Highlights of a Life
Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, the second of Ray and Elvira Dove’s four children. Her father was a research chemist for Goodyear tires, and both her parents emphasized education. Steven Ratiner of the Christian Science Monitor referred to Rita’s parents’ influence as “intellectual discipline.” Rita responded, “The one place we were allowed to go practically any time was the library, but we had to read all the books that we got.”
And Rita read as much as she could, from Mad magazine to Shakespeare, grateful that no one ever told her Shakespeare was too difficult for children. Once when she was 11 or 12, Rita came home from the library nearly in tears, “because they wouldn’t let me check out Francoise Sagan,” she told Steven Ratiner. “I had read something in a magazine about this young girl who had written a risque novel, and I wanted to read it. I think it was Bonjour, Tristesse, and they said, ‘No, you can’t read it, you are not an adult.’ And it was the first time someone had told me I couldn’t read anything.” Rita’s mother wrote a note to the librarian: “Let her check out any book she wants.” Her parents trusted her, even though “there certainly was a sense that they were watching over us and they were not going to let us stray from a certain kind of path.”
Rita began playing cello at age 10, and her experience with music led to her experimentation with poetry. She told Steven Ratiner, “I think music was one of those first experiences I had of epiphany, of something clicking, of understanding something beyond, deeper than rational sense.” She began writing poems and keeping them hidden in a notebook. “I was shy. I was a majorette and learning how it was to be relatively ‘in,’” she said in an article in the Akron Beacon Journal, 10/01/87. She didn’t want her classmates to know she was engaged in a “sissy” pursuit.
At Buchtel High School, Rita was a straight-A student. When she was in 11th grade, her English teacher, Miss Peg Oechsner, took her to a poetry reading by John Ciardi at a writers’ conference downtown. This was Dove’s first realization that a person could actually make a living writing poetry. “That was the first time it dawned on me [writers] were witty, normal people. They were real people.”
In 1970, Rita was one of the country’s top 100 high school graduates, and she visited the White House as a Presidential Scholar. She earned a national merit scholarship and attended college at Miami University in Ohio. Since she had grown up a good student, with the expectation that she would become a doctor or a lawyer, she entered college as a pre-law major and kept her poetry secret. No one in her family ever said anything against poetry, but writing was never a suggested vocation. Elvira Dove said, “We thought she could be better off financially with some of her other talents. She was good in math, she was an accomplished cellist. She had a good voice, spoke German…”
But eventually, writing poems won out for Rita. “More than anything else, I wanted to write,” she said. So she changed her major to English, thinking “I’ll become a teacher of writing so I can support my habit.” Rita graduated from Miami University, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1973.
After that, she received a Fulbright fellowship to attend the University of Tübingen in West Germany. When she returned to the U.S., Rita began her master of fine arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1975, she was the only black student in the prestigious program. Now, three decades later, with a host of awards and a dazzling career, Dove is still distressed by the fact that multicultural representation is not the norm in American literature.
Dove received her M.F.A. from Iowa in 1977. In 1979, she married Fred Viebahn, a German novelist whom she met in school in Iowa. Rita published her first poetry collection, The Yellow House on the Corner, in 1980. She began teaching at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in 1981; she gave birth to her daughter, Aviva, in 1983.
In 1987, Dove’s third book of poetry, Thomas and Beulah, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. These poems, loosely based on the lives of Dove’s maternal grandparents, are arranged in two sections: one devoted to Thomas and the other to Beulah. Its chronological sequence has, according to Dove, “the kind of sweep of a novel.” The couple depicted on the book’s front cover is actually an aunt and uncle, not Rita’s grandparents.
In 1989, the Dove-Viebahns moved to Charlottesville, where Rita began teaching at the University of Virginia. She was promoted to Commonwealth Professor of English in 1993, and holds the position to this day.
In 1993, Rita Dove was named Poet Laureate, the first African-American and, at 40 years of age, the youngest person ever to hold that post. Many poet laureates see a frustrating lack of “real” responsibility for the position. Dove’s predecessor, Mona Van Duyn, said she would “scream and run as far as possible” if she was asked to serve a second year.
But Dove saw the position as a great opportunity. Her diverse series included Crow Indian schoolchildren reading their poems, expatriate American poets, and readings combined with improvisational jazz. In 1994, Dr. James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, appointed her for a second term, saying she had “more ideas for elevating poetry in the nation’s consciousness than there is time to carry out in one term.” Dove was one few Poet Laureates to continue for two years.
Dove said the experience of being Poet Laureate was “much more gratifying than I anticipated. I was apprehensive… I feared every time I talked about poetry, it would be filtered through the lens of race, sex, and age. What I discovered was that there were people all over the country who were hungry for poetry and were eager to embrace the multitude of voices that can be heard through poetry.”
In a 1994 interview in USA Weekend with Leslie Ansley, Dove said, “I’ve been talking with producers at the TV networks, PBS and cable stations about doing poetry specials, public service announcements or little spots involving actors and actresses talking about their favorite poems. It’s one thing to whine about the fact that it is a celebrity-driven society, and quite another to think about what advantages you can get out of it.”
But Dove’s public visibility began to encroach on her private life, especially when it came to finding silent, contemplative time to write. To help with this problem, Dove had a writing cabin built in the backyard of her home. She prefers to write at night – “my favorite time is from about three [A.M.] until six” – standing up at a long-legged oak desk that her father made for her.
“I am concerned with race,” says Rita Dove, “but certainly not every poem of mine mentions the fact of being black. They are poems about humanity and sometimes humanity happens to be black. I cannot run from, I won’t run from any kind of truth.”
But early in 1999, Rita Dove’s husband, Fred Viebahn, started a debate in the poetry community when he criticized the Academy of American Poets’ for their all-white board of chancellors and lack of representational diversity. Maxine Kumin and Carolyn Kizer then resigned from the board in protest. The Academy responded quickly. They called for suggestions to change the electoral process for their board, and elected nine new chancellors. Rita was gratified that the Academy took the problem so seriously.
Rita’s 1999 book, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, earned her acclaim for its powerful last cycle of poems based on an experience she had with her daughter, when the two found themselves on the same bus as the famous Civil Rights icon. According to Brenda Shaughnessy in the April 12, 1999 Publishers Weekly, “for Dove, Parks is a role model, someone who embodies the very notion of dignified, keen self-possession, a standard that Dove holds herself to. [She says,] ‘Any time we identify with a person who is truly larger than life it is because we measure ourselves by their life.’”
In addition to poetry, Rita Dove also wrote fiction, in the form of short stories (Fifth Sunday, a collection about “the fable-like aspects of middle-class life”) and a novel, Through the Ivory Gate, set in Akron in the 1970s.
She also wrote a play, The Darker Faces of the Earth. It’s in blank verse, the form used by Shakespeare, and it sets the Oedipus story in the days of slavery in America. In 1994, the play was workshopped in Oregon, with a $100,000 grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Workshopping the play was crucial to Dove’s success with creating characters that came to life. “In poetry, there may be things you don’t need to know about a character, but on stage, that character has got to walk on. He’s got to have a walk. He’s got to have clothes. The actors need more,” said Cynthia White, associate director for play development at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer November 24, 1994.
After this workshop, Dove’s play premiered to acclaim at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was performed in Crossroads, New Jersey and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1997, and it ran at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1999. It was also staged in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Los Angeles in 2000.
When she’s not writing, Dove continues to play music, both jazz and classical, and she sings in operas near her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her 2004 book of poetry, American Smooth, is named for a form of ballroom dancing “in which the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression,” she writes on the book’s opening page. Dove and her husband took up ballroom dancing shortly after a fire destroyed part of their home and many of their manuscripts in 1998. Then a means for healing, the pastime has become one of the couple’s greatest passions.
Thankfully, writing poetry continues to be Rita Dove’s favorite occupation, and she said in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 12, 2004, “still, she thrills at certain moments in the writing process.” And she acknowledges that her childhood in Akron still influences her writing. “She believes she has a Midwestern sensibility that ‘has its feet on the ground but at the same time is looking around with that kind of pioneer spirit… When I envision a backyard, it’s going to be a Midwestern back yard, it’s going to be an Akron back yard.’” Akron, and all of Ohio for that matter, truly loves and appreciates Rita Dove, the poet from its own backyard.