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If you like Rita Dove's story, you might also like:
Maya Angelou,
Ben Carson,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Coretta Scott King,
Audra McDonald,
W.S. Merwin,
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Rita Dove's recommended reading: Arabian Nights

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

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

Related Links:
Norton Poets

African American Literature

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Rita Dove
Rita Dove
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Rita Dove Interview (page: 2 / 3)

Former Poet Laureate of the United States

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  Rita Dove

Was there a teacher who particularly inspired you?

Rita Dove: Well I had a couple.

I had a couple teachers who did inspire me. One was this eleventh grade English teacher -- eleventh and twelfth grade. She and I, we still have tea together sometimes today. I was frightened before I went into her class. I heard she was a battle axe. I heard that she would flunk you if you split an infinitive. And it's true. She would, but she also would tell you what a split infinitive was, and then once you knew, you never did it again. She just opened up to me, how language -- how the written word -- can also sing. And she spent, I remember once, 45 minutes on one page: the first page of a novel. By the end of the class, no one had taken down a single note, because we were absolutely enthralled. It was incredible.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What was the name of this teacher?

Rita Dove: Her name was Miss Oechsner. Margaret Oechsner. And, as I said, every time I go back home to Akron, Ohio, we get together and have lunch or tea or something like that. And there were others.

I had a ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Hicks, who put us in groups and gave us impossible poems to interpret. When I say "impossible," I mean poems which had Greek in them -- a little bit of Greek and -- languages we couldn't even -- we couldn't even read the alphabet. "Just tell me what it means. Tell me what you think it means." And after a couple of class periods when we decided this is so impossible we might as well just make a wild guess, it turned out our guesses weren't so wild after all. So he taught us to trust what your gut reaction was to something. Even if you didn't understand every word, to work out the context.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Rita Dove Interview Photo
And in college, I had a couple of fantastic teachers. I had a teacher who taught fiction, who strolled into class the first day and said, "We're going to tell stories. Who's gonna start?" And we're all gasping. We thought we were going to have a chance to write it down on paper. No, he made us talk. He made us begin a story. We didn't have to end it, but just how are you going to catch someone's attention? What are you going to say right away? It was a phenomenal lesson.

But I think the most important influences were really my parents. My father is a chemist, my mother was a homemaker. The one thing that was important was the fact that you never said, "I don't get it, I'm going to give up." You start small and you work at it a little bit at a time. My parents instilled in us the feeling that learning was the most exciting thing that could happen to you, and it never ends, and isn't that great.

Were there many kids in the family?

Rita Dove: I have two younger sisters and an older brother. They're all chemists or mathematicians. All of us love to read. The whole family is full of scientists.

You've had some great excitement in recent years in your career. What are some of the moments that really stand out for you?

Rita Dove: The first moment that really stood out in terms of public excitement and recognition was when I got the Pulitzer. I was 34, I had no idea I was being considered. It was really a moment of moving from a very private sense of life to a public sense, and I didn't even know the book was being considered. I was very pleased that the book that, in fact, got the Pulitzer -- Thomas and Beulah -- was a book about my grandparents; a collection of poems that dealt with their lives: first his side and then her side of the story. And it wasn't a spectacular book. They didn't endure a train wreck or anything like that. They were living their lives in this quietly heroic way like many people in this country. And that that book was chosen for the Pulitzer, was wonderful for me, I think, personally. Also for my parents it was wonderful.

I remember that feeling.

I got the Pulitzer on my husband's 40th birthday and I was planning a surprise party, and I didn't have classes that day. I told everyone at the university "Don't call me, I'm going to surprise him." And when the phone rang and it was the chair of my department saying, "I know you're there," I was, "Shhhh!" Thinking: "He's not supposed to disturb me! This is my day!" . So when he said, "Rita, this is really important," and I realized his voice was several octaves higher than usual, that was the moment when I really felt like, sort of like the camera lights came on into my life. It was quite distinct.

The second big surprise was when I was appointed Poet Laureate. Again, it came totally out of the blue because most Poet Laureates had been considerably older than I. It was not something that I even had begun to dream about! I thought, after the Pulitzer, at least nothing will surprise me quite that much in my life. And another one happened. It was quite amazing.

What does it mean to be Poet Laureate?

Rita Dove Interview Photo
Rita Dove: It offers someone as a spokesperson for literature and poetry in this country. It means that one becomes an automatic role model. It means that people write me from all over the country, asking me, and sometimes even telling me, what they think a poet laureate should do. I found that immensely valuable. Instead of trying to come up and pontificate on what literature is, to have people come to me and say, "We have to save the children first. You need to talk with children. You need to talk to teachers and make sure they get poetry in the curriculum early." And I say, "Yes. As a spokesperson for poetry and literature, this is something that I can do. It means having a platform from which to talk about something that's very near to me, about a very intimate art. It's the combination of the intimate and the public that I find so exciting about being poet laureate.

I imagine that holds quite a bit of responsibility also.

Rita Dove: Yes, it does hold that responsibility, and sometimes the shoulders begin to droop a bit. But...

Every time I receive a letter from someone who simply wants to write, not because they want something, because they simply want to say, "I just want to tell you what poetry means to me," I realize what hunger out there there is for people to be able to read and to write poetry -- to feel a connection with other people on a very intimate, interior level. That buoys me up some.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

There are obligations, too. Distinct duties of a poet laureate. I plan a reading series at the Library of Congress, and advise the librarian on literary matters. The rest is pretty much left up to me: how I want to promote poetry, how I want to bring it into the household.

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