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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