An Award-Winning Poet

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rita Dove is a major force in contemporary American poetry. She has published seven full-length books of poems (her Selected Poems gathers the contents of her first three books), received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and spent two years as poet laureate of the United States (1993-1994). She was born August 28, 1952, in Akron, Ohio, and grew up with two younger sisters and an older brother. Her father, the first African American industrial chemist to work for Goodyear Tires, figures prominently in several of her poems. She shares her father’s love of mathematics and science but has embraced her mother’s love of literature and describes herself as an avid reader since early childhood. The poem “Geometry,” from her first book, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), begins, “I prove a theorem and the house expands.”In her introduction to her Selected Poems (1993), Dove describes herself as “passionate about books,” and she tells of writing a novel when she was in elementary school: “The words led me, not the other way around.” Helen Vendler has described Dove’s imagination as “rapid, extrapolative, montage-like, and relational.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1973 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Dove attended the University of Tübingen, where she studied German and modern European literature on a Fulbright fellowship. She received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1977, and while there she met her future husband, German writer Fred Viebahn, who was teaching at Oberlin College. They married in 1979 and spent two years writing in Israel and Germany. From 1981 to 1989, Dove taught at Arizona State University, and in 1983 their daughter Aviva was born. Since 1989, they have lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove teaches as Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She is an accomplished cellist and singer with classical voice training, and she and her husband are competitive ballroom dancers.