Dove's love is creating and sharing poetry. Prizewinning poet
Boston — SO, you want to write! ``Read, read, read!'' says poet Rita Dove, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. ``Separate yourself from the world in terms of space, noise, and time. Then write, write, write!''
And Rita Dove did write! She wrote, for example, Anniversary Twelve years to the day he puts the worry bead into his mouth. The trick is to swallow your good luck, too. Last words to a daughter ... and a wink to remember him by.
``Anniversary'' is poetry, Rita Dove style.
Her ideal setting for writing is a quiet spot, a place where she can pen notes undisturbed by others. ``I turn on music to get my mind ready for action. I clean up my desk. And I write at night when it's quiet.'' She adds, ``I wake up after midnight to begin writing when I'm freshest. This may last until 4 or 5 in the morning.''
Ms. Dove describes herself as a somewhat shy English professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. She lived in anonymity until a year ago. On April 16, 1987, she was named winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her book ``Thomas and Beulah'' (published by the Carnegie-Mellon University Press). ``Anniversary'' is from that book.
The only other black poet to win a Pulitzer Prize is Gwendolyn Brooks of Chicago.
Today Dove is a new person, still shy, but displaying a bravado. A full professor, she's on the college lecture circuit reading her poetry and advising young writers along the ivory tower trail.
Creating poetry is the first love of Dove. Inspiring young black people to write is her second. In pursuing this aspiration at a university where she is the only black on an English faculty of 70 persons, she is a ``handicapped'' teacher in a field that most black students rate as ``dull, dull, dull!''
Dove wonders why even black college students do not dare to write. She wistfully recalls her own childhood days when writing at home and at school was an ideal pastime for a shy person.
``Poetry picked me when I was a girl,'' she reminisces aloud. ``I always loved to write. Science fiction was my obsession when I was 11 and 12 years old. This kind of writing made the world come alive within me.''
In those days, she says, she read a lot.
``Poetry I loved most of all. When I went to college, I studied creative writing. That meant short stories and fiction. Poetry doesn't pay commercially. I wrote poetry at home.''
As a teacher, she speaks from experience. ``I love the language so much!'' she exclaims. ``I qualify my first draft of a poem as raw material. It is my duty to work with this raw material. Every single word must count. This is the time I become creative and innovative. Then my raw wording becomes a finished poem.''
She overcomes her shyness through her poems. ``My poetry isolates me from others,'' she says, ``yet keeps me from being lonely and bored. It challenges my creative juices. I can communicate with others through my poetry.''
Being black does not mean she writes for black people only, she says. Hope is not lost for black poets, she says. ``Lots of non-blacks are reading black literature,'' says Dove. ``Arizona is only 5 percent black, but more blacks are attending [this] college, and more are involved in cultural activity.''
A true poet rarely dreams of commercial success, she says. ``No poet can expect the acclaim of a rock star, a Michael Jackson. Black poets discover there's a dearth of calls for their works in most magazines. Poets know they will not be rich.''
She regrets that few black students take writing courses beyond freshman English at Arizona State. ``When I return to the campus,'' she says, ``I hope students see me as a role model, a black who can win honors as a writer. I'm certainly going to invite them to write. Too many fear writing, fear the professors are not sensitive to them.''
Dove herself is attracting more and more students to her classes. ``Blacks study Afro-American literature, and some are even taking advanced English,'' she says. ``I regret that many prefer sociology or some other subject over English.''
Young black people are creative, she says. She urges them to chance it and write. ``And write every day if they want to become noted authors,'' she adds.
Winning a Pulitzer Prize, this nation's premier award to a writer, has radically altered her life style, Dove says. She is the wife of a writer (German novelist Fred Viebahn) and mother of a four-year-old daughter.
``Suddenly, I've become a public person,'' she says. ``I'm no longer the shared possession of my ever-present urge to write, and of my family.''
Her telephone, in the past rarely overworked, now rocks and rolls off the hook. It harshly intrudes on her beloved peace and quiet time, her writing time. Her mailbox, once the depository for bills and junk mail, is crammed with messages of congratulations from strangers as well as friends, with invitations to speak, to read her poetry.
Dove is currently on sabbatical leave to write two books (one poetry and one of short stories), to relax with her family, and to redesign her future - when she is not on the road reading her poems, leading workshops. She spends private time at her alma mater, Miami University in Ohio - and in Europe.
She studied a year at the University of T"ubingen in West Germany, earning an MFA degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
She has written two other volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories (her first collection of stories, ``Fifth Sunday,'' is distributed by the University Press of Virginia).
``These days I need quiet time for myself, any moment I can snatch, if I want to do any writing at all,'' she says.
``I also have to tighten my schedule. I'm rejoicing that my sabbatical excuses me from classroom routine and grading duties. I need time to write in order to keep my commitments.''
Dove says she prizes ``Thomas and Beulah'' because it is the story of her grandparents. As told her by her grandmother and her mother, it tells how her grandfather, Thomas, left the rural South, seeking employment in a Northern smokestack town (Akron, Ohio, where she was born in 1952), worked in a factory, and met and married Beulah, her grandmother.
``Thomas and Beulah'' is also part autobiography, she says.
Dove has received other rewards since the Pulitzer. Arizona State has promoted her to full professor with a salary of $52,000 a year, an $11,566 raise. The pay and promotion were granted to ward off other universities, which began to seek her services, says Arizona State president J. Russell Nelson.
Among her prizes was one of six 1987 General Electric Foundation Awards for Younger Writers for poetry in Callaloo, a University of Virginia journal featuring Afro-American writing and arts. Several poems printed in the 1986 winter issue of Callaloo were included in ``Thomas and Beulah.''
Luix Overbea is on the Monitor staff.