Home > Conversations > A Conversation with Rita Dove
Published: Thu Oct 4 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Bañando en Tiron / Bathing on Holy Saturday (detail), 2017, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2018 Arts On Poetry Writing Process
A Conversation with Rita Dove

Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate, is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Humanities Medal, the Heinz Award, the NAACP Great American Artist Award, and numerous other awards. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and edited The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011). Her most recent book, Collected Poems 1974–2004, was released by W. W. Norton in May 2016.

Our conversation took place on March 23, 2009, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, the writer Fred Viebahn. Their home is located on a secluded drive overlooking a small lake. A dance studio is attached. Both Fred and Rita are passionate ballroom dancers. As we spoke we sat on a white couch in their living room, surrounded by plants, African artifacts, and an array of paintings and photographs.

The night before, I had attended a collaboration that she did with violinist Boyd Tinsley from the Dave Mathews Band.

Chapman Hood Frazier: Last night I attended your performance at the Paramount Theater with Boyd Tinsley from the Dave Mathews Band to launch your collection Sonata Mulattica, a verse drama that tells about the life of a nineteenth-century Euro-African violinist, George Polgreen Bridgetower. He was also a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven before they had a falling out. Could you tell me about your conception for the book and how it evolved?

Rita Dove:  It didn’t evolve from beginning to end; few of my books ever have. It started with my feelings about this musician; I was appalled that I hadn’t known anything about him. His story had been lost, and I wanted to know more. Pure curiosity, really. I didn’t know it would become such a large book; I was thinking in terms of a few poems, perhaps one medium-long poem.

I realized pretty early on that wasn’t enough to do Bridgetower justice. A couple of poems would be like dipping into a honey pot and saying, “Hey, have a little taste. Isn’t that great? What’s next?” I didn’t want my treatment to be tourism of the moment—this entertaining anecdote, that great story.

When I finally started writing, I didn’t sit down with a chart of how things were going to happen. I tried to let the book grow as it wanted. One of the first poems written was the poem where Beethoven meets Bridgetower for the first time; it was a pointed encounter, one for which we have quite a bit of information. It required more imagination to go back and give him a childhood. At some point, though, I had to write an outline, and then I decided to separate the book into a certain number of sections.

Frazier: Do collaborations play an important part in your work as a poet?

Dove: I should probably leave it up to the critics to dissect the influence that collaborations have had on me. I enjoy them, though I don’t reach out for them. To me, collaboration seems a part of being an artist. Perhaps it’s because I grew up playing the cello; I was a musician well before I acknowledged wanting to be a poet. So before I was writing poems seriously, I was playing music; I had experienced that moment when a work of art—be it a poem or a play or an oil painting—moves you intensely; my first revelation happened in music. All the arts share a space; the feeling they engender shares a space whether you’re looking at Guernica, listening to Mozart, or reading a poem.

So often I feel that the university system has caused the arts to be stuffed into their own separate cubbyholes. I look back with envy on those days when Gertrude Stein could enjoy painters and playwrights and musicians and poets at the same salon, talking to each other. When does that happen these days? Today’s poets don’t even know who’s painting or composing. There’s been a loss of cross-fertilization.

Frazier: What have been the key experiences that have helped you evolve as a writer?

Dove: Well, it’s hard to know which ones. When I was a child of ten, I remember losing myself in the excitement of creation.

Frazier: Is that when you used your weekly spelling words?

Dove: Spelling words, yes. The sheer joy of discovering how a randomly assigned group of words, if I let myself go, could lead into a story I didn’t know I was writing. I looked forward to taking the spelling words of that week and starting a story with them, and even though I didn’t know it at that time, I was learning how absolutely story-driven the social human psyche is, and that it is very hard not to make sense. Human beings will make a story out of anything. So each week I’d link those spelling words into a story, and in time they became chapters in a little novel about robots taking over the earth.

Frazier: Was that Chaos?

**Dove: **Yes. I named it Chaos because I was afraid it didn’t make sense. But years later, when I was looking at those chapters, I realized that characters reappeared, there was a plot trajectory—all these little robots who didn’t understand earthlings, though they kept trying. I was like, “Wow, these really made a lot of sense.” It was exciting to see the story emerge like that.

Writing Chaos felt a lot like reading Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (which was a landmark book for me)—just the idea that Harold drew the landscape that he was just about to walk into. This is what a writer does, too: you may have a driving idea, but it’s actually the words, the very act of writing, that leads you where you didn’t know you wanted to go. I’m sure Freud would explain that as the subconscious taking over. Whatever.

Anyway—although I’ve been writing, in a sense, since I was ten years old, I didn’t think that I could do anything real with it. I’d never heard of “author” as a career choice; I’d found a way to occupy myself during childhood but some day I believed I would have to grow up—“put away childish things,” as the Bible says—and get a job as a lawyer or doctor.

Frazier: Did you have key teachers who helped you evolve as a writer?

Dove: I had some pretty wonderful teachers. In fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, I had teachers who would do things like say “Write a poem about Easter.” I know it sounds like torture, but one of the first poems I wrote that I was excited about was this poem about a rabbit with one droopy ear, because it was Easter and I had to write a poem. I could have chosen a story, but I chose to write a poem. And I had the title right away, but had no idea how this rabbit was going to get out of this dilemma.

Frazier: So you started with the title? Then you just elaborated on it?

Dove: I started with the title, and the title was the idea—the Easter bunny had a droopy ear. And I knew I had to rhyme, because poems were supposed to rhyme. That actually helped, because halfway through the poem, where I needed to figure out how the dear rabbit was going to get his ear straight again, my solution came through the rhyme, the form itself. What a revelation, what a great moment!

Now let’s fast-forward a decade or so. In junior high school I had several teachers who taught poetry. At first, my response was the typical adolescent’s—terror, masked by a studied nonchalance. I loved poetry, but by that point I had “learned” that poetry was difficult and when you studied it you had to divine the correct interpretation, of which there was only one. When my seventh-grade teacher announced a unit on poetry, I was certain I wouldn’t do well. But it turned out to be fun, because she was a good teacher.

Then there was Mr. Hicks, who had two advanced degrees but elected to teach ninth-grade English and drama—so the rumor went—in order to get to us before society ruined us. The first thing we did was to beg him to teach us grammar. Because we were in an experimental accelerated class, we had skipped parsing and diagramming sentences. He simply said, “You know grammar; you couldn’t have gotten this far if you didn’t.” But we argued that we could fake it but didn’t know what anything was called and would surely flunk our SATs. So he gave us about two days’ worth of grammar, and then he said, “Now you know all the rules, but it’s basically common sense.” Which was true!

Later, when we got to the poetry unit, he divided us into groups of four or five and gave each group a chunk of poetry. At the end of the week, each group had to present an interpretation of their selection. Our group got an excerpt with passages of Greek in it, written in the Greek alphabet! It was the densest piece of writing I had ever seen. Because the passage had been taken out of its context and we didn’t know the author, we couldn’t look it up, which made our assignment even more impossible. But we were in this together, so we could vent our frustration, and all we did our first session was mutter “Is he out of his mind?” and think up crazy scenarios. Then we reached the point where we start to research every angle; since none of us spoke Greek, we didn’t even know what language those symbols were from until someone yelled, “It’s Greek to me!” and as we laughed we realized it really was Greek—and that meant it probably had something to do with the ancient world, right? Since we had deemed the assignment impossible, we decided just to go as far as we could, which of course was exactly what Mr. Hicks wanted us to do to—to give in to our imagination and throw whatever came to us into the pot. We bounced ideas off each other, we guessed at the translations, we asked our parents about passages and they’d offer their opinions; it was a community effort! Then we got back together and wrote our review, thinking it was total nonsense; as we found out later, every group had similar experiences. And then came the day we had to stand up and present our paper, after which Mr. Hicks would read some critic’s interpretation. Now, he didn’t know what we were going to come up with, but he trusted us—and each group’s report was extremely similar to what the critics had said!

Frazier: Really!

Dove: Yeah! It was amazing. Now I can only think about the courage it took for him to do that, and how innovative an approach it was. After that, we understood that fear was the biggest impediment to understanding poetry. We realized that you can go a long time in a poem without knowing exactly what it “means,” as long as it is interesting and engaging in some way.

Then along came my eleventh-grade teacher, Miss Oechsner, who opened my personal connection to poetry. She took me and a couple of other students to see John Ciardi, who was in town for a book signing; he’d just published his translation of Dante’s Inferno. Of course, he was also a poet. I had never told my teacher that I was writing my little verses on the side; I didn’t show my poems to anyone. Even now, I’ll ask her, “How did you know?” and she says, “You just had this look in your eye.” So she basically called my parents and asked for permission to take me to a book signing on a Saturday. If I had known beforehand, I would have said, “What’s a book signing?” It was remarkable; there he sat, a living person who wrote poetry and had his own books, stacked up beside him. I had never heard anybody read poetry in front of an audience; I never thought such a thing was possible. So that Saturday planted a kernel in my brain.

Miss Oechsner did another wonderful thing. She started out our study of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native by discussing the first page for forty minutes. The novel begins with an extensive description of Egdon Heath, so she read the title to the first section aloud—“A Face On Which Time Makes But Little Impression”—and then said to us, “Listen to how that phrase just trips along, so lightly!” Then she scanned it: a perfect dactylic line, like the clip-clop of a solitary dray horse. And we were all like Whoa! By the time she got through that first page, we understood how the music of the sentences built mood just as surely as the meaning of the words. She showed us what language does and how it does it, and how you can use it to do it—whether poetry or fiction or playwriting. So, those two teachers were my early and important influences.

Frazier: What were you writing in high school? Were you writing rock song lyrics, love poems, or exploring formal poetry?

Dove:  I was still writing, but the poems were pretty standard high school fare—tortured love poems, imitations of the poetry I was reading at the time, that nineteenth-century sensibility. My brother and I wrote rock ’n’ roll songs, which we’d rehearse while washing dishes and then record on a little tape deck. A little earlier than the songs, in junior high mostly, we’d write plays—farces where we could break out into satirical songs, sort of like the parodies in Mad Magazine. We were encouraged in these collaborations by my father, who was a research chemist but loved to fiddle around with carpentry and electronics. He rigged up our stereo system with a microphone, and we were thrilled by the idea of doing radio plays. We would make our parents sit in the living room for hours while we hunkered in the kitchen bumbling through our radio dramas—which always had lots of sound effects, of course. I think we managed to write a waterfall into every script; holding the mic next to a running faucet produced an awesome waterfall!

I still loved the rigor of the short story and would read all my brother’s Fantasy and Science Fiction magazines when he was finished with them, so I also wrote lots of science fiction stories. The writing was occasional, derivative, scattered across genres—but all of it, mind you, was done for amusement.

Frazier: So, this was not part of school—not part of your schooling at all.

Dove: Not at all. And certainly not with any sense of “Someday I’m going to be a famous poet or novelist.” Writing was fun; it was something to do. When the summers grew long—we weren’t allowed to watch a lot of TV—my brother and I would start a newspaper that never went past the first issue because he insisted on being editor-in-chief. I’d quit and start my own magazine, called Poet’s Delight, but I’d never get beyond drawing the cover; I’d start out drawing an autumn tree and invariably get hung up trying to paint every leaf.

Frazier: So, did this continue when you went to college? Were you exploring a range of genres then?

Dove: When I was at Iowa, it was great to be able to concentrate on one discipline and that was fine. But I didn’t understand the level of distrust that existed among the disciplines. It didn’t make sense. To me, writing is writing; if you’re a novelist, you simply do it in a slightly different way. I didn’t like the way the poets seemed to think they were the cream of the crop just because they used less words; they thought the fiction writers were garrulous, which made no sense to me at all. I felt like saying, “Prose is just as hard, but it’s a different kind of hard.” On the other hand, the prose writers believed the poets all had their heads in the clouds and that poems didn’t have to make sense, so writing poetry was easier than prose. What a misguided mess.

Frazier: At Iowa you studied with Stanley Plumly. How did he influence your writing?

Dove: Stanley Plumly was exceedingly good at figuring out… how can I say this? I have to give an example. Stanley was a visiting poet during my second year. Up to that point, I had been careful to protect myself by not writing anything about race. I was trying to learn how to write better poems and was afraid that autobiography would give rise to politics and so get in the way of the discussion; after all, I was the only black person in the class. But in Stanley’s Forms class, I started turning in a sequence of poems about slavery. I’d been working on these poems secretly for a while—I wasn’t trying to mine the field for compelling topics; I wanted them to be different than the standard Black Power Protest Poem. (They would eventually form a complete section in my first book.) So finally I turned one of these poems in to Stanley’s class. He read the poem aloud, and the first thing one guy said was, “Instead of the doctor’s apple a day, I feel like I’ve just been given cod liver oil.” A pretty aggressive comment, born out of defensiveness. I remember thinking, “That’s not even remotely useful.” The discussion turned toward race, and people became nervous. They weren’t looking at the poem at all, in which case Stanley was able to say, “Come on; your political persuasions have nothing to do with this. Look at it as a poem.” He was able to direct the discussion back to prosody.

Afterward I went to his office hours and he just laughed, saying: “Oh, that went well!” But he was also reminding me that race was going to be a factor in my poems. He knew how to keep the focus away from biography, or at least try to show that it’s not the main point.

Frazier: So you were the only black student in the class? Did you find that you were integrating your classes continually while you went through your education there?

Dove: Yeah… I was always integrating my classes all the way through college, especially the writing classes. In other classes, I was always the only black it seemed.

Frazier: Do you feel that this may have shaped you in a way? I mean how did it impact you?

Dove: I’m sure it did. Here’s what’s interesting: when I was in high school, I was part of a public educational Advanced Placement experiment—they were trying out the idea of forming an elite class of students and seeing how fast we could be pushed along the curriculum. From seventh through twelfth grade I stayed with the same kids in certain classes.

Frazier: Sort of like a cohort group?

Dove: Yes—in English, math, and science. Occasionally, someone would be in my English class and not science, but there was a core group that went through adolescence together. And that group was pretty integrated. When I look back on it now, my high school was pretty phenomenal. When I entered tenth grade, demographically we were thirty percent black, seventy percent white; by the time I graduated, it stood at about sixty-forty! Though the neighborhoods were changing, we got along; there were several other blacks in the class with me, and it was all cool.

When I got to college, I suddenly saw all these divisions. By the time I started taking creative-writing courses, I was used to being the only black person in class. I didn’t think it was going to be any different when I went to Iowa for graduate school, and for a while it was true…until my second year, when one Hispanic and one American Indian—Sandra Cisneros and Joy Harjo—were added to the mix. There we were, some kind of literary Mod Squad. It was a weird feeling.

Frazier: When I was reading Poet’s World, you talked about working with the spelling words as a writing strategy that you adopted or as a goal you set for yourself. In each of your books you have set yourself a series of challenges. In Museum, you started each poem with a title before composing the piece, I think it was, and in Thomas and Beulah, you decided to write without using the first-person pronoun I. In Mother Love, you composed the whole book in sonnets—that was another kind of task that you set for yourself. So these little technical problems must be accomplished before you move on. Is that true? Do you still write this way?

Dove: This is true.

Frazier: So, you set these tasks, and then you work through them as a challenge?

Dove: Yes.

Frazier: What challenge did you set for yourself in the composition of American Smooth?

Dove: American Smooth was different, because it was the first book after our house fire, which was like the celestial bowling ball that knocked the pins out from under us. So everything happened differently, because I didn’t think I was going to be writing for a while. I had to get my feet back on the ground; we had to get our lives together. For the first time in a long time, just living was paramount; and the rest was just going to have to fall into place.

But I didn’t think about writing poetry. Life rushed in again when we began ballroom dancing, accompanied by two overwhelming sensations: the physical exuberance of dancing, and finding myself in companionable situations which were not determined by intellectual consensus or social standing. We danced with construction workers, lawyers, housewives—all sorts of people, young and old, academic and working class; and everyone was trying to learn the same steps. We hung out together. It was cool.

How to get this buoyancy into my poems? How to loosen up and get a “rangier” poetic line? Employing a chattier tone was a challenge for me; up to that point I had been fairly minimalist. Also: how could I translate the human body’s motion into poetry? I won’t say dance, just the actual physical sensation of graceful movement. Dance is the metaphorical scaffolding upon which I began to layer the different ways in which movement occurs. Take the cha-cha, for example: I didn’t want to imitate the rhythm; I wanted my images, the very movement of thought, to skitter like a cha-cha. How to get the elegance and ease of a fox-trot into a poem?

So, my task was not quite as straightforward as the ones I set for myself in earlier books.

Frazier: Yes, I see. So what task did you set for yourself in Sonata Mulattica?

Dove: In many ways Sonata Mulattica feels like a throwback to Thomas and Beulah—a long story told in discrete poems, though in the end it traces the trajectory of a single life, as opposed to the two lives in Thomas and Beulah. My challenge was to make sure it didn’t feel like a novel in verse. I wanted the novel’s sensibility, that sensation of being immersed in another universe. Within that universe, however, are moments of quiet variance and lyricism; and though a narrative is housed there, in some critical ways the universe itself becomes a lyric.

Frazier: The challenge then is to create a sustainable narrative that creates a believable universe made up of lyrical moments.

Dove: Yes.

Frazier: While in American Smooth you have this one pulse based on the soldier’s diaries that are also entering the life and working with history. Was it like a precursor to Sonata Mulattica then?

Dove: In a way, yes. It’s an era that requires lots of back story, yet only so much information can be poured through the language without sounding like explanation. A poem is not a place for explanation. And so the idea of sustaining the atmosphere over the course of a book was really important to me; it was one of the challenges. The other challenge was the music. I’ve been incorporating music into my poems for a long time, but this was serious—creating Sonata Mulattica meant talking about music, imagining and recreating it over and over again, because someone’s always playing a concerto or composing a symphony. Music is the formative trope of George Bridgetower’s experience.

Frazier: I’d like to move back into American Smooth. The poem “Fox Trot Fridays”—would you mind reading it?

Dove: Not at all!

Fox Trot Fridays

Thank the stars there’s a day
each week to tuck in
the grief, lift your pearls, and
stride brush stride
quick-quick with
heel-ball-toe. Smooth
as Nat King Cole’s
slow satin smile
easy as taking
one day at a time:
one man and
one woman,
rib to rib,
with no heartbreak in sight—
just the sweep of Paradise
and the space of a song
to count all the wonders in it.

Frazier: So this was a healing poem for you? How did the writing of this poem actually evolve?

Dove: Yes, it really was. It was the first poem that emerged after the fire. And if we give credence to the prevailing myth about poetic inspiration coming like a bolt of lightning—well, this felt like that. The writing happened so easily…though the lightning bolt had to burn down a house first!

The actual sequence of events was this: after the house fire, our neighbors decided they wanted to do something for us. They inadvertently gave us the greatest gift of all—the gift of beauty and grace—by buying us tickets for a dinner dance, a black-tie benefit event. This was about two weeks after the fire, and we’re still running around in borrowed shorts, covered in ashes, hauling things out of the debris. Our neighbors, who had been pitching in, told us matter-of-factly, “We’re all going to this black-tie dance, so go buy some decent clothes.” We had no clothes of our own at all, actually; a few days before they came with those tickets, we had tried to go shopping, but ten minutes after walking into the first store I walked out again, empty-handed. After all, just buying “some clothes” wasn’t enough—I had nothing at all, so I had to start from the ground up, with underwear—and when this dawned on me, all the details—I just couldn’t do it. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t have the strength.

But now our neighbors were saying, “Rita, go buy a gown. Fred, find a tuxedo.” And it turned out that it felt great to buy such elaborate raiment in the midst of all that misery. So I found a gown, Fred bought a tuxedo, and off we went to the ball while our house was in ashes! We had a wonderful time; and when I saw people actually waltzing across the parquet I said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that”—to which my neighbor up the street replied, “We’ll sign the whole neighborhood up for lessons.”

That very same industrious neighbor stopped by the next day—we were staying at yet another neighbor’s house—and said, “I got it all set up—a free introductory lesson at the dance studio. We’re all going, all four couples!” It became this great outing. You see, as corny as it sounds, after the house burned down, I experienced a sense of incredible freedom. I could do anything. I was alive. After surviving a fire, I could do anything in the world. Dancing? Why not, why the hell not! So we started ballroom lessons. No poems, no thinking about poems, just dancing. And then, when I was least expecting it, this poem slips out. True, every Friday there was a party. Not that we only did fox-trot, but the alliteration, like the poem, seemed simply to present itself. And so “Fox Trot Fridays” led me back to poetry and eventually into writing the next book.

I began to want to write again. It was less that I was trying to heal myself, but that writing brought me pleasure again.

I started taking notes on poems about dancing because it was thrilling to think of the moods created by each dance—there are such radical sensory differences between a cha-cha and a samba, for example.

Frazier: So the dance poems were a way for you to free yourself and also a catharsis? And I guess the practice led you out of yourself.

Dove: Absolutely. It led me out of my self-involvement, how I was reacting to myself as well as to this whole disaster. At this point of my life, in 1998, I’d been in the spotlight for a long time. Although I’ve always been shy, people don’t believe me, so I’ve learned not to insist upon it. A childhood lesson: no whimpering, just get on with it; learn how to do what needs to be done.

What I’m trying to say is it wasn’t natural for me to feel comfortable in the spotlight. And after all those years of being self conscious, I now felt different. What those poems did…well first of all, the house fire put me in my place. Suddenly I asked myself: “Why are you doing this with your life? Why are you letting yourself feel so self conscious? Just forget it, walk away from the limelight if you have to.” On the other hand, learning to dance was like being a student—or a child—all over again. I was learning something new; I could be bad at it, stumble and step on toes, and still get joy from the trying. In a way, dance released me—so that when I finally came back to the writing, subconsciously my attitude had changed to something more like: “Okay, loosen it up! Don’t think about writing like Rita Dove! So what if you’re known for doing one thing really well in one particular style—that’s no way to live a life or write a poem.”

Frazier: So you actually used this experience to re-ignite your writing. The experience itself moved you out of your comfort zone and the idea of the dance became a way of freeing you to make mistakes, to push into a new and different realm where you felt you had the freedom to improvise. Is that how the experience inspired you?

Dove: With American Smooth, I realized early on that there was going to be a dance theme, but I did not want the reader to think, “Oh, this is a book of dance poems” and view everything though the lens of ballroom dance. I wanted the term “American Smooth” to be the operative trope. It’s a specific ballroom term that talks about the quality of being American, as opposed to European, when doing “standard” dances such as the waltz, fox-trot, quickstep. The American Smooth allows more freedom to the female, more cool improvisations—pure Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, yes, but also the essence of jazz. So I wanted to scatter the ballroom dances throughout the book so that we wouldn’t read them in one clump and think, “Ah, this is all about dance.” The first three poems in the book, however, were written in the same time period and needed to appear together. “No,” I thought, “start with the loss.” So, although “All Souls’” wasn’t the first poem I wrote after the fire, it had to go first because it was about loss and how at the same time you’re walking away from something, you are also walking toward something new.

Frazier: Now when you were actually doing the piece, did you look at the fox-trot dance itself and use it in your composition? It has a quick, quick, step, step, specific structure, if I’m not mistaken? Did you use that structure when you were working on the poem or did the structure that evolved just emerge?

Dove: The fox-trot has a very strict structure, and that one section of the poem that goes “quick-quick with a / heel-ball-toe” represents precise ballroom technique. You know, the parallels between writing poetry and dancing are so apt it’s almost ridiculous: there you are, desperately trying to appear absolutely effortless. The fox-trot is probably one of the hardest ballroom dances; you need to be smooth, but inside your head your teacher’s voice is going, “Heel lead, articulate the foot, roll onto the ball, up on your toes, hover!” And all the while you’re counting and articulating as you fly around the room…until you finally forget to count and begin to dance.

First you learn the form; then you feel the form, and at some point the form feels you. I tell my students, “If you want to write a sonnet, you first better write a raft of sonnets before you even attempt the real deal. You have to be able to breathe a sonnet, not count lines; you have to know instinctually when fourteen lines are over.” And that is part of what dancing the fox-trot is about, too. At the same time, I didn’t want to imitate the beat exactly, which is a four count. So I didn’t use quatrains, because then people might start trying to find the count instead of feeling the form.

Frazier: Because I did. I went in and I tried to find the specific rhythm—

Dove: You can’t find it. You’ve got to go with the flow. Same with the poem “Ta Ta Cha Cha,” which was one of the last dance poems to be written. Because everyone knows the cha-cha rhythm, I wanted to thwart that assumed cadence. I didn’t want the reader to start counting out a cha-cha like one might tick off the rhymes in a ballad or count syllables in a haiku. In fact, if you start counting syllables in a haiku, you just lost the entire experience of haiku. The technique has got to be there, but that’s not the point of it.

Frazier: You have a lot of sound going on in “Fox Trot Fridays.” All kinds of sound quality going on there. Did you go back into it after the first draft was written and lay in layers of it?

Dove: Oh sure! I remember, for instance, starting off with “Thank the stars there’s a day to tuck in the grief” but going back to insert “each week” so it would read: “Thank the stars there’s a day each week to tuck in the grief…” It just kind of slides, but you still have to catch yourself up a little bit. I remember struggling with the technical action, “stride brush stride, quick-quick, with a heel ball toe”—Where to break the line in order to render exactly the right amount of hesitation, how to vary the speed, to quicken the tempo or slow it down? Often the revisions occurred in the lineation; I didn’t want to have any of the couplets end on a period, for example, because that would have stopped the flow of the dance. The fox-trot is very fluid…it just goes. The only end stop is a colon, which I think of more as kind of a pause—if you were dancing it, you would hold your pose for an instant and then pour back into the dance. There is also a dash, but that’s just another kind of pause, more of a headlong hover. There was a lot of that kind of orchestration.

Frazier: You created the entire poem in two sentences, right? The whole thing was two, syntactically speaking?

Dove: Okay, I’ll take your word for it.

Frazier: And it’s the same kind of structure you used in “Quick,” “Soprano,” and “Against Flight.” Was that a conscious decision on your part? Did you say to yourself, “I’m going to write six poems with the same structure.”

Dove: No, never! But I was very conscious of the effect you can get by leaping across space, both in the dance and the poem—the white space that a new stanza gives, and the lesser white space afforded by the turn of the line. The kind of cadence you can get from that kind of “leaping” is much more subtle and, in some way, more powerful than the obvious marking of punctuation. It is very hard to write a poem without punctuation. I think the “swimminess” that occurs when there’s no punctuation, a là Merwin, can put us on guard in an eerie way—whereas, if there are capitals and periods blocking out obvious sentences, we relax into it a bit more. I was also experimenting with the idea of how much stoppage you get if you put a period in the middle of a line, and how that urges you to keep pushing forward. Sometimes I think we tend to move faster with that period in the middle of the line than if you encounter the white space of a caesura. Again, it’s using the visual to help the aural.

Frazier: What is your revision process like generally? Do you spend a lot of time in the revision process or does it depend on the poem?

Dove: I spend most of my time revising. I love the revision process.

Frazier: Is that where the poems emerge for you?

Dove: Yes! People always think the instant of inspiration is so great, but that’s a moment surrounded by sheer misery and terror for me—because first there is nothing, and then something either begins to trickle in or comes in little bursts. Before and after: before, you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have nothing,” and afterward it’s, “Oh my gosh, what have I done!” Because it doesn’t feel earned, you find yourself wondering if it’s any good. The process of opening up in order to receive the initial impulses of a poem is a terrifying moment. The revision process is difficult too, but I find all that fiddling around reassuring. I love revising. It’s where I live.

Chapman Hood Frazier’s conversations with contemporary poets have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Shenandoah, AGNI, and The Weight of Winter, edited by Mark Sanders. His poetry has been published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. A former poetry editor of The Dos Passos Review and guest editor of The Hampden Sydney Poetry Review, he is co-director of the Sunrise Learning Center, an innovative pre-school in Farmville, Virginia, and a professor in residence at James Madison University. (updated 10/2018)

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