Separating “War Poems” From “Love Poems”

Question: Where does your inspiration for poetry come from?

Rita Dove: I wish I could. It’s different every time and in fact, years ago there was a… I did do something like that for a magazine where a journalist actually followed me around and we tried to, but it’s slightly different every time. My inspiration comes from everywhere, just walking down the street and I never know where it’s going to come from, so I keep a notebook with me at all times and the only criteria for anything making it into that notebook is if it stops me in my tracks for even an instant, if it catches my eye or my ear and I just write it down. That means there are recipes in there you know. There are words and sometimes there is a character description or sometimes it’s a line and after that point though what happens is kind of odd. I work in fragments in this instead. I’m not going to sit-down and say first line is this and now I’m going to just write my way through it. It’s like piecing it together like a pot, so I might have a line that I might write down in the middle of a page and I still write things down with a pen on paper.

I go to the computer when it gets too messy and use it like an elaborate typewriter because I print it out and then I mess it up again, but when I do sit down to write in my room or my study and I try to write, there is a certain time every night. I’m a night person. My best times are midnight to six actually. I’ll leaf through my notebooks and if something catches my eye and I feel like I want to transfer it from the notebook to the page, I do, and then comes this very strange process which is difficult to describe in that I’ll write until I get stuck or I can’t go any further or I’m boring myself or whatever and then I might go to another poem. I might go to another folder where there are other drafts of poems in various stages of completion and the only way I have for keeping track of all this fragmentary stuff is by color and I have different colored folders, red folders, blue, yellow. So I might go into my study let’s say one evening and say I feel like the blue folder today and I’ll pick up the blue folder and see what is in there. So it’s something that I’ve kind of worked out over the years, but the colors are only because I didn’t want to put anything… I didn’t want to file anything in a straight… I think if you put something in a file that says “war poems” or “love poems” that you already restrict the way in which the poem might move. If I put it in blue it could be sad blue. It could be happy blue. It could be peaceful blue, but my mood at the moment when I’m about to work on that poem will tell me where I want to go. So it’s an odd process, but I do lots of revisions and I love to revise, so 30, 40 revisions is not unusual.

At this stage I do most of my revisions by myself until I reach a point where I either need to give it lots of time because time is a great reviser too you know, just months of putting it aside or I will show it… A lot of times I’ll show it to my husband who is a novelist and as a pro’s writer he has a totally different take on things, so he comes at it in a different way. I yearn for those old days you know from graduate school where you go into a workshop and people would give you all these ideas and you’d take it away from, but at this point that just doesn’t… It’s not in the cards, so.

Question: Do you believe that it takes a wealth of experience to be able to write a poem?

Rita Dove: I think it’s both. I think that you certainly don’t have to be aged and travel the world to write a poem. In fact, sometimes traveling the world is a way of not writing a poem, but it’s the quality of experience. It’s being able to experience something and when you begin to write about it be able to apply the tools that you need for writing, you know a mastery of the language and a way of piecing together the language I guess, that those two factors have to come together, so you do need to be… to work at it, but you also have to be able to know when to take the experience as it happened, when to tweak it a little bit, what part of the experience is going to move somebody else and what part is really your own private moment, so I’ve seen poems written by very young people which are absolutely stunning and of course we have examples, Baudelaire. These are amazing poems, so he obviously didn’t have a wealth of experience or age or anything like that and I’ve seen poems which of course could only have been written by someone who was older and had lived certain you know stages of life and gone through certain stages of life, but it’s a combination of the two. It really is.

Question: What’s your process of turning historical moments into poetry?

Rita Dove: Well you know I’ve always felt that the poems I’ve written which have historical context are hopefully not just simply plucking something out of history and saying great, let’s write about that. In every case what has happened is that I’ve become fascinated or haunted by something and couldn’t shake it. As an African-American, as a woman I think that I’ve been sensitized to the way in which history privileges the white male and the way in which certain aspects of history, the things that we are taught in school, the things that are handed down never, never entered the picture though they might have been very important. Anyone can tell you that, at the risk of oversimplification, let me say that anyone can tell you that how you’re raised as a child has a great deal to do with how you behave as an adult and whether you have complexes or whether you need to prove yourself or all that kind of stuff and yet the mother in a traditional family who has raised a child never makes it in the history books. I mean so those kinds of things have always irritated me. Let’s put it that way. And I’m always reminded when I see someone, Napoleon’s stocks through the battlefields and I think yeah, but how did he get that way? How did this guy become who he was?

So that’s the predisposition I had I think as a writer, as a person who wanted to create poetry. That’s one of the things that has always been one of the things I carry along with me. Each time it’s different. For instance, in this new book, which tells the story of a black, a mixed race violinist, George Bridgetower, who grew up in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. I came upon him because I was watching a movie Immortal Beloved and there was a scene in which Beethoven walks by a group of musicians and there is this black violinist. I’m like, what? I’ve heard of colorblind casting, but this is a bit strange and so I looked him up and I didn’t intend to write poems about it. I just wanted to know more about him and I kept reading and the more I read the more I realized the only way I was going to get him out of my head was to get into his and start to write about him. So in each case it’s been something like that.

Recorded on November 19, 2009

Rita Dove explains her tendency to write in the middle of the night, and her unique filing system for drafts of poems.

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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

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