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What It Means to “Promote” Poetry

Question: What were your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?

Rita Dove: It’s so funny. When I was Poet Laureate, when I was named Poet Laureate I went down to Washington a little bit beforehand to meet the assistant and meet the librarian of congress and all that and to kind of acclimate myself and I did ask what my duties were. The only official duties are to sponsor a reading series at the Library of Congress twice a month. That was fun to be able to invite poets from all over the world actually to come to read and to read for the archives. That was one official duty. The other duty was to advise the Library of Congress, the librarian of congress and also- and this was the funny one- to promote poetry in any way that I see fit. I said, “What does that mean to promote poetry?” And they said, “Well.” I said, “Well, what is the budget because if you’re going to promote you need a budget?” And I got a kind of a blank stare, so I thought okay this means that you make it up as you go along. You know I’m an artist. I can create. And I decide to just do things and figure they would stop me if they didn’t have enough money, which was probably a good way to go about it because they did find money for various things, but what was interesting, it’s sort of like being Miss America for poetry in that as the Poet Laureate you have an immediate cache and you have status. People see you. You have some kind of publicity, some kind of public stage and I thought of myself as being more like a lightening rod. People would say there is a Poet Laureate, let’s ask her or let’s tell her what to do and I got so many letters right from the beginning from people all over this country telling me what I should do and some of them were really good ideas, so and I couldn’t implement all of them in the time I was there, the two years I was there.

The one thing that I found very, very helpful was to remember that many people are very frightened of poetry and as Poet Laureate I had chance to travel around to just inject poetry into everyday life whenever I could and so I visited grade school kids or the Naval Academy, I mean all sorts of places where you thought you know didn’t know they liked poetry or poetry was absolutely necessary. So each Poet Laureate decides how they want to use that public arena and I decided to try to just be there in people’s faces whenever they turned around and to make poetry something that was all around us, so I went on “Sesame Street” for instance and yeah, it was really fun.

The other thing that happens with the Poet Laureateship is that when I was in Washington there was an opportunity to inject poetry into the government and though the Poet Laureate does not have to write official poems for anything there were many occasions when I would be asked to say a few words, which is of course a kind of a euphemism for do you have a poem, but there is always poem. You can always find a poem for almost any human situation, so I didn’t write poems for specific events, but I could look and see if I had a poem which would fit because I think is always important. It’s important if there is a celebration for some bill being passed it’s nice to have a poem there to remind us all of the human element and the human effort that went behind it, so that was important too.

Recorded on November 19, 2009

As Poet Laureate, Rita Dove learned that many people are frightened of the subject.

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