Changing the Whole Neighborhood: A Conversation with Rita Dove
Another Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Hass, once said in his essay “Lowell’s Graveyard” that “poems take place in your life, or some of them do, like the time your younger sister arrives and replaces you as the bon enfant in the bosom of the family, or the day the trucks came and the men began to tear up the wooden sidewalks and the cobblestone gutters outside your house.”
In my case, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah arrived in my reading universe in 1988, just a year or so after the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and at the start of my teaching here at The College of Wooster. Not only were the poems exciting to me in their deeply personal as well as historically resonant portraits of Rita Dove’s grandparents, but the poetic approach itself with its echoes of verticist poetry circling around and around its subject matter, illuminating it from all angles, was equally exciting. Not only did the poems loom large in my own reading life at the time, but they became a mainstay for me as a teacher of poetry and poetry-writing, a major resource in showing the power of the iconic image – not just Thomas’s mandolin or Beulah’s canary, but also the white chevron arms in the segregated swimming pool or the sight of the Goodyear blimp above the football stadium that reminds Thomas of his long-dead friend. It wasn’t just a matter of images or the way images combine into stories. The importance of Thomas and Beulah also involved its testament, its breadth of concern ranging from the private chambers of Thomas’ or Beulah’s hearts to the more public realms of family and community. It was about bearing witness to the history of labor and to the African-American experience in a way that emphasized the complexity of history.
But Rita Dove’s poetry has taken place in many people’s lives – and significantly so. She was, for example, the second African-American poet, after Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950, to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah. She was also the youngest person ever – and the first African-American – to accept the post of Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993-95, while from 2004-06, she also served as the Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1993 she was not only named one of ten “Outstanding Women of the Year” by Glamour magazine, but the NAACP also honored her with its Great American Artist Award. Over the years, she has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as receiving a Portia Pittman Fellowship at Tuskegee Institute. In 2009 she received the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal in recognition of a career of achievement not just in poetry and literature, but in trans-cultural engagement which dates back to her 1974 Fulbright fellowship to the Universität Tübingen in Germany.
And, of course, there is the work itself. Her books of poetry include – besides Thomas and Beulah – The Yellow House on the Corner, Museum, Grace Notes, a volume of Selected Poems, Mother Love, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, American Smooth, and, most recently Sonata Mulattica. She has also published a verse drama, The Darker Face of the Earth, the novel Through the Ivory Gate, a collection of short stories, Fifth Sunday, and, finally, a volume of her lectures as the U.S. Poet Laureate.
But the work that was freshest on Rita Dove’s mind during the following conversation conducted during her visit to The College of Wooster on September 28, 2009 was Sonata Mulattica, published earlier that year. Just as Thomas and Beulahinvolved Dove’s portrait of her Akron, Ohio, grandparents in the early and mid-twentieth century – the poetic equivalent of an historical novel – Sonata Mulattica features a similar collection of linked poems exploring the life of George Bridgetower, a multiracial violinist who circulated in the musical and cultural scene of early 19th century Europe, hobnobbing with Beethoven, though eventually experiencing a falling out with Beethoven over a women and ending up in oblivion.
In our conversation, Dove remarks that in the case of the historical novelist, the hope “is to illuminate the age through the characters, so that the characters make the history come alive, which in turn makes you realize how personal the past actually is.” And for me, this is a description of Dove’s poetic power as well, whether it involves her portrait of her own grandmother, of Rosa Parks, or of George Bridgetower.
History is personal, but to hear its voice whisper as well as shout, we need poets like Rita Dove. –Daniel Bourne, Wooster, Ohio, October 2, 2010
Daniel Bourne: One of my favorite poems of yours is “O,” — the Swedish word for island and the final poem in your first book, The Yellow House on the Corner. It starts out:
“One word of Swedish has changed the whole neighborhood.
When I look up, the yellow house on the corner
is a galleon stranded in flowers.”
I’m tempted to want to read this poem as a representation of the profound effect your staying in Europe in the 1970s had on your poetry, on the way you see life, that the trip there “changed your neighborhood.” Would I be wrong? Do you feel this journey away from America led you toward your current and central role in American poetry?
Rita Dove: You would not be wrong. I do think that my stay in Germany – my initial stays in Germany – were very important for two reasons. One was that I could stand in another culture and another world and look back on my own country and see from a distance. See how other people saw it, other nations. That was very important – after that point I still felt surrounded, still felt engulfed, but I also felt I could step out and look at my country from the outside. The other reason is on a linguistic level. That is that through studying German, through becoming fluent in German, and living and dreaming in German, it opened up for me all the magic of language, the music of language, how each particular language has its own music, its own logic and how that shapes your perception of the world. Because when I spoke and lived in German I saw the world slightly differently, and when I tried to talk to people I talked to them differently, and all this changed profoundly the way I looked at the words I would use in a poem.
DB: And so your experience in Germany disrupted your way of seeing America as an American, even after you returned home?
RD: It did. Because I could be “at home” and still step out and look from the outside.
DB: I remember one of my mentors at Indiana University, Roger Mitchell, mentioning how James Wright in the period between his second and third books, when he was retooling from being a formal poet to an organic one, spent a good deal of his time translating surrealist poets from both Europe and South America, especially Georg Trakl from German and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo from Spanish. Have you ever been tempted to do any work in translating from German or any other language?
RD: When I had a Fulbright to Germany, my project was to translate German poetry, and I was particularly interested in translating some of the poets who had emerged in the 60s. They had not yet been translated into English, poets like Rolf Dieter Brinkmann. I feel translation is really exalted work. A translator not only has to be a poet, but they have to really be able to love the original language and use it in the way the poet did– but they’re writing with a ball and chain. So to me, translators are unsung heroes. I have done some translation, but not very many. I would get so bogged down in-between the two languages that I couldn’t make the decision. Mainly because I was a poet myself, I felt terrible about not living up to the poetry, the original, and when I have done translations with the authors themselves, you know often they invariably say, “This changed the simile, or changed the metaphor” in order to get to something that works in our culture. But you know you have to do that sometimes. So, I haven’t done much translation, but I would say that reading German poems in the original, in the original language, has had a profound influence on the way I look at English and the way English is built and the ways you can kind of stretch that structure. For example, a poet like Paul Celan, who no one’s been able to translate really, and that’s because he embodies the language, he gets inside of the language and uses the grammatical structures of the language in a way to make multiple senses. And it doesn’t translate into English because we don’t have the same structure. But that did teach me something about being very, very aware of the way a sentence unfolds in a poem.
DB: I indeed wanted to ask you if your knowledge of German poetry had influenced your sense of what you can get away with in your own work , of what is possible in English.
RD: It’s true. I mean because German of course has this wonderful way of piling up all of the verbs, of putting all the verbs at the end of the sentence to make the past participle. A sentence can be a mile long, but you have to keep all of that—all of the images, all of the little side remarks, all the different clauses—you have to keep them in your head until you hit that last verb for you to know what the sentence is about. Now, at first, listening to Germans talk, I was totally lost because I didn’t have the ability to do that, but after I got the point where I could do it I realized something was happening to my perception. I was withholding judgment till I got the last word. And then everything rushed in, and it was a ping, it was a zzzzzmp! I thought, wow! If you could do this in poetry, if you could just do it in poetry in English, I could just stretch out the sentence so that you would not know exactly how all these parts fit together until the end. That is something I try to do.
DB: In fact, there’s a postponement of disclosure then. It’s almost like line breaks in poetry. That you’ve got to wait for it, and then at the very end there’s the final connective image?
RD: Yes, you wait for it. But you also suspect it.
DB: One of the questions we’ve often asked in our Artful Dodge interviews involves the moment when someone “wakes up” as a writer, the point in their lives when they realize they want not just to write but to devote themselves to a life of writing. You’ve already addressed that question in your introduction to your Selected Poems, among other places, but I was wondering if you could add a bit more about how you came to know yourself as a writer early on, when you started publishing your first poems in journals and put out your first couple of books. Did you realize you were developing a sense of line, or what a poem should and could do?
RD: Well absolutely, though, I mean, I’m still developing my sense of line! But, there in the very beginning, I felt like my first book was okay, but I wanted to try something different in the next book. I was always trying to find ways in which these lines would feel like me. Yeah. Always. But how do you do that? I mean, for me I think one of the things I like to do—I always try in every book to do something different, technically different, to set a technical taste for myself. For instance in the second book I felt like I wanted to try a more European sense, to—
DB: What do you mean by that?
RD: I don’t know what I mean by that! See, that’s just it. I didn’t know. But when I say European sense I think I mean I wanted more of a shorter poem, a skinnier poem, that nevertheless took on large topics, a literary form that still spoke out. It’s in Thomas and Beulah. And by then I knew very clearly what I wanted to write — the technical task to write in the third person. So many poems with I! Everything is I. Or you. Or a you which is really an I. So, yeah. So why don’t we ever use he and she anymore, why do we not use the personages? So in a way the poems began as a technical task that I set for myself, to write in the third person.
DB: I was going to ask you what turned your attention to the project of Thomas and Beulah. Was it the technical challenge of writing in third person or did the impetus to write about your grandparents, your family, come first, and then you realized there was a melding of form and subject matter.
RD: The impetus to write about my family came first. But, in fact, I wasn’t even aware at the beginning I was going to write a book. I did not set out to write a book about my grandparents at all. The very first poem that ever appeared in Thomas and Beulah had already appeared in my second book of poems, Dusting. That poem was written first, but as an individual poem. And then I began writing poems about my grandfather, about trying to feel what it was like to be him as a young man. And, writing those poems, at that point I thought that, because I had just finished the second book, I thought, well, why not try to write these poems about my grandfather in the third person? So that was how the task began. But my grandfather came first. Then I realized about six poems in that this poem I was now writing about my grandmother was, well, it was my grandmother, and that she wanted her say, too. Then I said, oh! A bigger project, a bigger book.
DB: It’s almost as if there was this dialogic mode that set in at that point, that it was Thomas — not necessarily versus Beulah — but Thomas juxtaposed with Beulah.
RD: Exactly. Yes. And then I thought, that’s a way to tell the full story, to have both these sides of a marriage — these viewpoints, I guess I should say.
DB: It’s interesting that you mention these different viewpoints, different sides. In reading through Thomas and Beulah with my students over the years, we have come to focus not just on the subject matter—the family history and its mirroring of the surrounding world — but your approach as a poet, which I want to connect with the vorticist and imagist poets, like H.D. for instance, whose poems often would probe their subject matter from different angles. Do you see any influences coming from that area?
RD: Yes! There were influences, though I don’t know what they are. I had read a lot of H.D., for instance, and I really loved her work. But rather than try to analyze what she was doing, I guess at the time I just absorbed it. Let’s put it that way.
DB: And what you absorbed afterwards bubbled up in the Thomas and Beulah poems.
RD: Right, right. Absolutely.
DB: I do have a question about what must have been a conscious decision in your writing of Thomas and Beulah. At what point did you decide to add the chronological chart providing the important dates of your grandparents’ lives? And how do you see its role in regards to the poems themselves, because, of course, couldn’t someone say, “oh, can’t the poems just stand on their own”?
RD: I decided to add it very late, and the reason why I decided to add it was not because I thought the book needed it. I decided to add it just as a little extra thing, just in case the reader might want it. The poems can stand by themselves. Absolutely. But the chronology is also a way of commentary on the lives, insisting upon the veracity of their presence, and to remind us they were real people, and to juxtapose the sense of reality that the reader had just finished experiencing in the poems with the actual reality these people went through. Yes, the chronology gave me a chance to add on a few things, but I also felt what the chronology was doing was to show you that these are some of the facts, these are some of the things that you may want to know in addition to the poems. But, aren’t these facts meager compared to, hopefully, the poems themselves? But I did decide to add it very, very late, and it was a difficult decision to make.
DB: It really was that difficult?
RD: I felt it was difficult, because I did not want anyone to depend on it. But you can’t control the reader. I tell them at the beginning of the whole book that these are two sides of a story meant to be read in order, and yet I know there are people who open that book in the middle and just read. I do it myself. So, I knew there were going to be people who would flip through Thomas and Beulah and say, oh, a chronology, and start trying to read the book in a back and forth sort of way, you know, read the poems a little bit at a time and where this poem fit in the chronology.That’s why sometimes the chronology is meant to confound you a bit. It doesn’t really help you that much. You can’t read it against the poems in any sort order. It will just mess you up.
DB: But I thought it worked. Certain details there really do not connect with what was happening in the poems at all, but they did give a richer sense of these people’s lives and the historical background around them. There’s this non-linear interplay between the poems and the timetable that for me made the chronology into a type of post-modern poem.
RD: Well, first of all I’m glad that you see it as kind of a postmodern poem because one of my intentions was to have it function as another way of looking at this whole story and making it into its own weird open-ended poem. But, with gaps. Sometimes the poems have gaps, and sometimes the chronology has gaps — and sometimes these gaps in the chronology are the poems. And some of the gaps are poems that were never written. So we’ve got holes that you can never fill. So part of it was that writing that chronology was a way of saying, “See? History doesn’t do it.” There’s always going to be these silences and holes and lapses and drops. In that regard, though the whole book does have a sense of history and biography, I thought there would be even more of a sense of poems, which tend to fill out what history cannot do.
DB: Tonight, during one of your answers to a question after your reading you mentioned that you were “haunted by those stories that will never be known.” Do you feel that this haunting and your attempt to deal with it through poetry has been there from the beginning, or do you feel that this vision of the role of poetry has grown stronger over time?
RD: I don’t know that it was there from the beginning. I do know that there were many, many times in my first two books where I felt that I was writing towards something and I wasn’t ready yet to write it, and so I was teaching myself or learning all the tools of the trade so I would be capable of writing this “something” when it came. I mean I had always had that feeling, with the first book, and with the second book I thought I was getting closer, and then when I got to Thomas and Beulah I thought ah! here is something! I felt like I had arrived at the right time with the tools I had gathered in order to write what I needed to. But when I look back on the second book, the Museum, it too deals with the stories that we never know. The dedication was “for nobody / who made us possible.” So it’s already there, isn’t it? Still, I don’t know if I would say this sense of purpose started at the beginning. I just don’t know.
DB: Before Thomas and Beulah was published, and before it won the Pulitzer, making you such a prominent part of the American poetic landscape, did you have a sense of the collection being so important as a representation of African-American experience? And, did you intend for yourself this sort of role — I’m sure getting the Pulitzer figures into the answer here, too — but did you willingly accept the pressures that come with the territory, so to speak?
RD: Well, first of all, when I finished T-B I was aware of the fact that to dwell on the interior lives of these two African Americans who were nobody special was something that hadn’t been done before, at least not to that extent, not to that degree. Whether it was good or not, I didn’t know at that point, but I thought it was pretty good. And I thought it was important, because I had had discussions with others of my peers, other African-American poets, where we would all bemoan the fact that we felt were trapped into writing a certain kind of poem, which was an outward poem, which was a poem that talked about being black or talked about the injustices that were done to us. But to talk about the everyday, the ordinary lives of people who happen to be black was really something that hadn’t been done, and I felt that this was important. I just hoped the rest of the world thought it was important, too, and didn’t think I was just telling some story. The Pulitzer was wonderful for that. Now do I accept the pressures that go along with such a thing? What are you gonna do? What are you going to do? But yes, one of the hardest things after getting the Pulitzer was, in fact, to forget that I had gotten the Pulitzer — except that people would be reading my poems more, and might expect certain things. And yes, over the years people have gone, “Oh, why don’t you write another T-B, why don’t you do this” and I’m thinking, I’ll write what I write. I had to consciously fight to keep this space in which to write, to keep that sense of space where I’m writing and no one’s looking over my shoulder. It’s hard.
DB: So, there was this pressure to write a certain poem as an African American, to write a lyric/political poem rather than a narrative poem about individual people’s lives?
RD: That’s right, and the pressure is subtle and you don’t really know where it comes from sometimes. It can come from the oddest places, the pressure. At a certain point in my life I felt that I was expected to write exactly that kind of poem. A lyric, more spoken word than not, but in any case a more orally-tinged poem that had a political accent, or had at least a social consciousness that it then, you know, proclaims. If I did not write this poem, I would get — I could count on getting certain kinds of critiques, like well this is not about anything important, while, you know, other people write poems not about anything quote/unquote “important,” but you’re supposed to be writing this way because you are black, or female. Or if I wrote a poem that had a political edge, that edge would need to be taken to a far extreme, that’s another thing that can happen. So, to tell a narrative, that’s another layer on top of all that, that’s really yet another kind of layer. It’s the shock of the narrative, and these critics would experience the shock and then think, well, it must be a parable! You know, if it’s a narrative—
DB: —it’s gotta be a parable.
RD: Right, it’s gotta have a point, it’s gotta have a moral. So they’d be looking for morals instead of reading the poem. It’s a big expectation, and, I think, T-B helped a lot to take that pressure away and also, I think, the climate has changed a lot for both narrative poets and for poets of all sorts of persuasions, including for people who have an axe to grind and they think they should grind only that one axe.
DB: Another question that came up tonight involved the existence of boundaries when it comes to writing about family, about the possible problems in making the private into something public.
RD: Yeah, I think there are problems. I mean, because as I said tonight, for me the really critical borderline is whether anyone would be hurt or damaged by what I write, someone that I care about, someone that I respect quite a lot actually. And, if they would somehow be embarrassed because I outed some secret, then the poem isn’t worth it to me. It just is not worth it. Now when I was writing T-B, both my grandparents were dead, and by telling my mother I was writing the book and her not asking to see any of the poems, there was an implicit trust that she then offered me: I know you’re not going to do anything to hurt any of us, and my side of things implied that I would not do anything to hurt. And I mean, I didn’t hide anything, there weren’t any secrets, anyway. It’s not that kind of book. It’s not a book of drama and high intrigue—
DB: It’s not Sharon Olds.
RD: No. It’s not. And there certainly are family stories that I’ve heard, every family has them, but I’m not going to write about them. Or I’m not going to publish what I write, put it that way, because it’s just not worth it.
DB: Could you talk about not just the responsibility to subject matter, but the empathetic impulse that got you into writing Sonata Mulattica, your exploration of George Bridgetower, this black man in the middle of the music culture of early nineteenth century Europe?
RD: Initially, when I heard about Bridgetower, I thought, how is it possible that this guy existed at that time? It certainly wasn’t a normal life, and at first I felt that I was born to write some of those poems because of several things, that prodigy stuff, for instance, being recognized early — though, I was not a prodigy, I wasn’t writing poems at ten and declaiming them — but there was this early recognition, with the Pulitzer for instance. And also the fact that he was an African, a mixed-race person who was moving through Europe, and I had moved through Europe, and knew what it would have felt like to be slightly “other” in a kind of a positive sense, and what that meant to have people look all the time and see not you, but the shell of you, first, and then filtering it through and going deeper. Sometimes that can be used positively, sometimes negatively, sometimes to your advantage and sometimes not. Also — I played cello all my life, I knew classical music, and so that was a world I could move around in well, and I knew German, and it just felt like I was just…just—
DB: –born to write them.
RD: It did! And writing these poems, slipping into his skin and slipping into other people’s skins, putting on the mask, I became aware of the fact that I felt drawn to him in even a much deeper way, and that had to do with the image of the “other” that he projected— of how people perceive you as this image even if they think you’re amazing — and how you feel in your art, just trying to do the best that you can, and trying to find others who can speak your language. So, yeah, he really felt like — this is crazy to say — a soulmate, but he did feel like a soulmate.
DB: You said that the poem in Beethoven’s voice was the scariest poem in the book to write?
RD: Well, Beethoven is Beethoven! He’s the marble bust on the piano! You don’t mess with the marble bust! And I just felt like – to presume to speak in Beethoven’s voice — it was a big step, and I felt there would be so many people who were not necessarily poets, but all these musical critics, and everybody who would just be on me, like oh my gosh.
DB: You’re messing up Beethoven!
RD: A black woman talking as him! And then I thought, wait. Every time we write a poem we presume this act, we presume that we can get into – that we can convey this interior life to another person, and that they will meet us, and say yeah, I get some of that interior life, whether it’s my interior life or Beethoven’s. But, yeah, that was the hardest, because he was too much of an icon.
DB: Did you feel that same sort of pressure writing about Rosa Parks?
RD: Yes. But it was slightly different. At least she was female, she was African-American, though she was an icon. But, you know with the Rosa Parks poems, I kept circling around her. It was always about the one moment pretty much. The timeframe was tighter. In Sonata Mullatica, there was also this incredible sweep historically, and in the Rosa Parks book I was familiar with the landscape, the social landscape, the cultural landscape. It was my landscape. I grew up in America. I knew what this was like. I knew what the 60s were like, the civil rights movement. But with Beethoven, this was supposedly completely foreign to me, this was Europe, this was 19th century, all these things. None of those things were my home turf, so to speak, except for music.
DB: I thought maybe there would be similar pressures in regards to getting the portrait right. I can imagine the Rosa Parks situation might be more potentially explosive than the Beethoven.
RD: Actually, yes, it could be. And yet, no one ever blew up.
DB: What you’ve just said about this meeting of the poet and character and reader, this allowance on the part of the reader that the poet can speak for the character somehow, makes me think again of the connection between your poetry and the way it does picture the past for the contemporary reader. I think that in some ways your poetry, not all of it, but several of your books, seem to be the equivalent in poetry of the historical novelist —history with line-breaks — and I was wondering what you thought about that.
RD: Well, if it’s a good historical novel! But, of course, what the historical novelist hopes to do is illuminate the age through the characters, so that when we get the history we also see the characters that make it come alive, which makes you realize, oh, that’s why that happened, it could have happened in that way. And of course historical novels take great liberties in terms of what someone is thinking. They’re making all that up, of course, obviously they’re making all that up, but everything else must stay fairly true to the record. And I think that my answer is yes, something like this might be happening in these poems of mine as well. Hopefully you will get a sense of the interior life of a George Bridgetower or my version of Rosa Parks that will help to illuminate the facts of the historical “thing.” But the difference might be that I think my poems will also try to remind you we are not really in that world. They will not let you fall deeply into this feeling, to forget that it is a fiction, or that it is a construct. So that even in the Rosa Parks poems there’s a point where I move out of the poem, and the poet is now looking at Rosa Parks. The point-of-view is not all in Rosa Park’s head. While reading, you cannot ever forget that this is a construct that’s being used to explore what’s inside and what’s outside of that historical event, what’s inside of the mind and the body, what’s inside the surface, inside what we see.
DB: That sounds very much in line with Brechtian theater, your wanting to present these stories with in-text brackets that declare this is an intellectual enterprise that we’re engaging in, to keep aware of the artifice. And so you want that distance that’s there.
RD: I want the distance! I don’t want my reader to forget that this is a construct, so that they can always be aware that we can never know what’s in someone’s mind, so that they won’t forget and be deluded into thinking oh, I got it now, I got a hold on their mind.
DB: In Sonata Mulattica, of course, there’s the artificiality of the fact that the poems are principally in English, when in fact some of the characters would have spoken or thought in other languages, Beethoven for example. There’s also the fact that you’re sampling or referencing the language spoken at the time, two hundred years ago or so. Did you find this sort of bridge-building hard to do, bringing together the languages of that time with the language of your reader? Or did it open up new possibilities in terms of what a poem could do?
RD: I did! And that was one of the things I found actually thrilling to try to work with, because one of the first roadblocks I ran up against was the thought oh my gosh, where am I going to go, what diction am I going to use? What language do I use to try to convey it? Obviously, I don’t want to write in German. I can slip some in — that wasn’t the problem —but how to give a sense of the 19th century, or the 18th century, without sounding like the BBC or some PBS historical drama. So what do I do? Obviously I don’t want to talk like they did, even if I’m translating Beethoven, because it will just sound stilted to our ears. We just don’t talk like that anymore, so, the idea came to me of trying to make up an anachronistic linguistic mix that was really designed to—again—to remind my reader that we are not in the 19th century. And I’m really just giving you a paradigm, I guess, a paradigm for what the language is like, so there are anachronistic phrases like palling around as well as really irreverent things in the chronology and the notes at the end, which are much more extensive than the ones in T-B, you know, things that are totally irreverent such as at the end of my note about the poem “The Seaside Concerts,” when I mention Rauzzine’s insulting his old violinist friend by saying his playing wasn’t as good as young Bridgewater, and I write “Ouch! That’s gotta hurt.” Stuff like that. And that’s partly a Brechtian influence too, the comments on the action and the snide remarks and the little side jokes, but all intended so that you can stop looking for veracity or even verisimilitude in the way that things get translated. That’s not the point. I’m not looking to see if a character’s really sounding European, or if they are speaking European cadences or not, and I’m not looking for everything to mesh all the time. But I’m using it — these constructs— as a way to get into the way you think. And, occasionally these connections would just happen. And it would just be kind of fun. There’s a poem called “Ach, Wien,” which translates into “Oh, Vienna.” It’s a sonnet that kind of imitates the rhythms of the Viennese waltz. It kind of moves in ebbs and flows. All that was deliberate, and fun to do, but a lot of the time it did come down to trying to translate. When someone spoke directly, there would be just a little bit of elevation in the diction, but not to the extent that it would mirror 19th century British English. I didn’t want that. We couldn’t get into anything like that if it were written today. We would just back off of it. It would keep you away, and I did not want to keep you away. The thing is, when they spoke to each other they didn’t think, oh boy, we’re speaking in a very proper way. That was their everyday language, and I wanted to imitate their everyday language. The only way to do that was to do it in everyday contemporary American English. But just for a little edge–
DB: —there’s a bit of estrangement.
RD: A bit. Yes, exactly.
DB: Not only have you been adept at the cross-cultural, but also the cross-generic. What type of book has been your hardest to write? I’m thinking in terms of the switchover into prose for the short stories, the novel. And there’s also the verse play…
RD: They all had hard things. You know, though, I think it’s a toss-up between this book, Sonata Mulattica, and the first play, The Darker Face of the Earth. And though I loved writing the play, once I figured it out, the play I think was so hard to do because I had to figure out how to write a play. I loved plays, I wrote plays when I was a kid, but the particulars of trying to write this one. . . It’s set in slavery times, so again you’ve got the diction problem, but how to give that linguistic illusion of history without being all PBS about it? And how do you get the characters’ thoughts out without it sounding so declamatory? And that play went through so many revisions that it finally got to a point where I put it away, actually, for years. And my husband Fred would, every once in a while he’d go to the drawer where I kept the play and he’d say, “What are you going to do with this play? When are you going to do something with this play? And he’d bug me and bug me and finally I did it. I wrote it yet again, and then it made it to its staging, its first staged-readings during rehearsal, and when I heard actors saying what I had written I realized one thing — I heard it myself — and that was now other people were speaking each role and that I had very little control over the way they were going to use their voice unless I wrote it into the speech. If I wanted them to say something slowly it really had to be through the language to make them speak it slowly. Stage directions — they don’t work. I’ve heard actors say, “I never read stage directions!” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah?!” And then began the process of a total rewrite. It was fun to do, but I mean it was hard to do, because there were all these other people involved.
DB: So the actors were harder to control than the reader is in poetry.
RD: Yes. Because you see, they build off of each other, they’re moving through their own responses to each other. But, yeah. They were much harder to deal with, and the play itself was hard. But this book, this last book, this Sonata Mulattica was, in terms of the poetry, the hardest. For all the reasons we’ve mentioned before it was hard. But, it also felt like I was born to write it. Writing the book was a great privilege.
DB: I’d also like to talk a bit about poetry and politics before we’re done. Do you have a sense of poetry being political? And, at the same time, is there a barrier between them?
RD: Well, I think that almost all poetry is political on some level, and, that it demands that we be alert, and that we look at something deeply, look at the situation inside the poem very deeply, and that all these situations usually have some bearing on human life, and therefore has bearing on the way our own life is conducted. That to me is political, in the primary sense of political — polis refers to people and all of that. But, as most people understand the definition, I think that there is more of barrier between politics and poetry in this country than in many many other countries in the world, who just kind of accept the fact that poetry is meant to be heard, and that people will hear it and it might move them, and something in it might change some direction in their life. That is an immensely political act, if you can change the direction of someone’s life, for whatever reason. But in this country there is actually a very large barrier, I would say, between politics and poetry, in the sense that even poets are saying, Well, if you write political poetry that means you write bad poetry, and that political poetry is bad because it’s for a purpose, that it’s temporal, it’s rooted in time or whatever. And I felt kind of liberated when I went to Europe and realized that there were poets who were writing poems that had to do with contemporary events, and that were in fact geared to move an audience and actually happened to be political poems—
DB: – and good poems –
RD: — all at the same time. And why not? It’s harder to do, probably, than anything else, but there are good political poems and there are bad political poems. And in this country, there seems to be a consensus that there cannot be a good political poem, that the poem will always be compromised. I think that’s a bunch of baloney.
DB: I also wanted to ask you about the politicization of poets and other writers because of various kinds of conflict. For example, there was the recent exhortation to boycott Israeli culture because of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as well as its ongoing presence in Gaza. This came to be a really divisive issue within artistic circles as well as academia.
RD: Well, I think that first of all, writers are writers. But they’re also human beings and they can be political and do other things as well write their poem. But I think it’s a bunch of bullshit, frankly, to boycott an entire culture if there are good men, honest men in that culture, and there are good poems, good literature. How can you boycott the poets of a country because of what their politicians do? It just seems very, very odd.
DB: Well, and such an approach would jeopardize all American writers and artists as well, at least in much of the last decade.
RD: Yeah! That’s true, that’s absolutely true. And what you do is fight the politics. You don’t fight the poets, many of whom are actually on your side. It’s wrongheaded — and frightening — to make that generalization and to clump people, all poets and all the literature together. That’s as scary as what happens on the political side of the arena.
DB: Now for a fan-zine type of question. Which was a greater honor for you, receiving the Pulitzer or being named Poet Laureate for two years?
RD: Hm! Getting the Pulitzer. Actually. Because the Pulitzer was this literary award, it was for the work, I don’t know exactly who chose me for the Poet Laureate, I mean I know that the library of Congress did it and there was a whole committee of people – a secret committee! – but uh. I don’t know the reasons why I was chosen, it could have been many reasons why and some of them not literary, frankly. Um, but the Pulitzer seemed purer, in a way. In the sense that I didn’t know the judges, I didn’t know I was up for it, um, and that I was one of the nominees and it came out of the blue and it was the first – that felt, that had a bigger impact.
RD: And the Poet Laureateship felt like… it was wonderful too, but I also felt it was… first of all it was based upon the Pulitzer, a little bit, and then also other things, I think that they were looking for someone young, they were looking for some diversity and um. It was great, but I also felt that it was this challenge, it was like, well what are you going to do about now that you’ve got it, should I sit on it, am I gonna make it something? They were different but they both were thrilling. Now what happened after the Pulitzer was less thrilling than what happened when I became poet laureate because when I was Poet Laureate all of these experiences kept opening – I mean I went to the white house you know, and you know there were dinners, black tie dinners, which was like Disneyland a little bit, you kinda sit there you go, Gosh! I’m really here! And everybody else is like, Gosh, we’re really here! You know?
RD: Like oh my gosh, this person is just someone I admires from afar, like Yo-Yo Ma, he’s just a normal guy, how wonderful!
RD: Oh gosh, yes that’s right. Yeah, we had this great experience, we were at this thing in Las Vegas, and Whoopi Goldberg was getting honored, I was getting honored too, we all met at the sign-in place, we were supposed to go over to another venue, it was just across the street, we were in one of the hotels, we were in… I think we were in Treasure Island?
FRED: No, that’s where we were going, we were in the other one.
RD: That’s where we were going…
FRED: The Mirage.
RD: The Mirage, and, so that’s Whoopi Goldberg and me and Fred and Tommy Tune.
DB: Oh my.
RD: Yes. And (unintelligible), his girlfriend. And we said, well what are we gonna do, we have to go through the room with people on the one-armed bandits, and Whoopie said, well I can make it! And Tommy said, are you sure? And she said, I think we can make it… Well, we had to surround Whoopi, and Tommy was up front, he was the point man, he’s tallest, he’s up there, we’re all surrounding her, and we make ten steps into the room. It’s the big salon…
RD: And someone said, “Whoopi…” and they had (unintelligible) and it just grew, like static, and it was scary, it grew like a deluge, and they started at us and suddenly we couldn’t see Whoopi, we couldn’t see each other, we were… we just got, and the police had to come –
DB: Oh my!
FRED: It was security.
RD: Well, security, yeah. And get the people away, and yeah, and get the people away – those kind of experiences happen and you go, I never would have known firsthand how scary and difficult it is to be a star, and how she just wanted to just, you know, go with us, 50 paces. So those kind of experiences were thrilling, than the more conventional literary recognition I got when I won the Pulitzer, but the Pulitzer felt just… stunning. Yeah.
DB: Mhm. If you had to grade yourself as a poet laureate, what would you give to yourself? (laughing)
RD: Grade myself?!
DB: (laughing) Yes!
RD: Oh gosh! Incomplete?
DB: That’s actually not bad.
RD: Yeah… Incomplete. No, there was a lot more I wanted to do. A lot more I wanted to do…
DB: Actually, that was what I was leading towards. What would you have liked to have done that you didn’t have time to do, or there wasn’t the possibility in America at the time to do?
RD: Well you know, one of the things I – I was trying to build a base of, of familiarity with Amer – with poetry, so that I could a little bit more, and that meant for the first year, pretty much, really going around and being Miss America for poetry and doing that kind of stuff. And then I began to start to put together some – um – some mini-conferences and stuff in Washington which I think were making – were exciting. Also getting different voices in. Like Crow Indian (unintelligible) came in and read to their congressmen, it was great, you know, they also gave a poetry reading but they also (unintelligible), they also said, We want to read poems, we want to show you what our life is like, and it was really –
RD: – great, and I mean, I did a Diaspora conference, which I wished I could have done again, the next year, I wanted to make it bigger, but I didn’t have the money to do it.
DB: And that was in Washington.
RD: That was in Washington. And that was really trying to get voices of the black Diaspora together with not only poets but with writers – you know, it’s too big of a thing, it really needs to be a whole program, and there was this – I think I mentioned this earlier, that I wanted to do a conference on um… it really was about sustainability and nature and having the poets and the scientists talking to one another, and that requires… yeah, Terry! Terry took his wife, because um – but when did (unintelligible, talking to Fred)
FRED: (unintelligible) January, 95.
RD: Was it January? Okay, right, right. Um. Because there’d been this conference in Mexico that had been planned by wonderful Mexican poet, Palermo Rodriguez (???) who had – consequently became president of Pen International, but he put together, he just took a group of scientists, took a group of writers, and we all lived together for a week, in Murelli (???) which is up in the mountains in Mexico, and the idea was to come up with some kind of way to talk to one another about ecology and about saving the planet, and it was fascinating.
RD: It was fascinating, to sort of realize that we could talk to one another, that each of us was afraid of the other, that we wouldn’t understand the other, you know, cause it’s a scientist and they’re just – what can we do, how do you reach out and find that the scientists were envious of the fact, or wished that they could communicate like we could, and we said, are you kidding? You know, we can communicate but how do you get it out there, how do you make people believe it, cause we don’t have the facts. And that – that’s something I wanted to do, I wanted to have, on a larger level, people talk about communicating, not just scientist to scientist, communicate their ideas to the world, and how can poets help with that, and how can we – still, but that –
DB: That’s really crucial.
RD: That was a biggie, and it was – we didn’t have the money or the time anymore, because it was in my last half-year actually as Poet Laureate, so there really wasn’t the… there were a thousand things I wanted to do, you know, but… one of the things I think would help immensely in my next life (unintelligible) would have been to urge elementary school teachers, kindergarten teachers, to every day, at the end of the day, read a poem, and then let ’em – send ‘em home. That’s all.
RD: Just read a poem, send ‘em home. Do not talk about it. Don’t you know, ask for their ideas, they say well what is that about! Just say well, well…
DB: Think about it.
RD: Think about it! Live with it, play with it, throw it away, I don’t care. But at least every day they’d be able to be looking – after a while they’d be looking forward to this poem, I’m going to get there, ahhh, you know then they’d talk about it among themselves – poetry would enter their lives at that point and it would be something that they controlled because they talked about it.
RD: Cause someone said, don’t judge ‘em, don’t ask ‘em. Do it all the way through elementary school, then bet you any money that by the time they got to junior high they could talk about poems like I don’t know what. It would be easy to do.
DB: That would be!
RD: Wouldn’t it? But you need a large platform to be able to make that kind of pronouncement, to show that you’re on.
DB: Mhm. Right.
DB: Yeah, that sounds like a really good idea. To get poetry in kids’ minds…
RD: And it would be an easy one! Because I think – I really feel for teachers, because they have to, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, they want to inspire these kids but at the same time they have to prove they’re teaching them something, they have to ensure that they can do these test, etc. –
DB: Do all the tests, right.
RD: Etc, etc. So poetry is what goes by the wayside, it’s too slippery, can’t sort of codify it.
DB: You can’t assess it.
RD: You can’t assess it! Right.
RD: But, but this way it wouldn’t have to assess it, it would still be there, and, you know, it’s a great way to tame them, right before they go home. Because that poem is coming. The crazy poem, or whatever it is.
RD: So yeah.
DB: And maybe some days it wouldn’t be so crazy for them.
RD: Yeah. Someday they’ll say, hey! Where’s the poem?
RD: We need time for the poem! We need to wait for the poem!
DB: We’re not leaving until we get the poem.
RD: Until we get our poem. Can you get the bus driver to read the poem if you can’t?
(both crack up)
RD: Ah, oh boy that’d be great.
DB: That would be. I have a – I think I mentioned, a son in third grade, and he knows what poetry is! And uh… he’s going to grow up at least knowing that it’s not quite so bizarre, it’s uh.
RD: Right. After all, dad does it!
DB: Yes, yes!
RD: So it’s.
DB: So. Last summer, I actually went to Alaska with a colleague from the geology department, and helped him with some of his tree-ring research, which is um, boring these hemlock trees to get data on weather, because of the tree-rings from hundreds of years ago. And he also does work in glacier bay, with uh – I can’t remember her name, but she is sort of like an oral storyteller, she’s sort of like the bard of the Klinkit people in southeastern Alaska, and Greg (?) and she and her husband have actually collaborated on a lot of project that involve geology and the pre-history of the Kinkit people there –
DB: And uh, he’s been able to do a lot of documentation of how the world was when these certain oral tails sprung up around the people, I mean there’s even this one place there that has a place name that it’s like, Sea of Grass, and now it is a forest or something and it’s definitely not a sea of grass, but Greg was able to do some coring and so on, in this place, and was able to identify that area as being grassland about the time when these place names, when they started to develop amongst the people. So they’re doing a lot of really fantastic work between anthropology and geology.
RD: And geology, right, right. Oh my gosh. It’s that amazing?
DB: It really is.
RD: I think it’s just – yeah, it’s good.
DB: So. Well, I’m going to – that’s it!
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