On Thursday, April 18, I had the exceptional good fortune of hearing former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove speak at ETSU in Johnson City, TN. Dove spoke twice that day, first in an interview scenario with Dr. Jesse Graves and Valencia Robin Grice at the Reece Museum, then later that evening in a reading at the Bud Frank Theatre on campus. 

I’d never heard Dove speak in person and found the interview with her quite interesting. Admittedly, I’ve also not read much of her work, but I came away from the day wanting to rectify that and brought home a book of collected poetry so I could do so. She imparted so much wisdom about writing; I scrambled to take notes as she spoke.

“[Poetry is] giving words for what we have no words for.” She added, “Each time I go out of my comfort zone, it stretches my voice.”

Dove is passionate about words, but also about music and dancing. She told the audience about a tragic house fire many years ago that claimed the attic of her home where numerous manuscripts were kept. That fire brought her and her husband to learn to dance. She remarked, “There are no accidents… You can find things in the ashes.” Regarding music, she said, ‘Music has been my constant companion, longer poetry.” 

Being a writer of all genres led to the question of which genre she finds most difficult to write. I loved her answer. “Everything [every genre] is hard.” If Rita Dove feels this way, it makes me feel more comfortable feeling this way, too!

Also, regarding writing, she warned, “Don’t fight the Muse. She will not be happy.” In other words, if you feel the need to write something, write it. As she added that evening after her reading, “You don’t have a choice about whether you write it or not, but you have a choice about whether you publish it or not.” She also told us, “[Oral traditions and personal histories are important because] these are the things that don’t make it into the history books.” It made me more determined to try to include the stories of family members whose stories may be forgotten once I’m gone. I’m the keeper of those stories, and it’s my responsibility to make sure they live on in some way or another.

Dove spoke both elegantly and eloquently at both events. The reading that evening held poems about UVA Bell Ringer, Henry Martin; tales from Thomas and Beulah; The Angry Odes; and so much more richness. I could have listened to her read all night because her voice was full of music, dancing, and beautiful truths. 

A special thanks to my buddy Daniel Ray for hanging out with me and talking me into getting down to Johnson City for the event. It was well worth the navigation of a campus I often get confused on. It was good to see so many friends and to meet a legend and thank her personally for her gifts and talents. Thanks to ETSU for their hard work in providing such great free programs for the community.