The crowd remained silent as Rita Dove read her work aloud, applauding only at the very beginning and end. Dove, who had spoken at Knox once at the commencement ceremony of 1989, came back to campus as one of the readers for the year long celebration of the Creative Writing department’s 50th anniversary at Knox. Dove received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. She read on Monday, April 10 in the Muelder Room of Seymour Library.
Junior Elise Goitia was first exposed to Dove’s work during her freshman year in Introduction to Literature with Associate Professor and Chair of English Monica Berlin. Goitia was immediately drawn to Dove’s poem “Sonnets in Primary Colors” and had the opportunity to memorize and perform this poem for an assignment. Berlin told the class to recite their poems anywhere they felt the most comfortable, and Goitia chose to do so while sitting on a window sill, above her classmates’ heads. Goitia described the experience as life changing.
Growing up half-Mexican while passing white due to her mother’s Swedish heritage, Goitia felt that she wasn’t able to embrace her culture. She mentioned that she grew up in an area of Arizona that discriminated against Mexicans so, despite carrying the culture of her family, she didn’t talk much about her culture to others.
“Being able to sit on that window sill and repeat the words Rita Dove wrote about Frida Kahlo really connected me with my Mexican heritage,” Goitia said. “Rita Dove really opened up that side of cultural acceptance and appreciation that I didn’t quite have before. So I guess in a way Rita Dove was what allowed me to come into appreciation of my cultural identity.”
Goitia also noted the importance of having Dove be able to speak and have students as well as community members hear her read her own work. She feels that Dove represents a success story for writers and artists, and that she brought the poems to life when she read them aloud. She mentioned “The Little Yellow House on the Corner” as one that Dove read that stood out to her.
“It had a lot of personal value for her, and that really resonated with the way she talked about it and the way she read it,” Goitia said. “You could hear that history and her love for her family and her love for poetry. And I think that was recognizable for everyone in the crowd.”
Berlin often makes sure that she introduces Dove’s work to her students early on in her courses. She feels that the content and means through which Dove writes make her work accessible, while still maintaining a sense of complexity and genuineness. This term Associate Professor of English Nicholas Regiacorte is teaching Reading Studio, a new course centered around reading Dove’s poetry.
“She writes about all the things that matter and she manages to do so artfully and pushing up against different forms and breaking taboo,” Berlin said.
Berlin noted “Mother Love” and “Thomas and Beulah” as some of the works she feels are most significant to her. She also highlighted the poem “Ars Poetica” as one that she often teaches on the first day of her classes.
“It’s a poem that I still think about and am still surprised by every single time I read it. Some mornings, I just wake up hearing it,” Berlin said. “It’s an early poem and it still resonates with me. And a lot of her poems resonate with me for different reasons but that’s the one that I just come back to over and over again.”
Berlin feels that Dove not only writes about relevant and significant topics, but is also a role model for students in a variety of aspects. She admires Dove’s refusal to limit her writing to one genre and feels that she serves as an inspiration for students to create art in more than one medium or art form.
“She’s formally inventive. She’s constantly reconsidering the tradition out of which she came of age, out of which all poets came of age,” Berlin said. “She’s listening to her contemporaries and her students.”
Though senior Adi Hernandez was not familiar with Dove for a long time, she started reading her work after seeing her face and name on a poster describing the events for the 50th Anniversary.
“I was pretty excited because she’s a woman of color who is coming and speaking, who is such a big deal for the department,” Hernandez said. “From what Monica Berlin was telling me, it was one of the biggest events of the year. I was pretty excited to see her face and I knew I had to start reading her work to really get as much out of it as I could.”
Hernandez relates to Dove’s book “On the Bus with Rosa Parks” and feels that it helped her to understand the amount of time it may take for her to reflect on her past experiences before writing about them. She feels that the same thing can be instilled in other writers and other readers of Dove’s work. Hernandez emphasized the importance of having such an influential figure take the time to come speak to Knox students and members of the Galesburg community.
“Having someone at Knox like that is so important,” she said. “It’s not too often that we get someone that recognizable in our tiny little school.”