So many reporters have descended upon Rita Dove since she won the Pulitzer Prize last month that her 4-year-old daughter, Aviva, has taken to mimicking the interview process. Just before she launches into a bedtime monologue, she'll say to her parents: "Take this down."
Only when Aviva is on the scene -- zooming through the hallways of Arizona State University's Language and Literature Building on her pink tricycle, swiping M & Ms from the desk of the English department chairman -- has the spotlight strayed from Dove.
It was turned on, of course, on April 16, when the Akron native won the Pulitzer for poetry, giving her a blast of the rarefied air previously inhaled by such folks as Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Robert Penn Warren. It continued through a ceremony at Columbia University a week ago when she was to collect her medallion.
Dove's primary employer, Arizona State, in Tempe, has delighted in tanning itself in the reflected glory. Arizona State's president called the award "as exciting as the Rose Bowl." At a school heretofore known for its football team and its parties, that comment may have been the ultimate accolade.
But Dove wasn't always so popular. In fact, when she was first hired at Arizona State in 1981, she was verbally blind-sided by the boss of the same creative writing program she was about to join.
In an internal memo to the college's personnel committee, Mark Harris wrote: "The ... candidate at whom you have arrived is unacceptable to me. She was not my fifth or my 15th or my 35th choice. Nothing recommends her to me. Will you nevertheless force her upon me?"
Harris claimed Dove was chosen because she is black and a woman, thereby taking care of two affirmative-action requirements at once.
The ensuing scuffle "was vicious at first," recalls Karla Elling, current coordinator for the writing program and a close friend of Dove's.
Says the chairman of the school's 56-member English department, Nick Salerno: "I don't think you can go through that and not have scars. But if she has them, she hasn't shown them."
That view seems nearly unanimous. Dove, 34, is liked and admired around the campus. Her opinions are sought and her support on various campus issues is cherished.
Even her primary tormentor, Harris, now a professor in the English department, insists he and Dove "are on good, friendly terms."
OK. And if you believe that, you'll believe Arizona is not hot in April.
"I did feel offended by the fact that someone would question my qualifications for the job," Dove told a visitor from Akron. "It's that
old thing -- as a minority you have to be twice as good."
Although Dove didn't raise the topic and doesn't dwell on the old wounds, she will allow that she feels vindicated by the Pulitzer: "I have to admit I feel real good about the whole thing."
That's the same emotional honesty that characterizes the work that brought her the big prize. Thomas and Beulah, a collection of 44 poems based loosely on the lives of her maternal grandparents, contains a gritty realism that allows the saga of a lower-class black couple to translate into a universal experience.
She tries to communicate that idea to her students -- that the big stories often are told best by focusing on the small stories.
In the classroom, it's easy to forget that Dove is an internationally recognized poet with new political muscle. To say she's accessible would be an understatement.
On a 95-degree afternoon at the end of April, she sits in one of those little desks with the writing arms that most of us outgrow in grade school but continue to be subjected to through college. Hers is part of a circle of desks containing 10 creative-writing students.
She's wearing slacks and funky fingernail polish -- red on one side of each nail, blue on the other, with a diagonal black band separating the two. Her students call her Rita.
What gives away her identity, in addition to her obvious expertise in suggesting changes in student poems, is her mastery of the delicate balancing act between getting her points across and preserving vulnerable egos.
Dove, the daughter of Ray and Elvira Dove of Winton Avenue in Akron, seems adept at a variety of balancing acts.
She combines the intensely private passion of poetry with the distinctly gregarious job of teaching. Once painfully shy, she now functions well in the public eye -- even though, she will admit, she can still get nervous as class time approaches.
She is proud to be recognized as a black poet and proud of her history, but doesn't want to be relegated to the specialty shelves in the bookstore. She wants her work to speak to everyone.
She carries an aura of dignity, but there's also an undercurrent of fun. On her office wall, for instance, is a poster of Einstein, the very symbol of intellectual achievement. But he's sticking out his tongue.
The tiny office also contains the requisite snapshots of her child. But 12 of those photos, mounted together on one wall, show Aviva only from the knees down.
"Rita has a real sense of humor," says Elling, the creative writing coordinator. "On my birthday, she asked me how old I was. I said 44. She said, 'Oh, half a piano.' "
Well, this is academia, t Hilarities comedy club. But a recent visitor will second the notion that Dove's wit is quick, her laugh easy.
Colleagues and students, perhaps influenced by Dove's economical use of the written word, tend to describe her in one-word sentences.
"Reserved. Dignified. Feisty," says department chairman Salerno, whose office walls are covered with autographed photos of movie stars ranging from Harry Reems to Katherine Hepburn, collected while he hosted local and national PBS talk shows in the 1970s and early `80s.
"Energetic. Caring. Friendly. Approachable," says a female graduate student.
"Godlike," adds another student, exploding into laughter.
Rita Dove is the first to admit her new spotlight is beginning to get a bit too bright.
The Pulitzer and earlier honors such as a Guggenheim Fellowship are nice, she says, but don't really mean much: "They do not alleviate any of the anxieties of the next poem. I'm always going into the room and shutting the door, and I'm alone in there. It doesn't matter how many medallions are hanging around. I'm really alone."
The place she goes to be alone is a small but cozy spare bedroom in a house on a quiet residential street a mile from campus. Two walls of the room are painted orange, the others white. She starts composing her poetry on one side, writing by hand, then eventually moves to a word processor on the other.
She shares the computer with Fred Viebahn, her novelist husband, whom she met at a writers' conference in 1976 at the University of Iowa. One of the things they had in common was Germany: He was born there, she spent a year there as a Fulbright Scholar. She speaks his language fluently.
Viebahn, a warm, pleasant man who turned 40 the DAY, his wife won the Pulitzer, is her physical opposite: white skin, blond hair, blue eyes, a heavy German accent. His hair is long - we're talking `60s long - but he is short, standing about the same height as Dove.
Viebahn had his first book published at age 21. He's written four German novels and continues to write. But you get the impression that much of his time is devoted to caring for Aviva -- Dove reported on a faculty questionnaire that she spends 84 hours a week in classes, meetings and preparation.
When she makes the time to write, it's not a question of gazing at the nearby mountains, waiting for a flash of divine inspiration.
"The notion that poets sit down and lightning strikes almost in a funny way is giving poetry a bad name," she says with a smile. "Inspiration comes to anyone who is doing anything creative. You only get what you put into your miracles."
She tries to write every day. Some days, the words go together like, oh, palm trees and snow. But on other days, there's an almost mystical coming together of words.
There has to be some point in every poem where it takes off, so to speak, when a poem begins to go where it wants to go and you feel you are only following it as fast as you can.
Much of the hard work involves paring things down. What's needed, she says, is "the discipline to cut out words even if it breaks your heart. Because the more words there are, the more they compete with each other, the more the effect is diminished."
If sparse wording is the artistic key for the poet, sparse readership is the economic reality.
Informed that neither of two chain bookstores in Akron's largest mall carry any of her works, she nods, unsurprised. "People are afraid of poetry," she says.
Not even a Pulitzer winner can make a living solely by writing verse, she said.
Part of problem, she believes, is that our first exposure to poetry usually comes when a schoolteacher demands that we interpret a poem rather than just enjoy it.
"No one really expects, after coming out of a concert, to immediately describe what it meant. We're content to let the music wash over us."
Those who take a shower in poetry will discover that "it's not something just in an ivory-tower, it's not incomprehensible, it's not about gods and goddesses. It's about real life. Poetry is exciting and up to date and all that kind of stuff."
Some of those alienated students complain that poets are intentionally obscure. Why not just come right out and say what you mean?
"Every time we speak a word in casual conversation, we kill off about 20 other possibilities for saying it. We do that for the sake of expediency."
In a poem, however, "you can choose one of those other 20 and fit it together with other possibilities to create a composition not only of experience, but of sound and all the shadow meanings of a word. It is an art form.
"I don't want it to be obscure, but I do think that poems can't be read like that" - she snaps her fingers. "It's not like watching television and having it come at you. You have to read into it."
She says she wasn't very good at interpreting poems in school. She had more fun writing them.
Her first effort came in the sixth grade, when she scratched out a tribute to the Easter bunny.
Later, at Buchtel High on Akron's west side, she roped nearly every academic honor available. Today, she jokes about the school's nonexistent mascot (the griffin, a mythical being) and school colors (black and white) that aren't colors. But she has fond memories of her years at Buchtel.
Her memories of the following few years, spent at Miami University in Oxford, are mixed.
"Miami is a fairy-tale land. Architecturally it is Georgian brick. But it's all a facade. ...
"On the one hand, my learning experience was intensely pleasurable. That's where I really got the writing teachers who took the top of my head off.
But on the other hand, it's a very strange world. Very few blacks. Heavy into fraternities. Weird white columns and red brick in the middle of Ohio. Those architectural touches, of course, are more appropriate in the Deep South, which Dove's grandmother left in 1906 and her grandfather left in 1919.
In telling their story, Dove exercised a bit of artistic license. On the title page of the copy of Thomas and Beulah she sent to her parents last year, she wrote: "For my family, the only ones who know which of these stories are true and which aren't."
Asked whether it is important that a story be factual, she says no.
"Picasso said once that art is a lie that tells the truth. That's the way I feel. There's a different kind of truth that can sometimes be hampered by the actual facts of life. Sometimes it's more exciting to have a yellow scarf rather than a blue one."
She took the liberty of changing her grandmother's name from Georgianna to Beulah - "Georgianna is a hard name to put in a poem and keep some kind of lyricism going," she notes.
But Thomas was indeed Thomas, and the book contains dozens of real Akron locales. There's the viaduct over the Little Cuyahoga, the Portage Hotel, the Goodyear airdock and Wingfoot Lake, a recreational area for Goodyear employees. Dove knew the lake well because her father, now retired, was a Goodyear chemist.
Rita and Fred get a daily reminder of Goodyear when they look out their back window: Hanging from the roof over their patio is a large, inflated model of the blimp. One of Dove's two sisters (she also has a brother) gave it to her on a visit.
Not too far from the blimp is a bicycle that the associate professor rides to work. She pedals partly to combat an ongoing parking nightmare on a campus that is the nation's sixth largest, with 41,500 students.
But it's a pleasant ride. Arizona State sits on a gorgeous, 600-acre spread with sparkling modern architecture, highlighted by a spectacular circular theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
No ivy-covered walls in this place. No pseudo Old South.
The entire campus seems to be color-coded to match the desert at sunset: shades of pink, mauve, orange and beige predominate.
A short distance from campus are rich red rock formations so compelling and oddly shaped that they seem to be alive. Farther out, the entire area is surrounded by mountains.
Like Phoenix, its next-door neighbor, Tempe is booming. Nobody worries about businesses moving away or old bridges crumbling. Rather, the area is outgrowing its buildings and highways faster than an infant outgrows shoes.
Akron's relocated poet loves the weather in the "Valley of the Sun." That's one of the main reasons she and her husband moved here from rainy Berlin.
While she doesn't miss the clouds or snow, she does miss two-story houses, which are rare and expensive. "All my life, I've slept upstairs," she says.
The family has no plans go anywhere else. Tempe, she says, is a good place to write.
"I have a measure of serenity. And support. There's good camaraderie. We (in the English department) play volleyball together, trade poems, stuff like that. That's very rare."
As those comments indicate, Rita Dove is more intrigued by feelings than things.
But that doesn't mean she might not go out and blow most of her $1,000 Pulitzer award on that white leather pantsuit she's always wanted.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.