Question: What was the first thing you read that made you want to become a poet?
Rita Dove: This sounds really weird, but when I was about 10 or 11 I stumbled across the Iliad at home. My father had bought the great books of the western world and one of the first books there was the Iliad. I had no idea what it was, but it was a very long thing and I thought this is the beginning of literature, so I’m going to read this and I understood probably about half of it, but it was fascinating. It was an incredibly tense and interesting story and once I got into the whole way that the poems worked it read like a swashbuckling mystery in a way, so that made me feel like gosh, this is exciting. I’d like to do that too.
Question: What was the first poem you wrote?
Rita Dove: I do. I wrote poems before this, but the one that I consider the first real poem was about that time too. It was an Easter poem. In school we were supposed to write or paint or do something artistic for Easter, so I wrote this poem called “The Rabbit With the Droopy Ear” and I remember it because when I began writing the poem I had no idea how it was going to end. I just had this idea of a rabbit, the Easter Bunny who had one ear that you know drooped down and he was distressed, so I kept writing and it rhymed and all that and it was actually the rhyme itself that helped me solve the problem of the rabbit with the droopy ear, so the end of the poem it goes: “Hip-hip hooray. Let’s toast him a cup. For now both ears are hanging up.” He hangs himself from a tree and his ears hang straight and everybody is cheering and I was just… I don’t know. It was very exciting to find that ending.
I actually had to read it aloud in class. That was another thing. Gosh, those were the days when you did these things in class, but you know people showed their paintings if they had something for Easter and I had to read my poem aloud and people like it. The kids liked it, my friends, so that was an instant success story.
Question: Has your method of writing poetry changed throughout your life?
Rita Dove: It hasn’t totally changed. It’s changed in the sense that to some extent I know… Let’s say that the goal is not to come to some kind of neat solution as that did, but it hasn’t changed in the sense that at some level I’m never quite sure how the poem is going to resolve itself and that I’m always in some way surprised. I make a discovery in a poem as I write it. By now that means more accessing the subconscious and the fact that if I begin writing a poem that means I’m intrigued in some way by whatever it’s about and that if I’m not trying to find something new and pushing the envelope in the poem I can’t expect my reader to be particularly excited about it either.
Recorded on November 19, 2009