2016 National Book Award Longlist, Poetry

Rita Dove

Collected Poems 1974 – 2004
Collected Poems 1974 – 2004
(W. W. Norton & Company)
ISBN: 978-0393285949


Three decades of powerful lyric poetry from a virtuoso of the English language in one unabridged volume.

Rita Dove’s Collected Poems 1974–2004 showcases the wide-ranging diversity that earned her a Pulitzer Prize, the position of U.S. poet laureate, a National Humanities Medal, and a National Medal of Art. Gathering thirty years and seven books, this volume compiles Dove’s fresh reflections on adolescence inThe Yellow House on the Corner and her irreverent musings in Museum. She sets the moving love story of Thomas and Beulah against the backdrop of war, industrialization, and the civil right struggles. The multifaceted gems of Grace Notes, the exquisite reinvention of Greek myth in the sonnets of Mother Love, the troubling rapids of recent history in On the Bus with Rosa Parks, and the homage to America’s kaleidoscopic cultural heritage in American Smooth all celebrate Dove’s mastery of narrative context with lyrical finesse. With the “precise, singing lines” for which the Washington Post praised her, Dove “has created fresh configurations of the traditional and the experimental” (Poetrymagazine).

About the Author

Rita Dove is the recipient of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for her book Thomas and Beulah, and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal. She served as the Library of Congress Poet Laureate Consultant. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is a Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.  


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Interview by Kyla Marshell

Rita Dove has been honored with nearly every award across the land—the Pulitzer Prize, state and U.S. poet laureateships, the National Medal of Arts, and over 25 honorary degrees—so many accolades that one might wonder: does the celebration ever get old? As a reader, it’s no surprise to see Dove on this list because, over the course of 30 years, she’s become a pillar of American poetry. But lest we forget, once upon a time, she was a young woman who’d published only a few poems. She wrote herself to this hallowed place.
Kyla Marshell: Congratulations on being nominated for the Award. How do you feel? Is it exciting?
Rita Dove: It is, it’s terribly exciting, and it’s also a bit discombobulating because of course at this point, all one does is wait, and wait, and wait. But it is exciting to know that, especially in the case of this particular book, that thirty years of writing has been acknowledged in this way.

KM: What was your goal in putting together this book? It’s not all of your work, but it’s most of it.

RD: Over the course of those thirty years of my career, I had published books with two different publishers, the first three with Carnegie Mellon, and from that point forward with Norton. And as my editor, Jill Bialosky at Norton had said, people really needed to see the entire body of work in one place, so they could have it. And I thought, it is true when, let’s say, young people start to study a poet they’ll study perhaps the most recent work and not look at the others. And I thought it would be a good idea to show the trajectory of a career, of a life as a poet. That was really my goal for doing the book this way. In fact, when I did it, I also insisted that if it’s going to be thirty years, then I don’t want to leave any poems out, I don’t want to make it a selected—I really want everything in there, so that a poet, or any reader can see how I’ve developed as a writer. And that means the warts as well as the rosy spots. I deliberately kept in everything that I published in all of the books in those thirty years.

KM: Did you read the book all the way through as you were putting it together?

RD: I did read it all the way through. It was hard. It was hard at first, because I think for any writer, the most exciting thing that you’re doing is whatever you’re doing in that moment. So to go through it again, start at the beginning and to read it all again was really kind of—it was difficult. But it was also exciting because then I would read things in the first book and I’d say, “Wow, you were kind of fearless when you were young”—not to imply that I’m timid now—but I just realized that I was looking to strike out for a new territory, and that was exciting to see.

KM: What perhaps is the evolution of that youthful fearlessness that you see now?
RD: What I do see is, still, an incredible excitement about discovery. And a real drive to discover. I think I’ve always felt that if I felt comfortable in what I was writing, that something was a little off, something must be wrong, I must be getting too complacent; I might be imitating myself or something that I’ve done well before. And I’ve always felt that if I’ve done something well, why try to repeat that? Go somewhere else, go deeper, go wider, go farther. That part of the fearlessness is absolutely there.

KM: Poetry magazine praised your “fresh configurations of the traditional and the experimental,” which encapsulates how I’ve felt reading your poems over the years, that they’re familiar but different; however, I wouldn’t classify you as an “experimental poet.” What is your relationship to the experimental?

RD: You’re absolutely right—it does depend on how one defines “experimental.” I feel that to define experimental as something that is merely quirky, or relies on something that is clever—that’s not really experimental. That’s clever. I think of [the experimental] in the real scientific sense of trying things out in order to see if you get results, and then trying to go further with those results. My relationship with the experimental happens with every poem because poetry is, in a way, a negotiation between language and wordlessness and silence. Every poem tries to say something in such a way that it leaves us speechless at the end. So that edge between finding the absolute right word in the absolute right space so that when we read it, we feel something beyond what the words are on the page—that, to me, is extraordinarily experimental. I find that it changes with every poem. [The poems in] my book Mother Love are all basically sonnets. You could say, ‘That’s not really experimental.’ But what was experimental was to push the edges of the sonnet. What is that little love song, and how many ways can you do it? Does it have to rhyme exactly, or has our language changed in such a way that we can make it more syncopated like jazz—that’s an experiment, in a sense. Some of those are call and response, double sonnets—these are all experiments to see how far I could push that idea. And there are other books, like for instance, American Smooth, where I am trying, at times, to dance through the poems. How do you get the body involved in the rhythms of the poem, and at the same time, tell a different kind of history, which is then uniquely American, in that it is cosmopolitan, and jazzy, and ironic, and totally sincere—all of these things that come out of an American tradition? There are many different ways in which to experiment and I’m always trying to push some edge.

KM: Where does your impulse to tell stories come from, and how does it end up being expressed more so through poems than through fiction?

RD: Narrative, or storytelling, has been a great influence in my life. There were master storytellers in my youth. But the storytellers were also exceedingly lyric. There would be a story they would talk about, but the way in which they told the story, the way in which they emphasized the words, the images they used in order to build a character was very, very beautiful and compelling. I grew up with the sense that the telling was almost more important than the tale itself. There was also a lot of irony, and buried implications. Coming from the African-American culture, what you don’t say is what everyone goes “A ha” about.
I also feel that narrative in poetry has been much maligned. The kind of mid-twentieth century attitude toward narrative was “you’re just telling a story in lines.” My feeling, though, is that a narrative poem has to be a poem. It has to have some kind of lyric moment that is being explored; that there is the pressure of time around that story that you’re telling. The real art in a narrative poem is not to have the end of the story matter, it’s not to follow the plotline, but to feel how it is to move through that story. That, to me, is what differentiates my narratives from prose.

KM: Here’s a kind of a strange question: Who is Alternate Universe Rita? If you weren’t in this current life as a poet and professor, might you be a ballroom dancer, or a musician?

RD: I think the first Alternate Universe Rita would have been a musician. I don’t think I would have ended up being a cellist, though I started out as a cellist. I don’t know if I would be an instrumental musician, or if I would have been a singer. But sometimes I wish that I could have followed the life of being a musician. Music is always with me, very, very deeply.

KM: What do you mean by you wish you could have followed that life?

RD: Coming out of high school, I remember wanting to go into music. I was still playing the cello. I loved it. I felt larger than anything when I was playing. But I had incredible stage fright. My knee would shake—not a good thing if you’re a cellist. I was very shy. The stage fright is what pushed me away from the life of a musician. I loved to read [and write], too; but I had never met a writer, so it didn’t compute as a possibility. It wasn’t until I was about a junior or so in college where I had to turn around and look at what I had been doing and realize that I was writing all the time. And all I had to say was, “I want to be a writer. I’m going to try this, somehow.” Writing is a very solitary, introspective occupation. I never, never imagined that I would end up on that very stage that I was trying to avoid being a musician. But at that age, when I had that fork in the road, if someone had told me, “You’re going to end up on a stage either way, which do you want to choose?” I would have been hard-pressed to make a decision. I wish I had known that I could get over this feeling.

KM: Is that perhaps why your poems are so musical, because that world is coming through?
RD: I think that world is leaking through, if you want to say that. I can’t imagine a life without music. And I also can’t imagine a life without language. They were always linked together for me, even before becoming interested in music, which was around age ten. Because I could hear the music in the language. Everything that people said had a cadence to it. I think that I was attracted to language because of that, and attracted to music because of that. It seemed to me an amazing thing that you could not only say something where the words meant specific things, but by the very cadence or stress of it, you could actually say the opposite. That to me was a little bit of magic.

Kyla Marshell’s poems and nonfiction have appeared in Blackbird, Calyx, Gawker, The Guardian, and in O, the Oprah Magazine, among others. Her work has earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, residencies to the Vermont Studio Center, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. In 2013, Ebony.com named her one of “7 Young Black Writers You Should Know.” She is the Development/Marketing Associate at Cave Canem Foundation.