I go and give an interview about poetry, so it's an interesting mix of the public and the private, but it is intensely individual. I stand up as the poet for whatever I'm going to say and I own it and I own up to myself. There's no group behind me. The person who reads it then if they accept that, then there's this communion going on between the two of us, so there's no hiding behind a group. Whenever I talk about poetry, whenever I read poetry in front of a group, I feel that I am opening myself to them and when I say myself, I don't mean just all of my tiny frustrations or anything like that. I mean a very complex mix of every interesting and complicated emotions that human beings have. I mean me as a black person, as a woman, as a human being, as an American. All of these things, but I'm saying here it is. Now, can you — Is this something that relates to something in you and that's intensely personal. That's stepping right out there on the 50-yard line all by yourself.
BOND: But you do it.
BOND: And do it well.
DOVE: Well, thank you. But I do it also because others have done it for me. Every time I read a poem, I feel that way, too, or read a wonderful novel. It's that the courage that the writer has had to explore the complicated and uncomfortable things in life, which are also part of being a human being. It's insistence on — And I also feel — I think that for me to have someone, a perfect stranger say, that they have felt the same way, too, and this perfect stranger may be a white man from rural Texas. That's an incredible victory for the human race and for civil rights and all of that to acknowledge, to realize that different skin colors, different classes, we're all human beings. This is where civil liberties and mutual respect begin.
BOND: What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? Can you describe the interaction of these three things — vision, philosophy and style?
DOVE: This is a fascinating question. I've been thinking about it. Philosophy of leadership, I assume, no? I can only operate out of a philosophy that I need to be centered in myself and accept who I am and like who I am and the way that I look at life before I can even ever presume to serve as anyone else's role model or to talk to people. It's the only way I can live my life. I have always felt that for me the secret of success has been to be happy in the way that I live my life in the quotidian, just every single moment. If I'm happy with what I'm doing and how I'm doing it, then that's successful. Forget prizes. Forget money. All that kind of stuff. That doesn't — That don't mean a thing, because if I cannot be centered, if I can't feel that I'm not content but at least at rest, let's say, with who am, then I can only project negativity and strangeness to others. That's the first thing. And it has been something that I've felt all my life. I think because I was shy I often I talked to myself a lot and even as a child, I just wanted to make sure that reader that was in there scrabbling around was the reader that I was and was happy with. I wasn't going to deny it, so that feels good. Style, though, is a very different thing because people do not want to see you shy and they do not want to see you or — No, they don't want to see that and the reason why I think is because we all yearn to get over those uncomfortable moments in ourselves. I'm going to tell you another anecdote but when I got the Pulitzer, my hometown, Akron, Ohio, decided to hold a Rita Dove Day. Now, to a shy person, that's a terrifying thought, but they did a wonderful job and they had all of these different things that I was supposed to, culminating in a reading at the theater, at the Performing Arts Center, for 3,000 people and the theater had orchestrated this reading so that I would walk out on a darkened stage and then a spotlight would come up and they show some artifact from my life. They kept referring to artifacts from my life. The baton was one of them, the majorette baton, and my parents were another artifact — poor things, and they are sitting in the wings before this event began and prior to this, I had read my poetry in front of people but poets don't get huge audiences. This was so different and I was very very frightened, but I looked in the wings and my parents were sitting in these chairs as if they were about to be electrocuted or something and I thought to myself, I said, "you owe to them not to look shy, not to bumble about," but you owe to them to get up there and do this with style. You owe it to everyone out there who wants you to celebrate with them. They don't want to see you fail, so stop thinking about how scared you are and go out there and realize that they're with you and at that moment, I got over a huge threshold of fear that I had been carrying with stage freight and I think about that often. I think about it every time when I go out that it is — You give them the best part of yourself. So, style is another thing. I also think that the difficulty as a writer is when you appear in front of people, is to get them back to that very intimate space so that everyone in the audience feels that they're talking alone with you and yet they're still — Just you, to recreate the experience of discovery, that intimate moment. And to do that, I think it's important not only to try to communicate with people directly, to really really connect with them, but not to show too much anxiety about it. They're going to have anxiety enough. Now, vision. Vision — Vision's a hard one, because there're two kinds of vision or maybe even more. In the act of writing, my only — I don't have a vision, I mean, in a sense of a goal, but I am open to vision. I hope it comes. I say it that way because to have a goal and I've often tried — I thought, oh, I'm writing about this, but to have that goal actually shuts me off from the unexpected, the thing that will come in and it really does happen at that moment of great revelation and often I think the subconscious is hiding and what writing and all the arts do I think is to connect us, reconnect us to our subconscious in a way the things that we try to squash so that if we can just get through life, to the every-day things of life so define that subconscious means to be open. That's one kind of way of courting vision, I guess, but there's other kinds of vision as well and being Poet Laureate I learned that there was a way of having a vision about poetry itself and bringing poetry to people. One of the revelations I had as a Poet Laureate was the fact that many people were absolutely frightened of poetry. They were afraid that they wouldn't understand it. Because of the way that I was raised with all those books that no one told me were hard, I didn't have that fear and I thought, you know, it's because I was around those books that I didn't have this fear. Many people never come in contact with poetry or a book until far too late, if at all, and so they're afraid, but everybody speaks and walks poetry every single day of their life. I can walk down a neighborhood and hear poetry just in a way someone is talking to their friends just sitting up there and yet we're afraid that we're going to get the wrong answer which to me told me that it was a sense of a vision that brings poetry in every aspect of life, write poetry about every aspect of life. Poetry is about life. It's not about books. And that means visit schools, go on "Sesame Street," write about math. That's a different kind of vision when it's oriented toward how to alleviate this fear that is keeping people from something that we all possess.
BOND: Some characterize the making of leaders in three ways: no. 1 — great people cause great events. No. 2 — movements make leaders, or 3 — the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time. How would you characterize your path to leadership? Which of those three or a combination of all three?
DOVE: I think it's a combination of those, because I think first of all, I was extremely lucky to have been born when I was, coming to age during the civil rights movement. I was 11; in fact, it was my 11th birthday when the March on Washington occurred, so I was cognizant of it. We went down to Washington. My father marched and I was cognizant of it.
BOND: Your father marched, but you didn't?
DOVE: No. He brought the whole family down to D.C. We stayed with some relatives. They were afraid for our safety.
BOND: Do you think he intended that from the beginning?
DOVE: Yes. He intended that from the beginning.
BOND: So, on the one hand, you had the experience but you didn't have the experience?
DOVE: Exactly. Yeah. I watched it on TV and I was in the same city. And I was looking for my father in the crowd.
BOND: You couldn't see him.
DOVE: I couldn't see him, but he was there. There was a connection, so since he was protecting us and at the same time, he says this is — "You are here." And which meant that I was aware of this. I knew that this movement was propelling me forward, right? I was not on the front lines and even in terms of literature, the black arts movement had to shout to be heard. Up to that point, if you were a black writer, you were relegated to only write about black things, whatever that is, you know. In other words, write about being a victim. The black arts movement began to shout and said we're through with this. That allowed me and the whole generation of writers that followed afterwards to begin to write about the whole aspect of being a human being and to insist that that was of a piece, that you could not separate all the time the aspects of being black or being a woman or being in a certain class from looking at a flower. That was incredibly important. It gave me a freedom to do that and I was very aware of that and grateful for that, so that's a confluence of movements that helped propel me forward, though I think there were certainly and hopefully talent that [laughs] that got me to certain points, but I also realize that there were probably many talented writers or people who did not get forward or who were not heard who would write about something that happened to a love poem and someone would say, well, that doesn't say anything about being black and they didn't get published, so I realize that's behind me, too, as well.
DOVE: And then there're things which one does. A recent thing — I was very aware of it when Penguin, the publisher had asked me to be the editor of their 20th century American poetry anthology. This was the first time to my knowledge that a person of color had been asked to be the sole editor of an anthology, literature anthology, that was to encompass the entire literature and not only a segment such as African American literature. When they asked me, I swallowed and I agreed to do it, knowing that I'd become a human dartboard for doing this. Anthologists are always reviled, but also but knowing how incredibly important it was to accept this, to say that an African American poet is certainly qualified to put together an anthology of American poetry. I'm part of America, too. And knowing that it was going to take a big chunk out of my own writing life to put together that anthology, so that was a decision that I went into gladly and deliberately, a project that I went into deliberately, and because of that, to be able to judge or to put together all of 20th century American poetry, it's a statement I realize that it's a statement as well. And predictably, I've had people attacking me for all sorts of things, but I've also had people who've come up and groups who've said thank you, thank you, thank you. I was fair. Some think not.
BOND: I saw your response to one of the attacks. Very well done.
DOVE: Well, thank you.
BOND: It was poetic.
DOVE: [laughs] Well, you know, what's interesting, because this was an attack which — First of all, bad reviews, we all get them. So that's not a problem. I have a tough skin in that regard. When I got this attack which was placed in a very prominent magazine by a very prominent critic who in fact had at one point championed my poetry, but it reviled the entire anthology was very very dubious things, things which were clearly racial and insinuations which were breathtaking in the way that they made these presumptions, statements like "most of these poems have limited vocabulary." Odd things like that, and I realized that I had to respond. The traditional thing to do was to just be above it all and I'm thinking, no, this is not about me, this is about whether I am allowed at the table [laughs], so to speak, and even with all of my credentials, I obviously was not allowed at her table, this critic's table, so I thought I had to respond and address exactly those issues, the points where her biases were showing, where they came through and talk about that and the response has been enormous and not just from African Americans or from other groups, but from many people who've said this needed to be said because actually the people that are in the anthology, some of whom she objected to, have been in other anthologies which were edited by white men and nobody said a mumbly word. So that was a case where I really — I realized that doing this anthology, it does help form the canon of literature. It says something about — I was aware of the other fact that I was breaking through a door.
BOND: And break through it, you did. Your response was well done, just very well done.
DOVE: Thank you.
BOND: Now, do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
DOVE: I don't think my leadership is about articulating the agenda of a movement, but I do think that it is — ohhh — what are the other two choices again?
BOND: Your ability to persuade people to follow your vision?
DOVE: Ohhh — I do think that when I appear to read poetry, to talk about it, that one of the things that works very well is my ability to connect with people and to convince them, to persuade them, that poetry in fact touches their lives and it is about their lives. I believe that firmly, but it's one thing to believe; it's another thing to be able to convince someone, and I just — I really love going into classrooms of students who are looking at me like this, like, oh, it's a poet, and talking to them and finding out what they're interested in and showing them and getting them to talk and then showing them — see how you use that word, why'd you use that word and not the other one, and seeing them light up. That's incredible, but I think that's part of it. I also think as a poet, the proof is on the page, too. It is there and it is firmly there and so I think that the example of what I do, my actual writing, is part of the leadership as well.
BOND: Do you have a general philosophy that guides you through life and if so, how has it sustained you through challenges or moments of alienation as we just finished talking about? How does this sustain you, your general philosophy?
DOVE: Well, as I mentioned before, I do feel like I must always keep that center and be aware who I am and ask myself — is this what you really can live with, is this what you really believe, and to do that, to find a way to do that at all times. That's part of my philosophy. Another part, though, comes from looking, realizing that I'm just like everyone else. We're all human beings with the same amount of fear, joy, yearning, and some of us realize our dreams, some of us don't, but the capacity for love, the capacity for hate, the capacity for all these emotions, is in each of us. I saw it through my life with my parents. I saw it through my life with just ordinary people doing their jobs and never getting recognized, but sometimes doing heroic things in terms of sacrifices that they make for their children or whatever, never complaining about it, this is what you do, this is what I grew up learning. That sustains me, even the moments of trial and tribulation. I will find myself saying to myself, so, that's okay. You're alive, you're healthy, you have your wits, you have friends who love you, and you believe in what you're doing. Let the rest fall the way it is. Also to realize that sometimes — Sometimes you have to forget about yourself in order to find yourself, you know, in order to be happy with yourself. When I became Poet Laureate, I had just come off of teaching a semester and I was ready to write and I desperately wanted to finish a book, so when I was called and asked if I'd be Poet Laureate and this was the truth, I thought to myself, there goes the book. [laughs] I was happy but still, you know, but I also thought to myself you love poetry, you believe in it as something that is energizing and is joyous and there're so many people who are afraid of it. It's time to pay your dues.
BOND: And that overweighed the book?
DOVE: It overweighed the book at that time.
BOND: Did you come back to the book?
DOVE: I did. It was a different book by that time, but I did come back to it, but it overweighed it because I remembered what moved me. I wanted other people to feel that and I found myself interestingly enough through giving up part of that book, I found myself through actually people who would write it and say I don't know much about poetry, but — And then they wrote eloquent letters about their first book of poems and stuff. I remember this man, this elderly gentleman from Kansas, that white gentleman, who said that he got his first library card and there was a mobile library that came through his little rural town and by the time he finished signing up for it, he only had time to grab a book and he grabbed this book and it turned out to be a book of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and he said, "here I am totally disappointed, a little white boy in Kansas, but it's the only book I had so I read it, and I loved it. It changed my life." He said, "I would've never picked up a book of poems."
BOND: Did he write "When Malindy Sings?"
DOVE: Yes. And that changed me. I said, ohh —
BOND: This was for everyone.
DOVE: This is for everyone. Exactly. And those are the things that sustain me, too. This is for everyone.
BOND: This may lead us into the next question. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there a distinction and is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
DOVE: Hmmm — Those are lots of questions.
BOND: Many questions.
DOVE: So, being conscious of race is a natural part of my DNA and I have looked at society as an African American woman, an African American poet, and seen how race gets sidelined and my race gets sidelined, and so naturally I've taken an interest in that kind of rub against, let's say, history with a capital "H," history with a small "h," which formed the basis for Thomas and Beulah, for the story about an African American couple as their interior lives as it's reflected against the larger backdrop of American history in the 20th century. It also meant that when I was working on my next, one of my books, Sonata Mulattica, my last book. When I saw a movie about Beethoven and saw a black violinist in this movie, I'm like who is this man, because he spoke to me there. He was in classical music, something that I love but he's also black -- at times Beethoven -- so that formed the basis for looking for his story. George Bridgetower who in fact Beethoven had composed a sonata for and the fact that his story got lost spoke to me as a musician but also as a black person, so race consciousness forms a part absolutely of my work. I would hope that as people read the work that they would also, it would open some eyes to what happens racially in this country in terms of people's perceptions and also open their eyes to how we're all connected rather than being separate. If, however, you would ask me or insist that there were a leader that transcended race at this time, I would say that it's something I always hope and I'm proven wrong and that I think Obama was elected in an incredible wave of race transcendency, let's say, and he in fact conducts the Office of the Presidency that way. I think it's exceedingly important but the actions of Congress and the Tea Party and these groups show that we have not transcended race, that there are forces which are just as virulent. I think that personally as a poet I at times think that my work and my example has transcended race and then I'm brought up short and reminded to some of the cockeyed reactions to this anthology that, no, we haven't transcended race, not yet.
BOND: Tell me about the poem you wrote about the imaginary debate with Don Lee, leader of the Black Arts Movement, Haki Madhubuti.
BOND: What was that about?
DOVE: This is a very early poem. It was in my first book and it was called "Upon Meeting Don L. Lee in a Dream," and he was still Don L. Lee at that time and it's a surrealistic kind of poem, but it takes place obviously in a dream in which I confront him and say — It's really a poem of generations and saying you did it this way, those years are yours, and now I'm going to do it my way, and so it's almost Oedipal in that sense and I admired Don L. Lee's work and I read it and it really helped me, but I also was not that kind of person. I was not a person who could write those kind of poems. I came from different era and so that's what that poem was about and people have said to me, "Oh, man, why'd you have to dis Don, Haki?" I'm like, "I didn't dis him." This was just saying it's like a daughter to her father saying I'm going my way, you go your way, and the fact I have talked with Haki since then. We've met and the first time we met and there were a lot of people standing on the sidelines waiting for us to meet and we walked up to each other and he said, "I read the poem, it's fine with me. I know what you — " I said, "yeah." We just kind of said okay, that's not what it's about and we agreed and so we're friends.
BOND: But isn't it possible there's a Rita Dove way and a Don Lee way?
DOVE: Absolutely. Absolutely. The poem was more personal, sort of like this is your way, this is my way and now we're going to go and also insisting that there can be those two ways or three thousand ways to talk about what it is like to grow up black in America. There need to be all those different ways.
BOND: How is an artist a leader?
DOVE: An artist touches and articulates the depths of our emotions. It's all the stuff that we don't talk about and that we only admit to our — Sometimes we don't even admit it to ourselves. We don't even realize it, so the artist is really responsible for articulating the spirit of the tribe, if we want to go back to that point. In that sense, you could almost say that the artist is one of the leaders of our spiritual lives, emotional lives, not in the sense of prescribing where you should go, but in the sense of reminding you who you are in all of your complex glory as a human being, so an artist is really truly a leader.
BOND: Do you think about your responsibility as a leader?
DOVE: When I write, I don't think about it at all. When I put down my pen, I think about it. There are poems which I've written which I will show no one because they might hurt someone or because I think that I'm not even ready to ferret out all of the misunderstandings that might arise because of it, but mostly it's because of personal — I'm not going to drag someone else into the limelight. I think an artist is responsible to their art to do it as well as possible and to be as honest as possible. That can lead to uncomfortable and even conflicting emotions. I think an artist is not supposed to only glorify. That's not real. Also, art to protest all the time, that's not real, but to [laughs] tell it like it is in all of that, all of its ways, so when I write, I'm not thinking of an audience. I'm not thinking of reception because that can scare away things. That can scare away the revelations that might be hard to present.
BOND: It seems to me there are two things in what you do: there's you who do it and the audience, the reader, or the listener, in some cases. I think I read something about Elizabeth Bishop and some poems that she had written that were published after she died that she clearly did not want to have published. Is there a Rita Dove archive somewhere that a hundred years hence will be published and you'll be shouting down from poetry heaven — don't do those? Is that going to happen to you?
DOVE: It's not going to happen to me because I think that I have made this pact I guess with myself that even if the things that I haven't published I want people to see eventually when I'm dead. I might put like time limits on things to make sure that it doesn't hurt anyone else, but to see the entire artist, all of the conflicting things and the things that I will say and argue with myself and the fury of unformed or unfinished poems. I want them to see the entire artist. So often, people will come up and imagine that I have it all under control, that I can think of the right word at the drop of a hat and it's not that. It's messy and frustrating and they need to see the whole artist but not yet. I'll let them deal with the messiness.
BOND: But, see, however messy it is, you get it done.
DOVE: Well, yeah. But that's what — Yeah, I guess that's what someone — I was going to say, that's what people are supposed to do. I mean, yeah, I get it done.
BOND: Do you think you have an obligation to connect with black readers particularly, or black people generally, or not?
DOVE: I don't think I have an obligation to connect with them, but I hope that they connect. I have an obligation to tell the whole story. If something intrigues me, attracts me, if I think it's important, I have the obligation to use my gifts to tell that story as vibrantly and exactly as possible to draw others in and then I hope fervently that black audiences will also connect with that, but I don't feel that I have an obligation to court them. I will court them the same as I court everybody else.
BOND: As a society, how can we be sure we have the most effective leaders in the future?
DOVE: One of the things that's changed radically in my lifetime is media and how invasive media has become and absolutely ubiquitous in our lives, so that now every school child can kind of Twitter to somebody else — this is what I'm doing now, so that means a leader now regardless of how intelligent they are, how strategically savvy they are, also has to be able to present well in the media. It used to be that you could do a speech or two, but you did not have to project warmth through the television screen or online and now a leader has to do that in order to place and that's a radically different thing. That's not the most important thing obviously for any aspect of leadership and yet it has become something that has to be factored in. And also a leader must know, must have a sense of the global breadth of all of our lives. We have become an exceedingly global society and to know that if you touch a string there, it might reverberate way over there and if you make a decision about, let's say, forestation or something in Mexico, it'll affect the monarch butterfly's breeding habits, so everything connects and I think and I hope that leaders will realize that you cannot just be a specialist in one narrow area, that you must learn something about aspects widely different from yourself because it will be affected.
BOND: Rita Dove, thank you for connecting with us.
DOVE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
BOND: My pleasure.