"The glow in their faces. The cameras, the smiles, the applause – all for the arts and humanities!"
That's one of the thoughts University of Virginia English professor and poet Rita Dove said ran through her mind as she sat in the White House East Room on Monday, waiting to receive the 2011 National Medal of Arts.
President Obama awarded the medal to Dove and seven other artists at a Feb. 13 ceremony. He offered a handshake or kiss on the cheek to each recipient, and he jokingly teased Dove about needing another award, she said.
She told herself she'd commit every moment to memory, but she hasn't processed it fully, she said. "It's all a dazzle in my brain."
The other arts awardees included actor Al Pacino, philanthropist Emily Rauh Pulitzer and country musician Mel Tillis. At the same ceremony, the National Humanities Medal also was awarded to nine individuals and organizations, including poet John Ashbery, scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah and the National History Day program.
"Getting the award was the best kind of validation, since I wasn't even aware that I had been nominated," Dove said Tuesday. "I was notified a few weeks beforehand, but was sworn to secrecy until the White House released the news to the press.
"I didn't even know who the other recipients were. What company! To say I was thrilled is an understatement."
Obama told those assembled Monday that he and the first lady Michelle Obama love attending the arts and humanities event. "It's a moment when America has a chance to pay tribute to extraordinary men and women who have excelled in the arts and the humanities and who, along the way, have left an indelible mark on American culture," he said.
"Emily Dickinson wrote 'I dwell in possibility' and so does the American spirit. What connects all of you is that you dwell in possibilities. You create new possibilities for all of us."
A military aide read the award citations, including that for Dove, who was recognized for her contributions as an American poet and author. "Ms. Dove creates works that are equal parts beauty, lyricism, critique and politics. Ms. Dove has worked to create popular interest in the literary arts, serving as the United States' youngest Poet Laureate and advocating on behalf of the diversity and vitality of American poetry and literature," the citation reads.
Dove recently published "The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry,"a project on which she served as sole editor. Among her nine poetry collections are "Sonata Mulattica," "American Smooth," and "On the Bus with Rosa Parks." She won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for "Thomas and Beulah" in 1987.
The National Medal of Arts is the highest award the U.S. government gives to artists and arts patrons who "are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States."
Dove said she will long remember the ceremony.
"I can't describe the elation, the tingle of euphoria that permeated the East Room and that, by all accounts, I shared with the other recipients and the audience," Dove said.
— By Anne Bromley