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You’ll Learn

26 March 2019

Barbara watched Rita Dove at the 2019 Quadruplicity Conference in Charlottesville and walked away feeling inspired and more courageous.

Tags: barbara read, barbara watched, poetry, rita dove, uva

Rita Dove was the United States Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, won a Pulitzer prize in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah a collection of poems, and is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. In the spring of 2018, she was named poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine.

My daughter Allison became a University Guide her first year at UVA in 1991, a position you had to compete for by learning a lot of history and then auditioning. She wanted to talk about the role of enslaved laborers and free blacks on her tours, but the Guide Service told her she needed proof. Allison asked the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor, Peter Onuf, if she could do an independent study with him and published a paper entitled, The Role of African-Americans and the Construction of the University of Virginia, that is still in the Special Collections Library.

An article was written about Allison’s tours in The Daily Progress. Rita Dove read it, called her, and said, “I’d like you to give my family a tour of the Lawn and tell me what you’ve learned.” That was 25 years ago, and Rita and Allison have been friends ever since. There is a lot about the role of enslaved laborers at the University now, but I’ve always been proud that Allison was one of the first to bring up the subject and keep talking about it until someone listened.

I bought Dove’s book, Selected Poems, the day of the Quadruplicity conference, ordered her novel and book of short stories, and have watched multiple YouTube videos of her being interviewed, reading her poems and telling stories. When I finished the novel and started the short stories, I found a quote on the back cover that described my reaction to her talk and her work, “Of Ms. Dove, Roger Mitchel wrote in the Ohio Review that we ‘feel we are near a large mind—intelligent, sincere, compassionate—not because she strikes large poses or thinks abstractly but because she is, as it were, traveled in the mind.’”

I read this quote and thought, “Yes!" This is how I felt when I had my first conversation with her and immersed myself in her writing in the weeks after Quadruplicity.

During her speech at the conference she described two events that strongly influenced her life and poetry even though she didn’t realize it at the time—what her parents did and what her department chair at Arizona State University said. Before she read the first poem, Maple Valley Branch Library, she said that as a young child she checked out six books every week. Her parents let her go all over the library, including in the adult section. They figured if a book was too mature for her, she would get bored. If she didn’t get bored, then maybe she needed to know about it. Their trust of her taught her to trust herself. As she spoke these lines, I was awed at her range of knowledge and the beauty of her words.

     There was so much to discover—how to
     lay out a road, the language of flowers,
     and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.
     There were equations elegant as a French twist,
     fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf;
     I’d go up to her desk and ask for help
     on bareback rodeo or binary codes,
     phonics, Gestalt theory,
     lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,
     the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;

When she finished, I thought—"My God, if I’d read that much as a child, maybe I would be a poet.” The more she talked the more I felt longing and envy. I liked every poem and every story she told between the poems. If my English professors had discussed some of what motivated the poems instead of just asking trick questions only they and a few students had the answers to, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted half my life hating and being afraid of poetry.

Allison, Barbara, Rita, and Janie at Quadruplicity
(Janie blogged about Rita's talk earlier this month, too!)
Photo Credit: Fred Viebhan

Dove described how poets pretty much stay by themselves writing, not looking for the limelight. When her department chair told her she had won the Pulitzer and that there would be a press conference, she said, “I don’t know how to do a press conference.” He said, “You’ll learn.” She did and has kept that attitude whenever she didn’t know how to do something.

Her house in Charlottesville was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. When her friends were helping her sift through the ashes looking for manuscripts, one said, “We need to have a party, a dinner party with dancing.”

The night they all got together, one of the couples, who had been taking dance lessons, floated by her and her husband doing the waltz. Everyone was impressed with their graceful skills, so the whole group agreed they would take a month of dance lessons. She and her husband, Fred, continued with the lessons. I talked to him about it after she spoke, and he said it was very difficult for him to learn, but she had said to him, “Either you dance with me or somebody else will.” I’ve watched YouTube videos of them doing the Rumba, Samba, and Waltz. They are fabulous. I think the words from her department chair, “You’ll learn,” has kept both of them dancing.

Recently, I needed to memorize some new material for a program I was going to teach. I was more nervous than usual. I kept saying to myself, “You’ll learn,” rather than the litany of negative phrases that always come quickly to mind. It even helped during the days of getting all the numbers of tax information ready for my accountant rather than sighing and saying “I hate this.”

I’ve fallen hard for a few poets over the years—first, William Wordsworth when I was in high school, then David Whyte and Mary Oliver as an adult. Now, I’ve tripped right over the edge for Rita Dove in the last month and the fall has been that much more thrilling because of how she ended the conference. Just as I was thinking, “This is one of the best keynotes I’ve ever seen,” I heard Dove say she would be closing with a “found poem.”

She said “This poem came from a book written by Allison Linney’s mother, Barbara Linney—a book titled Turn Your Face: How to be Heard and Get What You Want Most of the Time. It’s a self-help book that talks about how to reach your potential and how to be happy while you are doing it.” I gasped when she said Allison’s name and mine and then the tears flowed as she read the poem pulled from the chapter titles of my book which had come to me in one fell swoop on a plane ride. These titles “found” me, too:

     Say what you mean.
     Plan what you want.
     Choose your energy,
     listen: when 
     you care, write. 
     Work when you need to. 
     Dance when you can.

Thank you, Rita. I want you to know that learning that a writer I admire so much got inspiration from a book that I worked so hard to self-publish is giving me a burst of courage for some new challenges in my life. “You’ll learn” is the new refrain in my head.

Where in your life could you apply the “You’ll learn” mantra?


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Robin Kaczka
Mar 26, 2019

You captured beautifully the joy of hearing Ms. Rita Dove close Quadruplicity. As I heard Ms. Dove speak, I felt tranquility and joy wash over me, as well as a wishing I had heard her years ago. Thank you for the vivid reminder, and for sharing your experience hearing your book captured in a poem. It’s lovely to learn how the phrase “You’ll learn,” helps as you start new challenges and work through the tedium of annual challenges (taxes) too.

Barbara Linney
Mar 29, 2019

Robin, thank you so much for this kind comment. Your words added tranquility and joy to my week and helped me remember feeling as you did when Rita was speaking. I’m grateful I get to share these experiences with you and others in Charlottesville.


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