Rita Dove on Love, Race, Family and Akron History

An interview in celebration of National Poetry Month

by Noor Hindi

2_Rita Dove PhotoCredit,GoodReads.comA few months ago, I picked up Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection “Thomas and Beulah,” which tells the story of Dove’s maternal grandparents. My love for this collection was immediate and powerful. Overwhelmed by the beauty of Dove’s work, I reached out to see if she’d be willing to answer a few questions about the collection and her personal tie to Akron.

Noor Hindi: It’s interesting to me that you grew up in Akron and that your family is also from Akron. It’s also very significant that your father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry, which was booming in the mid 1900s. I am wondering how Akron’s rich history, as well as your grandparents’ and parents’ lives, have influenced your poetry and work?

Rita Dove: That’s a book length question! I mean, it would require an entire memoir to explain the impact of my parents’ and grandparents’ influence upon me. For instance, the storytelling ability certainly comes from a legion of female relatives, and the succinct comic element would be the domain of some of my male relatives, who could tell jokes like nobody’s business. But that doesn’t get at all of the tiny moments that influenced me – my mother’s love of literature and her penchant for quoting Shakespeare during very domestic moments; my father’s chemical research and his setting, by example, a scholarly rigor that often resulted in joyous discovery; or even Akron as a city, which in the mid 1900s was a vibrant and essential link in the industrial boom felt nationwide. As school children, we felt important—Akron was on the global map because we manufactured tires that rolled out into that wide world; also, Quaker Oats had made the long journey across the Atlantic to find a home right here in our Fair City. There was irrefutable physical proof of our presence on the globe: the Quaker Oats silos, clustered in concrete in the center of town and pictured on boxes on our breakfast tables; the smell of rubber on Akron’s east side and the very tires my father helped develop in his laboratory at Goodyear.

NH: I will be reviewing your poetry collection Thomas and Beulah, and have especially enjoyed the poems “Wingfoot Lake,” “The Great Palaces of Versailles,” and “Aurora Borealis.” Can you tell me what the process of writing that collection was like? How much of these poems came from rich stories you were familiar with growing up, and how much was taken from your imagination of events? Briefly, could you also touch on the decision to place these poems in chronological events, despite the poems’ abilities to stand alone?

RD: It’s interesting that you selected those poems because they are perfect illustrations of just how much a mixture of imagination and real-life facts the poems in Thomas and Beulah represent. An aurora borealis actually did visit Akron in 1943: My grandmother told me about it and described the wonder and fear that people felt upon viewing that marvelous spectacle. My mother was a seamstress and it is her memory that I have transferred to Beulah in “The Great Palaces of Versailles.” Of course, the sentiments are entirely of my own invention – or rather, a collaboration between my imagination and Beulah’s attitude! The same is true of “Wingfoot Lake.” As we know, Wingfoot Lake does exist, but for many readers unfamiliar with Akron, this name seems rather fantastical, quite mythical. I try to use both of these in the poem – the cold cut reality and Apollonian-inspired notions of flight, luck, chance. And so it goes, teeter-tottering between reality and imagination, remembrances and fantasies. By the time I finished the book, I had burrowed so deeply into the consciousnesses of Thomas and Beulah, I no longer had a clear idea which details were true and which imagined. The silk scarf with which Thomas woos Beulah, for instance, had originally been blue, according to my grandmother; I changed the color to yellow. The Satisfaction Coal Company did exist – you can’t make that name up! – and my grandfather did work as a janitor there during the Depression. The details, however, came from my mother, who remembered as a child exploring the offices while he cleaned; when she described the big boss’s leather chair and I asked her how many rivets there were, she instantly replied: “34.” She was as surprised as I was that she remembered. But that’s how memory works.

When it came to the chronological placement of the poems, there really wasn’t much of a decision to be made. After all, our lives transpire in chronological fashion, events following one after another. So it seemed inevitable that the Thomas and Beulah poems – those moments of their lives – would proceed chronologically.  What was different was my intention for each poem to render a moment to be held intact and discrete from the next – that is, each poem is meant to stand alone for a moment in time in which the person stops to allow time to twirl around her or him.

NH: The poems in Thomas and Beulah weave together complex topics such as love, race, history, and family. I noticed how simple, yet extraordinarily both Thomas and Beulah are written about in your collection. I am curious to know how poetry can be used to open up a wider conversation about large subjects through emotional storytelling and the use of average, everyday humans that are just trying to get by.

RD: It comes down to what I tell my students all the time: details, details, details! We live our lives in details, while we contemplate our lives in the abstract. When trying to recreate an emotional memory, however, details are the only way to go – for we humans do not apprehend the world in any other way but through our five senses; it is only when we want to withdraw a bit from the tumult of life’s experiences do we begin to think about our lives rather than live them; do we try to find suitable representational extractions in our language with which to contain our emotions. Poetry is out to penetrate that protective shield, our superego, and plunge us back into emotions, and so it happens that details, sensory details – anything that engages the five senses — will help create this emotional scaffolding.

When I was writing the poems that comprise Thomas and Beulah, my surging desire was to fill in the vacuum I had felt in life and in art – that representation of black people up to that point, were mostly either cardboard cutouts or in-depth explorations of the poor and angry black man, the poverty-stricken and suffering black woman. Granted, those kinds of extremities make for dramatic reading; but what of the ordinary life? Daydreaming while dusting, going to a rummage sale, sitting down to dinner – as long as the quotidian consciousness that defines us all as human beings was missing, the mainstream (speak: majority) population could easily dismiss an entire minority race as caricatures, symbols of destitution both physical and spiritual.

In Thomas and Beulah and many other poems, I try to counter such ignorance and thoughtlessness through language – words that infuse and enlighten us, that complicate and deepen our perceptions so that even in a stranger we can recognize echoes of ourselves. That’s what poetry can do; it’s a daunting, exhilarating undertaking, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


For more poetic badassery, check out The Nervous Poodle Poet’s blog at nervouspoodlepoetry.com. Then go write some poems, you poet, you.

(Featured image courtesy of history.com)