Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, captivated the Emory community with a free poetry reading at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts last Sunday.
“I remember all of my times here [at Emory], and I keep coming back because this is a family of poetry lovers,” said Dove, as she took the stage. “You nourish me. Thank you.”
Dove’s reading to the audience, who crowded the ground floor of Emerson Concert Hall, marks her second reading in the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series, which is now in its tenth year. Dove, who first read for the series in 2007, served as U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995, making history as not only the youngest, but also the first African American poet to be appointed.
“[Dove’s poetry] taught me how to write about my family,” Creative Writing Professor and Curator of the Rose Library and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Kevin Young said as he introduced her. “Her poetry is about intimacies … We are all intertwined.”
Dove read about 20 poems, ranging from her earliest works to her latest works.
“If you love a writer’s work, then you [should] go back to the beginning and learn how they became that writer,” Dove said. The National Humanities Medal Winner said she aims to inspire a love for poetry and language in students and others.
Dove read each poem with emotion, speaking slowly and deliberately, animating each reading with suspense, intensity and softness.
Dove’s reading of her poem “Parsley” — inspired by the violent Trujillo dictatorship of the Dominican Republic — caused a ripple of head nods and murmurs. Her reading of an excerpt from her book, Mother Love, also induced an emotional reaction — a collective moan and scattered snapping emanated from the red velvet seats.
Dove shared that she carefully infuses her work with inspiration from music, calling on the power of melody and song to support the themes in her poems.
“The blues will follow you wherever you go,” Dove laughed, before reading her poem “Brown,” which discusses her experience in ballroom dancing classes with her husband, noting the glory of the costumes, the people and the movement of the dance.
Many of Dove’s poems also reference African-American history and show pride in her African-American identity. In “Brown,” she writes, “I’ve always loved my skin,” a sentiment that echoes throughout much of her work.
This pride spills into Dove’s most recent poems. She shared some of her recent work on Sunday, including a pair of poems that combine her musical inclination and her passion for black history: “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude” and “The Spring Cricket Repudiates his Parable of Negritude.”
In light of the Academy Awards ceremony, Dove read her poem “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at Coconut Grove,” written in honor of McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar. The poem elicited the loudest applause of the night.
College freshman Bria Goeller said she attended the reading because she didn’t want to pass up opportunities such as witnessing a former U.S. poet laureate read while at Emory.
“I think poetry is a way to capture the little things in life that might otherwise go unnoticed, and Rita’s poetry does that,” Goeller said.