NEW YORK (AP) — Poet Rita Dove has a sharp, simple goal in response to receiving a National Book Award for lifetime achievement: “I want it to be a milestone, not a tombstone.”
“It may seem like a rather macabre metaphor, but I simply meant — knock on wood — that I haven’t reached the end of my journey as an artist. I’m still observing, questioning, exploring,” she adds.
The National Book Foundation, the nonprofit which presents the book awards, announced Friday that Dove is this year’s winner of its medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an honor previously given to Toni Morrison, Edmund White and Art Spiegelman among others. Dove, 71, has been a published author for 50 years, her notable books including her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Thomas and Beulah,” inspired by her maternal grandparents.
She is best known for her poetry, but has worked in other art forms and is currently planning a memoir. She has published short fiction, the novel “Through the Ivory Gate,” the play “The Darker Face of the Earth” and even collaborated with the Oscar-winning film composer John Williams on the song cycle “Seven for Luck.”
“Rita Dove’s oeuvre — from poetry, plays, and songs to essays and fiction — is a testament to her dazzling skill across genre and form,” Ruth Dickey, the National Book Foundation’s executive director, said in a statement. “Dove’s work transforms the everyday into the remarkable, brilliantly blending music, politics, and, let’s not forget, pleasure.”
The National Book Award ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 15 in Manhattan, with Drew Barrymore hosting. Besides the tribute to Dove, winners will be announced in five competitive categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translation and young people’s literature. The foundation also will present a Literarian Award to Paul Yamazaki, the longtime buyer at San Francisco’s famed City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Poet and City Lights co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died two years ago, received the inaugural Literarian prize in 2005.
Dove, a native of Akron, Ohio, has long excelled academically and professionally. As one of the country’s top high school students, she was named a Presidential Scholar. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Miami, in Ohio, and later received a master’s from the prominent creative writing program at the University of Iowa. In 1993, in her early 40s, she became the youngest person at the time appointed U.S. poet laureate and the first Black writer to hold the position.
Dove has received so many previous honors, lifetime and competitive, that it’s almost surprising the book foundation didn’t get around to her sooner. Besides the Pulitzer, she has received both a National Humanities Medal and National Medal of Arts, an NAACP Image Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, a National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress and a gold medal for poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, along with honorary doctorates at dozens of colleges.
A fellow Pulitzer winner, poet Jericho Brown, will introduce Dove at the National Book Awards.
Dove’s influences range from Shakespeare to a parody of William Blake that appeared in Mad magazine. Her subjects are equally eclectic, whether her grandmother dusting and bringing “dark wood to life,” the “trim name” and daring dream of Rosa Parks, or the poet’s own love for dancing. When her house in Charlottesville, Virginia, was badly burned by a lightning strike in 1998, she and her husband Fred Viebahn learned ballroom dancing as a way to heal: They even added a ballroom space when the home was rebuilt. She called her first poem written after the fire “Foxtrot Fridays,” which reads in part:
Thank the stars there’s a day
each week to tuck in
the grief, lift your pearls, and
stride brush stride
quick-quick with a
Authors often speak of declining values and standards, but Dove welcomes the evolution of poetry since she started out. For a Black woman poet, the field once seemed restricted to one favorite at a time, with the expectation that the poet would address “the Black experience,” she recalls. Dove now sees far more possibilities, and praises such organizations as Cave Canem, a New York City-based organization that supports young Black poets. Dove herself has guided young writers as a creative writing teacher at the University of Virginia, while also working to expand poetry’s appeal during her time as the U.S. laureate.
“People seem frightened of poetry, and somehow separate it from their lives, when, in fact, poetry is the essence of life,” she says.