Rita Dove: a Chorus of Voices
FROM this slight and solitary woman, what a chorus of voices - bold, sly, anguished, determined - and each one is spotlighted briefly on the darkened stage of story or poem. It's almost as if Rita Dove, poet and novelist, is at the height of her craft when she is giving voice to the collection of presences that have, subtly or dramatically, shaped her life. Even during conversation, characters from her memory or art appear and disappear, adding their particular slant to an anecdote, spicing the talk with
echoes from the past.
Recently named the next poet laureate of the United States, Ms. Dove is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. In 1987, her collection "Thomas and Beulah" made her one of the youngest winners ever of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The book encapsulates the history of the 20th-century African-American migration to the North by focusing on her grandparents and the family they created in Ohio. In "Grace Notes," the poems are perhaps more intimate but still resonate with the voices of friends and family, still captivate us with her startling sense of the particular. Her recent novel, "Through the Ivory Gate," explores the way the chords of memory and imagination are blended in the composition of a life.
Music is a motif that runs throughout Rita Dove's writing, coming to represent the pure realm of spirit at the core of our experience. Her verse, by turns, wails like a jazz riff, soars like a gospel choir, and simmers with a classical elegance. She reminds us of the communal power we inherit along with our spoken language and the beauty of the voices that are, perhaps now, singing within us as well.
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Steven Ratiner: One of the central features in your poetry and fiction is the power of history and memory. Where does that drive to tell the story originate in your life?
Rita Dove: Well, it begins really with two things: One of them, that I wasn't represented in history ... either as a female or as a black person. And also the sense that ordinary people are not represented in history, that history gives you the tale of heroes, basically.... You are right, it is certainly something that has not only fascinated me, I'd almost say haunted me all these years. Also because I think that history is a very powerful weapon. If you can edit someone out of history then the next gen eration, the one who doesn't have a memory [of certain events] anymore, won't have anything to go on. And cultural memory is remarkably short in our day and age because communities are disintegrating, so there is no oral or communal sense of carrying on a tradition.
As a poet, are you a carrier of history?
A carrier of history of a particular sort. I think that in "Thomas and Beulah" what I was hoping to hand down [to the next generation] was a sense of two very normal people living through a period of incredible change in the United States.... But also I am interested in recovering a sense that we, as individual human beings, can connect to the universe.
What I love in your writing is your astounding sense of the particular, as if we were living through the experiences. Some provide us with a small glimpse of a black America we'd otherwise never see.
Well, that is just marvelous, because I think if we can, as human beings, enter those worlds even for an instant, then it makes it a little more difficult to hate someone else because they are different, to treat them badly or to kill them.
Your poems portray the lived experience of history. Two examples from "Grace Notes" come to mind: "Summit Beach" seems to bring back the figure of your grandmother Beulah again, and "Crab Boil" centers on a girl I took to be a young Rita Dove.
In each poem, a small personal experience is depicted center stage with just a hint of the larger historical forces churning in the background. The phrase "the Negro beach" is enough to conjure the racial climate in the 1920's. But Beulah seems hardly aware of this when she "climbed Papa's shed and stepped off/ the tin roof into the blue,/ with her parasol and invisible wings." If not the tide of history, there must be something else that supports this woman, gives her the confidence to take that brave s tep.
I think the "something else" in that poem particularly is a sense of self, a sense of love, that comes from family and the community. I keep coming back to the community.... What will always keep you going is that sense of being buoyed up by others, others who understand, others who care, who are maybe going through the same things. The girl in "Crab Boil" doesn't quite understand the segregated beach business but she has learned, even at that age, to look and pay attention to her elders.
But you create an interesting tension between the communal sway and the will of the individual. The girl keeps on questioning. She almost empathizes with the crabs captured in the pail, especially with Aunt Helen's comment, "Look at that -/ a bunch of niggers, not/ a-one get out 'fore the others pull him/ back." They tell the girl the crabs will feel no pain, and she finally accepts their claim. "I decide to believe this: I'm hungry."
But you have the feeling that she goes with their wisdom, yet she doesn't believe it totally. I think, really, she bows to the exigency of the situation. But I think that is the best of all possible kinds of relationships between individuals and the community, because I am not advocating that we be subsumed by some kind of group. We are all individuals who may share in various groups certain things that make us feel that we have a community. But the individual should never be obliterated or even blurred by that connection with the community. Even Beulah in "Summit Beach" - she wants to fly!
You've talked about the intellectual discipline in your household, the knowledge that your parents tried to "armor" you with as a girl.
Absolutely. It wasn't that rules were laid down, except in terms of television, which was a certain numbers of hours a week ... but a feeling in the household was that the only ticket you have to a happy life is to do the best you can in whatever you do.
And the one place we were allowed to go practically any time was the library, but we had to read all the books that we got....
And I remember coming back from the library once nearly in tears, I was about 11 or 12 or so, because they wouldn't let me check out Francoise Sagan. And I had read something in a magazine about this young girl who had written a risque novel, and I wanted to read it. I think it was "Bonjour, Tristesse," and they said, "No, you can't read it, you are not an adult." And it was the first time someone had told me I couldn't read anything, so I came home and my mother wrote a note that said, "Let her check ou t any book she wants." I think they felt if it was too old for us then we would get bored quickly.
That made a great impact on me; I think it was one of those moments when I realized that they trusted me.
Knowing how you feel about this, I thought it was curious how often you touch on the sense of "forbidden experience" in your writing. In one poem, there are Uncle Millet's stories, which you weren't suppose to hear but somehow memorized. There is the sense of unbridled fantasy in another, but you say "it's not the sort of story/ you'd tell your mother."
Forbidden stories are powerful stories. They are forbidden for reasons, and there are different reasons. But forbidden stories are those that can somehow change your life.... And as wonderful as my childhood was, there certainly was a sense that they were watching over us and they were not going to let us stray from a certain kind of path.... That kind of dreaming that takes you out of the influence of the family is not something you tell your mother, because you instinctively know ... they will start ti ghtening the reigns. It is also the feeling of the individual's imagination being a dangerous thing for the community. I'm not trying to say communities are all about this: This is a give-and-take thing. There are good things, and there are things that are confining.
In the last several years, we've had an experience where the larger community wants to censor art and individual imagination. Society is not willing, as were your parents, to turn over complete responsibility to the individual.
It is extremely dangerous. It is dangerous for the spiritual health of the world. You cannot keep a mind sequestered, you know; it will break out some way. It is offering people trust that they will be humane. The idea is that if one has grown up in an honest, compassionate kind of way, a disciplined way, then no knowledge is dangerous, because a person will take that knowledge and be able to think about it and be able to figure out what is wrong or right.
Music is another pervasive presence throughout your writing. Was that also something inherited from your parents?
Records were always being played in our house, very different kinds of records. There was a Bessie Smith and Josh White, but there were also Faure sonatas. My paternal grandparents did play instruments, the mandolin and the guitar. My parents, though, did not play instruments. It's odd, but when we were 10, it was time to pick an instrument, so I learned cello, as [one of my characters] Virginia does, and played cello all through college and even beyond.... But I think music was one of those first experi ences I had of epiphany, of something clicking, of understanding something beyond, deeper than rational sense.
In the novel, when the character of Virginia plays the cello for the first time in years, you write that "the high notes in each phrase insinuated themselves into her blood: above the treadmill of chordal progressions a luminous melody unscrolling and floating away, high in the upper ether, where there was no memory or hurt." How does music or art accomplish such transformation?
If I knew how music did that, I would be one up on everybody. I think that is one of the magical things about music - and you're right it is not just music, but any art - when the pleasure of its making, or the pleasure of the journey that it takes you on transcends [not only] the memories of pain you might have, but even the pain that might be contained in what it is talking about. An incredibly sad piece can make one exhilarated. I think this is one of the secrets of art, how it can help us, not digest
the pain, but in a certain way take in that pain or hurt in our life and still prevail. It lifts you up over it but it doesn't let you forget it.
Let me ask you about the music of your writing - not just "music" as a motif but the musical textures you create with your words. There's one passage where Thomas was speaking: "How long has it been...?/ Too long. Each note slips/ into querulous rebuke, fingerpads/ scored with pain, shallow ditches/ to rut in like a runaway slave/ with a barking heart." It almost feels like a tenor sax belting out a be-bop phrase.
The music is so important to me, I can't really emphasize that too much. I think that one of the ways that a poem convinces us is not just the words, the meaning of the words, but the sound of them in our mouths, the way they increase our heartbeat or not, the amount of breath it takes to say a sentence, whether it will make us breathless at the end or whether it gives us time for repose or contemplation. It's the way our entire body gets involved in the language being spoken. And even if we are reading the poem silently, those rhythms exist.
There are times when, in fact, the sound, the music, leads me as much as any sense. In that section of Thomas's, I wanted to get across some of the frustration he was feeling as he tries to go back to the mandolin and he is rusty and he can't make it work the way he wants to. It's one thing to say that in plain old language, but to make the rhythms jagged and back-and-forth and full of stops and starts and aggravations, that then kind of explode in, as you said, a sax riff, a little bit of blues - this w as for me a way of conveying that more deeply than saying he was "frustrated."
When you make a poem, what good is it in your life, and what good do you hope it might be when a reader receives it?
As human beings, we are endowed with this incredible gift to articulate our feelings and to communicate them to each other in very sophisticated ways. And writing a poem in which the almost inexpressible is being expressed is almost the pinnacle of the human achievement. So in that sense it is silly to ask what good is that, to reach the pinnacle.
The other thing is that when a reader reads a poem - I know that every time that I write a poem ... I try to remember or try to imagine that reader - the reader that I was - curled up on the couch, the moment of opening a book and absolutely having my world fall away and entering into another one and feeling there was one other voice that was almost inside of me, we were so close.
In writing a poem, if the reader on the other end can come up and say: "I know what you meant, I mean, I felt that too" - then we are a little less alone in the world, and that to me is worth an awful lot.