When former poet laureate Rita Dove graced the stage of the Akron Civic Theater October 16, she took a minute to give thanks to her hometown.
“It’s wonderful to be back home,” Dove told the crowd, adding that she was thankful for the opportunity to “give back what was given to me.”
The Anisfield-Wolf juror was the headliner for Project Learn of Summit County’s annual “Night of Illumination,” a fundraiser to improve literacy. The figures are sobering: an estimated 18 percent of the adult population in Summit County read at less than a fifth grade education. For more than 30 years, Project Learn has worked to improve literacy rates among adults, offering free classes and workshops. During the afternoon, Dove met with 30 students from these classes for an intense writing session. Two of the writers – poet Trinity Brooks, studying for her GED and Bulgarian immigrant Albena Makris, mastering English – read their work aloud for the Civic Theatre crowd.
Dove, 62, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for her book “Thomas and Beulah,” a collection loosely based on her maternal grandparents in Akron. She invited the audience to journey through her poems and the life that inspired them, beginning with childhood.
“I found a whole world of possibility in books,” she said. “I read everything – the back of cereal boxes, comic books, all the books my parents had on their shelves.”
Dove said she can remember every page of the first book she read–Harold and the Purple Crayon, a transformative text she picked up when she was 3. The 1955 book’s message – “you go where you need to go and if the road isn’t there, you build it” – became Dove’s mantra. Her poem “First Book” is dedicated to the wonder of a small child learning to read:
Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well…maybe a little.
More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.
You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.
Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use
knife and fork? Dig in:
you’ll never reach bottom.
It’s not like it’s the end of the world –
just the world as you think
you know it
Dove’s first foray into poetry came a few years after her discovery of Harold. In fourth grade, her teacher gave her class a broad prompt to make “something creative” for Easter. Little Rita, a quiet, bookish child, wrote “The Rabbit with the Droopy Ear.”
It was the first time, Dove remarked, that a poem had “come together” for her. She was hooked: “The bug had bitten me. I wanted to write all the time and feel that good all the time.”
Her creativity intensified during trips to the local library. “I can’t remember a time I wasn’t around books. That was the entryway into writing. It gave this shy child courage.” The poem “Maple Valley Branch Library 1967” is an ode to that place, its librarians and the willingness of her parents – Ray Dove and Elvira Hord — to let their daughter read any book she chose.
Dove read two poems from “Thomas and Beulah,” named after her grandparents. She told her audience, “There was no greater pleasure in my life than to get the Pulitzer for them, for my family and for Akron.” But she didn’t rush, and she had long conversations with her mother and her titular characters. “It took me a long time to write these stories,” she said. “I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. I wanted to get it right.”
During her tenure as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993-1995, Dove discovered people were afraid of poetry. “My response to that was to stick poetry wherever I went. I wanted to bring poetry into the world.” She took particular note of a letter from a mother declaring that young children should be exposed to poetry as soon as possible, for poetry is simply “making the language your own.” Children who are exposed to poetry in all its splendor, Dove said, usually have higher self-esteem and are less likely to feel like no one understands them.
Following the life cycle, Dove acknowledged the beginning of her courtship with Fred Viebahn, the German-born writer and her husband of 35 years. Her love poem “Heart to Heart” mashes clichés about the heart. It was fitting, Dove said, because their love is “anything but cliché.”
The twosome took up ballroom dancing more than a decade ago and the learning curve was steep: “There’s nothing like turning into stumbling toddlers when you’re in your…past-40s, let’s say,” Dove quipped.
The physicality of the sport (and yes, Dove maintains ballroom dancing is a sport) lead to Dove to write, “An Ode To My Right Knee.” This poem was particularly challenging in its own way. Upon crafting the poem Dove decided that every word in the same line would begin with the same letter. The last line — “kindly, keep kicking” — drew chuckles from the audience.
The evening ended softly, on a perfect note with Dove’s “Dawn Revisited”:
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.