Two excerpts from an interview conducted with Rita Dove on her inaugural day as U.S. Poet Laureate in 1993.
Grace Cavalieri: Your opening reading at The Library of Congress taught me something. I had thought that writing a poem was more private than saying a poem, but then I realized just how much was at stake in saying it. I felt that was the most significant gesture made by any Poet Laureate here at The Library of Congress and if we can talk about that poem, “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed,” I’ll tell you why.
Rita Dove: I asked my daughter if she minded my reading that poem and she did not.
Cavalieri: The poem discusses your daughter discovering her vagina and comparing herself to you. I thought, by virtue of reading that poem, that things are going to be different, that we don’t have to be ashamed anymore, that you were saying: I’m here to tell you that shame is all over with, that any part of a woman’s body is a fine part to write about. However, in making that decision, if it were me, I would have said, “But I’m at The Library of Congress, I can’t say vagina because it’s so daunting here and so official.” And that is where you walked through the white wall and said that who you are is official enough. That’s what I took away from your opening reading. Did anything go through your mind such as … courage? Or did you just like the poem and want, to share it?
Dove: Oh, I thought about that long and hard. I’ve made a kind of vow to myself to read the poem at every reading, and actually my daughter gave me courage too because I asked her the first time she was in the audience. She’s ten now. I said, “Do you want me not to read the poem?” and she said, “No, it’s fine.” And I thought, well, we raised her not to be ashamed, so that’s great. If it’s fine with her then it should be fine with anyone. But I did have a moment, I thought, “I am at The Library of Congress…and The Great Hall…” and I thought, “No, I’ve done it before and I will do it here.” And it was very hard to do.
Cavalieri: I’m so glad to hear that because I thought, I’m laying a lot of stuff on this. But we really have to not be anything, anywhere, where we’re not anything anywhere else. That is how the world is changing, and that’s why you’re here to do it for us. However, I’m just that much older than you that I have a few more hangups. I had four daughters, and they remember me telling them about the facts of life by my looking up at the ceiling a lot, and my telling the older one to tell the younger ones. So when you read that I thought, “Oh, free at last, free at last.” I wrote a letter to another woman poet and said, “She read that poem! She read the poem!” So you may go down in history in ways you never expected.
Cavalieri: I am interested in your poems about the two Catherine saints: Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena. Let us look at “Catherine of Siena.” The line “You walked the length of Italy . . .” That was an important first line. Do you know how you got to that? And also tell me about why you focused on Catherine’s clenched fists.
Dove: Partly through imagining or reimagining what it was like to be a woman of intelligence and fervor in a period where women were not supposed to be any of those things, and imagining what kind of passionate inquiry, the need-to-know, were in these women saints: there must have been incredible tension as well. We are presented with a benign image of the saints, but to me there must have been tension and so the fists came in, that even as she sleeps she has the fists—which are also the curled fists of a child. Also, the language itself, in a certain way, helped me to that moment. The poem proceeds and becomes more of a litany, so that at the very end there’s this feeling of being very alone in the world, even though she’s been writing letters to people, there’s this feeling of being somehow not understood, except perhaps under the “star-washed dome of heaven,” her heaven. So when I got to the line, “no one stumbled across your path,” I knew that the next line also had to start with “no one,” and I don’t know why but I knew that there had to be an emphasis that there was no one there, and then came the fists.
Cavalieri: But it leads me to believe that you feel there’s more available to us. You have more faith in relationships now because, to have said that means that now there might be somebody who would unpry your fists.
Dove: Yes, I think you’re right, there is this feeling that “this is how it was then.” Aren’t we lucky, now there is more of a chance. Then there was really no chance that you would find someone.
Cavalieri: What permeates your work is an incredible trust in relationships, which is not an ordinary thought today. You really believe it’s all possible.
Dove: I do believe it’s possible. I’m not saying it’s something that happens every time. My feeling is that, as human beings, if we really want to be full and generous in spirit, we have no choice but to trust at some level. That’s not saying we should be gullible or foolish, but it’s the “courage of our own tenderness” as D.H. Lawrence, I think, said in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that we have the courage to be open to someone. It’s the only way to get a relationship started, it’s the only way to get a relationship going and to keep it sustained. Sure, we can be hurt, but there’s no way to even start unless we open ourselves to that.
Grateful acknowledgment to Grace Cavalieri and Forest Woods Media Productions’ “The Poet and the Poem” for permission to print this interview.
Grace Cavalieri's newest publication is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers, 2017), a compendium of poems, plays and interviews. She has nineteen books and chapbooks of poetry in print, and has had 26 plays produced on American stages. She founded and still produces "The Poet and the Poem," a series for public radio celebrating 40 years on-air, now from the Library of Congress. She is the poetry columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She received the 2013 George Garrett Award from The Associate Writing Programs. To read more by this author: Grace Cavalieri: Winter 2001; Introduction to "The Bunny and the Crocodile" Issue: Spring 2004; Grace Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Evolving City Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue; Grace Cavalieri on Ann Darr: Forebears Issue; Grace Cavalieri on "The Poet & The Poem": Literary Organizations Issue.