tv Former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove CSPAN April 16, 2017 10:57am-11:13am EDT
struggling to care for his family. it's really remarkable to see what he accomplished. we also want people to get a sense of the full range of material that can be found in a literary archive. it's a real treasure and we are so happy to be able to share it. >> wwe're at the rotunda at thomas jefferson university virginia. up next to speak with rita dove, professor and former u.s. poet laureate. [applause] >> the 2011 national medal of arts to rita dove for her contributions to american letters and a service as poet laureate of the united states from 1993-1995.
she has a limited american poetry and literature and cultivated popular interest in the arts. [applause] >> getting that metal, getting the national medal of the arts meant personally for me something. it was quite an achievement and one that he felt almost, was really humbled to receive. but it also meant that the arts mattered. and to have the arts recognize at that level of the country of government was a profound act, not just for me, but for every young person in this country who ever wanted to express themselves, whether it was with paint or with words or with song or with their bodies and dance.
so it met all of those things. i wrote as a hobby. i did not know it, i did not know to be a profession at all because i had no role model. i never met a novelist or poet. all of these people who wrote these things, were names in the book, and only what i would have a visual of was shakespeare, and he was long gone. so to me it was something i did as a hobby. i really thought that i was going to be either, well, the three things one was supposed to be to be a critic to race which was a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. i don't think my parents ever pressured me. i didn't feel that pressure that you will become a doctor, lawyer or a teacher. it was just in the air, and then i discovered creative writing classes in college. i thought, you mean you can
actually do this as a profession? and that's what i started thinking about the fact that this is what i loved, and what i did whenever i had a free moment. moment. and so i made up my mind that ii was going to try it. while i was young and could afford to starve, you know, i was going to try this. ..
opening this object. i began writing as soon as i could learn how to write. i thought that though i had been reading children's books and things like that, that the idea that i could actually take a pencil and put it to paper and write the words and create this story, this other reality, i thought i was a bit of a magician myself. i didn't think you did it to publishers, i did it because it was enjoyable. i was about 10, i think, when i was writing in earnest. i was writing a book and my brother was older than i was and he loved science fiction and i would read every book he got out of the library, too. i would read the books and they would meet aliens and i'd write
my own little story and i put a black girl in there because there were no black girls in there. i could put a little black girl into a story of my own making and i think that that helped me understand that i was worth something. some little black girl landing on the moon was not such a fiction if i could put it down on paper and have it, come ali alive. i was very shy. i've always been very shy and the idea of teaching, just the act of getting up in front of a class that filled me with terror, frankly. and plus, i had to earn a living to support my habit, so to speak, so i began to apply for creative writing positions
and i got my first one, i which was loving, which was in arizona, a place i had never been. it wasn't a place i would have wanted to say i would have wanted to go necessarily, but that's where the job was and we spent eight years in phoenix, tempe area. beautiful years, had our daughter there. i learned show i was terrified to go in the class. students were more terrified than i was, and it was the love of writing that carried me over if i could give that love to students, we could fall in love with what was on the page. it was after arizona i came to university of virginia and i was there ever since.
i remembered it was in the spring in may, the very end of the semester. in fact, i was in chicago at the time giving a reading gwendolyn brooks and i was excited about being able to read one of my idols, but i also knew that after that reading, i had the entire summer free. i had nothing more todo, but to finish reading my students poems and portfolios and putting in the grades and i was free for the whole summer and i got a phone call. i was packing to go home and got a phone call from my husband who said, you're going to get a call in a minute and i'm not supposed to tell you what it's about, but i'm going to tell you anyway. and he told me that i was going to get a call and they wanted
me to be the next poet laureate of the united states. and he came and i really felt-- now, when i said yes to becoming poet laureate i thought i was going to have to defend poetry and made up my mind i was not going to defend anything. there's nothing to be defended. it should be celebrated. defend implies that something is wrong, that it's under, you know, siege, but even before i could implement this celebration. people began to write me letters, they wrote letters, and they wrote letters in which they said, it was incredible. they would say almost to a person, they'd start the letters off with a disclaimer of, i don't know much about poetry, or, you know, you know, poetry is really a wonderful thing and i'm, you know, i really don't know much, but
then would come, almost like a confession, they would talk about the poems that they read that moved them or the fact that, i remember one man from the middle of the country, an elderly white gentleman who told me that his first book he got out of the mobile library in his little hometown was paul lawrence dunbar, a collection of poems and he only got it because after filling out his entire-- all the stuff he needs to do to fill out his-- to get his card, he didn't have enough time to get any books, he just grabbed the first book he saw and it happened to be that and he said at first i felt cheated, i thought of all the books, i have to pull a book of poems by this black dude who said because it was the only took he had, it changed his life. i got stories from people
telling me that poetry enlarged and enriched their lives. at the same time, they were telling me that they did not feel equal, that they were made to feel somewhere along their lives they weren't worthy of this or that they were too stupid for this, that's my mission, you've got to give poetry everywhere as much as you can, so that people can feel comfortable with it and know that it is their song. it is their source. back then, that was about 1993, middle '90s, there was-- yes, quite strongly, this misconception that poetry lived in an ivory tower, that you somehow had to be educated, where i said-- you somehow had to have a certain standing in order to be able to understand it. and that it did not deal with everyday life, that it was somehow about higher things. i can think of nothing higher than everyday life, frankly.
and i realized that so many people felt isolated or set apart from poetry because it wasn't taught in the schools at a very young age and one of the reasons why i think it's not part of the school system because it's hard to grade. it's very hard to put a grade on someone's interpretations of a poem and often, i think when someone is really struck speechless by a poem, they're exactly that, struck speechless so it's very hard to write about it. so the difficulty in teaching is one of the reasons why i think poet ry has really, you know, made something that we've grown up with. and as i said earlier, i was lucky that i grew up with books.
like they were around me andi was allowed to discover at my own speed and i realize most people don't have that, and many people don't have that luxury. so there are misconceptions out there and still out there. i think that the notion that the arts are-- the notion that the art are dispensible, that we don't need them, that they are the low person on the totem pole, that something else that we can get rid of the arts and we'll be just fine, that comes from, i think, a basic distrust of the art or a basic feeling that somehow they don't have to do with our very spirit. it's just a natural thing for the human being to want to express with us. we are born creative, wildly creative. if we look to every child, they're wildly creative.
the joy that comes from being able to express that without having to rationalize it, without having to think of the words they are going to say in precisely the right order how i feel. to be able to do that with one swipe of a paintbrush, kids know what that's like and then we get trained out of it. i'm not trying to say that other things are not as important. obviously, it's important to have the sciences and i grew up with the sciences, i into, you know, but there are two sides to this and you can't just say, okay, got the math and sciences, we don't need the arts and humanities. we need that desperately. >> testimonial.
back when the earth was new and heaven just a whisper, back when the names of things hadn't had time to stick, back when the smallest breezes melted summer into autumn, when all the poplars quivers sweetly in rank and file, the world called and i answered. each glance ignited to a gaze. i caught my breath and called back life, swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet. i was pirouette and flourish, fi fillagree and flames, how could i count my blessings when they had no name. back when everything is still to come luck leaks out everywhere. i gave my promise to the world and the world followed me here.