In 1993 Rita Dove was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, making her the youngest person — and the first African-American — to receive this highest official honor in American poetry. She held the position for two years. In 1999 she was reappointed Special Consultant in Poetry for 1999/2000, the Library of Congress's bicentennial year, and in 2004 Virginia governor Mark Warner appointed her as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, a two year position.
Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952 as the daughter of the first Black research chemist who, in the early 1950s, broke the race barrier in the tire industry. In 1970 she was invited to the White House as a Presidential Scholar, one of the hundred most outstanding high school graduates in the United States that year, before attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio as a National Achievement Scholar. She graduated summa cum laude (as well as Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi) with a degree in English in 1973, followed by two semesters as a Fulbright scholar at Universität Tübingen in Germany. She then joined the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1977. In 1976 she met the German writer Fred Viebahn, who was a Fulbright fellow in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program that year; they married in 1979, and their daughter, Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn, was born in 1983. Dove has a granddaughter, Saoirse Dove Viebahn-Miller, born in 2014.
Appearances in magazines and anthologies had already won national acclaim for Rita Dove when she published her first poetry collection, The Yellow House on the Corner, with Carnegie-Mellon University Press in 1980. It was followed by Museum (1983) and Thomas and Beulah (1986), both also from Carnegie-Mellon. Thomas and Beulah, a collection of interrelated poems loosely based on her grandparents' lives, earned her the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, making her the second African-American poet (after Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950) to receive this prestigious award.
Other publications by Rita Dove include a book of short stories (Fifth Sunday, Callaloo Fiction Series, 1985); the novel Through the Ivory Gate (Pantheon, 1992); the verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth (Story Line Press, 1994; 2nd revised edition 1996); a book of her laureate lectures (The Poet's World, The Library of Congress, 1995); and the poetry collections Grace Notes (W. W. Norton, 1989), Selected Poems (Pantheon/Vintage, 1993), Mother Love (W. W. Norton, 1995), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W. W. Norton, 1999, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; listed as one of "25 Books to Remember from 1999" by the New York Public Library), American Smooth (W. W. Norton, 2004), Sonata Mulattica (W. W. Norton, 2009; winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award), and Collected Poems 1974–2004 (W. W. Norton, 2016; a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the NAACP Image Award in poetry).
The Darker Face of the Earth had its critically acclaimed world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon in the summer of 1996, supported by a major grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. A joint production by Crossroads Theatre of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., underwritten by the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays, the Geraldine Dodge Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, opened at Crossroads in October 1997 and went to the Kennedy Center for a four week run in the Eisenhower Theater in November 1997. In August 1999 the play opened at the Royal National Theatre in London and was simultaneously published in Great Britain by Oberon Press. Other professional productions were staged in March 2000 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and by the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles in August 2000, and over the years there have been numerous college, high school and amateur productions. Essential Theatre of Atlanta, Georgia, featured The Darker Face of the Earth in 2010.
In 1994 Rita Dove's poem Lady Freedom Among Us, first read by her at the ceremony commemorating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Capitol and celebrating the restoration of the Freedom Statue on the Capitol's dome in October 1993, was published by Janus Press of Vermont in a limited edition to become the four-millionth acquisition of the University of Virginia Libraries. A multimedia version was made globally accessible by the University of Virginia on the World Wide Web, one of the earliest such publications by a major writer.
Ms. Dove's poetry has earned her fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978 and 1989), the Guggenheim Foundation (1983–84) and the National Humanities Center (1988–89), among others. She was granted a Portia Pittman Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities as writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute in 1982, was chosen by Robert Penn Warren — then the first U.S. Poet Laureate — for the 1986 Lavan Younger Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets, received the 1987 General Electric Foundation Award, the 1988 Ohio Governor's Award in the Arts, "Literary Lion" medals from the New York Public Library in 1990 and 1996 as well as its "Library Lion" medal in 2000, and 28 honorary doctorates — from Miami University, Knox College, Tuskegee University, University of Miami, Washington University, Case Western Reserve University, The University of Akron, Arizona State University, Boston College, Dartmouth College, Spelman College, The University of Pennsylvania, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of Notre Dame, Northeastern University, Columbia University, SUNY Brockport, Washington & Lee University, Howard University, the Pratt Institute, Skidmore College, Duke University, Emerson College, Emory University,Yale University, Smith College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan.
In 1993 Ms. Dove was named one of ten "Outstanding Women of the Year" by Glamour magazine, and the NAACP honored her with its Great American Artist Award, followed in 1994 by the Folger Shakespeare Library's Renaissance Forum Award for Leadership in the Literary Arts, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and the Carl Sandburg Award from the International Platform Association. She also received the 1996 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, then one of the largest cash prizes in the world, and President Bill Clinton presented her with the 1996 Charles Frankel Prize / National Humanities Medal, the U.S. Government's highest honor for writers and scholars. Among her more recent distinctions are the 1997 Sara Lee Frontrunner Award, the 1997 Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award, the 1998 Levinson Prize from Poetry Magazine, the 1999 John Frederick Nims Translation Award (together with Fred Viebahn) also from Poetry, the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award in the Literary Arts from the Ellington Fund in Washington, D.C., the 2003 Emily Couric Leadership Award from the Women's Leadership Forum in Charlottesville, VA, and the 2006 Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service from PNC Bank in Wilmington, Delaware (together with Anderson Cooper, John Glenn, Mike Nichols and Queen Noor of Jordan), Yale University's Chubb Fellowship in 2007, and the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia. In 2009 she received the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal and the Premio Capri (the international prize of the Italian "island of poetry"), followed by the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in 2010, the 2014 Carole Weinstein Prize and the 2016 Stone Award for Lifetime Achievement.
President Barack Obama honored her with the 2011 National Medal of Arts; she is the ninth and youngest poet upon whom this highest U.S. government honor in the creative arts has been bestowed, and the only one with both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. (Except for Rita Dove, only novelists Eudora Welty, John Updike, and Philip Roth have been awarded both medals.)
The Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University dedicated its third decade-defining conference on contemporary African-American poetry to Ms. Dove in September 2014. In 2015, she became the tenth recipient of China’s tenth Poetry & People International Prize for Poetry as the first English language poet and second foreign woman in the award’s history. That same year she gave the U.K. Poetry Society's prestigious annual lecture in Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Newcastle and Edinburgh. In 2017, she was the recipient of the Harold Washington Literary Award, the inaugural U.S. Presidential Scholars Award from the Presidential Scholars Foundation (which she received together with fellow 1970 Presidential and National Merit Scholar Merrick Garland), the Lifetime Achievement Award from Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts & Letters, and the Library of Virginia's Literary Award in Poetry. That same year, Ms. Dove was also featured in "TIME Magazine Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World (Rita Dove: First black U. S. Poet Laureate)." In 2018 she received the Virginia Commission for the Arts “50 for 50 Arts Inspiration Award” in Literary Arts and The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement; these were followed in 2019 by the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the North Star Award from the Hurston-Wright Foundation, the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University, and the Langston Hughes Medal from City College of New York.
In 2021 the members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters chose Ms. Dove for its Gold Medal, the Academy’s highest honor, as the sixteenth (and third female and first African-American) poet in the Medal’s 110-year history. In 2022, she was honored by the Poetry Foundation with a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.
Ms. Dove has read her poetry at the Clinton White House's first state dinner (in 1993) as well as, more recently in 2011 in the Obama White House, and she has been featured on CNN, NBC's Today Show, in a 1994 Bill Moyer's Journal prime time special on PBS dedicated to her and her work, and, in 2012, on Mr. Moyers's new public television program, Moyers & Company. On PBS, she appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, Dennis Wholey's This is America, and on the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour (in an interview with Charleyne Hunter-Gault). More recently, in 2011, Jeffrey Brown interviewed and portrayed her on PBS Newshour; they reconvened in 2021 alongside the release of her poetry collection Playlist for the Apocalypse. She produced, in collaboration with the Library of Virginia, Shine Up Your Words: A Morning with Rita Dove, a nationally televised one-hour television show with elementary school children about poetry, narrated an NPR program on Billie Holiday, and the three part PBS documentary on Southern literature, Tell About the South, filmed a segment with Big Bird for Sesame Street, and appeared repeatedly on Garrison Keillor's public radio program A Prairie Home Companion.
In April 1995 Rita Dove hosted, together with former President Jimmy Carter, an unprecedented gathering of Nobel Laureates in Literature in Atlanta, Georgia as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Subsequently she wrote the text for composer Alvin Singleton's symphonic work "Umoja — Each One of Us Counts," for symphony orchestra and narrator, commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and performed, with Andrew Young as narrator, at Atlanta Symphony Hall during the opening weekend of the Centennial Olympic Summer Games in July 1996; it was also broadcast on NPR. (Years earlier Alvin Singleton and Rita Dove had collaborated on another composition, "Between Sisters," based on the poem "The House Slave," which was first performed at Spelman College, Atlanta, in 1990.)
Ms. Dove provided the texts for two major musical works by composer Tania León (the first premiered at Merkin Concert Hall, New York, in 1996, and the second at the Harlem Stage Theater, New York, in 2006) and for composer Bruce Adolphe (first performed at Lincoln Center, New York, 1997), among others. Her song cycle Seven for Luck, with music by John Williams, premiered with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and soprano Cynthia Haymon (conducted by the composer) at Tanglewood on July 25, 1998; some of the songs and a conversation between writer and composer were featured in the popular PBS television series Boston Pops. Rita Dove also collaborated with John Williams on Steven Spielberg's The Unfinished Journey and read her text live at the premiere of this documentary during "America's Millennium" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on New Year's Eve 1999 (broadcast on CBS) after attending the Millennium New Year's Eve dinner at the White House. In 2001 the Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago premiered Thomas and Beulah, set to music by Amnon Wolman and performed by Cynthia Haymon (soprano) and Ursula Oppens (piano). Ms. Dove collaborated with composer Matthew Burtner to produce "The Ceiling Floats Away," a series of 13 composed poetry-and-music movements interspersed with audience-produced electronic bridges, issued in album form in January 2018. Her poem "Testimonial" serves as libretto for an oratorio, The World Called, by composer Adolphus Hailstork, which premiered in May 2018. Her song cycle A Standing Witness, with music by Richard Danielpour and sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, has been performed at the Kennedy Center, Tanglewood, and other venues since 2021.
Rita Dove is past president (1986–87) of AWP (the association of creative writers in American academia, then known as Associated Writing Programs, now called Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2006 to 2012. She is a member of PEN American Center, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers, among other literary and cultural organizations. From 1994 to 2000 she served as senator of the national academic association Phi Beta Kappa, and from 1994 to 2001 she was a member of the Golden Plate Awards Council of the American Academy of Achievement. She is advisory editor to the literary periodicals Callaloo, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Mid-American Review, and TriQuarterly (among others), served as Poets' Corner Elector at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, and she sits on the advisory boards of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression and of the non-profit organization Student Achievement & Advocacy Services. In 1985, she chaired the National Endowment for the Arts poetry panel, and in 1997 she headed the Pulitzer Prize jury in poetry. From January 2000 to January 2002, she wrote a weekly column, "The Poet's Choice," for The Washington Post, and served as The New York Times Magazine’s poetry editor from spring 2018 to summer 2019, also contributing a weekly column. She is the editor of The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry (2011).
Ms. Dove taught creative writing at Arizona State University from 1981 to 1989; subsequently she joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where, in 1993, she was appointed the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English. As of 2020, she holds the chair of Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing. In her spare time she enjoys playing the viola da gamba, a 17th-century string instrument related to the cello, her classical voice training and — together with her husband — ballroom dancing and Argentinean tango.
(Daughter Aviva Dove-Viebahn graduated from Mary Baldwin College with a B.A. in theatre and biochemistry in 2001, received her M.A. in art history from the University of Virginia in 2003 and, in 2010, her Ph.D. in visual and cultural studies from the University of Rochester, New York. She currently teaches in the Department of English at Arizona State University.)