Rita Dove came to the 14th and V location of Busboys and Poets last night to read from The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (Penguin Books, 2011), which she edited. She started out the evening reading William Carlos Williams, telling the audience “The Red Wheelbarrow” is often anthologized, “as it should be,” but that she was concerned with his lesser known poems, poems that are longer and full of anger and emotion. She moved through the century with this theme in mind, reading poems she wanted to introduce her audience to more than recite ones it most likely already knew. She finished her reading with a poem about the end of the century by Stephen Dobyns titled “Lullaby,” with the most intriguing refrain: “the century is going to sleep.”
Following the reading was a question and answer period, in which Dove answered questions genuinely and thoughtfully. One woman from the audience stood up and told Rita Dove that she and her husband came all the way from Bangladesh to hear her. A little later another woman stood up and related the story of how she was a professor in the 1980s and invited Rita Dove, then an unknown poet, to a poet’s gathering. A few weeks later Dove became famous and someone asked the woman how she knew Dove was going to make it big and the woman said, “Because I can read!” Dove had a wide smile on her face during the telling of this story, and after it was over she said, “It’s so great to see you again!”
Some other great moments in the evening were:
1. [Q: Why are you so awesome?] Dove appears quite humble, and did not know what to say to this except a nice thank you. But then she decided to tell the audience a big lesson her father taught her: to always prepare 150%; you might not get the job, but if you prepare 150%, you have done your best.
2. [On making it] She admitted she was naturally quite shy, and that one thing she doesn’t have a lot more of these days is privacy, but she enjoys being in front of an audience and connecting with them.
3. [On the art of writing] “If I’m not terrified at some point when writing a poem – if I’m not pushing myself – then something is wrong.”
4. [On 21st century poetry and social media] Dove remarked that social media makes poetry like kudzu – it’s popping up everywhere. She also said, “We’re given so much information we can’t just be quiet and be.”
5. [On spoken word versus the written poetry] Dove called the two mediums the stage and the page. She thought the stage was as much a performance as it was poetry, and that its poets don’t trust the audience to understand more complicated works; the poets keep their poems too simple and explanatory; the page poets are doing just the opposite. These poets are keeping their poems short and too complex, making their poems less accessible and without a chance to develop into something larger than the poet can imagine. She did think both mediums were strong and vibrant and exciting, and that in another few years spoken word will become a true force in poetry.
6. [On Lil’ Kim] Dove expressed concern for celebrities like Lil’ Kim, how they are too young to understand the network they are in (to which the person asking the question clapped) to be strong role models for women, but Dove was also respectful, and admitted she likes some of Lil’ Kim’s songs.
Dove was energetic, inspiring and thoughtful. She was seen as a leader and a difference maker. It is no surprise that she was Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress and a Pulitzer Prize winner. To read more about her, click the link at the bottom of this article, and feel free to comment below.