Rita Dove: Set Phasers To Poem

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on January 19, 2018 10:01 am

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove always knew she was happiest while reading. As the only artist in a family of scientists, she jokingly described herself to host Ophira Eisenberg at the Virginia Arts Festival as the "typical black sheep of the family." As a child, she would read anything she could find around her house, from science books to Shakespeare. In fact, Dove's mother would quote Shakespeare to her before she knew who he was. "She'd be cutting the roast and say, 'Is this the dagger I see before me?'...I just thought she was just getting a little, you know, kinda over the top! I didn't realize she was quoting someone," she recounted to Eisenberg.

Now an accomplished poet and professor at the University of Virginia, Dove keeps particularly strange hours—from midnight to six in the morning! "Truly, I come alive after dark like a vampire, and I just suck that blood all night long."

As a former U.S. Poet Laureate, Dove is used to raising the public's awareness of poetry. We asked her to continue this advocacy by improvising a totally new poem based on our two-word prompt, "pleasure beach." This is what she came up with:

Pleasure Beach

Take a ribbon of sand

Bordered by ocean

A golden band

Framed by perpetual motion

Of water

Water that laps and receives

We walk the stretch

Hoping to reach

A bit of pleasure

By any measure

That's what you name a beach

As if Dove hadn't done enough, we challenged this Star Trek: The Next Generation mega-fan to a special Ask Me Another game. We rewrote famous poems to be about characters from the popular TV series and asked Dove to guess who they were about.


Rita Dove on her poems about ballroom dance from American Smooth

I was pretty much dancing through every poem. I really wanted to try to get some poems that sounded like the dance they were describing.

Rita Dove on her love for Star Trek: The Next Generation

...And then came along this show that had all these different species and races, and they all just got along together. It was just amazing.

Heard On Rita Dove: Set Phasers To Poem

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia coming to you from the Virginia Arts Festival. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. And now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Before the break, our contestant Anthony won his way to the final round at the end of the show. We'll find out a little later who he will face off against. But first, it's time to welcome our special guest. She was the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. She holds 25 honorary doctorates. She's won a Pulitzer Prize. Basically, she is the most accomplished guest we have ever had on our show. Please welcome Rita Dove.



RITA DOVE: Hi, Ophira.


DOVE: Thank you.

EISENBERG: OK, I know a U.S. poet laureate helps raise the nation's consciousness about poetry, but how do you do that?

DOVE: You know, the best way to do it is to simply get out there and, you know, kind of bring it to the people. So I visited schools. I went to "Sesame Street"...

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah?

DOVE: ...You know, stuff like that.

EISENBERG: Did you ever get a 3 a.m., like, emergency, we need a poet right now kind of call?

DOVE: Yes, well, I turn off my phone.


EISENBERG: You turn off your phone. What kind of hours does a poet keep?

DOVE: It depends on the poet. This particular poet...


DOVE: ...That you're talking to right now keeps very strange hours. My best hours are 12 midnight to 6. And truly, I come alive after dark like a vampire.


DOVE: And I just suck that blood all night long.

EISENBERG: So when do you - so do you ever go out for dinner?


DOVE: On the porch.

EISENBERG: On the porch - nice, nice. I think this would be a perfect point to ask if you wouldn't mind actually sharing one of your pieces of poetry with us from - yes.

DOVE: Sure.


EISENBERG: This is from your 2004 collection "American Smooth."

DOVE: And this poem is actually based on ballroom dancing, which my husband and I took up long before "Dancing With The Stars" came across the Atlantic. And it deals with that most iconic American dance, fox trot - "Fox Trot Fridays." (Reading) Thank the stars there's a day each week to tuck in the grief, lift your pearls and stride, brush, stride quick, quick with a heel ball, toe. Smooth as Nat King Cole's slow satin smile, easy as taking one day at a time, one man and one woman rib to rib with no heartbreak in sight, just the sweep of Paradise and the space of a song to count all the wonders in it.


EISENBERG: Now that was, you know, dealing with fox trot, and you were saying that you really are into ballroom dancing. Did it influence how you write your poetry?

DOVE: Absolutely because I was pretty much dancing through every poem. And I really wanted to try to get some poems that sounded like the dance they were describing.


DOVE: So there's a samba poem and - called "Samba Summer." And then there are waltzes and things like that. I have yet to write the tango one, though. That's a hard one.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right, so you're - kind of go with that same, like, rhythm - the whole rhythm of doing the dance.

DOVE: Right, the whole rhythm of it, yeah.

EISENBERG: You were the only artist in your family. Your father was a chemist. Your three siblings are in the sciences.

DOVE: Yes.

EISENBERG: And you became the artist.

DOVE: The typical black sheep of the family I guess, yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah? (Laughter) Did you know from a very young age that you were, like - I'm artistically inclined, and that's different?

DOVE: Well, you know what it was? I knew that I loved to read. And there were books in the house. There were lots of books in the house, and I would read anything. So I read the science books. I read the - but I also read the Shakespeare. And I loved them. So I just knew I felt happiest when I was doing that.

EISENBERG: And your mother quoted Shakespeare a lot to you but didn't say, I was quoting Shakespeare.

DOVE: No, no. She would do things like - she would be cutting the roast and say, is this the dagger I see before me? The handle...


DOVE: And you know, I just thought she was getting a little, you know, kind of over-the-top. I didn't realize she was quoting someone, yeah.

EISENBERG: So then when you were reading Shakespeare and you're recognizing these quotes from your mother, did you think, Shakespeare plagiarized my mother?

DOVE: There they go, yeah.


EISENBERG: So she clearly loved plays and poetry as well.

DOVE: Yes, she did love literature. And so when my brother and I would do things like write our own comic books, it was fine. And my family - my parents just kind of played along and said, OK.

EISENBERG: You wrote your own comic books.

DOVE: Yes.

EISENBERG: What were they about? Well, we had our typical superheroes - Jet Boy, Jet Girl and their dog Jet-zoomino (ph).


EISENBERG: I like that you think this is typical, by the way.

DOVE: Well, I mean, you know...

EISENBERG: So there was Jet Boy, Jet Girl and...

DOVE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: And they could fly, clearly.

DOVE: And they could fly of course - and Remarkable Girl with her dog, Remark-ark (ph).


DOVE: I mean, we were really bad - we were bad at the dog names. I'm sorry. But otherwise...

EISENBERG: I just like that they all had pets.

DOVE: Of course.


DOVE: But never a cat for some reason.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I know.

DOVE: I don't know because cats won't do it.

EISENBERG: Because they were the villains.

DOVE: Yeah.


EISENBERG: So, you know, you are a professor at the University of Virginia. And for most people, poetry isn't seen in their minds as a moneymaker kind of career. Maybe parents dissuade their kids when they say, I would like to study poetry. What do you say to those parents?

DOVE: I would say that, you know, you want your child to be happy. And so if they want to be a poet, you just say, well, you're not going to get any money from it. Will it still make you happy? And if they say yes, let them go.


DOVE: You know?


EISENBERG: So we spoke with you before the show. And you actually offered to improvise a poem on the spot if I just gave you an idea.

DOVE: Silly me, yes.


EISENBERG: Are you still up for doing that?

DOVE: You know, I - yes (laughter).


EISENBERG: OK. So, you know, here's inspiration off the jokes we made at the top of the show - pleasure beach.

DOVE: Oh - I don't - let's see. I have to think of something that won't be censored afterwards, so let's go. And I think I should rhyme it. Why not?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I think so. Yeah, sure.

DOVE: Why not? The tighter the rules, the better. Pleasure beach. Take a ribbon of sand bordered by ocean, a golden band framed by perpetual motion of water, water that laps and receives. We walk the stretch hoping to reach a bit of pleasure by any measure. That's what you name a beach. How's that?


EISENBERG: I bow to you.

DOVE: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Seriously, that was - I'm almost teary-eyed from just hearing kind of how your brain must work and marveling at it.

DOVE: I have no idea what I just said.

EISENBERG: It was amazing.

DOVE: I can't remember.


EISENBERG: It was beautiful. So we have cooked up a pretty excellent quiz for you. Are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

DOVE: Haven't I done enough?



EISENBERG: It's true.

DOVE: All right, all right.

EISENBERG: It's true.

DOVE: OK, let's - just hit me with this.

EISENBERG: Just a hundred to 200 more questions.

DOVE: OK. All right. OK.

EISENBERG: Now before the show, you actually told us that you are a super fan of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."


EISENBERG: How did you become such a fan of that show?

DOVE: Well, I was always a fan of science fiction. The original "Star Trek" was OK because of Lieutenant Uhura, mainly.


DOVE: But, really, but that was about it. And then came along this show that had all these different species and races. And they all just got along together.


DOVE: It was so amazing. So yeah, that's how I became a fan. And then my daughter began to love it, too. And so we watched every single episode - very good one, yeah.


EISENBERG: So your game is called Set Phasers To Poem.

DOVE: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: We rewrote some well-known poems and improved them by making them about characters in "Star Trek."

DOVE: Oh, I love it already.

EISENBERG: Specifically, of course, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." All you have to do is identify the character the poem is about. And if you get enough right, John Fulton (ph) from Bucklin, Ky., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

DOVE: Ooh. OK, John, I hope - I'm rooting for you.


EISENBERG: ...Do great. Here's your first one.

COULTON: He real hip. He run ship. He drink lots. Earl Grey hot. He hate war. He turned Borg.


DOVE: Oh, Jean-Luc Picard.

COULTON: Yes, indeed.


DOVE: You guys are poets.

COULTON: That was "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

EISENBERG: This is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the replicator. Forgive me. They were delicious, which I could tell from scanning their electromagnetic spectra with my visor.

DOVE: Geordi (laughter).

EISENBERG: It was Geordi.


EISENBERG: Geordi La Forge, the punk rock member of the Enterprise. That poem was "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams.

COULTON: Two wormholes diverged in the Alpha Quadrant.


COULTON: And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler. There I stood, and changed time and space with my godlike powers possessed by all members of the Continuum. Two wormholes diverged in the Alpha Quadrant, and I, I have an IQ of 2,005. And that has made all the difference.

DOVE: Oh, these are terrific. Q. Q, of course.

COULTON: That's right, it was Q.


COULTON: That's Robert Frost, obviously - "The Road Not Taken."

EISENBERG: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more empathic. Solar winds do blow, Captain Riker, your way, when your romance with Worf turned tragic.

DOVE: Deanna Troi, the counselor.

EISENBERG: That's right.


EISENBERG: It's unfortunate - the one woman, we do talk about her dating history.


DOVE: Of course.

EISENBERG: But what can you - she didn't want to date down. I will say that.

DOVE: No. No.

EISENBERG: There was a lot of people on the Enterprise, and she didn't want to date down.


ART CHUNG: No red shirt guys.

EISENBERG: No red shirts.


CHUNG: Just officers.


COULTON: No red shirts. It's like the end of a personal ad.


EISENBERG: No red shirts.

COULTON: No red shirts.


COULTON: This is your last clue. I'm an android. Who are you? Are you an Android, too? Then there's a pair of us. Don't tell. They disassemble us, you know.

DOVE: That is Data and then his brother, Lore.

COULTON: That's right. Wow.


EISENBERG: Wow (laughter).

COULTON: Yeah, nice pull.

DOVE: Yeah. Told you I was a...

EISENBERG: You know it.

DOVE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: You remember episode 13 from season one. That's when he meets Lore. Rita, unsurprisingly, you did really well on that quiz.

DOVE: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: You got them all right. So congratulations, Rita.


EISENBERG: You and John Coulton win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

DOVE: I'm glad. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Thank you so much. Let's hear it for Rita Dove, everybody.

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