Poet was inspired by struggles of civil rights era

Sunday: Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, will visit Columbia to read from her latest collection, based on stories of American heroes like Rosa Parks.

June 18, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

How she sat there,

the time right inside a place

so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with

its dream of a bench

to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:

the clean flame of her gaze

carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up

when they bent down to retrieve

her purse. That courtesy.

-- "Rosa" from "On the Bus With Rosa Parks"

Rosa Parks is reclaiming her status as a bona fide American hero.

The simple act of refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 symbolically sparked the civil rights movement and secured Parks' place in the world's consciousness.

Now 86, she is frail but not forgotten. Last week, President Clinton awarded Parks the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.

She is also the inspiration behind a new volume of poetry by Rita Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, who will read from her collection at Columbia's Slayton House on Sunday.

Dove, 46, is commonwealth professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She has a long list of literary and academic accomplishments and has been praised by critics and readers for her latest book, which uses the civil rights struggle to examine issues of courage, love and history.

Her appearance at Slayton House is co-sponsored by the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), which has been courting Dove for years to appear before Columbia readers.

`We're so pleased'

HoCoPoLitSo President Ellen Kennedy said Dove's work "is so inspirational. We've been after her since 1993, and we're so pleased she's finally coming."

Barbara Goldberg, this year's writer in residence at Howard County high schools, got to know Dove a few years ago at an international literary conference in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and will introduce Dove on Sunday.

Dove is "quite a person, and she conveys a lot of dignity and respect," Goldberg said. "She's so intelligent, and her poems are really wonderful. And it doesn't hurt that Rosa Parks was given that congressional award just a few days ago. What a coincidence."

In "Claudette Colvin Goes to Work," Dove writes about a 15-year-old black high school student who refused to yield her bus seat to white students nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955:

Mama was a maid;

my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,

and I'm the crazy girl off the bus, the one

who wrote in class she was going to be President.

Goldberg believes that "On the Bus With Rosa Parks" is a book that "is coming out of a very different place. You look closely at her work and you can see that there's been a progression; she is now writing about being a citizen of the world."

"I can see why she would have chosen Rosa Parks" as a muse, Goldberg said. "She's Everywoman, and she's heroic."

Other poems in Dove's current volume reflect those themes.

Dove takes inspiration from an Aesop fable in "The Camel Comes to Us From the Barbarians" and writes about a hardheaded animal, calling it:

A rare commodity, these beasts

who cannot know

what beauty wreaks, what mountains

pity moves.

Dove, whose father was the first black research chemist in the tire industry, grew up in Akron, Ohio. In 1970, she was invited to the White House as a Presidential Scholar, one of the 100 most outstanding high school graduates in the United States that year.

She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1973 from Miami University of Ohio before studying in Germany as a Fulbright scholar for two years. She then joined the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, where she and earned a master of fine arts degree in 1977 and met German writer Fred Viebahn, whom she married. The couple have a daughter, Aviva, born in 1983.

Published in 1980

She published her first poetry collection, "The Yellow House on the Corner," in 1980.

It was followed by "Museum" (1983) and "Thomas and Beulah" (1986), a collection of poems loosely based on her grandparents' life that won her the Pulitzer Prize and made her the second black poet (after Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950) to receive the award.

In 1993, Dove was named U.S. Poet Laureate/Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a post she held for two years.

The HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts present former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove at 5 p.m. Sunday in a reading at from her new collection, "On the Bus With Rosa Parks," at Slayton House in Columbia. Ticket information: HoCoPoLitSo, 410-730-7524; or PROTIX, 410-481-6500.

Pub Date: 6/18/99

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