By JOHN SULLIVAN
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington's appointment of Rita Dove on May 19 to be the nation's seventh Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry has focused much attention on the first African American -- and the youngest person -- ever to hold the title. In a recent interview with Patricia Smith from the _Boston Globe_, Rita Dove said, "The vague, loosely structured definition of the job 'poet laureate' will allow me greater freedom in initiating and designing programs. I'm hoping to combine poetry with other media -- jazz, dance, photography, video. And I'll be looking for programs to attract adolescents, an endangered age group when it comes to poetry. They need something more hands-on, where they get to sink their teeth into words and manipulate them.
In a June 20 interview with Felicity Barringer of The New York Times, Ms. Dove said, "I think so many of our young people feel that poetry is something they're going to be tested on and not going to know the right answer. ... I think that it would be foolish for poetry not to try to utilize the changes in our technological innovations ... that poetry videos would be a great idea. Some of the better MTV spots were really wonderful, they seemed very poetic. I could really imagine that use of voice and image with poetry.
The reporter added that "what bothers Rita most is the notion that poetry is often introduced as something to be studied, not to be heard or loved.
As the nation's new Poet Laureate prepares for the Library's literary season, beginning Oct. 7, she is bracing herself for continued media attention. Ms. Dove has maintained a supremely optimistic outlook on what she expects to find when she reaches Washington and what she intends to accomplish.
The Pulitzer Prize-winner, age 40, also told the Boston Globe, "It is exciting, this energy coming from so many different directions. We get a new president, and for the first time in over 30 years, an inaugural poem. It was a poem that didn't feed you answers, but the public liked it, and that was a good sign. Creative writing programs are among the most popular in the humanities. On the nonacademic side, there are the poetry slams, competitions which stir up incredible energy. There's a real hunger for words that connect us to our innermost selves."
Dr. Billington met Ms. Dove for the first time in person on the morning of June 10 in his office. With a television camera from Cable News Network (CNN) recording the meeting, the Librarian said, "I think this is going to give a new shot of adrenalin to the Laureateship, which Congress created a few years ago and still has yet to realize its full potential." Ms. Dove nodded effusively.
The new Poet Laureate follows the tenures of Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky and Mona Van Duyn. Ms. Dove, who teaches creative writing in the English Department at the University of Virginia, is not intimidated by her predecessors. From a middle-class background in Akron, Ohio, the second of four children of a chemist and a homemaker, she was selected as a presidential scholar in 1970, recognizing her as one of the United States' 100 top high school graduates that year.
She enrolled in Miami University of Ohio intent on pursuing law. She also studied modern German at the University of Tubingen as a Fulbright Fellow. She received her M.A. at the University of Iowa, which is where she met her husband-to-be, Fred Viebahn, a novelist and playwright.
Following a teaching stint at Arizona State, she took a position in the University of Virginia's English Department, where she has taught for the past four years. The couple has a 10-year-old daughter, Aviva. Ms. Dove sings in the university's opera workshop and plays the cello and viola da gamba.
The new Laureate will be the first to enjoy the renovated Poetry Office, located on the third floor of LC's Thomas Jefferson Building. The Laureate's office looks out over the northwest side of the building. In the adjoining large reception room the balcony overlooks the U.S. Capitol plaza.
Ms. Dove will be the first Laureate to have her own personal computer, one having recently been installed during the renovation. The old manual typewriter, in place for many years, is currently in storage. The rooms, although modernized and refurbished, are steeped in literary history, going back to the first chair in poetry in 1937. The walls will soon be covered with black-and-white photographs of her predecessors.
The author of four books of poetry, a volume of short stories and most recently, a novel, Through the Ivory Gate, her current projects include a new poetry collection and a play, "The Darker Face of Earth," based upon an antebellum slave rebellion.
In an editorial in the May 22 issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun, lines from her poem "Mississippi," the journey of African slaves along that fabled waterway, were printed:
We were falling down river, carnal slippage and shadow melt. We were standing on the deck of the New World, before maps: tepid seizure of a breeze and the spirit hissing away...
Ms. Dove told the Sun, "If only the sun-drenched celebrities are being noticed and worshipped, then our children are going to have a tough time seeing value in the shadows, where the thinkers, probers and scientists are who are keeping society together."
The editorial writer said of Ms. Dove, "Hers is welcome as a clear voice amid the babble. Let us hope during her year as Poet Laureate, some of that clarity may persuade us to listen more to the inner voice of the heart, and heed the report of its travels."
Julia Klein of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently spoke to Ms. Dove, who told her: "I understand some of the frustrations of poet laureates in the past, and I know that there will be frustrating moments, because Washington is built that way. ... They don't really know what to do with the Poet Laureate. They would name one and say, 'That's enough.'
"A part of my charge is to promote poetry. You can take that any way you like, but I really feel that it's a real opportunity to actually try to ... call more national attention to poetry. I feel that one of the tasks of the poet -- perhaps the only task of a poet -- is to be completely honest ... in terms of what they see and what they experience. It's the only way to bear witness."
The reporter said that one of Rita Dove's goals will be "to try to break through the misbegotten notion that poetry is elite and somehow removed from life. Already she is bursting with ideas -- for a symposium that will unite African, African-American and Caribbean artists; for readings that will combine poetry with music; for poems plastered on subways and recited in television public service announcements."
Ms. Klein noted that the new Laureate was influenced by such favorites as Emily Dickinson, Lanston Hughes, Shakespeare and Goethe and that her verse is sometimes autobiographical and focuses on family history and African-American themes. But it has also included retellings of classical myths and stories drawn from European history and contemporary life.
The new Laureate plans to commute weekly from her home in Charlottesville, Va., to the Library. She is taking a yearlong sabbatical so that she will have more time to concentrate on her new responsibilities. She will open the poetry and literature season with a reading on Oct. 7, at 6:45 p.m. in the Mumford Room.
Other tentatively scheduled programs will include a Slovak author, the South American writer Mario Vargas Llosa, Native American poets Paula Allen and Louise Erdrich, Irish poets, a children's program, cowboy poets, a Korean-American program and a Greek poetry evening.
In addition, Ms. Dove plans to add an ambitious number of programs to this schedule with a reading featuring two recent literary prize winners, a reading by a writer on ecology, an evening of poetry and jazz, a reading by "Two American Expatriate Poets" and other programs showcasing talented newcomers, many of whom are women.