In 1993, Rita Dove marked a generational shift in American poetry when she became the youngest U.S. poet laureate, and the only African-American to date. On Jan. 15, Dove will deliver the keynote address at Georgia Perimeter College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. This summer, Essential Theatre will produce her play Darker Face of the Earth. Though primarily a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Dove has published short stories, essays and a novel, describing her craft as a matter of putting “the best words in the best order.”
How has the American poetry scene changed since you were poet laureate? Did the position change?
It’s changed immensely. First of all, poetry has become much more lively, especially through the spoken word movement, and even rap to a lesser extent. There’s a whole other generation of people who like to go and listen to poetry, something that’s been amped up since 1993, when I was poet laureate. There are also things like Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project. I took the position when people expected the poet laureate to sit there and write poems and not do much. I think I was the first to get out into the real world up to my elbows, go on “Sesame Street” and do things like that. I’m gratified that most of the poet laureates who followed me have done the same thing.
You’ll be delivering a keynote speech in Atlanta to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Does the election of President Barack Obama change the day’s perspective?
I think things have changed. From the legacy of Martin Luther King, we need to think of a way to move on, to turn the page to chapter two — or is it three, now? The mood is different, too. I don’t want to use the hackneyed word of “hope,” but I think people are trying to be open to all possible types of change. During the Civil Rights era, the goals were more concentrated, but now the feeling gradually has become that you can get things done.
Is that how you think of the Civil Rights era in your poems, such as the collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks?
I do think that one of the real signs of progress in any civilization in terms of civil rights is when people can think of the complex differences between people in their individual lives. There’s a lot of progress when you go from thinking, “These are my black friends” and “These are my white friends,” to “This is my friend Maria” without categorizing her. One of my concerns in poetry is to show interior life. During that fateful bus ride, Rosa Parks might have been thinking, “Should I sit down?” or whether to buy green beans for supper. We’re all human.
Many of your poems involve historical events and figures, like the “Not Welcome Here” poems in your American Smooth volume. Do you write historical poems any differently than the others?
I do research, but I don’t think I approach those poems differently than I do others. The research is driven by curiosity more than anything else. When it’s done, while writing the poem I try to forget the research, although I have to make sure I get my facts straight. When I wrote the play Darker Face of the Earth, I had to do the research first, but writing, it’s just these characters and assigning their personalities.
Essential Theatre is producing that play this summer. Is it true the story is Oedipus on a slave plantation?
That’s it, in a pretty small nut. When I began working on the play, I was trying to understand what it would be like to not know who your mother and father were on a plantation. Around that time I was reading Oedipus and thinking, “How could Oedipus not figure this out?” and then I realized it was much the same thing, and I could transplant that myth. It allowed me to really enliven and embody the story within the scene and scenario of slavery. And it helped me understand Oedipus, and realize that this original text is not dead and buried; it still has to do with real life.
Poetry has such a serious reputation — is it harder to write your poems that have lighter subjects, like dancing or chocolate?
I do think one of the hardest things to do is to write a funny poem, or poems that are short and simple. Readers shouldn’t take the attitude, “It’s a poem. I have to sit up straight like I’m back in school.” I don’t find anything intimidating about it, though. I think poems should illuminate all aspects of life. My latest book, Sonata Mulattica, is 200 pages and partly about a mixed-race violinist in the 18th century, to whom Beethoven dedicated a sonata. But people expressed surprise that the book had humorous poems in it, too.
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