Rita Dove

Rita Dove, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the first African-American Poet Laureate of the United States, is scheduled to be the guest reader at the 2006 Jean Burden Poetry Reading. This year's reading is scheduled for Thursday, March 2, 2006 at 6:30 pm in the Golden Eagle Ballroom on the Cal State LA campus. 

In 1993 Rita Dove was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, making her the youngest person — and the first African-American — to receive this highest official honor in American letters. She held the position for two years. In 1999 she was 

Photo of Rita Dove

© Fred Viebahn

reappointed Special Consultant in Poetry for 1999/2000, the Library of Congress's bicentennial year, and in 2004 Virginia governor Mark Warner appointed her as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952 as the daughter of the first Black research chemist who, in the 1950s, broke the race barrier in the tire industry. In 1970 she was invited to the White House as a Presidential Scholar, one of the hundred most outstanding high school graduates in the United States that year, before attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio as a National Achievement Scholar. She graduated summa cum laude (as well as Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi) with a degree in English in 1973, followed by two semesters as a Fulbright scholar at Universität Tübingen in Germany. She then joined the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1977. In 1976 she met the German writer Fred Viebahn, who was a Fulbright fellow in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program that year; they married in 1979, and their daughter Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn was born in 1983. 

Appearances in magazines and anthologies had already won national acclaim for Rita Dove when she published her first poetry collection, The Yellow House on the Corner, with Carnegie-Mellon University Press in 1980. It was followed by Museum (1983) and Thomas and Beulah (1986), both also from Carnegie-Mellon. Thomas and Beulah, a collection of interrelated poems loosely based on her grandparents' life, earned her the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, making her the second African American poet (after Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950) to receive this prestigious award. 

Other publications by Rita Dove include a book of short stories (Fifth Sunday, Callaloo Fiction Series, 1985), the poetry collections Grace Notes (W.W. Norton, 1989), Selected Poems (Pantheon/Vintage, 1993), Mother Love (W.W. Norton, 1995) and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W.W. Norton, 1999), the novel Through the Ivory Gate (Pantheon, 1992), the verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth (Story Line Press, 1994; 2nd, revised edition 1996) and a book of her laureate lectures (The Poet's World, The Library of Congress, 1995). Her latest poetry book, American Smooth, was published by W. W. Norton in September 2004. 

The Darker Face of the Earth had its critically acclaimed world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon in the summer of 1996, supported by a major grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. A joint production by Crossroads Theatre of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., underwritten by the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays, the Geraldine Dodge Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, opened at Crossroads in October 1997 and went to the Kennedy Center for a four week run in the Eisenhower Theater in November 1997. In August 1999 the play opened at the Royal National Theatre in London and was simultaneously published in Great Britain by Oberon Press. Other professional productions were staged in March 2000 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and by the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles in August 2000. 

In 1994 Rita Dove's poem Lady Freedom Among Us, first read by her at the ceremony commemorating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Capitol and celebrating the restoration of the Freedom Statue on the Capitol's dome in October 1993, was published by Janus Press of Vermont in a limited edition to become the four-millionth acquisition of the University of Virginia Libraries. A multimedia version was made globally accessible by the University of Virginia on the World Wide Web, one of the earliest such publications by a major writer. 

Ms. Dove's poetry has earned her fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978 and 1989), the Guggenheim Foundation (1983-84) and the National Humanities Center (1988-89), among others. She was granted a Portia Pittman Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities as writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute in 1982, was chosen by Robert Penn Warren — then the first U.S. Poet Laureate — for the 1986 Lavan Younger Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets, received the 1987 General Electric Foundation Award, the 1988 Ohio Governor's Award in the Arts, "Literary Lion" medals from the New York Public Library in 1990 and 1996 as well as its "Library Lion" medal in 2000, and 21 honorary doctorates — from Miami University, Knox College, Tuskegee University, University of Miami, Washington University, Case Western Reserve University, The University of Akron, Arizona State University, Boston College, Dartmouth College, Spelman College, The University of Pennsylvania, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of Notre Dame, Northeastern University, Columbia University, SUNY Brockport, Washington & Lee University, Howard University, the Pratt Institute, and Skidmore College. 

In 1993 Ms. Dove was named one of ten "Outstanding Women of the Year" by Glamour magazine, and the NAACP honored her with its Great American Artist Award, followed in 1994 by the Folger Shakespeare Library's Renaissance Forum Award for Leadership in the Literary Arts, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and the Carl Sandburg Award from the International Platform Association. She also received the 1996 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, one of the largest cash prizes in the world, and the 1996 Charles Frankel Prize / National Humanities Medal, the U.S. Government's highest honor for writers and scholars. Among her most recent distinctions are the 1997 Sara Lee Frontrunner Award, the 1997 Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award, the 1998 Levinson Prize from Poetry Magazine, the 1999 John Frederick Nims Translation Award (together with Fred Viebahn), also from Poetry, a nomination for the Year 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award for On the Bus With Rosa Parks, which was listed as one of "25 Books to Remember from 1999" by the New York Public Library, the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award in the Literary Arts from the Ellington Fund in Washington, D.C. and the Emily Couric Leadership Award from the Women's Leadership Forum in Charlottesville, VA

Rita Dove has read her poetry at a White House state dinner, was featured on CNN, on NBC's Today Show, in a Bill Moyer's Journal prime time special on PBS dedicated to her and her work and, also on PBS, on the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour (in an interview with Charleyne Hunter-Goult), the Charlie Rose Show, and Dennis Wholey's This is America. She produced, in collaboration with the Library of Virginia, Shine Up Your Words: A Morning with Rita Dove, a nationally televised one hour television show with elementary school children about poetry, narrated an NPR program on Billie Holiday and the three part PBS documentary on Southern literature, Tell About the South, filmed a segment with Big Bird for Sesame Street, and appeared repeatedly on Garrison Keillor's public radio program A Prairie Home Companion.

In April 1995 Rita Dove hosted, together with former President Jimmy Carter, an unprecedented gathering of Nobel Laureates in Literature in Atlanta, Georgia as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Subsequently she wrote the text for composer Alvin Singleton's symphonic work "Umoja — Each One of Us Counts," for symphony orchestra and narrator, commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and performed (with Andrew Young as narrator) at Atlanta Symphony Hall during the opening weekend of the Centennial Olympic Summer Games in July 1996 (broadcast on NPR). 

Ms. Dove provided the texts for musical works by composers Tania León (premiered at Merkin Concert Hall, New York, 1996) and Bruce Adolphe (first performed at Lincoln Center, New York, 1997), among others. Her song cycle Seven for Luck, with music by John Williams, premiered with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and soprano Cynthia Haymon (conducted by the composer) at Tanglewood on July 25, 1998; some of the songs and a conversation between writer and composer were featured in the popular PBS television series Boston Pops. Rita Dove also collaborated with John Williams on Steven Spielberg's The Unfinished Journey and read her text live at the premiere of this documentary during "America's Millennium" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on New Year's Eve 1999 (broadcast on CBS) after attending the Millennium New Year's Eve dinner at the White House. In 2001 the Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago premiered Thomas and Beulah, set to music by Amnon Wolman and performed by Cynthia Haymon (soprano) and Ursula Oppen (piano). 

Rita Dove is past president (1986-87) of the Associated Writing Programs (the association of creative writers in American academia) and a member of PEN American Center and the American Philosophical Society, among other literary and cultural organizations. From 1994 to 2000 she served as senator of the national academic association Phi Beta Kappa, and from 1994 to 2001 she was a member of the Golden Plate Awards Council of the American Academy of Achievement. She is advisory editor to the literary periodicals Callaloo, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Mid-American Review, and TriQuarterly (among others), has been a Poets' Corner Elector at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, and she sits on the advisory boards of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression and of the non-profit organization Student Achievement & Adovcacy Services. She has chaired the National Endowment for the Arts poetry panel (in 1985) and the Pulitzer Prize jury in poetry (in 1997), and she edited the anthology Best American Poetry 2000. From January 2000 to January 2002 she wrote a weekly column, "The Poet's Choice", for The Washington Post.

Ms. Dove, who taught creative writing at Arizona State University from 1981 to 1989, now holds the chair as Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she lives with her husband and daughter. In her spare time she enjoys playing the viola da gamba, a 17th century string instrument related to the cello, her classical voice training and ballroom dancing. 

For more information, call the Cal State L.A. English Department at (323) 343-4140.

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