Rita Dove

Luisa Dörr for TIME

First black U.S. poet laureate

‘Raising hackles means you’re not being ignored.’

Dove Family Photo Dove, with her parents, visiting the White House as a presidential scholar in 1970.

When I began writing about ordinary, middle-class African Americans’ lives—especially in Thomas and Beulah, my third book of poetry, which deals with a solid lifelong marriage devoid of extraordinary drama—I was keenly aware that such experiences had not received their due in contemporary poetry. Whatever I pursue—writing poetry or teaching or speaking in public—I want to be excited by the challenge, curious about where life might next lead me. If I’m not both thrilled and terrified at the prospect of stepping out into unknown territory that might teach me something new, then something is wrong, then I’m too complacent.

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Receiving the Pulitzer Prize was like having a spotlight turned on. Although I had published several books, I did not expect much in the way of media attention. Poets aren’t used to a lot of fanfare, particularly in this country; rarely are they thrust upon a national stage. And yet suddenly there was a growing audience reading my work and listening to me. As an artist, it was immensely gratifying to see how these stories dealing with intimate moments in the lives of ordinary people, those who’ll never make it into the history books, found resonance on a national level and beyond, regardless of race or gender.

Rita Dove and husband Fred Viebahn at their wedding party in 1979.
Dove Family Photo Dove and husband Fred Viebahn at their wedding party in 1979.

Being chosen as our nation’s first African-American poet laureate was a further challenge. I felt called to speak to the importance of poetry, the humanities and the arts in our lives. It meant serving as a lightning rod for the American people in their quest for those truths that neither politics nor psychotherapy could address. And indeed, I was immediately inundated with letters from total strangers who were eager to tell me about the first time they had encountered poetry and how it had changed their lives. Many of these accounts began with “I don’t know much about poetry” and were often followed by a passionate description of a particular poem. These confessions impressed and saddened me. Because many of my correspondents had had no exposure to poetry as children in school, they were afraid of sounding “stupid” and being deemed unworthy of discussing this “elite” art form. Yet this trepidation could be overcome through the impact of a single poem, with the rapt reader finding emotional support and solace for his or her soul.

When I was asked to be the sole editor of The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, I encountered another glass ceiling. Anthologies are often done by teams. For a lone individual (and an African-American woman at that!) to be given the responsibility of choosing who would represent American poetry for the entire past century was unheard of. Producing a mainstream anthology in a field dominated by a mostly white male establishment was a daunting task, and I took it very seriously. That there was some pushback came as no surprise—but raising hackles means you’re not being ignored; you’re pushing the conversation forward.

Although I am not a confrontational person by nature, racism and sexism are still very much alive, and whenever I encounter prejudice, I tackle the issues and move on, refusing to be sidetracked by hate or bitterness. When I was a young poet, my work was considered “slight” by some male critics. The sexist undertone was undeniable, though difficult to corroborate. These things are subtle. For example, during my 20s and 30s there was an unspoken rule that if you wore makeup or gave a poetry reading in a dress, you weren’t considered a serious artist—a variation on brain vs. beauty, that ancient claim that pretty girls are airheads and smart girls are plain. It sounds so trivial nowadays, yet the implications could be profound—or so I was told. To hell with it, was my response. This is who I am. I still wear skirts to readings. And I still like my lipstick!

Dove, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1987, served as U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995.

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