#AWP17 Featured Presenter Q&A with Rita Dove

AWP | January 2017

Event Title: A Reading by Rita Dove, Terrance Hayes, and Ocean Vuong, Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets
Description: Join us for a reading by award-winning poets. Rita Dove, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was appointed as the seventh Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993. Terrance Hayes is the author of five books of poetry and has received the National Book Award for Poetry. Ocean Vuong is the winner of a Whiting Award and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Jennifer Benka, the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, will introduce the event.
Participants: Jennifer Benka, Rita Dove, Terrance Hayes, Ocean Vuong
Location: Ballroom A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Three
Date & Time: Saturday, February 11, 8:30 p.m.–10:00 p.m.

Q: What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
A: In poetry: Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal, Look by Solmaz Sharif, Kevin Young’s Blue Laws. Oh, how I hate this question! There are simply so many amazing books: In fiction I'd definitely recommend Mary Morris’s The Jazz Palace, Paul Beatty's The Sellout…the list goes on and on.

Q: Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
A: Absolutely! NEA grants during the early stage of my career were essential not only in terms of sheer financial support, but for the boost they gave to a young writer’s fragile ego. Besides the time to write, further fellowships and residencies also afforded me recognition that led to other opportunities.

Q: When AWP was founded in 1967, there were a dozen creative writing programs. Now there are approximately 1,800 undergraduate and graduate programs. What do you think has changed for readers and writers since creative writing became ascendant as an academic discipline?
A: The change has been phenomenal. Prior to AWP and the proliferation of creative writing programs, for a writer to be assured some measure of financial security, she would have had to earn a degree in a field not quite aligned to her special expertise. Even a university position teaching literature would have most likely demanded that she use a different language and publish academic papers in journals different from those that featured creative literature—not to mention adopting an entirely different approach to art. That double-duty existence—publish academically for the job plus write one’s own stuff on one’s own time, often outside an institutional structure—is a feeble way to support a writer and nourish artistic endeavor. With the establishment and broadening of creative writing as a legitimate academic discipline, AWP has given writers in this country ground to grow in and a foundation for the flourishing of culture—culture being the signature of an advanced civilization.

Writers have found institutional anchors through AWP, but the entire enterprise reaches far beyond the confines of self-interest, because the collateral benefit has been the education of generations of readers. Readers are not only created through the academic study of literary texts; digging into the nuts-and-bolts of writing processes themselves can open a student's imagination to important literary works and thereby bolster constructive imagination. As a result, the general readership has grown and the appreciation of literature, particular poetry, has matured. We are a better country because of it.

Q: What advice can you offer to writers who must navigate between the solitude of artistic work and our nation’s politics and culture at this moment?
A: We’re all still reeling from the election, and now the changes coming at us fast and furiously every day. It’s not surprising to see the Internet blowing up with new links to websites with titles like “Poems to Console and Inspire in Trying Times.” As I’ve said before, I believe that literature in general and poetry in particular guides the heartbeat of a community. Poetry allows us to experience empathy across time, gender, class, ethnicity—and so reminds us what it means to be part of the human community. My advice is to continue to write, but more urgently: keep reading, but more thoughtfully, and not only the works of your contemporaries—check out writers from the past who also went through troubling times. Most of all, remember that your actions as a citizen in the public arena can be just as important as your interactions as a writer.

Q: If you’ve been to Washington, DC, before, what places do you recommend our attendees visit?
A: I can’t answer this in any comprehensive way—there’s too much! Of course, it would behoove writers to check out the Library of Congress and dip into its vast offerings. Also, novices to Washington should keep in mind that visiting Federal museums is free of charge, so inform yourselves and take advantage of this gratis perk!

Q: If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP17, who would it be and what would you talk about?
A: Emily Dickinson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Cavafy, Langston Hughes, Sappho…but not in the crowded halls of the convention hotel—coffee or tea in a little café down the street, perhaps. Most of all, I’d like to be nursing a bourbon with Leonard Cohen in an exhausted bar at three a.m.


Rita Dove Rita Dove is a former US Poet Laureate (1993–1995) and recipient of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her book Thomas and Beulah. Her most recent poetry collections are Collected Poems 1974–2004 and Sonata Mulattica. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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