The Books Interview: Rita Dove - Flashes of inspiration

Not even lightning stops Rita Dove, US Poet Laureate, dramatist - and ballroom dancer
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Rita Dove was sweeping the kitchen floor when the news came through that she had won the Pulitzer Prize. It was only the fact that the voice at the end of the phone was an octave higher than usual that finally convinced her this was not an elaborate joke. She still regrets not having had time to wash her hair before the press conference.

It was, she says, a bigger surprise than the telegram from Richard Nixon when she was in twelfth grade. As one of "the outstanding high school seniors" in the country, she was invited to a ceremony at the White House. Many years later, in 1993, she was back, this time as Poet Laureate. Clearly, the shy bookworm from Akron, Ohio was not destined for the quiet life. "If I'd known when I was eight or none where I'd end up," she declares with a wry smile, "I'd have chosen another profession. I still take a deep breath when I walk into a room."

It is difficult to believe that the animated figure sitting opposite me has any claims to shyness. Famed for her mesmerising poetry readings, her appearance on Sesame Street and her wild, multi-coloured nails, which today are red, blue and green with black polka dots, she somehow manages to combine extraordinary vibrancy and dignified charm. Sporting a scarlet T-shirt to match her nails, she is a flash of colour, this Monday morning, amid the drab Brutalism of the National Theatre.

She is here for the first British production of her play, The Darker Face of the Earth, which opened at the Cottesloe this Thursday. Most poets, on a first foray into theatre, might think about starting gently. Not so Rita Dove, who decided it was time to take on Oedipus. "I was re-reading Oedipus," she announces, as if this was the most natural of leisure-time pursuits, "and musing about what analogous situation you could have in near-contemporary history, when I hit upon the idea that slavery was a similar universe."

After the initial panic - "Oh my God, a play, I don't know how to write a play!" - she was surprised to find that writing for theatre was not the alien enterprise she had imagined. "There's so much silence in a play," she explains, "the text that's conveyed or changed by gesture; whereas in poetry you've got the words on the page and the time to read them over and over again, in plays you've got the human body which can incorporate them."

The resulting verse drama, set on a slave plantation in pre-Civil War South Carolina, brings the resonances of classical tragedy to the explosive racial tensions of the period. It received rapturous reviews in the US, including one from the Washington Post which declared her Oedipus, a mixed- race slave called August, to be "not only Oedipus here, but Hamlet, and Moses, and all the Greek heroes unlucky enough to be half mortal and half god". A hard act to follow this side of the Atlantic, so how are British actors responding to the challenge?

"It's fascinating to watch them work their way into that particular universe," says Dove, who has sat in on rehearsals every day. "The history of slavery is very different for American blacks than for British blacks," she continues, "and the trauma of race is in some ways much rawer. I found the actors here are really much more at peace with what's happened and ready to say, well, let's forget it and move on."

The reason for their assembly, during a suitably hot British August, in order to recreate the sultry heat and oppression of the pre-bellum South is - as so often in life - a chance meeting. A few years ago, Rita Dove was at the American Academy of Achievement, a conference bringing together high-school students with leaders in their fields, when Trevor Nunn approached her and asked whether she ever thought about writing plays. She sent him a copy of her play and was "shocked and surprised" when he wrote back expressing strong interest. "If there's a place they can do a verse drama well," she thought, "it should be Britain and the National."

Ironically enough, the same conference proved to be the catalyst for her new collection of poems, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W W Norton, pounds 10.95), published to coincide with her visit. Dove and her daughter, Aviva, were on one of the conference buses when Aviva leaned over and hissed "We're on the bus with Rosa Parks!" She knew at once that this was a title for a book.

Rosa Parks is, of course, the southern black woman who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on the bus, a key event in the developing Civil Rights Movement. Once the seed had been sown, Dove "began exploring what Rosa Parks means to me, what Rosa Parks means as an icon and what it means to have that moment of history freeze around one."

The incident was perfect for Rita Dove's own approach to history, which characteristically focuses on the personal, while evoking subtle but inescapable political and historical resonances. The consummate example is her Pulitzer- winning sequence Thomas and Beulah, based on the lives of her grandparents. In this extraordinary collection, she combines narrative with monologue and her trademark lyric compression to reconstruct a family history that becomes symbolic of African-American life this century. In her new collection, she ranges from "Cameos", documenting the dreams and life of a poor black family, to luscious, lyric meditations on childhood, the joy of reading, the hidden beauty of a camel and the sensual delight of dancing on a Saturday night.

The Rosa Parks sequence includes poems about two women who refused to stand up before she did. History has kept quiet about these women, and Dove herself only discovered, on reading an article in the Washington Post, that quiet, respectable, married Rosa Parks was not the first, but the most suitable.

She is passionately opposed to this kind of over-simplification. "I think one of the things that poetry does," she explains, "is to bring these kinds of complexities to light, so we can reflect on them."

It is difficult to imagine how Rita Dove has any time at all for reflection, let alone for writing. Life changed irrevocably in 1993, when she was appointed Poet Laureate, the new name for the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. Despite hopes to the contrary, it has never gone back to normal. She served a two-year term, tirelessly campaigning for the place of poetry in everyday life, putting in countless television and radio appearances in what she calls "the starburst method".

Four years after her term ended, the letters and invitations still pour in. Her keen sense of duty keeps her schedule forbiddingly frantic, but she does take care, these days, to slot in regular fortnights at home. Last autumn, exhausted and "rabid to write", she had managed to clear a three-month block when her house was struck by lightning. In addition to her time, she lost nearly all her books, her archives and her personal correspondence. "I did think `Why?'", she confesses mildly, "on the other hand, when you're standing there and your home's going up in flames, you think to yourself `I'm alive, Fred's alive, Aviva's alive'; you start saying to yourself `what can I do without?' And you discover that you can do without a lot."

Rita Dove's momentous calm in the face of unimaginable stress is perhaps a key to her success, both as a public figure and a writer. In the times I have met her - she was around for the best part of a week during the South Bank's Poetry International festival in 1998 - she has always been unfailingly courteous, charming and funny. But there remains a healthy sense that her real life is elsewhere - in the kaleidoscope of ideas twirling around her head and with her husband and daughter, whom she clearly adores. Her daughter makes it her special responsibility at cocktail parties to weave her way to the food table and make sure her mother gets something to eat.

As the musicality of her poems might indicate, Rita Dove loves music. Not in the way that most of us do - slumped on a sofa, eating doritos while listening to our favourite CD - but playing the cello, the viola da gamba and singing. She sings arias at benefits and in the university Opera Society, "where we did the last scene of Carmen and, Oh God, I get to die!"

She is enviably trim, but it's a relief to learn that she is not, like most American celebrities, up at the crack of dawn to pump iron. In her collection of essays The Poet's Eye, there's a heart-warming description of what is wrong, boring and simply unpleasant about most forms of exercise.

She has, however, recently discovered one she loves: ballroom dancing. A be-sequinned, laughing Rita Dove spinning round a room seems an apt image for a poet whose work combines a rare lyric talent with sensual celebration and a ceaselessly questing intelligence.

"The Darker Face of the Earth" continues in repertory at the Cottesloe Theatre. Box office: 0171-452 3000

Rita Dove, a biography

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, a daughter of the first black research chemist to work in the tyre industry. She attended Miami University as a National Achievement Scholar and graduated in English summa cum laude. After two semesters as a Fulbright scholar at Tubingen, she joined the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she met her husband, the German writer Fred Viebahn. Their daughter, Aviva, was born in 1983. She published her first poetry collection, The Yellow House on the

Corner, in 1980, followed by Museum (1983) and Thomas and Beulah, which

won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, while teaching creative writing at Arizona State University. Her other books include the poetry collections Grace Notes, Mother Love and now On the Bus with Rosa Parks (Norton, pounds 10.95), a book of short stories, a novel, Through the Ivory Gate, and the play The Darker Face of the Earth. In 1993 she became the youngest Poet Laureate of the United States. She is currently the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she lives.