Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Vision, Philosophy, Style of a Poet

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.