To bring together her latest poetry collection, former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove printed out poems that were written between 1989 and 2020, spread them across the floor, and walked among them to see what might tie them together. Where her last collection focused on the retelling of a historical narrative, this collection focuses on a multifaceted past, present, and future of nature, nation, and self. The resulting collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse, features six distinct but linked sections which explore the public and the personal. Dove invites readers into a deeply intimate space in this book, revealing that she was diagnosed more than two decades ago with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, a condition which required her, among other things, to revise her writing practice. The section of the book that grapples with her illness, “Little Book of Woe,” works in conversation with others, ranging from a song cycle that “bear[s] witness to the last fifty-odd years of American history” to a suite of poems in the voice of a ruminating insect.
The collection moves as a playlist should. There’s a dynamic approach to sound, subject, and form as the poet asks us to consider how all of these rub together to make music, like crickets. As Dove delves into conversations about history and violence, the body and mortality, language and time, there is an inventive playfulness, a welcoming into this space as Dove returns to her voice in her work.
Dove is the author of several collections of poetry, including Collected Poems: 1974-2004, American Smooth, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Thomas and Beulah. In addition to writing a novel, short stories, and a play that was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, she edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. In 1993, she was the youngest poet ever to be named US Poet Laureate and served two terms, during which she strove to bring access to the literary arts to a wider range of communities.
I met Rita Dove for the first time in 2016 on the rooftop of the Graduate Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the launch of a mural by David Guinn, which featured her poem “Testimonial.” She was warm, welcoming, and full of light. I spent the next year working for her at the University of Virginia, where she serves as the Commonwealth Professor of English. When I pulled up the winding driveway to her home in the same town five years later, I felt a similar warmth. We stood, for a moment, six feet apart, and then embraced in a welcome reunion.
We discussed everything from the last year in lockdown, to our hopes for fall travel, to how many sticks of butter are in our family recipes, to quandaries about Crisco, at her dining room table—a space at which she traditionally hosted students for weekly workshop before the pandemic. Grateful to be able to sit across from each other for the first time in years, we dove in.
–Chet’la Sebree for Guernica Magazine
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Guernica: This is your first book published in a number of years. How does it feel?
Dove: The first new collection, the first single collection in quite a few years. It feels almost like the first book. I feel very raw. There were many things that were happening that got in the way of this book, but one of the primary things was that I was so busy. I was so busy being out there and speaking for poetry. I couldn’t hear myself anymore. And every time I would try to get the time and the quiet, there was never enough time. The poems were there, but they were all scattered, and I couldn’t feel them coming together.
My editor had been kind of nudging me but had been very patient. My husband, Fred Viebahn, was nudging me, but he was very patient. Then the pandemic happened, and I had time to think and hear myself without anyone else’s voice around me. Then the book began to come to life. I didn’t write them all during the pandemic—some of these poems were in fact much older poems—but they began to make sense.
Another reason why I had not published a book was because I had to learn how to write again, in a sense. I’ve had multiple sclerosis (MS) for many years. I didn’t tell anybody. One of the reasons I hadn’t told anyone was because of my parents, who were aging and were very ill, and I did not want to burden them with this. I was handling it. The way my generation was raised, you tough it out and you make these things work. And I thought, I’m handling it. It’s fine. I didn’t want to worry them. They’re both passed now.
I was trying to figure out, in the midst of all this public life, how to write. One of the things that got affected with the MS was that I couldn’t write by hand anymore, and that’s how I always wrote. And so I just thought, Until I can figure out how to do whatever is necessary to write poems, I need some quiet. Both of those reasons—the length of time it took me to do another book, but also the fact that I’m coming out with something that’s very private, and I’m a private person—makes it feel like being a virgin.
Guernica: I love the word you used: “raw.” Ada Limón one time said something like, to write a poem, it feels like removing a layer of skin. I can see how a new collection with new types of vulnerability could also feel that way.
Dove: I’ve always felt that if a poem doesn’t make you feel like you are about to be run out of town if you publish this, then you haven’t dared enough. Right?
I think any well-adjusted person has a whole arsenal of defense mechanisms in order to function in life. If you’re going to be writing—to push past that, to discover something new, to discover what actually is behind everything—you’ve got to peel a layer off.
Guernica: As I was reading Playlist I remember thinking to myself, Oh, I’ve seen this one; I’ve seen this one. It was fascinating to watch how they came together. I believe one of them was actually written in 1989?
Dove: Yes! One of them was written in 1989—that’s “Rive d’Urale”—and it hadn’t found its home. And I refused to force it into a home that it shouldn’t be in. So I also thought, Well, someday either it’ll be in a book or it won’t. I have all these poems I refer to as my little orphanage. I have poems which, through the years, I thought were finished, and some of them had been published, but which had not come together in a collection. I gathered them all up. They were already in a folder, but I spread them out; I threw them on the floor, and I started walking among them. We just had days of special conversation.
I began to put them into groups. Once I started seeing where the edges fit together, I could start writing and working on poems that were missing. And it all sounds kind of mystical, but you know what that’s like. With the angry odes, they came together because of a release from obligation. When I went out into the world and read, I really wanted to encourage people to open up, which meant, for me, not pushing them away by being cantankerous. But that meant that I had to be polite. I think I couldn’t finish that whole section because I hadn’t given myself permission to be angry. It felt great to be angry. In fact, a lot of the book is angry.
I don’t think of anger as something necessarily destructive. It’s just the emotion that comes out of a moment. In the “A Standing Witness” [section] poems, there’s that resolve and that feeling [that] this is what happened in this country for the last fifty-plus years, and this is the unvarnished truth. Don’t turn your face away from it. Now, what are you going to do about it?
Guernica: As a person who lived in Charlottesville in 2017, sometimes people ask me to remark on the Unite the Right rally. What I think about most, though, are the people I know for whom Charlottesville is their home. You’ve lived here for over thirty years. In Playlist, we get little pockets of the landscape. We get Henry Martin, the UVA Bellringer, and I presume “Pedestrian Crossing, Charlottesville” is about college students, but the only reference to the 2017 violence that I deduced was the mention of tiki torches in “Keep Your Storied Pomp.” I’d love to hear about your decision to not allow that moment in Charlottesville history to take up more space in this section of the new collection.
Dove: Well, first of all, just in terms of sheer technical matters, “A Standing Witness” is part of a song cycle. I was looking for touchstones in the history, but from a standpoint that was a little bit removed, so I didn’t want to concentrate only on Charlottesville in that section. The phenomenon of these white supremacists, and the whole mess of Black lives being taken, and how this whole thing erupted, and how the United States, this country, was so unprepared for the violence that has been simmering under the surface — I wanted to get at the entire phenomenon. I wanted Charlottesville to be part of that matrix but not be thought of as the “only.”
As someone who considers Charlottesville her home and who has lived here for all of these years, when that happened in 2017 I said, “Ah — this was a strategic move.” This is a sleepy college town. It could have been many other college towns. They picked a really good one because everyone here is not only complacent, they’re also very polite. In fact, probably as far as college towns go, it is more liberal than most, and therefore totally unprepared. The concentration on “what was it like” or “oh, Charlottesville, Charlottesville”…I’m thinking, the more you say Charlottesville, the less you have to think about your own town. This is just part of the whole pattern, this country.
Guernica: I also felt like there was a “finality” to the book in its title, in the final line pertaining to rest, and in the final crooning of the cricket in “Postlude.” There’s also an honoring of mortality in the end of things. And while those things are happening, there’s also a playfulness and inventiveness, in poems like “Mirror” and “Rosary” that lend themselves toward a type of hope and toward a type of understanding that, in the end of times to come, there’s still newness and music. You said this feels new in many ways. Does this feel like the beginning of a different chapter in your literary life?
Dove: It does feel like a beginning. I hadn’t even thought that far yet. It’s really great that you say it that way because I’ve been thinking, people are going to think this is such a downer of a book. There’s the title, as you said. There’s so much that points to things that have gone horribly wrong in the world and in one’s own body, and, you know, you just have to learn to deal with it. But I find it curiously uplifting.
I will say, during the pandemic, I would be so upset when people would say “Well, we need something uplifting, can you write a poem that’s uplifting or choose a poem that’s uplifting?” And I’m like, sigh. You know? First of all, that’s not the work that anybody does for you; you do that for yourself. And secondly, anything that is good, if it’s good — if it’s a beautiful painting about a horrible subject — it’s going to lift you up, because it shows you that the human spirit is capable of grasping something that’s difficult and messy and bringing it out so that we can recognize it. And if we can make that kind of connection, we aren’t lost. So that’s my kind of take on it. Now where am I going after this? I have no idea. But I am excited about that.
I do know that I’m in the middle of a memoir that I’m fighting. It’s going pretty well now, but it wasn’t, mainly because I think I did not really fully believe in the concept of a memoir. A memoir is a fiction, really. One says, “This is what happened to me in my life,” and you leave out things and you change. So that’s the one thing.
I didn’t want to write about myself. That sounds odd coming from a poet, but I’ve never been a confessional poet, necessarily. I felt like there are so many memoirs coming out about tragic things. I thought, you know, Well, what am I going to say? It sounds like a charmed life; it’s not. It’s a life. So I was wrestling with that before I even got very far in it.
I also love writing plays. I have many ideas for them, but then you have to get them produced and working with everybody else is the part that takes an enormous amount of time. I kept saying to myself, I don’t have it, and then I thought to myself, Well, you probably don’t have much time anyway, so you might….But we’ll see. The one thing that I’m sure of is that I’m eager to write. And for a while I wasn’t.
Guernica: How do you go about writing now? You were saying your process has changed, so do you write primarily on the computer now?
Dove: I do a combination of writing into the computer, and then printing it out because I need touch still. I can correct, because that’s not a continuous movement. Or sometimes I dictate into my phone. And what’s nice about dictating into the phone is that it has its own mind about spelling, so sometimes I get it back and I’m like. what? Sometimes it’s really nice what it did. [My process] is slower, oddly enough, because I have to get past that finality of the print and the screen. I have to go through a lot of drafts to make that happen. And there’s a lot more talking, reading aloud. I used to do it in my head and now I have to read it aloud, so I’m working on it.
Guernica: Earlier you mentioned not liking to write about yourself, but in “Climacteric” you write, “each word caught right is a pawned memory, humbly reclaimed.” I love that way of discussing mining our own narratives, as reclaiming part of ourselves and recasting it, but could you speak about the responsibility you feel when you write about other people’s narratives? You’re speaking to histories that you may or may not have a personal connection to. For you, what are the ethical implications of that work?
Dove: Well, I think that the ethical implications should always be in your mind if you’re going to be taking on someone else’s story and their narrative and their voice. I never write someone else’s narrative unless it haunts me so much that I can’t deal with it any other way. Then, first comes research, so that I know as much as I can about that subject. It sounds kind of mystical, but when I do start to write, I feel like they’re almost writing through me, or that we’re in conversation with one another, because every persona poem is actually an autobiographical poem, too. Though I don’t like to write about myself per se, I should amend that and say I don’t like to write an unfiltered self.
Guernica: There’s a scaffolding to persona.
Dove: Yes and, as I say in “Climacteric,” I will mine my memories or my sister’s memories or a shared memory if it fits the occasion. Sometimes I can’t remember if something really happened to me or if I just decided in the poem that it had happened. It becomes true in that weird way. The implications of that are: I feel that, if I’m trying to be as honest as possible — that’s an odd word to use, and I just admitted that I’m lying, practically — then I’m honest to the purpose at hand. I’m trying to listen to how I feel that person would be. What are they saying? How would they act? Then, hopefully, I’m also telling a true story. That’s the kind of magic that happens when you read something and you identify with a character or moment as different from you as possible. That magic happens to every person who reads a book and gets caught in it, anyone who goes to a movie and gets pulled into it. And so I have to believe that if I’m going to assume someone else’s voice, if I’m being absolutely honest, that connection is also working the other way in terms of being a writer and saying, “I want your story to be told.” And I think everyone has the right, but you also have the right to be chastised if you don’t do it well.
Guernica: Fair enough. It’s opening that door, that daring that you were talking about before. I think about that a lot, in terms of, what are the risks that I’m taking in inhabiting this space? What violence am I potentially doing? Can I stand for what I’ve said? I ask all of those questions and then ultimately I ask, after I’ve done the thing, can I stand by what I’ve done?
I have a couple more questions about process. In this collection, we have some sonnets. We have a golden shovel. We have a lot of 13- or 15-line poems, so near sonnets. And then one of my favorites is this almost-villanelle — “Your Tired, Your Poor” — which begins like a villanelle, but then, instead of following through with the 19-line form, the speaker interrupts it, ending with the 16th line, further calcifying how the wheel — the engine of the poem we know and understand — is interrupted and broken. I love this moment. I love that subversion of expectations. Has your relationship to form changed?
Dove: It’s interesting because it’s true that I can’t seem to shake the sonnet. I think that the form — or, as you said, the expectation of the form — can give us immense pleasure. If it is subverted, then our response to that subversion is intense. Even if someone doesn’t think, “Oh, this is a sonnet,” or doesn’t even know it’s a sonnet, the feeling of the sonnet is almost universal. You know it should be this long, and then suddenly it isn’t. I’m not doing it for shock sense, but sometimes it’s just that this is exactly as long as it should’ve been. With that one, “Your Tired, Your Poor,” I felt, too, that there was a point where grief breaks and you just can’t go on. So, you know, that’s where it’s had to end.
I never — this sounds so facetious, but it’s true — I never set out in any of these poems to write a sonnet or to write a form; it had to happen. For “Your Tired, Your Poor,” relatively early on, I said, “This is going to be something like a villanelle but with sonnets, I don’t know” — I just write, and suddenly I say, “Oh, this could be a sonnet.” My relationship to form has always been almost unconscious.
Guernica: Did you work in form a lot in your early formal training?
Dove: No. In fact, when I was in undergrad and then at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I never took a forms class. And I fretted about it, because you’re supposed to take a forms class. But at the time, whoever was there, the professors just weren’t teaching one. I kind of had to teach myself how to do it, consciously work at it myself.
I had been a kind of an opponent of forms because so many of them seemed so neat and so smug, like, “Look at what I did.” And I’m like, that’s not the point of stuff. If I’m sitting there going, “Oh, look, it’s a sonnet,” then you’ve just lost me. So for many years I was very confrontational about sonnets or about any form.
For me, form is more like playing music. I’ve been a musician, so if you’re a musician you can feel, when you’re playing something, when it’s in 4/4 time. You know the 4/4 time and you’re free to move around in it, but you always can feel the beat. Without knowing it, you know where the beginning of the measures are, even if your line has gone on for eight of them. So I began to think of almost all forms, even villanelles, that way. You have to be able to forget you’re writing the form.
Guernica: What are the other things that you do that feed your writing?
Dove: It keeps changing. As you know, I love music. I sing. I’m hesitating now, because in the pandemic I couldn’t take lessons anymore so it was a little difficult, but I just practiced on my own. Fred and I dance. Young people say, “How can you love the lessons?” But I love the basics, and I love going in there and practicing whether I’m going to take a toe or heel lead and what that does to the energy of the step, which is the same thing as whether you have a period or a comma or a dash and what that does to a sentence. So that translates. Sometimes I’m singing some passage and trying to marshal my breath so I can make it to the end of the line without sounding like I’m gasping, and I figure out how to turn the syllable so that it does that, and suddenly the answer to a line of a poem comes to me.
But then sometimes I need to cut off entirely, and to do that, especially in the pandemic, because I couldn’t do a lot of the things I wanted to do, like go dancing. I do a lot of crossword puzzles, but that kind of makes sense. In jigsaw puzzles, there are no words. It’s all visual, and I can sit for hours staring at it.
Guernica: And speaking of songs; I think about the title. Did you know you were creating yourself a playlist through these poems? Did it come to you later?
Dove: The title came later. I had quite a bit of it together and kept playing around with the order of each section, but they were all kind of complementing each other, rubbing up against each other. It came about because, pre-pandemic, whenever I gave a reading, I would make a list of poems I was going to read, and I would refer to it as my playlist. I had been cleaning up my study, which is what you do when you are stuck, right? So I was cleaning up and filing things, and I came across all of these lists. And then it just came: Playlist for the Apocalypse.
Guernica: We have almost 30 years in here, which also makes for a great playlist.
Dove: I’ve had a whole lifetime of song. It had been so long since I had published a book. In a way, I think I was also trying to make myself into a child again, someone who was learning how to walk again, which was scary, but which I think was absolutely necessary in order to reassure myself that it could happen again. It was also the reason for gathering all of these poems together to say, “Oh, I have been writing. Just let them talk to me.”
Guernica: And this is so different from the last, Sonata Mulattica.
Dove: I wanted to move away from Sonata Mulattica; I love that book so much and knew I had to get from underneath its thrall because it’s tempting to be engulfed in a world like that. It feels very comforting — once all the research is done, once you get in it — to be in it. When you’re a writer, especially a poet who is really paying attention to the craft of things, you want to go somewhere else, craft-wise. You also want to be able to say, “Okay, I’ve done a lot of third person in the last book, so I want to go first-person.” Or, “I need to write longer poems; I’ve got to push my voice. I want to stretch it. I want to see, so you know, short poems for me this time.”
Guernica: Which makes sense why maybe next is a play or a memoir.
Dove: It’s another place to go. I love discovering new ways to speak.