Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Breaking Barriers

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.