When did you first know what you wanted to do?
It was a gradual thing. It really wasn't until I was in college. When I was in college, I took creative writing courses and I began to write more and more, and I realized I was scheduling my entire life around my writing courses, and I said, "Well maybe you need to figure out if this is what you want to do." That was the point.
I loved to write when I was a child. I wrote, but I always thought it was something that you did as a child, then you put away childish things. I thought it was something I would do for fun. I didn't know writers could be real live people, because I never knew any writers.
The first inkling that maybe it was a possible thing happened in my last year of high school. I had a high school teacher who took me to a book-signing by an author, John Ciardi, and that's when I saw my first live author. Here was a living, breathing, walking, joking person, who wrote books.
And for me, it was that I loved to read but I always thought that the dream was too far away. The person who had written the book was a god, it wasn't a person. To have someone actually in the same room with me, talking, and you realize he gets up and walks his dog the same as everybody else, was a way of saying, "It is possible. You can really walk through that door too." That was the important thing.
That's why I know it's so important to show kids that there are real live people doing these things. I was in twelfth grade. I didn't know his work. Afterwards, of course, I began to read his work.
I've read there was a moment when you discovered verse. Can you tell us about that?
My parents had two half-walls of bookshelves. And they encouraged us to read whatever we wanted.
Going to the library was the one place we got to go without asking really for permission. And what was wonderful about that was the fact that they let us choose what we wanted to read for extra reading material. So it was a feeling of having a book be mine entirely, not because someone assigned it to me, but because I chose to read it. There was an anthology up there. One anthology of poetry. It was a purple with gold cover, I'll never forget. It's really thick. It went from Roman times all the way up to the 1950's at that point. And I began to browse. I mean, I really was like browsing. I read in it a little bit. If I liked a poem by one person, I would read the rest of them by that person. I was about eleven or twelve at this point. I had no idea who these people were. I had heard of Shakespeare, sure, but I didn't know the relative value of Shakespeare, of Emily Dickinson, or all these people that I was reading. So I really began to read what I wanted to read, and without anyone telling me that this was too hard. You know, "You're only eleven, how can you possibly understand Sara Teasdale, or something like that?" And that's how my love affair, I think, with poetry began.
And there was a moment when you read a slightly rude poem by Sylvia Plath?
Oh, yes. That happened in college and it seems kind of late.
It was a poem by Sylvia Plath called "Daddy." Which is an amazing poem, a hate poem really, to her father, which ends up saying, "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through." Now, it's an incredible poem because it's sort of like a nursery rhyme. It rhymes in that way and yet it has this incredible vehemence. And it was the first time that I realized that you didn't have to be polite. You know, you're raised by parents who are always concerned to raise you so you aren't a little animal, you know, in society. And I think that though they never really said directly there are things that you should or shouldn't say in writing or in learning -- they always encouraged us to go as far as we could -- still, I think there was this feeling that you had to be nice. I felt that. And that was an enormous release to be able to say, "Well, it is not only the happy moments are things that should be talked about, but every moment." All the moments that make up a human being have to be written about, talked about, painted, danced, in order to really talk about life. So it was liberating in that sense.
How would you explain to someone who has never read poetry, what it is that so enthralls you?
I would try to show them what it is about language and about music that enthralls, because I think those are the two elements of poetry.
Very often, people who are not familiar with poetry, or don't know much about it, are operating out of fear. At some point in their life, they've been given a poem to interpret and told, "That was the wrong answer." You know. I think we've all gone through that. I went through that. And it's unfortunate that sometimes in schools -- this need to have things quantified and graded -- we end up doing this kind of multiple choice approach to something that should be as ambiguous and ever-changing as life itself. So I try to ask them, "Have you ever heard a good joke?" If you've ever heard someone just right, with the right pacing, then you're already on the way to the poetry. Because it's really about using words in very precise ways and also using gesture as it goes through language, not the gesture of your hands, but how language creates a mood. And you know, who can resist a good joke? When they get that far, then they can realize that poetry can also be fun.
Was there a teacher who particularly inspired you?
Well I had a couple.
I had a couple teachers who did inspire me. One was this eleventh grade English teacher -- eleventh and twelfth grade. She and I, we still have tea together sometimes today. I was frightened before I went into her class. I heard she was a battle axe. I heard that she would flunk you if you split an infinitive.
And it's true. She would, but she also would tell you what a split infinitive was, and then once you knew, you never did it again. She just opened up to me, how language -- how the written word -- can also sing. And she spent, I remember once, 45 minutes on one page: the first page of a novel. By the end of the class, no one had taken down a single note, because we were absolutely enthralled. It was incredible.
What was the name of this teacher?
Her name was Miss Oechsner. Margaret Oechsner. And, as I said, every time I go back home to Akron, Ohio, we get together and have lunch or tea or something like that. And there were others. I had a ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Hicks, who put us in groups and gave us impossible poems to interpret.
When I say "impossible," I mean poems which had Greek in them -- a little bit of Greek and -- languages we couldn't even -- we couldn't even read the alphabet. "Just tell me what it means. Tell me what you think it means." And after a couple of class periods when we decided this is so impossible we might as well just make a wild guess, it turned out our guesses weren't so wild after all. So he taught us to trust what your gut reaction was to something. Even if you didn't understand every word, to work out the context.
And in college, I had a couple of fantastic teachers. I had a teacher who taught fiction, who strolled into class the first day and said, "We're going to tell stories. Who's gonna start?" And we're all gasping. We thought we were going to have a chance to write it down on paper. No, he made us talk. He made us begin a story. We didn't have to end it, but just how are you going to catch someone's attention? What are you going to say right away? It was a phenomenal lesson.
But I think the most important influences were really my parents. My father is a chemist, my mother was a homemaker. The one thing that was important was the fact that you never said, "I don't get it, I'm going to give up." You start small and you work at it a little bit at a time. My parents instilled in us the feeling that learning was the most exciting thing that could happen to you, and it never ends, and isn't that great.
Were there many kids in the family?
I have two younger sisters and an older brother. They're all chemists or mathematicians. All of us love to read. The whole family is full of scientists.
You've had some great excitement in recent years in your career. What are some of the moments that really stand out for you?
The first moment that really stood out in terms of public excitement and recognition was when I got the Pulitzer. I was 34, I had no idea I was being considered. It was really a moment of moving from a very private sense of life to a public sense, and I didn't even know the book was being considered. I was very pleased that the book that, in fact, got the Pulitzer -- Thomas and Beulah -- was a book about my grandparents; a collection of poems that dealt with their lives: first his side and then her side of the story. And it wasn't a spectacular book. They didn't endure a train wreck or anything like that. They were living their lives in this quietly heroic way like many people in this country. And that that book was chosen for the Pulitzer, was wonderful for me, I think, personally. Also for my parents it was wonderful.
I remember that feeling.
I got the Pulitzer on my husband's 40th birthday and I was planning a surprise party, and I didn't have classes that day. I told everyone at the university "Don't call me, I'm going to surprise him." And when the phone rang and it was the chair of my department saying, "I know you're there," I was, "Shhhh!" Thinking: "He's not supposed to disturb me! This is my day!" . So when he said, "Rita, this is really important," and I realized his voice was several octaves higher than usual, that was the moment when I really felt like, sort of like the camera lights came on into my life. It was quite distinct.
The second big surprise was when I was appointed Poet Laureate. Again, it came totally out of the blue because most Poet Laureates had been considerably older than I. It was not something that I even had begun to dream about! I thought, after the Pulitzer, at least nothing will surprise me quite that much in my life. And another one happened. It was quite amazing.
What does it mean to be Poet Laureate?
It offers someone as a spokesperson for literature and poetry in this country. It means that one becomes an automatic role model. It means that people write me from all over the country, asking me, and sometimes even telling me, what they think a poet laureate should do. I found that immensely valuable. Instead of trying to come up and pontificate on what literature is, to have people come to me and say, "We have to save the children first. You need to talk with children. You need to talk to teachers and make sure they get poetry in the curriculum early." And I say, "Yes. As a spokesperson for poetry and literature, this is something that I can do.
It means having a platform from which to talk about something that's very near to me, about a very intimate art. It's the combination of the intimate and the public that I find so exciting about being poet laureate.
I imagine that holds quite a bit of responsibility also.
Yes, it does hold that responsibility, and sometimes the shoulders begin to droop a bit. But...
Every time I receive a letter from someone who simply wants to write, not because they want something, because they simply want to say, "I just want to tell you what poetry means to me," I realize what hunger out there there is for people to be able to read and to write poetry -- to feel a connection with other people on a very intimate, interior level. That buoys me up some.
There are obligations, too. Distinct duties of a poet laureate. I plan a reading series at the Library of Congress, and advise the librarian on literary matters. The rest is pretty much left up to me: how I want to promote poetry, how I want to bring it into the household.
What do you think are the most important personal characteristics for success in any field?
I think it is imagination. I think that without imagination we can go nowhere.
And imagination is not something that's just restricted to the arts. Every scientist that I have met who has been a success has had to imagine. You have to imagine it possible before you can see something, sometimes. You can have the evidence right in front of you, but if you can't imagine something that has never existed before, it's impossible. And, with imagination, there are a lot of other characteristics I think you need too. You need determination, and you need to have some sense, some faith in the human ability to persevere and to triumph. Whether you have faith in yourself as that human being is a different point, but at least the faith that human beings can do it. But imagination, in a certain way, contains all of those things, too, because you have to imagine that it is possible for human beings to do something before you can do it.
Looking back on your ups and downs, what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a writer?
The first thing I tell them is to read. If they don't read, if they don't love reading, if they don't find themselves compulsively reading -- print as they walk by a shopping mall, anything -- then I don't think they're really a writer. Then it's the ego talking. Because inherent in the idea of being a writer is to have the whole continuum, have the whole circle be completed. That feeling as a writer that you are writing, someone else is going to pick this up and read it and it's not completed until that person reads it. If you haven't taken part in that continuum, how can you even know how it's going to work?
Hemingway once said that more writers fail from lack of character than lack of talent. You know? It is not a question of sitting down under a tree and having inspiration come down. If you wait for inspiration, inspiration's going to go away and look for more fertile ground to work with.
There's a lot of work involved in it too. There's a lot of feeling that you're almost there, but you don't even know how to get to that point in the poem, and then you just simply keep working. You keep writing, you keep re-writing. And to know that everyone goes through that -- and that's part of the process and it's actually a fun part of the process -- is very important too.
I would also tell them -- and this sounds corny -- but they can only write what they feel. That doesn't mean they have to have experience it, but to write something because someone else thinks it's right, to write for PC reasons, to write because you think you ought to be dealing with this subject, is never going to yield anything that is really going to matter to anyone else. It has to matter to you and, come what may, even if it doesn't seem to be at all socially acceptable, if that's how you feel, that's really what you have to write.
You have to be true to yourself.
Yes, because being true to yourself really means being true to all the complexities of the human spirit. And as much as we'd like to give -- and we want to be perfect, well-rounded individuals -- all of us have our quirks. We all know we've had our foibles. And we've got these embarrassing moments in our lives, and things that we're ultimately ashamed of. What writing -- what I think all the arts do -- is to reveal. Let us see again and experience again, all the ambiguities that make up -- and the contradictions that make up -- a human being: the good and the bad and how they can exist in one person and make a complex individual. And to do that, that means being very honest. Being honest all the time.
I wonder if you have any reactions to that phrase, "American Dream." What does that mean to you?.
"The American Dream" is a phrase that we'll have to wrestle with all of our lives, and on and on to our children's lives. It means a lot of things to different people. I think that we're redefining it now.
For a long time, the American dream meant, you know, a chicken in every pot and a Frigidaire, right? You know, "You need a Frigidaire in the kitchen." And now we're beginning to realize that the American dream really is not about uniformity, but it's about -- I don't want to say diversity. What I want to say is, it's more like a mosaic. It's not a melting pot, it's a mosaic, and we all contribute our tiles to making up that big picture. And that's glorious. That's nothing to be afraid of.
To me, that's what the American dream is, the entire mosaic. When you back up, you see the whole thing, but when you get in there, there's a whole bunch of little dreams in there. That's what I think.
Thank you so much for your time.