Kevin Young, poet and current director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, interviewed Rita Dove for The Paris Review's Spring 2023 issue (out now). Below is an excerpt; visit this link to get full access!
I first encountered Rita Dove in Essence magazine, where I learned that she’d won the 1987 Pulitzer for her book Thomas and Beulah (1986)—the first Black poet to be so awarded since Gwendolyn Brooks nearly four decades before. As a Black high schooler in Kansas who wrote poetry, or tried to, I distinctly remember wondering why no one had come to my door to inform me personally of this achievement—though I suppose the magazine, which then published poetry in its pages, had in fact done as much.
Thomas and Beulah was a revelation. Written in lines musical, freighted, and precise, Dove’s sequence of poems about her grandparents’ marriage is shadowed by the Great Migration, World War II, and the civil rights movement. That book’s grand theme—the intimacy of history—courses through Dove’s oeuvre, starting with her debut, The Yellow House on the Corner(1980), and 1983’s Museum, a powerful collection that includes a poem called “Parsley,” which tells of the Dominican Republic leader Rafael Trujillo’s mass murder of Haitians on the pretext of “a single, beautiful word.” Dove’s ability to evoke a deadly dictator with irony and complexity is reminiscent of Milton’s sympathy for the devil in Paradise Lost or W. H. Auden’s damning “Epitaph on a Tyrant.”
Dove’s first four books of poetry appeared at three-year intervals, a pace that slowed only slightly with Mother Love (1995) and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). Both refract her experiences of parenthood—she and her husband, the writer Fred Viebahn, have a daughter, Aviva—and of serving as the United States poet laureate, a role she occupied from 1993 to 1995, and which she transformed from what was once simply called the consultant in poetry into the prominent position it is today. Those early volumes, intertwined much as Lucille Clifton’s are, add up to an everyday epic that tells of the ways that public history is created through private lives—especially Black ones, which is still a revolutionary idea. Along the way, Dove finds kin in a variety of figures: an unnamed “House Slave,” sideshow performers in Berlin, Billie Holiday and Hattie McDaniel, Persephone and Demeter, a trickster “Spring Cricket.” She has also written several proper epics, including the symphonic Sonata Mulattica (2009), about the violinist George Bridgetower, the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and, in Dove’s reimagining, a nexus from which to examine music, memory, racism, and underappreciated talent. As she writes of Holiday: “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”