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.
Few modern poets range as widely through time and geography as Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate. But when she took the stage of the Ohio Theatre in downtown Cleveland April 11, the evening had the sweet tang of home.
“It’s always good to come back,” she said, 60 years after her birth in Akron. “There is something in the Midwest — particularly in Northeast Ohio — that never leaves your system. I come back and immediately I fall into the cadences of the Midwest.”
Dove, whose musical alto drew an audience of more than 700, grew up immersed in the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, during a childhood that also made room for fractal geometry and “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” Ronald B. Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation, noted that the 1955 children’s picture book influenced the poet’s “sense of color and space, two primary concepts in her poetry.” As he introduced Dove, Richard praised her instrumental work as a juror for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
Dove told her audience that her creativity “starts with a line, not a grand idea. It’s an ache, an absence that I am trying to fill.”
The evening flowed chronologically through Dove’s nine poetry collections. She began with “Geometry,” a poem that reflects her love for mathematics, and one, she told the audience, that also grapples with its limits:
I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open
and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.
From her second book, “Museum,” Dove selected “Parsley,” a two-part poem that addresses the mind of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic who in 1937 ordered the slaughter of 20,000 black Haitians. (Trujillo figures prominently in Junot Diaz’s novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which earned an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2008.)
Trujillo chose death for those who could not pronounce the rolling letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley. As Dove explained this background, she encapsulated the horror: “Evil can be creative.”
Arthur Evenchik, who helps run the SAGES Fellows program at Case Western Reserve University, bought a ticket to hear Dove partly because of her work in “Museum.” He said he found out about her appearance from a SAGES instructor, Mary Holmes:
“Mary and I had never talked about poetry, and I didn’t know it was one of her interests,” Evenchik said in an email. “ But on this particular day, she mentioned lines from . . . a poem titled ‘Grape Sherbet,’ in which Dove recalls her father’s tradition of making dessert for Memorial Day picnics:
The diabetic grandmother
stares from the porch,
of pure refusal.
Evenchik continued: “Mary and I had just met up by chance on one of the quads when we had this conversation. It was wonderful to learn that we both carried this image in our heads, that Dove’s work had made such an impression on us both.”
The impression was heightened by hearing the words in Dove’s mouth, standing at a lectern with a stack of books, her hands often aloft, open, gesturing the music of the phrasing.
Dove turned her palms upward when she mentioned her initial doubts about “Thomas and Beulah,” a book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. “I thought, will anyone want to read about Akron? And then I remembered Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’:
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
Dove then read “Daystar,” a short poem about a young mother seeking a moment of peace. It ends:
that night, when Thomas rolled over and
lurched into her, she would open her eyes
and think of the place that was hers
for an hour — where
she was nothing,
pure nothing, in the middle of the day.
The audience response caused Dove to smile and say, “The mothers are applauding.” She paused to praise the Cuyahoga County Public Library, which sponsored her talk. Her gratitude took its form in what Dove often calls her “love poem to libraries”: “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967.” She told the audience that was the year her parents wrote a note to the staff to let their daughter check out anything she wanted.
Watch Rita Dove read “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” in the video below.
Some of the fruit of that reading may well have nourished the pointed poem “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove,” set during the 1940 Academy Awards, when the actress won an Oscar for her performance as a maid in “Gone With the Wind.” Dove’s poem contains this question:
What can she be
thinking of? Striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?
Dove spent the rest of the evening dwelling on her latest title, “Sonata Mulattica,” a book-length cycle telling the story of the 19th century African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower and his turbulent friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven. As with all her work, the attention to detail threads through a profound feel for history. Dove said the most difficult part of the work was freeing Beethoven from the plaster cast modern readers picture when thinking of him.
Dove, who wore a brilliant turquoise dress, acknowledged her relatives in the crowd, and read a new poem called “Reunion.” It begins: “Thirty seconds into the barbecue/my Cleveland cousins have everyone/speaking Southern.”
The sense of family was palpable, even for those whose kinship was aesthetic. “I felt that I was surrounded by fellow readers who appreciate her writing as much as I do,” Evenchik remarked. “That was a privilege almost as great as hearing Dove herself. “
As for Dove, she was generous and encouraging to the students who flocked to her after the performance. “Read your butt off,” she told them. “Read, read, read. Nothing is too low or too high. If you don’t love reading, you can’t love writing.
“The other advice is: live. Writing is about life, it is not about literature.”
Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louis Gates has a resume a mile long. And in between his work at Harvard, his successful PBS specials, among his other numerous obligations, he found time to finish “Life On These Shores: Looking At African-American History 1513-2008,” an expansive look at the experience of blacks in America from the time of arrival of the free black conquistador Juan Garrido with Ponce de León in 1513 to the election of President Obama in 2008. Gates covers subjects as diverse as NBA great Bill Russell to Malcolm X to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The reason he’s able to write such books on such expansive topics is quite simply, his love for knowledge. In this interview with the Boston Globe, he talks about his love of reading and what books he believes everyone should pick up at least once. Check out the short excerpt below:
“Steve Jobs’’ by Walter Isaacson, which I’m loving, and “The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus’’ by Joel Chandler Harris. Most people look back at “Uncle Remus’’ and think it was racist, but people like W.E.B. Dubois in the teens and ’20s wrote about Harris as a preserver of black culture. So I’m going back to see. I just finished reading, “Freedom Papers’’ by Rebecca Scott [and Jean M. Hébrard], which traces a black woman’s family across five generations. It’s a brilliant book. I’m also reading the “Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.’’ And lately I’ve been on a Faulkner kick. I read “Absalom, Absalom!’’ and “As I Lay Dying.’’ That’s what I’ve been reading on planes. The thing that Faulkner got right was the intimacy in black and white relations.
The book he’d recommend to everyone
“The Intuitionist’’ by Colson Whitehead. “Invisible Man’’ by Ralph Ellison to me is the greatest novel of that time. Rita Dove’s poetry. Anything by Jamaica Kincaid and by Toni Morrison. My favorite of hers is “Jazz.’’