America's Poet Laureate gives her swansong in Swansea

Rita Dove tells Suzi Feay about her mission to bring poetry to the people
Click to follow
The Independent Online
RITA DOVE, outgoing Poet Laureate of the United States, makes her last official appearance next Saturday, not at the White House, Harvard or Yale, or even her own University of Virginia, but in Swansea, which is hosting the UK Year of Literature 1995.

Though the US post can't compete with the British version in antiquity - John Dryden was our first official incumbent in 1670 - in many ways the Americans have devised the more intelligent system. In 1937 the Library of Congress decided to provide an endowment for the maintenance of a Chair of Poetry. Joseph Auslander was appointed Consultant in Poetry, as the post was known until 1986, when Robert Penn Warren became the first US Poet Laureate.

The post has been occupied by some of the greats of the American literary canon - Robert Lowell and Robert Frost - but the full list also throws up some names (Louise Bogan, Reed Whittemore - twice - William Stafford) which may be less familiar.

There have been eight female Laureates in the US to date and none in Britain. While British Laureates get their pounds 70 a year plus pounds 27 in lieu of a butt of sack (Spanish wine) for life, the American tenure is for a maximum of two years. Two-thirds do not take up the option of the second year.

There are no formal duties, but in return for a stipend of $35,000 (pounds 22,000) per annum, an office at the Library of Congress and secretarial staff, Laureates are expected to work. Each is expected to bring their own emphasis to the position: Allen Tate (1943-44) edited an anthology, Sixty American Poets; Maxine Kumin (1981-82), friend and associate of Anne Sexton, began poetry workshops for women. Dove has travelled all over the country doing readings and meeting people, acting as a "PR for poetry - just trying to get the message across that poetry can be introduced to everyone, that it can be a pleasure".

Despite her Pulitzer Prize, Dove was a surprise appointee; at 40 she was the youngest, and the only black, Laureate. "It felt as though a door had opened in front of me, with bright lights on the other side. I was always complaining about the state of literature in this country, how it was being relegated to the ivory towers. I thought, 'You'll never be able to complain about anything again if you don't do something now.'" She has championed the imperilled National Endowment Fund for the Arts: "The climate here is quite scary now. Hitting the arts is seen as an easy way to save money."

The American Poet Laureate is not expected to write to order. "If there's a specific event, like the anniversary of the foundation of Congress, they'll ask me if I want to contribute; do I have an appropriate poem." Dove finds the poem-making process too slow and mysterious to conform to office hours. Her latest book, Mother Love (Norton pounds 10.95) "took about a year longer to write than it would have done if I wasn't Poet Laureate. I only agreed to the second term if I could have the summer off to finish it."

While our own Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, published a 95th birthday tribute to the Queen Mother last week, Rita Dove doesn't have to churn out odes to Chelsea Clinton or First Cat Socks. She does meet the President for lunch occasionally and was the first poet to give an official reading at the White House in more than a decade. "It's a casual relationship; it doesn't go through official channels. I'm not 'Clinton's poet'. The great strength of this position is that it's not funded by taxpayers' money, so I'm not identified with any party. It gives me a wonderful freedom."

She applauds Mr Clinton's decision to invite, in 1993, veteran African- American writer Maya Angelou, a fellow Arkansan, to read her long poem, "On the Pulse of Morning" at his inauguration ceremony. "I think it's so significant that when he wanted to do something special for his inauguration, he turned to poetry. He wouldn't have done that if he didn't think there was an audience, and it had an amazing impact in the States, on people who hadn't thought about poetry in years."

The next incumbent of the post is Californian Robert Hass. As far as Dove is concerned, he's welcome to it. "The first thing I'm going to do is go on a family holiday [she has one daughter with her German husband, Fred Viebahn]. Then I'm going to go back to teaching in Virginia, and back to my own work."

n Rita Dove is reading her work at the National Literature Centre for Wales, Somerset Place, Swansea, at 7.30pm on 12 August. Tickets pounds 4. Box office: 01792 652211.

Comments