Former poet laureate reads from American Smooth
April 15, 2005
Filed under Archives
On Labor Day of 1998, lightning struck Rita Dove’s home. It started a fire, and Dove’s house burned down. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, one of Dove’s friends insisted that she and her husband Fred go do something exciting and unusual to take their minds of the necessities of dealing with insurance issues and replacing household goods.
The neighbor suggested that the Doves take a lesson in ballroom dancing.
This event was the seed that germinated into Dove’s latest poetry collection, American Smooth.
Many of the 55 poems in the 143 page book are based off Dove’s experiences of American ballroom dancing. American Smooth is Dove’s twelfth book since she was first published in 1980.
Since then, she has won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Thomas and Beulah (1986) and served two terms as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995.
It is the Poet Laureate’s job to raise nationally consciousness and appreciation of the written art forms.
During her term, “Rita Dove brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists. She also championed children’s poetry and jazz with poetry events,” according to the website of the Library of Congress (LOC).
The LOC appoints a Poet Laureate each October.
Dove visited Greensboro on April 6 and read from her new collection of poems, her first published since On the Bus with Rosa Parks in 1999.
Dove read as part of the PoetryGSO event, a combination project and festival that is, according to the Greensboro News and Record, “de-signed to make poetry more visible, accessible, and appreciated in Greensboro” during April, National Poetry Month.
Dove’s first experience of ballroom dancing in 1998 helped her to move past losing her home and transformed what would become an everyday experience for her into the art form she’s best known for: her words.
After several lessons, “One day I felt like writing again,” said Dove.
The result of that urge was the poem “Foxtrot Fridays,” the first of approximately 16 poems that Dove read for her audience that night in the Carolina Theater on South Greene Street.
The subjects ranged from the ballroom dancing, which has become a passion for Dove, to the experience of being a black dancer, to chocolate, to working concurrently with her husband in their shared office space.
Despite the interruptions of a somewhat restless audience – noises from cell phones ringing, cranky children playing in the aisles, and students discussing what were probably assignments to report what took place during the reading — Dove’s voice never faltered.
“Her voice is so melodious,” said Guilford Reference Librarian Diana Engel. “Rita Dove is the essence of beauty and elegance; she has a beautiful voice and a beautiful delivery. I responded to her so much – she’s a master of language and image, which is what poetry is.”
Dove prefaced each individual reading with the story explaining what she was thinking and feeling when she sat down to write each poem during the writing process.
The explanations were varied. She described a quote from a gentleman on a PBS news program about big bands in the 1930′s, which led to the poem “Black on a Saturday Night.”
“I was on a diet when I wrote this poem,” Dove explained before launching into her poem “Chocolate.”
“I really enjoyed it,” said CCE student Leslie McKenzie. “I liked the whole thing. I though it was a nice performance, the way they integrated jazz and dance and poetry throughout the evening.”
Dove’s reading in the Carolina Theater was preceded by a program by the NCA&T Jazz ensemble and the USADance Association.
April is also Jazz Appreciation month.
“I am very much awed by Rita Dove,” said Engel. “I have a deep appreciation for the Greensboro Public Library, and that I live in a community the so greatly values poetry. Having Rita Dove here is the equivalent of your favorite rock star here.”
Dove concluded the reading with a book signing. Her book, American Smooth, retails for $22.95.