Rita Dove On New Anthology, Advice For Young Poets

The Pulitzer Prize winner is best known for sharing intimate chapters of her personal life, while shedding light on the black experience in America. She's the first African-American to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate. She speaks with host Michel Martin about her latest work and life, and offers wisdom to young poets.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my weekly "Can I Just Tell You?" commentary. My thoughts on shaking up the status quo, including in my own house - that's later.

But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work. And so far today, we've been looking forward to the new year, so we thought we'd take a minute to look back at the poetry of the 20th century.

To do that, we're pleased to have with us Rita Dove, the former Poet Laureate of the United States. She was the first African American to have served in that role. She's published short stories, novels and, of course, books of poetry, including one that earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

Now, she's taken on the task of editing "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry." And Rita Dove joins us now. Thank you so much for being here.

RITA DOVE: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: And I'm hearing the sigh of relief in having this project completed, but you also say in the preface that you thought - when you first accepted this assignment, you thought wow, that'll be great. Piece of cake. And then...

DOVE: And then came reality. I accepted quickly, before I had a chance to have that second thought because not only did I think it would be great to have an opportunity to read everything again and to re-cover people that I had not read in a long time, but I also thought that it would be good for me. It would be good for me to go back and have that kind of literary homework.

MARTIN: How do you hope this collection will be used?

DOVE: I conceived it as, on the one hand, giving a poetic overview of the 20th century. So in that sense, it could be used for introductory poetry classes; it could be used by even just someone who was interested in seeing how the century is portrayed. But it's also a very serious consideration of the most important, most representative and significant poets of the century. And so in that sense, I think it can also be used in literature classes.

It's not attempting to give you a scholarly exegesis - I guess you could say - of every single movement that went through. It is really after giving you a concise, intense, yet not too overwhelming view of a century's worth of poetry.

MARTIN: Now, you're trying to do two things at once. You're trying to include works that you really feel help tell the American story. But are you also trying, in a way, give voice to people who perhaps not have had the opportunity - or have not been in the sun, as it were?

DOVE: I never really tried to - with this anthology - think, well, I'm going to rectify a wrong here and pull in a poet who ordinarily, shouldn't be in this anthology. The criteria really was these are poems that matter, that I think have also spoken to others. Sometimes, they have spoken to poets and pushed things along. Sometimes, they've spoken to – of a segment of the populous.

But they were always poems that I thought were important and would last. And what I tried to do at the beginning, the first - I think - two years of working on the anthology were really to gather as much as I could and not think about constituencies or movements, or anything like that. Just wallow in the poetry, and gather as much as I could.

And then the second two years were spent toning that and making sure that that was really true. As a consequence, there are some - one could say - imbalances that only crop up when I began to turn my eye to that. And, you know, as a consequence, I would say the last group of poets, the youngest poets in the anthology - there is an overwhelming amount of different ethnicities in that group. I mean, less white men - let's put it that way, you know, and more of varying ethnicities.

And I had to ask myself that hard question. Well, what do you do? Do you change this? And I said well, no, I don't change it if that's the way it is, in the same way that at the beginning of the century, there are far fewer women.

MARTIN: You've been teaching and writing for a long time, and have been part of many groups. And was it awkward to, perhaps - were there friends or people you know who didn't make the cut? Was that hard?

DOVE: That was so difficult, Michele. It was the hardest thing of all, perhaps. And just to say that the choices that were made were made in the context of the idea of this anthology, which was to limit it to the 20th century, to have it be a kind of a poetic time capsule. And that meant making very difficult decisions about my contemporaries. I tried not to consider that until, you know, the very end, of course, you know. But I tried not to think of facing them the next time I saw them, you know, at a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Have you heard from any of them? I mean, there are colleagues of yours who are poets who...

DOVE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...were not included - we'll not say, make the cut. But have you heard from any of them? Has anyone said, you hurt my feelings; or, why aren't I in there? Or is that just not done?

DOVE: It's just not done, I think. I mean, I have met with people and seen people - colleagues since, who are not in it, and they've been just wonderful, I mean, about - they haven't talked about it, and we're still friends. So I mean, I'm sure that there will be some fallout. And all I can say is that I sometimes had to make this decision, well, OK, here's one really incredible poem by a certain poet, but does it have that kind of impact that we're going to - that has to happen in an anthology of this size, which is a little over – what – 500 pages of text and...

MARTIN: I mean, it's expansive. But it's not the kind of thing that you would use to block out the draft, you know, in the winter, you know?

DOVE: Yeah.

MARTIN: It is expansive but not so that you couldn't carry it, say, on the train.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DOVE: Exactly. Exactly. It's really that wonderful size that you can actually take it with you. And I did want people to feel that this could be a companion; that you could take this anthology with you, and that you wouldn't have to set up a lectern in order to study it. And though it is expansive, like you said - it's a little over, I think, 500 pages of poems - if you divide that by the century, that's not too many pages per year.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove. She's the editor of "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry."

You talked about, in the forward, that struck me, that - I don't often hear this discussed in books of this type - the difficulty of rights and clearances.

DOVE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: There were poems and authors who you simply could not include because you couldn't obtain the rights to publish their work. Was that a surprise to you?

DOVE: It was a surprise to me how intransigent - only a few - publishers were. And it wasn't so much the idea of not being able to obtain the rights as it was a matter of balancing the prices for those rights. And in one particular case - and I felt that I had to talk about it because it was such an unusual situation, where one of the publishers actually withdrew the rights not only for two major poets but said, well, if you don't pay the same, very large fee for those two poets, and for every other poet who happens to publish with us - including some younger poets - then you can't have any of them.

And that seemed, to me, to go against everything that I knew about wanting to publicize poetry, protect your poets; you know, help your poets along. So I felt that an explanation was in order and also, I wanted to kind of expose this practice, which I thought was just reprehensible.

MARTIN: Can you tell us who some of the names are, that we are not getting the benefit of because of this?

DOVE: Well, the, you know, the two - the three major ones that came from the same publisher were, of course, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Sterling Brown. And indeed, I had already written my introduction. This happened at the very last minute - these negotiations were going on and on - and I felt that with Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Path, I could certainly - I wanted to direct the readers to the fact that they weren't in there, and why they weren't. Not that I was - had some vendetta against either of them or - and also to say, you can find their work.

MARTIN: A couple of minutes - to talking about you, if you don't mind. For those who are not aware, you're from Akron, Ohio. I understand that your father was the first black research chemist in the tire industry.

DOVE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And your mom had a deep interest in education but was not able to go to Howard University, even though she'd won a scholarship, because her parents wouldn't let her go. And then she did wind up being trained as a secretary. And I understand that your three other siblings became chemists and mathematicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And here you are, the - I don't want to say the black sheep of the family.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DOVE: But certainly the odd one out, right?

MARTIN: The odd one out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Why do you think that you went one way, and they all went the other?

DOVE: I have no idea. When I look back on it, it's kind of amazing. My brother is in computers, and another one of my sisters is also a computer tech. And then the third one got a degree in chemistry. I always loved science. And in fact, I got a science award in high school. I mean, I loved science, but I think I loved literature more.

The thing is, is that - it isn't that there was such a divide in our house between the sciences and the arts. Because even though my father was a chemist, there were books on the shelves - there were poetry books. There were Louis Untermeyer's anthologies; Shakespeare was up there as well. And my mother would sometimes quote Shakespeare. I didn't know it was Shakespeare when I was young. I thought she was just being very eloquent, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DOVE: But, you know, she would be cutting up the roast and say, is this the dagger I see before me? And I thought, OK, Mom - didn't realize it was "Macbeth." So there was a kind of a fluidity between all knowledge in the household, and I just happened to wash out on the literature side, and everyone else went to the sciences.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we call this segment Wisdom Watch, so we'd like to close by asking you if you have any wisdom to share. I'm particularly thinking of, perhaps you're someone who's listening to our conversation who is a younger you - or whoever you would like to speak to.

DOVE: It's hard to be called upon to be wise. But I would say to someone who was wondering if they could become a poet, you have two things in front of you. First of all, you have your heart and the things that you want to say. Nothing is too small. Nothing is too, quote-unquote, ordinary or insignificant. Those are the things that make up the measure of our days, and they're the things that sustain us.And they're the things that certainly can become worthy of poetry.

And the other thing is your tools, which is the writing itself - the language, the way you use that language; even grammar. And so you use one in order to get to the other. And when someone tells you your poem is bad, it doesn't mean that your heart is bad, it just means that your language, the way - your tools, you have to hone them a little more. So be able to separate those two, and to work to hone the tools. To practice your scales, so to speak, in order play the symphony, is what you have to do as a young poet.

And to read. To read, read, read. If you don't love to read, if you don't get taken in by any text that you see – on the back of a cereal box or in a book – then I would say you probably won't have the right passion to write as well.

MARTIN: Rita Dove is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Her latest book is "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry." And she was kind enough to join us from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DOVE: It was wonderful. Thank you.

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