2018 LIFETIME ARTIST PRIZE IN LITERATURE
Rita Dove grew up in Akron loving poetry and writing, and secretly penning science fiction stories that she never showed anyone. “I just didn’t think a writing career was something a little black girl from Ohio had on the horizon,” she remembers.
Today, she recalls two key turning points in her career: One of her high school teachers took a group of students to a book signing for the poet John Ciardi. “I saw a real, live author and that just stunned me, that there were people writing books,” she recalls. “So that’s when a little door opened.”
But the revelatory moment when she knew she wanted to write poetry, short stories, and plays came, she says, when she got to Miami University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude) in 1973. She realized she could actually take courses in creative writing.
“I fell in love with the fact that I could work with words and make the stories better and make them all sing!” she enthuses. Shortly after that, when she went home for Thanksgiving, she informed her father, a chemist, that she wanted to be a poet. “It went over pretty well,” she says. “He took it on advisement!”
After graduating, she received a Fulbright to study at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, and later earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She holds honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from numerous universities throughout the US and two from Chinese universities.
All these years later, her father and mother, both in their 90s, and her family are exceptionally proud of her numerous accomplishments. Rita’s work as poet, playwright and author has had a profound impact on American letters, not only through the scope of her poetry, but also through her work as an advocate. In 1993 Rita Dove was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, making her the youngest person – and the first African-America – to receive this highest official honor in American poetry.
Rita’s poems are known for their lyricism and beauty combined with a sense of history and political scope. “Poetry – that sublimely human enterprise – challenges us to pay serious and tender attention both to the things of this world and to the journeys of the spirit,” she has said. “The poet’s challenge is to articulate what seems unspeakable.”
Her book of poems On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to poetry, Dove has published works of fiction, including the short story collection Fifth Sunday (1990) and the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992). Her play The Darker Face of the Earth (1996) was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
She is also an acclaimed lyricist, and has written lyrics for composers ranging from Tania León to John Williams. Her own work, the popular verse novel Thomas and Beulah, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986, was staged as an opera by The Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2001. She is in the early stages of writing a literary memoir of her early life, so Ohio will be featured quite a bit. Currently, she is developing a cycle of poems with composer Richard Danielpour for voice and a chamber group that will begin as a series of live performances across the US and then possibly a recording.
“I love language, I love sounds and the music that language makes,” Rita says. “I’m equally in love with music because I play the cello and I sing everything from opera to jazz. So the two of them are absolutely wedded, and that is one of the reasons why love seeing what kinds of music a story or poem or play can make.”
She has also received a National Humanities Medal; National Medal of Arts; NAACP Image Award for Collected Poems; editor, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry; and she has had productions of her play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Kennedy Center, and the Royal National Theater in London.
Rita returns to Ohio several times each year, including attending her high school reunions. For the last 27 years, she has served as a juror for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, returning to Cleveland every September. So receiving the Cleveland Arts Prize was an especial surprise.
“I do feel connected to Cleveland, to Akron in particular, but the whole Northeast Ohio area, so anytime I can get back to visit, I do,” she says. “I travel all over the world, but I still call Ohio home.”