New ‘Inside UVA’ Episode Features Lauded Poet Rita Dove
Audio: ‘Inside UVA’ With Rita Dove(26:26)
Rita Dove 0:00
No story that's inside of you, no emotion that's inside of you is too weird or strange. If you feel it, it is human. Therefore, you know, you are doing someone a service to try to describe it.
President Jim Ryan 0:19
Hi, everyone, I'm Jim Ryan, President of the University of Virginia and I'd like to welcome all of you to the 10th episode of Inside UVA. This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the university and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is. Today I am thrilled to welcome Rita Dove, the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, to today's episode of Inside UVA. Professor Dove, thank you very much for joining me.
Rita Dove 1:00
It's my delight.
President Jim Ryan 1:02
Is it okay if we call each other by our first names? Absolutely. Okay. So, Rita, you are easily one of the most celebrated, respected and admired poets in the country, if not the world. Among your long list of accomplishments are serving as Poet Laureate of the United States and poet laureate of the Commonwealth, you have received 28 honorary doctorate degrees from places like Yale, Harvard and Spelman, you have won the National Humanities Medal, and the National Medal for the arts. And you are not slowing down even a little bit. Your latest book of poetry Playlist for the Apocalypse, which we'll come back to, and was recently named by New York Times critics as one of the top books of 2021. And I believe the only collection of poetry on that list. So let me just say it is a real honor to be speaking with you, and I'm a little nervous right now.
Rita Dove 2:03
You shouldn't be! You can't be, you're the president of my university!
President Jim Ryan 2:10
But you're Rita Dove. So let's start at the beginning. I'm curious what got you into poetry and creative writing. And at what point in your life did you know this is going to be my life's work?
Rita Dove 2:28
I think my love of poetry began even before I learned to read, because I loved books, and I loved picture books. And I loved the stories that they told without using words. So I love those images that they were creating. But then I started to read and that was the beginning of everything, because I devoured books. I read anything I could get my hands on, cereal boxes, you know, I would be reading at the breakfast table. But then I also went to the bookshelf, which thank God we had in our house. My father was a chemist, my mother loved literature. So we had this eclectic group of books from analytical organic chemistry textbooks to Shakespeare. That was the biggest book. So that's the book I took down, Shakespeare. And so at 10, I was trying to read Shakespeare.
President Jim Ryan 3:24
Rita Dove 3:24
Yeah. And I, of course, I didn't understand half of what I was reading. But the half I did understand was so beautiful, was so lyrical. And I read the plays, mostly, because they had a narrative and so I could follow them. And it was amazing what language could do. That was the beginning.
President Jim Ryan 3:44
Right. And when did you start writing yourself?
Rita Dove 3:49
Probably about the same time. Though, I did start with writing science fiction stories, because my brother loves science fiction. I read all of his books. But I also read Mad Magazine.
President Jim Ryan 4:00
So did I!
Rita Dove 4:01
Oh the Mad Magazine was the best because they, they really they did these little plays, they did these satirical things. And so I began to try to write poetry. And I still remember the first time I wrote a poem that I was so proud of, because I didn't know the end until I had written myself through the form. And it was about a rabbit. And the rabbit had a droopy ear. And that was, that was his problemm that he had one ear that hung down. And so I wrote this poem, and I didn't know how it was going to end. How is he going to solve this ear problem? And it was the rhyme that helped me solve his ear problem. So, yeah.
President Jim Ryan 4:39
No kidding. Okay, so fast forward, you're in college. Are you thinking at that point that you are going to make a go at at being a poet and a creative writer? I mean, it's it's not an easy path to pursue and you have to be courageous, I think, to say this is what I want to do.
Rita Dove 5:01
Well, you know, even though I loved poetry and wrote it all the time, I went into college thinking I was going to be a lawyer, or maybe a psychoanalyst, I changed my major about three or four times in my first semester. And it wasn't until I got into a creative writing class. And I stumbled into it, too. One of the required courses at my university, Miami University of Ohio, was composition. And the professor came in saying, we're going to write stories. And you will learn about composition through stories. And I thought, "there's a course in writing? I can get credit for the thing I love?" So I started that course. And I went next semester, immediately over to poetry. That was it. I mean, I loved it. And at that point, I think I was hovering between becoming a musician because I was playing the cello in the orchestra. And I really loved music as well. But I was so shy, I thought, I can never be a performer. And with poetry, which I loved too, I could take it everywhere. I didn't have to step in front of audiences. I mean, if I knew what I knew now... And I decided to try it, until I, you know, had nothing to eat, and then I would, you know, do something else. And luckily, I never ran out of something to eat.
President Jim Ryan 6:35
And here you are today. Was there a big break moment for you, when you were a young poet? Or was it more gradual that your work received some critical acclaim and then more notice, and then more critical acclaim?
Rita Dove 6:53
It, you know, goes in bits and spurts. I have some, a couple of really lucky breaks, I think early on. And some of them happened at university when I was an undergraduate. They invited writers to come in and one of the poet's said, you know, I really like these poems, can I publish them in my magazine? I had no idea what his magazine was. So I went and asked my professors, and they said, "Are you out of your mind? Right now give him those poems!"
President Jim Ryan 7:25
So it was it was not MAD magazine
Rita Dove 7:30
That I knew would have known! I would have known! No, it was Antaeus, which was fantastic magazine. And then the editor, Dan Halpern who published me in an anthology he was putting together of new young writers. All of which is to say I maybe had written 10 poems I liked at that point. And so I, that was a little early flip, but then of course, immediately went down into nothingness for a while. But what I learned from that early recognition, I think, is that that's not what you're writing for. That's not what I was writing for, I was writing to get across to other strangers, some deep and private emotions and thoughts so that I could feel that we're not alone on the planet. And it all sounds corny, but that's basically what I think every artist is doing in their own particular medium. My medium was words, my medium was a language. And when I was entangled in the language is when I was happiest.
President Jim Ryan 8:38
So can we talk about that a little bit, the process that you go through in writing a poem? What's it like? Do you start with an idea, a phrase, a story you want to tell? How does it work? Or maybe it's different for for each poem, or for at least some poems as compared to others?
Rita Dove 9:00
Well, you hit the nail right on the head with the last thing, it is different for every poem, I never really can predict, or even direct the composition of a poem. Most of the time, my poems will start with either an image or phrase, when I say an image, something, it can be something that I've just observed. Someone walking down the street who stops to pick something up, and then I wonder what that is. Now, someone else could have said, well, that could be the beginning of a short story. Right? Before for me, I'll start to think about an image, a word describe the way that they bent down. Very often it will start with me, with a phrase with words. And the idea is there, I mean, it's behind the words, but it's not the primary thing directing the poem because for me, I find if its the idea that's in front, then it becomes a speech. You know, it's the way in which truth or realization emerges kind of bubbles up. So my process is wacko. And I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, unless that's the way they roll. Because for a long time, I would try to write from beginning to end. I'd start the poem, and I would try to finish one poem before I went to another, and I was moving very slowly. And I had one professor, tell me, "look at what you do in everyday life, look how you conduct your life, and that's how you should write your poems." It seems obvious now, you know, you connect it to the way your rhythms are. And I thought, okay, first of all, I'm a night person, I like to stay up at night. So that's what I should be writing my poems, because that was when I had the most energy. But also, I do many different things at one time. So I said, Why am I trying to finish one poem? Why not write multiple poems. Which means that I have folders with scraps of poems, a line here, a stanza there, and I will sometimes work on several at once. I'll work on one until I hit a wall. How do I keep them apart?
President Jim Ryan 11:21
Yeah, I was gonna ask you.
Rita Dove 11:23
Yeah, it's a mess. I color code them. I'll put them in different colored folders, the red folder, the green folder, the yellow folder, the salmon colored folder. And so if I go into my study to write, or I'm stuck and I want to turn to another point, I will say, "Okay, what color do you feel?" I'll just look at the little rainbow array and I say "it's blue today." That's a way of sneaking in underneath the subconscious and saying, that's how I feel.
President Jim Ryan 11:56
That's remarkable. And so how do you know when a poem is done?
Rita Dove 12:03
Yeah, how do you know? There are several ways, and none of them are 100%. You know, obviously, one of them, I think is, is simply time. And I'm talking years, I'm talking about that a poem that I wrote at age 27. I'm not going to touch again. This is what a 27-year-old, how a 27-year-old grasped reality. So if I feel the need to rewrite, then I'm going to write another poem. But obviously, that is not a good solution for creative writing students who have semesters they have to get poems in. And I think that for me, a poem is finished, when you feel like something has opened up in the poem. Something has opened up and you go, "Whoa, I didn't even know that was gonna happen." But it but it was there all along. And that means you're on the road to finishing it. The tweaking this line is a little long, or it kind of stumbles and you don't want it to stumble, you want to lope, let's say, you wanted to prance or whatever, then those things you can keep working on. But the poem may be essentially almost finished. For students, I often will say, you know, just get used to the fact that the poem is still in process. And that's not a bad thing. You shouldn't try to shut it down too early. Just let it keep going.
President Jim Ryan 13:33
So you mentioned teaching, how do you teach poetry? Can it be taught?
Rita Dove 13:40
You know, I wonder, in the end, if anything can be taught? If we think of it in that sense, yes, you can teach poetry. What you can do, what I can do, what a professor can do, is to teach how... First of all the techniques, you know, stress and syllables, and iambic pentameter and forms. That's the easy part. But I think most of us are so used to language or talking that we think of it, not as something that is malleable. And that is that's the hard part. That's the almost unteachable part. I do do things like show students that you can take a word that, that its denotative meaning is not what you're looking for. But when combined with another word, it makes a new sense of something. For instance, I remember looking very long for an adjective in a poem of mine called Bellringer, which is about Henry Martin, the bellringer at the University of Virginia, and I had the one word "republic," I wanted to talk about the "republic for which it stands," you know. But I couldn't find the other word and so I was going through all these other words, broken, history, and finally, the word that I found, I don't know how I found it. I was looking, probably I was burning my hand when I was cooking or something, but it was...
President Jim Ryan 15:10
Reading a cereal box again!
Rita Dove 15:13
It was "in this blistered, in this blistered republic" and I would not have, like immediately come upon that word. You don't think of it in terms of a republic. But a lot of the things behind it, the sound of it. That short, that gives you that feeling that something is crackling under the surface. And so I try to show them how that works.
President Jim Ryan 15:42
And what's your favorite part about teaching? Do you have a favorite part?
Rita Dove 15:45
Favorite part? You know, one of the most wonderful things about teaching is watching a student get so carried away with whatever poem they're working on, that they ask if they can bring in all the drafts. And then to ask the rest of the class, are you up for having maybe an extra class? And they say, sure. And that that's exciting. Now that's exciting. Yeah.
President Jim Ryan 16:15
To see the passion?
Rita Dove 16:17
Mmhm, to see the passion, right. The passion and the rigor, and that the rigor is part of the passion. Yeah.
President Jim Ryan 16:23
Right. And do you think being a teacher of poetry has made you a better poet?
Rita Dove 16:31
Yes, it has. First of all, it keeps me honest. Nothing like a young person to keep you honest. I've had students challenge me, one of the things I do is give them individualized writing assignment. Sometime during the semester, someone might get it in April, someone else might get it in January. But it's an individualized crazy, crazy writing assignment geared toward their personalities and their likes and dislikes, to knock them off their seat a little bit. They're called wildcards. They live in terror of the wildcards. But also, they also are very jealous if someone else gets theirs before they get theirs. And so I've had students say to me, "Well, you gave us a wildcard, you know, why don't we give you one?" And I said, "fair, fair enough." And some of those wildcards, or those challenges by students have resulted in some wonderful poems for me.
President Jim Ryan 17:32
No kidding, huh?
Rita Dove 17:35
Well, they observe me, they see who I am to a little bit. And so they want to say, you know, this, this will knock you off your rocker. And most of the time, they're right.
President Jim Ryan 17:48
So can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be the Poet Laureate of the United States? Did you enjoy the experience? What did it mean, at the time?
Rita Dove 17:59
It was such a surprise, because I just finished the semester, had just finished my grading, and was thinking, "oh, I have a summer of, you know, I can write!" when the call came from Washington. And it was amazing. But at the same time, I thought, oh, there goes my summer. It was however, an amazing experience. At the time poetry was not really something that was part of the national consciousness. It was existing basically, in the universities. And up to that time, the poet laureates had been considerably older than I was then. And they really just kind of sat in the office and, you know, were Poet Laureate. And I thought, well, you know, they're asking me to do this. And, you know, I'm fairly young. So I decided that I would be an active Poet Laureate. So that's what I did. I went a lot of places, I went to grade schools, I went to the Naval Academy, I went places where no one had ever seen a poet before. And no question was too, "stupid" or anything like that. I invited questions. It was it was hard to do, because I was shy, but the joy in young people made up for that. It was so amazing.
President Jim Ryan 19:25
That must have been exciting.
Rita Dove 19:27
It was totally crazy. It was totally crazy. Exciting. Yeah.
President Jim Ryan 19:32
What would you say to someone... and I'm sure you encountered this while you were poet laureate. What do you tell someone who is intimidated by poetry? How do you encourage people to read poetry?
Rita Dove 19:47
Well, the first thing I try to tell them to do is that, first of all, to say that you don't have to like every poet or every poem. No matter what the "critics" say, you do not have to like them. I have poets and I will not name them here, but, you know, who are considered classics and revered, that I really don't like their work. I'll read it over and over again and I try, but I don't. Okay, that's fine. That's fair enough. There's enough out there. That's the one thing and the other thing, I also try to tell them is to read it aloud and read a poem, as if you were talking to somebody else. Don't try elevate like, just read it and then try to imagine what that person... or have someone else read it to you. And try and imagine if you were just sitting there someone said that what would you think what would you take away from it? Because one of the most illuminating things that happened to me when I was in ninth grade, was that I was terrified, and everybody in our class was terrified, that we didn't understand poetry. And so this teacher put us in groups gave us a snippet of poetry didn't tell us who it was from. And said in a week, come back and tell us what you got from it. And the piece that he gave our group was from Ezra Pound, "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." It had Greek in it with Greek lettering. We're looking at this "God, Oh, come on, man. This is like out of..." So we just began to toss around ideas and said, Well, this is this, and this is that we asked our parents. We made up stuff. I mean, we thought we were making up stuff. And we came back with this, every group felt like this, we felt like we had failed utterly. And then after that, he read to us some critiques, or some interpretations, of that piece, which were not far off from ours. Now, he took a great risk. But what he did show us was that if you open yourself up enough, you will get something from it. You don't have to get everything, but you get something. And that's enough. And if you like it, if something haunts you, it's not about understanding it, it's about whether it enters you in some place that makes you feel something. That's what you go on. In terms of understanding.
President Jim Ryan 22:25
That's really good advice. I have a ritual with my daughter, where I read her a poem, most nights before we both go to bed, and I am going to repeat exactly what you said. Find something.
Rita Dove 22:38
Yes. So great. I'm so glad you're doing that. So wonderful.
President Jim Ryan 22:43
We're coming on the close of our time, but I'd like you to talk a little bit about your latest collection. First of all the title?
Rita Dove 22:51
Playlist for the Apocalypse. Partly that title came from the fact that that I was putting together this volume and it had been a long time coming. But the more recent poems, were dealing with a lot of very private things, illness and other kinds of struggles, loss of family members. But as the pandemic hit us, I was constantly being asked, could I read an uplifting poem? And my hackles would rise, I would say, what is uplift, you know? Well, first of all, because, as we all know, words of that are meant to be uplifting, uplift really only for a second, what truly uplifts us, it's the actions of others, and also to become fully engaged in something that reminds us that we are larger than what we think we are inside. So I thought, what is uplifting to me, is to write the best poem that I can. That's part of my reaction to that. But also, the fact that the word apocalypse doesn't necessarily mean a dystopian universe, it doesn't. It also means something is revealed to you. That changes the way in which you look at the world. That is what has happened to us. And so that's how the title kind of came about. Playlist? Hey, we put together playlists. I remember my daughter first putting together a playlist for me. I'm like "playlists? What's a playlist?" But the whole notion that you would curate a group of experiences, let's say, in music, or in you know, in this case in poems is what put together that title.
President Jim Ryan 24:43
So Rita, I have a million more questions I would love to ask you, but I don't want to test your patience. So let me just ask you one last one, which is, what advice would you have? If you could offer one piece of advice to burgeoning writers? What would it be?
Rita Dove 25:02
This sounds kind of old fashioned, but it's true. Never lose your love of reading. You need to... if you can fall into a book, if you can be consumed by that reading. It will always help your writing. So that's advice I'd give.
President Jim Ryan 25:27
Well, thank you. Well, Professor Rita Dove. It has been a total pleasure and an honor to spend this time with you. Thank you so much.
Rita Dove 25:34
Thank you. I've really really enjoyed it.
Mary Garner McGehee 25:41
Inside UVA is a production of WTJU 91.1. FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. Inside UVA is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Rita Dove, Stephanie Gunst, Monica Shack and McGregor McCance. Our music is "Turning to You" from Blue Dot Sessions. Listen and subscribe to Inside UVA on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We'll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the university.
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan welcomes world-famous poet Rita Dove this week as the 10th guest on his “Inside UVA” podcast.
Dove, the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at UVA, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987 and served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. She holds 28 honorary doctorates from institutions including Harvard University, the Pratt Institute and Spelman College.
In their interview, Ryan asks Dove what got her into poetry. “I think my love of poetry began even before I learned to read, because I loved books and I loved picture books and I loved the stories that they told without using words,” she says.
The president also asks Dove if she thought being a teacher of poetry has made her a better poet. She answers without hesitation, “Yes, it has. It keeps me honest. [There is] nothing like a young person to keep you honest.”
During the course of a semester, Dove will give students an individualized writing assignment she calls a “wild card.” Some of her students have turned the tables on her and given her a “wild card” assignment. “Some of those wild cards, or those challenges by students, have resulted in some wonderful poems for me,” she said.
Ryan launched “Inside UVA” last semester to highlight the inner workings of running a large, public university. Previous guests have included former football head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Provost Liz Magill and beloved economics professor Ken Elzinga.