CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Her viola da gamba hibernates in the corner. Upstairs, official correspondence has conquered a room once reserved for writing poetry. And the phone and fax peal almost continuously on this warm spring day.
People want Poet Laureate Rita Dove's time. They invite her to picnics and they invite her to commencements. They send treasured objects in elaborate Styrofoam packaging and ask her to sign them. Like medieval believers seeking chips of a saint's femur, they ask for "mementos" -- "I have so-and-so's cuff links," they tell her, and now they want something of hers.
She receives so many letters that she stopped counting them back in November when the total passed 600 (more letters came in a month, she has been told, than some laureates got in an entire year).
"No rest for the wicked, as my mother would say," Dove groans with playful exasperation as she leans, stretching, against her kitchen door frame and a photographer shoots one more shot.
People want Rita Dove in their lives.
"There is an incredible hunger out there," says Dove. "I feel it. There's a hunger for poetry." The yearning, she believes, is not so much for formal verse as for language itself, for expression.
"It's a feeling that they don't have a way of connecting with the soul and telling someone else about it without it sounding hokey," says Dove. "Which isn't to say poetry is going to cure all their ills, but it really does reflect a terrible tragedy in our culture. We tend to close off our souls, and it just isn't cool to talk about it, to talk about having an interior life.
"If we don't acknowledge our own interior lives, we don't permit others to have them." And, she believes, if we deny that the internal life exists, we are essentially denying that lives themselves matter, and then "it's much easier to ignore someone, to hurt someone, to kill them eventually."
Her words elevate poetry to a level of national importance that society rarely grants it; her belief in its relevance animates her work as laureate. Since she became the seventh poet laureate in October, Dove has transformed the job from what had mostly been a prestigious but somewhat dusty honor into an actual cause.
"I think she's the first laureate of the ones I've known who has sort of grasped the opportunity for making the laureate, in Teddy Roosevelt's words, a bully pulpit," says Prosser Gifford, director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress.
She is personable, young -- born in 1952, she is by far the youngest laureate yet -- and the first African American to be selected by the librarian of Congress to hold the post. All of these facts, as well as her own determination, have given her term its energy.
"When I started I really thought what the laureateship needed was visibility," she is saying now, as the phone vibrates with another call. "I wanted people to see that I laughed and walked around and that I don't stand off looking pensive. Poets have complained -- we all complain -- 'People don't pay attention to us! We're cut off from society!' I thought, 'Well, maybe we should come to society.' "
Past laureates Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky and Mona Van Duyn went public with complaints about the lack of staff, support and funding for the post. Dove has the same complaints but has worked to raise money for her programs, and because she cannot accomplish everything she wants in 12 months, she has signed up for a second term, becoming only the second laureate to agree to another $35,000-a-year go-round.
"For years, poet laureates have been older and carried this distinction of being 'a person of belles-lettres,' " Dove says. "While I know I'm articulate, I don't think of myself as august -- I'm too short to be august." She is, in truth, short -- a woman of full, condensed curves -- but her melodic voice and passionate words give her a presence on camera or behind a lectern that is easy to mistake for height.
Here, in her tidy, airy home with its art-covered walls and its windows looking out onto hills, she settles into a deep leather couch. Her skin is the color of burnished teak and she adorns it with clothes and makeup of radiant hues: Her black dress is sprinkled with red, yellow and green confetti specks, her fingernails are polished each in a different color and then polka-dotted with more color, her eyelids shadowed in smoky purple and green.
In this cool house of light, muted tones, she glows.
Billie Holiday's burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you're cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can't be free, be a mystery.
-- "Canary," from the 1989 volume "Grace Notes"
Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, and started writing as a child. She has published a novel, a collection of short stories and five volumes of verse, including "Thomas and Beulah," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
"Auden said poetry makes nothing happen," she says. "Okay. Poetry may not change the world. But it can change a heart, and it can change a moment -- a heart in a moment. That's a lot. I still remember reading Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' for the first time in college. Just realizing the anger she had, that she could have all this anger and hate towards her father and write it in a poem -- I think that changed my life. Not that it freed me to hate someone, but to see that we have all these competing feelings and can express them in poetry."
Dove was raised on the European literary tradition although, she wrote in an essay, as an African American and a woman she was confronted repeatedly by "the brutal reminder that the culture I was feeding on had no interest in nourishing me." And so, she wrote, she learned to "to insist upon inclusion; in other words, to rewrite the tradition ... to find the missing link, or failing that, to invent it."
Dove comes across as both erudite and casually approachable, and she has found that audiences of all ages and backgrounds respond to her readings. But her poetry, like much of the art, does not yield up its truths at once or completely. That potential readers may be intimidated by this fact worries her.
"So many people have felt poetry is something you must understand in every little whit and bit, and if you can't figure out this part -- 'Oh, this is incredibly embarrassing! I'm not going to tell anyone,' " says Dove. "I think we're trying to understand poems in the wrong way. They are not mathematical equations. They're really more like life than they are like equations: They arrive. The meaning accrues. You read it, get something from it the first time, and read it again and get something more."
... consider her drenched gaze her shining brow
she who has brought mercy back into the streets
and will not retire politely to the potter's field
having assumed the thick skin of this town
its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear
she rests in her weathered plumage
don't think you can ever forget her
don't even try
she's not going to budge
no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is one of us
-- From the poem "Lady Freedom Among Us," written for the reinstallation of the statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome
Dove's schedule now allows little time for writing poetry. She has taken a leave from her teaching at the University of Virginia and has given up playing her viola da gamba with a U.Va. early-music group and singing with the university's operatic society. Even her husband, German novelist Fred Viebahn, has been sucked into the maw of the laureateship: One of the two Library of Congress staff members who worked with the laureates retired at the begining of Dove's term and was not replaced, and so Viebahn has become a sort of volunteer support staff. "That's why my novel is going so slowly," says Viebahn, an author grimly reviewing himself.
After offering drinks and documenting the interview with his own camera (the picture is destined for the wall of laureate snapshots he has created in the basement), Viebahn announces he is going to pick up their fifth-grade daughter, Aviva, from school. Earlier this week Aviva was part of a teleconference Dove organized through U.-Va., in which Dove discussed poetry with classes in two different schools. It was picked up by schools around the country, one more experiment by a poet laureate attempting to make poetry "more user-friendly."
In her first six months as laureate, Dove has brought Crow Indian schoolchildren from Montana to read their poems at the Library of Congress, and invited jazz musicians and poets to perform together there. She has spoken out against the violence in gangsta rap. With the Lifetime cable network, she has helped launch a series of public-service ads about poetry. She is now talking to MTV about doing something poetic as well.
"I don't want to set myself up to decide on a certain elite standard of literature and say, 'That's it,' " she says. "Poetry slams and cafe literature are showing a lot of love of language. Okay, we can say it's not great literature, but there are lots of things that aren't 'great' that are good -- and fun for you. I just don't see why we can't loosen up a little bit with poetry. I'm not for lowering standards, but why not have fun?"
She has plans for a symposium on poetry and the environment, and hopes to launch a series at the Kennedy Center that would bring together leading poets and leading musicians to perform in tandem. Tonight she will appear in a one-hour interview with Bill Moyers, airing on Channel 26 at 9, and on May 5 she will deliver a lecture at the library.
Sometime in 1995, she will return to her life.
But now, Aviva has arrived. She looks into the living room. "Hi," the girl says. "Bye," the girl says, and vanishes upstairs. "Watch out or they'll interview you," her mother calls after her.
And there it is -- the phone is ringing once more.