This interview was conducted by Jericho Brown with Rita Dove for the Best American Poetry blog, the entirety of which can be found at blog.bestamericanpoetry.com.
JB:Could you discuss how you came to edit The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry? What was your initial response when asked to do this? Had you ever had the idea to take on this type of an endeavor? How did you manage and balance the work of reading and compiling? Were there poems or poets you “discovered” in the process? Were there poems or poets you found yourself appreciating less or more than you had in the past? How was this different in excitement, anxiety, and actual logistics than editing an edition of The Best American Poetry? Do you think you would ever do such a thing again?
RD:Editing an edition of Best American Poetry was a lateral enterprise: One year’s worth of poetry, no need to probe for trends, trajectories, project the future... A year doesn’t yield a viable test group. So to choose the best poems of a single year – besides the obvious strain of so much reading, the requisite decisions, indecisions and reconsiderations – was no big deal. Also, another huge difference: Since the choices were taken from magazine publications rather than books, there were no reprint permissions problems to speak of.
But the Penguin folks wanted the entire century. One hundred years of poetry that had been in books with a copyright between 1900 and 2000! This was a very big deal indeed. So why did I agree to do it? Call me crazy – and I have called myself that many times during the past four years – but I felt the urge to give something back to the literary community. Was that naive? Very! And yet when Elda Rotor, director of Penguin Classics, asked me to consider her offer, the entire poetic trajectory of the century flashed before me. I kid you not – it was eerie. Of course, not every point on the arc was clear – there were plenty of foggy spots, even some downright black-outs – but the general outline presented itself in one flash. Yes, in my mind the twentieth century had its own distinct identity, with contours made more defined by the end of an entire millennium. The detective in me was aroused, the desire to investigate more deeply. But the main reason was that I would have an excuse – no, the duty – to reread all those extraordinary poems I had encountered in my life, plus discover important poems I might have missed for one reason or another. I would have an excuse to set aside the demands of daily life – all for the sake of poems that I loved, admired, even those I had pushed back against, poems whose message I might loathe and yet found powerful in their approach to language, to human expression. I would have an excuse to learn and indulge. At that point, at the beginning of my journey through the American century of poetry, I did not yet have to dwell on the hard practicalities – that I would have to make difficult decisions, to offer myself up to multi-faceted attacks, to be second-guessed and ridiculed by nay-sayers spurred by their own nefarious agendas.
The journey took about four years. I approached it as I often approach writing poetry: I opened myself to the century’s many pushes and shoves, I read voraciously, indiscriminately at first – gimme some Frost, ah, there’s dear Bishop, mmm Crane needs to be in the mix, of course, and Dunbar, and Cullen, and and and.... Reading the letters of one poet might pique my interest in another, and so on. In time, patterns began to emerge – different camps, surprising entanglements, confusing juxtapositions – these patterns quite often resisted easy assignment to one group or another.
Would I do it again? Hell, no! But I’m glad I did it this one time.
JB:Let’s revisit your very comprehensive introduction, which I think of as a useful text for introduction to American poetry courses. You mention having a “clear vision” of what you wanted the book to show. How do you think of that vision as different from any other anthologist’s vision of American poetry? How does it contrast to Lehman’s The Oxford Book of American Poetry or Nelson’s Modern American Poetry or Ramazani’s The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry?
RD:My concern was with the poem, not the trend. I was interested less in formulating theories or plopping poets into schools, when I knew as a poet myself how ill-fitting such classifications can be. So rather than concentrate on showing how certain poets fit into a certain camp, I tried to show through their poems how the times in which they lived provoked fitting artistic responses to their individual concerns, their troubles and joys, but also to the social tragedies and triumphs that defined their and their contemporaries’ lives. As poets, reacting artistically with, to and against our environment, we tend to look at poetry both from the intimate perspective of the insider as well as from the vantage point of the observer who needs to take in the whole picture.
JB:In your introductory letter to “T.,” you metaphorize literary forbears as trees with the names of poetic descendants printed on corresponding leaves. For instance, from a sycamore like Creeley sprouts the work of Kay Ryan, and Terrance Hayes is “latched onto the thick coiled tubers of Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell.” With which trees do you believe your own writing should be most closely associated?
RD:OMG – I haven’t thought that far! The very idea makes me want to start biting my cuticles again.
JB:When discussing women poets from the first half of the century, you mention the mentoring relationship Marianne Moore had with Elizabeth Bishop. Did you have a similar kind of mentor? You warn against readers and writers “repeating the flaws of the past” associated with an “environment” of “male privilege.” Do you see that environment as one in the past tense? How different are the present writing lives and careers for those who are not white males? Have you ever felt “locked into” or consigned to “roles of militant or minstrel”? Can you think of nonwhite poets who still seem to be locked into these roles? Can you make guesses as to why they have yet to get free?
RD:Have I ever felt locked in? Of course. In fact, it’s sad that I can so quickly respond with “Of course,” isn’t it? When I was coming to age as a writer, the only roles that seemed to fit a black poet in the minds of many influential intellectuals and critics were Militant or Strong Black Matron. In other words, Barbarian or Mammy. That’s harsh, I know – but I was all too often puzzled by the way my work was received in the media. I would not consider my poems particularly “militant”; my protest, if you can call it that, has always been more of the quiet kind, with resistance emerging through revelation rather than manifesto or decree. Although my first two books contained poems with black characters, several reviewers chastised me for not being black enough, claiming that I didn’t know how to write about black people (this from a white southerner!), or that I was ashamed of being black and so didn’t write about the “condition” (from a black critic). But when Thomas and Beulah was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, I suddenly was celebrated as a “poet of the people” – not a bad thing to be known as, just that I didn’t see what occasioned the sea change. Nowadays perceptions have certainly improved. At least most non-black audiences can accept as a given that African-Americans have interior lives, that they love and weep and get jealous and grieve and are conflicted just like all human beings; that they have complicated psyches. As for those non-white poets who still seem to be locked into the roles of yesteryear’s prejudicial notions – well, I’d hate to presume; though, frankly, generalized perceptions are still persisting in many nooks and crannies: for example, that of the Latino poet as earthy, community-loving, coming from first-generation worker stock, with just a dash of the spirit world thrown in. And Native American poets have an even denser barrier to penetrate. It’s a vicious circle: Stereotypes hinder closer reading; but closer reading of these poets is needed to dispel stereotypes.
JB:Your introduction mentions that, around the middle of the century, the nation began to take notice of more voices beyond New England and the states that were once the Thirteen Colonies. Still, I find that when I am invited to give a reading, I most often travel to the East Coast to do it, and I hear that some universities won’t tenure writers whose publishers don’t have offices in New York. Do you have anything to say about what our national mind thinks of as its geographic locations for poetry? In 2011, is it any easier to gain opportunities to write and have one’s writing read if working with Virginia as your home base rather than Ohio?
RD:My first teaching position was at Arizona State University, where I taught for eight years. Whenever I flew back East for poetry readings, I felt like a tropical parrot who had landed in a blizzard. Quite literally: My clothes were always too bright – turquoise and fuchsia; it was the Eighties, after all! – and my mannerisms too theatrical. I would meet someone and try to shake their hand; at cocktail parties I’d have to hold back hugs and laughter. Having lived in the Southwest – not to mention Germany and Israel – I’m sensitive to the disconnect between our two coasts. My response is to carry my country inside me. I admit that it’s frustrating to confront the East Coast parochialism – and it is parochial when New Yorkers assume that everyone reads the New York Times, or when East Coast venues extend invitations to poets who either live in the City or can hop a quick train in from New Haven or Princeton . . . because that might also mean their budgets are geared toward small travel expenditures, which means they cannot afford to invite many poets from the rest of the country unless he or she happens to be “in the neighborhood” – so the poet has to go to the effort of organizing an East Coast tour that will probably pay less and rob more energy than a single reading at a Midwestern university.
More and more, though, the national perception of poetic loci is shifting; that is, the concept of real versus imagined and desired location is blurring due to the Internet; geography loses significance. When you can access poems, biographies, interviews, critiques, photographs and even, via video, “live appearances” with just a few keystrokes, a lyric poet from Anchorage becomes as immediate as the narrative wit from Philadelphia.
JB:Rita, I want you to talk a bit about what we mean when we use the term “poetry establishment” in your introduction. I’m finding more and more that writers and critics of an older generation who had as their goal to be a part of the establishment or writers who have never felt irredeemably shut out by the establishment pretend to have no idea what it is. You are a poet who has survived criticism from both the establishment and from those who claim to be anti-establishment. Can you tell me how you – as a widely read and decorated poet who, on several occasions through essays, through resistant voting in backrooms, through letter after letter to this or that organization or editor – navigate these waters to swim against and tolerate the current of those who believe there is only one kind of poem and only one way to read poetry? Have you ever thought of yourself as establishment or anti-establishment? As powerful or powerless?
RD:Of course there’s an establishment – and there are subgroups and counter-groups. Occasionally subgroups and counter-groups can even become part of the establishment, or subdue the old guard. I’d still have to say, though, that – in very broad terms – East Coasters continue to hold sway as the core poetry establishment in the United States; the connections and resources are centered there, with the major commercial publishing houses and Ivy League schools orbiting Boston and New York. But the consortium of creative writers and creative writing programs at universities all over the nation – AWP – poses an ever stronger counter-pull, with eager students buying books, reviewing, posting blogs, attending poetry readings, eventually becoming teachers and/or writers themselves. You’ve also got the wonderfully mastered poetry books published by many university and a number of other independent presses; many if not most serious contemporary poets publish or began their publishing lives in academia. I believe that the proliferation of creative writing programs not only sustains new talents and helps grow educated audiences but is instrumental in dissolving monolithic notions of poetry, as well as the power structure in the poetry world. When I was getting my MFA, there was, basically, the Iowa poem on the one hand (although geographically Midwestern, it was largely beholden to East Coast sensibilities) and the rest of poetic America, centered around Naropa, on the other hand; now there are Language poets winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards bestowed upon African-Americans. I’ve never thought of myself as establishment, though I realize that many consider me to be a fully integrated player in the establishment’s power schemes, and I don’t deny that I have access to all the perks commonly associated with the establishment. But I’ve never felt particularly “establishment”, because I don’t operate by pulling strings in good-old-boy/girl networks; I won’t agree to do something in exchange for future favors, and I haven’t cultivated a posse. Yet I don’t feel powerless; in fact, I feel rooted. I love teaching, and my job gives me the flexibility to structure my time so that I can write at night (I’m nocturnal). I write the poems I need and want to write, I’m ruthless when it comes to revision . . . and I love revision. To top it off, my husband is a writer and we’ve been best friends for over thirty-five years now. What more is there to success than that? Power is knowing who you are – your strengths as well as the flaws – and being content with what you see while still striving to improve. Powerlessness means you’ve handed that judgment over to someone else and buckled under other people’s ulterior expectations.