Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women.
Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”) writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a baffling fact considering the robust reading habits of black women.
Collectively, they took steps to remedy that omission. “Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon,” Greenidge writes in the introduction. “They form a revealing mosaic of the black American experience during the time period.”
Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Jesmyn Ward was one of the six panelists who selected the works, ranging from poetry to plays, nonfiction to short stories and novels. Alongside Ward was Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books; Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson and author of “Negroland;” Ayana Mathis, a professor and bestselling author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie;” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and author of “Thick”; and Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies whose most recent book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”
The 100 works are divided into five sections, spanning 160 years of literature: “A Fight For Our Humanity” (1859-1900), “A Rebirth of the Arts” (1924-1953), “Civil Rights & Black Power” (1959-1975), and “The Strength of Self Worth” (1976-1999) and “A Radical Future” (2000-2010).
Browse the list and you’ll find Anisfield-Wolf winners peppered throughout: Toni Morrison appears four times (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” and “A Mercy”) and Rita Dove gets a nod for 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Sonia Sanchez, our 2019 lifetime achievement winner, is recognized twice for her 1970s poetry collections: “We a BaddDDD People” and “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems.”
As ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins debuted the list on Twitter, she noted: “For those academics who are scratching their heads over how to make their syllabi more diverse, here you go. You have 100 books to choose from and they were chosen from the best of the best.”
And to cap the birthday off, Amistad Press is giving away free electronic copies of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visit www.CelebratingZora.com for downloading instructions.
Eighteen months after the Unite the Right racist violence wracked Charlottesville, the 25th anniversary of the Virginia Festival of the Book gathered thousands of thoughtful citizens and served as one way to gauge the civic temperature.
That temperature was decidedly warm among poet Rita Dove and novelists Esi Edugyan and John Edgar Wideman, the trio who closed the festival with their session, “A World Built On Bondage: Racism and Human Diversity in Award-Winning Fiction.” It was the second consecutive year the festival culminated in an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards panel.
“Esi is a wonder,” Dove effused when introducing Edugyan, whose latest novel Washington Black weaves a tale of freedom and adventure told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy of the same name. He begins his life in slavery on a Barbadian sugar plantation in the early 19th century. Edugyan received the Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 2012 for Half Blood Blues, a historical novel set to jazz in the folds of World War I and II. The former United States Poet Laureate then turned to Wideman and told the audience, “I can’t remember a time — in my adult life — when I haven’t been accompanied by John’s work.” The 77-year-old nodded his head slightly as Dove rattled off his accomplishments, including a Rhodes scholarship, a MacArthur “genius” grant, all Ivy-League basketball player and an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize in 2011.
The esteemed panel spoke of beginnings and how the path toward success often creates a chasm between where you’ve been and where you’re headed. For Wideman, that divide began as a basketball player on the high school varsity team, a pursuit that eventually led him to the University of Pennsylvania and away from his Pittsburgh roots. “I felt quietly that I needed that,” Wideman said. “At home it was a world of women – my grandmother, mother, her friends. I loved it, but I wasn’t active in that world. I was listening. But I knew there was a different world for men . . . Where was that men’s world?”
He found that men’s world — rowdy, instructive — through sports. “Doing the things that made me successful in the world outside of my family was absolutely stepping away from that family,” Wideman said. “I could not sort that out, so I just pretended most of the time that it wasn’t happening. I blinded myself to it.”
That sort of isolation from one’s community presented itself as more of a cultural struggle for Edugyan, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who settled in Calgary, Alberta, the Canadian interior.
“I’m attracted to stories of people who are on the margins,” Edugyan, 41, said. “This comes out of my own history growing up a black woman in the prairies, in Alberta. Being born in Calgary, in the late 70s, where the black population has never been more than three percent.”
That dearth of community translated into her art: “I grew up with a huge feeling of isolation and almost of not having a community in that sense, and being sort of a constant outsider as I’m making my way through the world . . . That’s always been why I’m attracted to stories that are footnotes in the larger history . . . things that are sitting on the margins and looking at events through those eyes.”
Does writing feel like home? Dove asked. “Books opened the doors to feeling at home in the world,” Edugyan replied. “You learn that others, people who are totally unlike yourself, are going through the same thing, feeling the same emotions. There’s a great comfort in that.”
Wideman noted that his ease with writing ebbs and flows. But above all, he told the audience, language is art.
“Nobody owns the language,” he said. “Language is entirely invent-able by each one of you, each one of us, the language is a collective phenomenon. . . That’s what I hope to prove to people like myself: You own the world. It belongs to you. Language is an instrument. Language dances. It dreams. It contains silence.”
When it came to the power of the written word to offer a reprieve from the current news cycle and political climate, both authors had their reservations.
“Literature doesn’t solve problems,” Wideman told the audience. “Literature is the opportunity to think about problems, to invent in one’s own mind, and try to invent in other minds, a different world.”
“There’s no magic bullet novel that’s going to solve all our problems,” Edugyan quipped. “Empathy is important because we’re living in age right now where nobody is listening to anybody else. . . We need to engage with lives and experiences that are totally different from what we are going through ourselves. That’s the only way we can mark a path forward.”
When one white man in the audience asked Edugyan if buying a copy of Washington Black “would count as reparations,” the crowded auditorium sat silent for a few moments amid the pointedness of his insult.
Edugyan called it a terrible question, but she nonetheless answered it.
“One thing you might get – having walked with this young slave boy for six years, totally unlike yourself – is empathy,” she said. “You might feel something for him. Maybe it doesn’t change the greater world, this experience of empathy, but it offers something so rare, the experiences of someone totally different.”
“Preventing international artists from contributing to American cultural life will not make America safer, and will damage its international prestige and influence,” wrote the signatories, who include poet Rita Dove and historian Simon Schama, panelists on the five-member Anisfield-Wolf jury.
The letter continues: “Arts and culture have the power to enable people to see beyond their differences. Creativity is an antidote to isolationism, paranoia, misunderstanding, and violent intolerance. In the countries most affected by the immigration ban, it is writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who are often at the vanguard in the fights against oppression and terror. Should it interrupt the ability of artists to travel, perform, and collaborate, such an Executive Order will aid those who would silence essential voices and exacerbate the hatreds that fuel global conflict.”
“As writers and artists, we join PEN America in calling on you to rescind your Executive Order of January 27, 2017, and refrain from introducing any alternative measure that similarly impairs freedom of movement and the global exchange of arts and ideas,” they write.
Each time poet and Akron native Rita Dove speaks in Northeast Ohio, she begins with an acknowledgement of home. Her trip to Cleveland this past September was particularly rich in the significance of place.
“It’s been like one huge family reunion,” she said, smiling wide at the audience assembled at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on the Case Western Reserve University campus.
More than 600 people sat entranced for “An Evening With Rita Dove and Friends,” a celebration of the Anisfield-Wolf juror’s three decades of literary prominence. One of them was Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson, who said the following evening, “Last night I witnessed the extraordinary cultural presence of black America in our cultural life as I sat with the largest and most integrated audience I have ever seen, listening in rapt attention and near reverence to Rita Dove reading her glorious American poems.”
The evening of verse commemorated the 30th anniversary of “Thomas & Beaulah,” Dove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, and this year’s publication of her “Collected Poems.” At 64, Dove has said the new anthology felt like “a tombstone,” but that she has come to appreciate having her best poems in one volume.
Dave Lucas, co-founder of Brews + Prose, emceed the evening, cautioning against viewing the evening as a respective. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say, thank you Rita, but we are greedy for much much more.”
Poet Toi Derricotte, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Black Notebooks” in 1998, made the trek from Pittsburgh to introduce her friend, sampling and relishing her verse. As the capper, Lucas presented his mentor with a paper bouquet of flowers, carefully constructed from a copy of “Thomas and Beulah.”
“It must have been so difficult to destroy a book, I hope,” Dove remarked as she admired the token, “but it’s so beautiful.”
The former poet laureate and Akron native will return to the region that raised her to celebrate her new “Collected Poems” and for the 30th anniversary of her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, “Thomas and Beulah.”
“An Evening with Rita Dove & Friends” serves as an intellectual appetizer for our 2016 awards ceremony, with jury chair Henry Louis Gates and all five 2016 winners — Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Mary Morris, Orlando Patterson, Lillian Faderman and Brian Seibert — scheduled to attend. Poet Toi Derricotte, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Black Notebooks” in 1998, will introduce her friend to a hometown crowd.
Published in 1986, “Thomas and Beulah” is based loosely on Dove’s maternal grandparents and is set in Akron. It traces their lives through the birth of her grandfather Thomas in the early 20th century until the death of her grandmother, whose actual name was Georgianna, in the 1960s.
“This is the quintessential moment to celebrate Rita Dove in her beloved community,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for the Cleveland Foundation. “She has served more than 20 years as an indispensable juror, and she has elevated American literature with her poems and teaching and editing. For most of us, that began with ‘Thomas and Beulah,’ which brought a black, middle-class, mid-American couple into our collective literary consciousness.”
The celebration begins at 7:30 p.m. on September 14 in the Maltz Performing Arts Center on the Case Western Reserve University campus. Tickets are free and parking is $7. Tickets for parking and for the event are available here or by calling 216-368-6062.
Five winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award in fiction are standing up to publicly, “as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”
“Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” states the open letter as grounds for resisting Trump’s candidacy.
The letter’s final justification states “Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”
Lyz Lenz, an Iowa blogger about parenting and pregnancy, contributed an essay, posted on Lithub alongside the open letter, suggesting that William Faulkner was prescient in creating the corrupt character Flem Snopes. Her essay is subtitled “On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War.”
“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”
Poet Rita Dove introduced Toni Morrison—the only living American Nobel recipient in literature—with joy and grace and poetry at the New School in Manhattan, where Morrison received the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof award—its lifetime achievement prize. The NBCC stressed that Morrison the editor, the essayist, the critic, the mentor and professor had made enormous contributions to American letters, in addition to her luminous books. But it was the eloquent Dove, a Pulitzer winner, a former U.S. poet laureate and long-serving juror of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, who made a case for the ages. Dove remembered herself as a searching young woman, the only African American graduate student at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop:
“One day, deep in the bowels of the library, I stopped dead in my tracks. Something had caught my eye; I wasn’t sure what. There, just behind my left shoulder . . . I couldn’t shake the feeling a book was looking for me. Since it was spring, when such things happen, I didn’t question the feeling, I just turned around. And there it was, at eye-level, bound in black linen and peacock-blue lettering: THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison.”
This first novel, which transformed Dove, met a different initial critical reception, one Morrison remembered as “slight, indifferent, even hostile” until the critic John Leonard took up the novel and wrote about it.
Last Thursday night, when a resplendent Morrison, 84, rolled onto the stage in her wheelchair and wearing a gray beret, a standing ovation enveloped her. She looked at Dove, smiled and cracked wise: “Rita, that was beautiful. And true.”
Read the entire Dove introduction, reprinted with permission, here:
Good evening. Thank you, Steven Kellman and the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, for inviting me to introduce Toni Morrison as the recipient of this year’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Although Toni Morrison certainly doesn’t need an introduction per se, there can scarcely be too many celebratory tributes to one of the greatest novelists of our time and the only living American Nobel laureate in literature. I don’t have to rattle off Toni Morrison’s many accomplishments and honors to those present here tonight. As book critics you are, by and large, deeply familiar with her works, and your organization was among the very first to publicly recognize the rising star when, in 1977, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Song of Solomon.”
In our age of factual information cascading from smart phones at the tap of a few buttons, you don’t need me to refresh your memory with all the titles of our honoree’s eleven luminous – and illuminating – novels and her numerous other works – the plays and essays and children’s books. I also assume you wouldn’t want me to whittle away minutes at this podium with a recitation of previous awards… although, I admit, it is tempting to mention at least a few – such as the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved,” the 1996 Jefferson Lecture, the National Humanities Medal in 2000, the honorary doctorate from Oxford and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although my personal panoply of greats—that literary Valhalla I call upon for inspiration—is heavily weighted in favor of the craft of poetry, Toni Morrison has always commanded a prime seat front and center, for she is not only a prose virtuoso but also a master of poetic sensibilities and lyrical language: Her influence on discourse, idiom and the vernacular has transformed our perception of the intricate paths to the interior consciousness – be it the thoughts of an illiterate slave or the harrowing logic fabricated by a father guilty of incest; of children whose souls have been damaged beyond the reach of pity and women ravaged by a longing so desperate that nothing short of annihilation will satisfy; of a ghost starved for love, of a town bent on its own brand of self-preservation. With an extraordinary poet’s economy of idiom and her signature elliptical elegance, Toni Morrison has probed the crannies and tunnels of mental illness and the torment of war veterans shattered by the myriad possibilities for sabotage in the world; she has recreated the improvisational call-and-response of jazz, the see-saw proclivities of obsessive attraction and violence freighted with fear. And while birthing upon the literary stage a host of characters we, the readers, recognize as familiar and accept in the way of Family, from the praiseworthy to the quirky to the closeted, she has also been – subtly, cannily – at work on fashioning a new graph of American history whose many intersecting trajectories take us from the Anglo-Dutch slave trade through the ante-bellum insanities of Southern racial terror, from the Great Migration and 1920’s Harlem to the labor pains of the Automobile Age whose factories disgorged a glittering stream of chrome-trimmed fantasies from what are now the rust belt cities of the Midwest; from the L.A. cosmetics industry to a trailer parked outside of Whiskey, California.
A few days after I received Steven Kellman’s call asking me if I’d like to pay homage to Toni Morrison tonight – an undertaking somewhat tantamount to introducing Athena, while she looks on with her gray eyes – my husband and I went to a dance – a milonga – at our local Argentine tango club. In an attempt to boost everyone’s mood in the middle of a drear, chilly winter and as a nod to the Carneval season, everyone was asked to come masked. But when we arrived with our Venetian facial wear and harlequin confections, we quickly discovered that the masks got in the way of dancing – ribbons tangled, feathers snagged on gold braid trim, and with obstructed peripheral vision, balance was impaired so we teetered and wobbled. After a quick confab with the young man who had asked me for the second set of tangos – a newcomer to our town – we decided to ditch the masks; and as the bandoneon throbbed to Carlos Gardel singing about the kind of woman who can ignite an “instant violent love”, my dance partner remarked, out of the blue: “Now that’s some Toni Morrison love.” I was struck with speechless. But by the next day my curiosity had overwhelmed my hesitancy, so I asked this young man, via a Facebook message, what his first encounter with the books of Toni Morrison had been. His response was effusive and – there’s no other way to describe it – grateful. He wrote:
I think I was 22 or 23—after college but before grad school. I went into a bookstore and had a sort of literary crisis. I felt that so many of the authors on the shelves were creating entire worlds and entire castes of characters that merely served as backdrops for the breakdown of yet another petty “I.” Like all those books could be retitled “The Day *I* Was Sad.” Then I picked up “Beloved.” Faith in literature restored. What a genius Morrison is! I think so many novelists are like peacocks with their language, flourishing feathers and letting the reader know how smart and lyrical they are. But I think Morrison is able to do extreme lyric and yet be conversational at the same time. I wish I had found her work earlier. I want to know why she isn’t required reading in school. Morrison has wisdom in abundance, along with lyrical and storytelling brilliance. I wonder how she does it.
And my tango-dancing friend ended with a postscriptum prompted by his wife of just a few months:
Now my wife wants to tell you about how she battled the Dominican obsession with Aryan features as a teenager but then encountered “The Bluest Eye” in high school. She says Morrison gave voice to all of her dissent and made her comfortable with it.
Four decades earlier I had fought a similar battle with myself and the strange environment I had chosen to immerse myself in when I attended the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop as its only African-American graduate student. As a young poet still trying to locate myself in the thicket of literary traditions, I often wandered the stacks, willing myself into unknown territory. I had yet to find myself, or at least an image I could identify with, in the pages of European and American literature; while most of the books concerned with Black America took place, by and large, either in the Deep South or in urban ghettos. What about the experiences and dreams of a black girl growing up middle class in middle America? I wondered. Was there no room, no mirror, for me? Then one day, deep in the bowels of the library, I stopped dead in my tracks. Something had caught my eye; I wasn’t sure what. There, just behind my left shoulder . . . I couldn’t shake the feeling that a book was looking for me. Since it was spring, when such things happen, I didn’t question the feeling; I simply turned around. And there it was, at eye-level, bound in black linen with peacock-blue lettering: THE BLUEST EYE, by Toni Morrison.
The library had removed all book jackets, so there was no biographical note, no blurb to give me a hint of the contents. The title intrigued me; I didn’t know the author, but as soon as I opened the book and began to read, I was convinced that Toni Morrison, whoever she was, knew me, my people and where I came from – Akron, Ohio, one of the industrial towns sprinkled along the smudged neckline of the Great Lakes. By the time I finished the opening section – those three amazing paragraphs mimicking the eerie deadpan of primary school primers, variations on an American Dream gone horribly wrong – I was certain that this writer had also experienced, as I had, the “double-consciousness” which W.E.B. Du Bois defines as that “peculiar sensation … of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” When I reached the sentence, “Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year,” a wild hope began to stir that maybe, just maybe, she was from the Midwest. Fifteen pages later came the confirmation I craved: “There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio.” I began to shiver. My gut response had been right: Toni Morrison was a home girl.
No words can fully express what Toni Morrison has meant to me ever since – as a writer, a woman, a black woman, and, yes, a fellow Ohioan. She gave me literary shelter and pointed me toward the poetry in my geographical space. She taught me to pay attention to everything without prejudice, for beauty can be found in the “ginger sugar” smell rising from a polluted lake, and the fate of an empire can rest on the curve of an eyebrow. Her work has accompanied me through my years of honing myself as a writer and a woman. How desolate that journey would have been without Milkman and First Corinthians, or Flores or the intrepid Sula; without Toni’s wry humor and chastening gaze, her laughter that seems to come straight up from the middle of the earth!
Over the years Toni and I have met a number of times – official events as well as more private gatherings; even once by chance, late one evening in a hotel lobby in Cleveland where we convinced the bartender to serve one more round of drinks before closing shop. But two scenes with Toni stand out vividly – a 1994 tribute in her honor at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and a gala seven years later at the New York Public Library in celebration of her 70th birthday. In both places Toni was surrounded by orchids. Orchids – those gorgeous, engorged blooms that come in every color you can think up (and beyond), their petals veined like human hands held to the light, with a smell as intimate and ravishing as an indelicate thought crossing your mind in the middle of the 23rd psalm. As symbols of love and desire (both the light and the dark sides), they can make young girls blush and coax a Mona Lisa smile from a grown woman; these curiously mammalian creatures that seem to live on nothing but mist and air, yet can inspire in their breeders a devotion teetering on madness. Orchids are the queen bees of the flower world, and you better not mess with them.
Like the orchids surrounding her then, Toni Morrison has always seemed both rooted in the earth and poised for flight, resplendent and serene. Most importantly, she has woven tales that beguile, even as they lead us deeper into the carefully shielded psyche of homo sapiens than we knew to go. She has given us stories where survival may not mean victory and cruelty may reveal itself as the ultimate tenderness; stories where home is not a country, especially when the country has never learned to be at home with its past – and from the midst of those magnificent specimens of art, Toni Morrison – woman, mother, editor, writer, critic, Nobel laureate, professor, mentor, friend – shines all the more fiercely. I thank you, Toni, for your life’s work past, present and future, and for your resplendent example. May you keep on shining.
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.
Brooklyn, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Book Festival—a celebratory, cerebral, free event that runs one Sunday in September—attracted tens of thousands of readers, and this year, a spike of controversy.
Anisfield-Wolf jurors Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work, soaking up warm applause, while two recent fiction winners—Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—signed a petition calling on the festival to sever its support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Israel’s bloody 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians – including 500 children – dead,” asserts the petition, distributed by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. “Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli consulate at this time amounts to a tacit endorsement of Israel’s many violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.”
The nub of the criticism centered on a small aspect of the festival: the sponsorship of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Gavron, whose much-lauded novel, “The Hilltop,” will publish in the United States in October, participated in a panel entitled “A Sense of Place: Writing From Within and Without.”
Diaz, who won both a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” stayed away, as did the Pakistani writer Shamsie, who won for the novel “Burnt Shadows” in 2010. But a number of the signatories—New Yorker writers Elif Batuman and Sasha Frere-Jones, author Greg Grandin and essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—also participated as speakers at the festival.
So did two other Anisfield-Wolf winners, Zadie Smith, a Londoner who won in 2006 for her novel “On Beauty” and James McBride, whose best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” earned the prize in 1997 and whose most recent book, “The Good Lord Bird” surprised the bookies by winning a National Book Award last year.
Appearing on the main stage with other poets laureate, Dove praised 19-year-old Ramya Ramana, who recited a moving piece called “A Testimony in Progress.” For her part, Ramana described Dove as one of her essential inspirations.
In a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” Oates spoke of her latest story collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in which an elderly Robert Frost is visited by a disturbing young woman in the title story. “Each of these stories jolted me awake,” said the critic Alan Cheuse, “like a bark from a monstrous dog.”
Meanwhile, an affable James McBride appeared on a panel with novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, whose dense and beautiful historical novel “Song of the Shank” scored a cover review this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.
“I wanted to do something different,” McBride said of his comic slavery novel. “Many books about race are [dropping his voice to sing] ‘Ohhh, Freedom, Ohhh Freedom.’ I didn’t want to read that book. I wanted to write to the common place. I was thinking about the kid who reads Spider-Man comics.”
Allen, whose “Song of the Shank” has comic elements, said a famous black writer told him that the makers of the film “12 Years a Slave” forgot that black people like to laugh. Allen added that Langston Hughes entitled one of his novels, “Not Without Laughter.”
McBride, who allowed that he’d “had my buns toasted” over his irreverent portrait of Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” said that the sainted abolitionist lived under one roof with his black wife and his white mistress, a set-up that the writer found “too delicious” to pass up.
The festival, now in its ninth year, awarded McBride its BoBi prize for “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”
Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrisonfound herself on stage at the Hay Festival in Wales May 28, the same day her friend Maya Angelou died in North Carolina at the age of 86. The obvious question—”Do you have any words to say about her life and legacy?”—was coming.
“She launched African-American women writing in the United States,” Morrison said, choosing her words carefully. “She was generous to a fault. She had 19 talents…used 10. She was a real original. There’s no duplicate.”
The friendship between Morrison and Angelou spanned more than 40 years. In 1973, Angelou wrote to Morrison after she finished reading Sula, telling her, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Their friendship deepened as they continued to cross paths and support one another’s work over the decades. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Angelou threw a party at her Winston-Salem home.
In 2012, Angelou traveled to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to toast Morrison’s contributions to literature. Poet Nikki Giovanni organized “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day celebration on the Blacksburg campus where she has taught since 1987. The guest list was historic, with Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis in attendance.
The writers assembled at Giovanni’s request, as a show of solidarity after the quick death of Morrison’s son Slade from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The gathering took its name from the dedication for Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula :“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”
On stage, Maya Angelou smiled at the crowd and praised her friend for liberating her as a younger woman. “That is what this woman has done through 10 books: loving, respecting, and appreciating the African-American woman and all the things she goes through.”
Later, Morrison said, “This is as good as it gets.”
She gave credit to Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for helping her discover the meaning in her work. “I had not seen that kind of contemporary clarity, honesty…sentences that were more than what happened, but how….I took sustenance from that. The door was open, so black women writers stepped through.”
Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley knew he wanted to make a film on Rita Dove. So the director of documentaries on former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and revolutionary Che Guevara decided to finance the project out of his own pockets.
“To have someone like Rita Dove expressing herself in generational terms by talking about her father and grandfather in her poetry was, to me, like a triple jackpot,” the Virginia-based filmmaker said. “I got the writer I was looking for. I got the story I was looking for, and I had it all right here at home.”
The result is “Rita Dove: An American Poet” built from family photos, home videos and interviews with its subject Montes-Bradley explores the former poet laureate’s formative years and asks how a girl from Akron, Ohio, became one of the most lauded poets of our time.
The film premiered in late January to a sold-out crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove, 61, has been a professor at the University of Virginia since 1989. Boyd Tinsley, violinist with the Dave Matthews Band, gave remarks post-screening, followed by a few selected poems from Dove herself. Later, Dove sat for a brief Q&A with the director of University of Virginia’s creative writing program.
“What I love about the film is that it manages to maintain some mystery,” Dove remarked. “It resists the stamp of ‘this is Rita Dove.’ And his attention to the influence of music in my life — I am just extremely grateful for.”
Indeed, music is her center. The accomplished musician, whose talents extend to the viola da gamba (related to the cello), finds that both music and poetry “scratch the same itch.” Dove’s connection to music lead to the little-known story of African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, a protege of Ludwig van Beethoven. He inspired her 2009 book, “Sonata Mulattica.”
“I am obsessed with music,” Dove mused. “And poetry is a perfect vehicle for it because words are music. I’m obsessed with trying to capture what sensations music gives us.”
Watch footage following the premiere of the documentary, captured by Dove’s husband of 35 years, writer Fred Viebahn.
Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove is 61 today. Her father, chemist Ray Dove, took her and her brother from Akron, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. when she was 11, where Mr. Dove participated in the March for Jobs and Freedom.
This video, created by Rita Dove’s husband Fred Viebahn, features rich personal photographs and vintage film. Please note that the music in the background is former U.S. Poet Laureate Dove herself, playing bass viol.
by Rita Dove
On Trayvon Martin, today I find myself at a loss for words — or rather, I used up all the words in the poem itself. The entire matter is so complex and sorrowful, the implications so insidious and dire, that I could only respond in the way I know best– by taking up one angle of vision, one point of view, and writing out of that moment. To say any more would be redundant and dangerously inaccurate.
It is difficult/to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there./Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides.
William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”
Move along, you don’t belong here.
This is what you’re thinking. Thinking
drives you nuts these days, all that
talk about rights and law abidance when
you can’t even walk your own neighborhood
in peace and quiet, get your black ass gone.
You’re thinking again. Then what? Matlock‘s on TV and here you are,
vigilant, weary, exposed to the elements
on a wet winter’s evening in Florida
when all’s not right but no one sees it.
Where are they – the law, the enforcers
blind as a bunch of lazy bats can be,
holsters dangling from coat hooks above their desks
as they jaw the news between donuts?
Hey! It tastes good, shoving your voice
down a throat thinking only of sweetness. Go on, choke on that. Did you say something?
Are you thinking again? Stop! – and get your ass gone, your blackness, that casual little red riding hood I‘m just on my way home attitude
as if this street was his to walk on. Do you do hear me talking to you? Boy.
How dare he smile, jiggling his goodies
in that tiny shiny bag, his black paw crinkling it,
how dare he tinkle their laughter at you.
Here’s a fine basket of riddles:
If a mouth shoots off and no one’s around
to hear it, who can say which came first –
push or shove, bang or whimper?
Which is news fit to write home about?
Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove delivered the 2013 commencement address to the graduates of Emory University in Atlanta.
The Anisfield-Wolf jury member spoke on the beauty of imagination and finding confidence as they journey into the unknown. Dove also received an honorary degree, with Emory President James Wagner praising her ability to “generously illuminate the world of beauty that formerly was hidden.”
How did you respond to Dove’s message? Just for fun—do you remember your commencement speaker or their message?
At age 2, Joshua Coyne was removed from his Kansas City home with broken legs and hips. His foster mother was responsible.
He was placed in the care of Jane Coyne, a single woman with a love of classical music. During his recovery, Jane began to play a Puccini aria and to her surprise, Joshua was able to hum it back, note for note. From there, Jane began to help him hone his gift as a musical prodigy.
Young Joshua began formal musical lessons at 4 and two years later, debuted as a paid violinist. He performed for then-Senator Barack Obama at a campaign rally at the tender age of 14. He put his studies at the Manhattan School of Music to use, composing the score of Janet Langhart Cohen’s one-act play Anne and Emmett.
Now, at 20, he is the face of the film adaptation of Rita Dove’s acclaimed book, Sonata Mulattica, Dove’s interconnected poems that tell the story of another prodigy, 19th century violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.
Born to a Polish-German mother and Afro-Carribean father, Bridgewater performed all over Europe, thrilling royal audiences and garnering rave reviews. Ludwig Van Beethoven named one of his greatest violin sonatas after his friend and contemporary, but a spat between them caused Beethoven to re-title the work and cut off his friend. Bridgetower continued composing and teaching but gradually fell into obscurity.
It is gratifying that Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf jury member who plays the cello and its forerunner, the viola da gamba, has brought Bridgewater’s life center-stage.
The film intersects Coyne’s present journey with Bridgewater’s rightful place in history, adding layer and nuisance to the lives of two prodigies born centuries apart. “This story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of extraordinary obstacles,” said director and executive producer Andrea Kalin. “It reveals how music and art have the power not only to open our hearts, but transform our lives.”
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.”
Watch Anisfield-Wolf jury member Rita Dove get presented with the 2011 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama and Kwame Anthony Appiah be presented with the 2011 National Medal of Humanities.
Today, President Obama will present the 2011 National Medal of Arts to distinguished Anisfield-Wolf jury member Rita Dove. Ms. Dove will be honored for her contributions to American poetry.
Ms. Dove creates works that are equal parts beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics. Ms. Dove has worked to create popular interest in the literary arts, serving as the United States’ youngest Poet Laureate and advocating on behalf of the diversity and vitality of American poetry and literature.
She has also won the National Humanities Medal, also being awarded today, becoming only the third person to have the honor of both medals. We send up a hearty round of congratulations to Ms. Dove!
CLEVELAND, Ohio (April 12, 2011) – The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of the 76th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards www.Anisfield-Wolf.org
Nicole Krauss, Great House, Fiction
Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Fiction
David Eltis/David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Nonfiction
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nonfiction
John Edgar Wideman, Lifetime Achievement
“The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the complex issues of race and cultural diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who serves as jury chair. “The books and authors honored this year stand out, not only for their creative and wide-ranging approach to difficult subject matter, but also for their underlying faith in our shared humanity.”
“Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf created this book prize more than 75 years ago because of her conviction that the issue of race was the most critical dilemma facing the United States. It was her fervent desire to break down stereotypes and encourage civil discourse so that future generations would be more appreciative of human diversity,” said Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard. “This prize remains a fitting testimony to the vision of a woman truly ahead of her time.”
About the Anisfield-Wolf Prize
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland on September 15 at a ceremony hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama also served on the jury. The Cleveland Foundation has administered the book awards since 1963, upon the death of its creator, Edith Anisfield Wolf. The Anisfield-Wolf prize remains the only juried American literary competition devoted to recognizing books that have made an important contribution to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human cultures.
About the Cleveland Foundation
Established in 1914, the Cleveland Foundation is the world’s first community foundation and the nation’s second-largest today, with assets of $1.87 billion and 2010 grants of nearly $85 million. The foundation improves the lives of Greater Clevelanders by building community endowment, addressing needs through grantmaking, and providing leadership on vital issues. Currently the foundation proactively directs two-thirds of its flexible grant dollars to the community’s greatest needs: economic transformation, public education reform, human services and youth development, neighborhoods, and arts advancement.