HOTSEAT- Dovely: Manicure tips from a poet laureate

Rita Dove's crinkly red boots look like they don't come from around here, and her multi-colored, striped fingernails catch the eye. "I do it myself," she says. Her tip for painting the tricky right hand: "Do it fast," she advises, else the line will waver.

As fascinating as Dove's personal style may be, the award-laden poet laureate– she just picked up a 2006 Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service– must answer the inevitable poetry questions. The one she's sick of: List your influences.

"It changes so much," says Dove. "This week I'm into aubade– poems about waking up in the morning and having to leave your lover, and it's going to influence me."

The earliest poem she remembers? "'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag!' she said," Dove recites.

"It was a terrible poem, one of those old standards that are very patriotic," she says, but John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie" inspired the future Poet Laureate of the United States (and current laureate of Virginia), and she wrote her first poem in the fourth grade: "The Rabbit with the Droopy Ear."

After finishing her MFA and preparing to do the starving poet bit, she decided to try teaching as a way to support her poetry habit while leaving enough energy to write.

"I was terrified of teaching at first," admits UVA's Commonwealth Professor of English. "I don't know what else I would have done. Certainly nothing as much fun."

Living with a poet subjects family members to "that weird despair poets can get into before writing," says Dove. "I say, 'I'm all washed up' when I'm stuck....I whine, I confess, to my husband and daughter. I can hear their voices going, 'Rita,'" she says in an exasperated tone.

On the other hand, she debunks the perception that artistic souls are crazy and tortured, and claims that poets do not have a higher incidence of suicide or alcoholism than the rest of the population.

As for aspiring poets, "They should read," advises Dove. "If they don't love to read poetry, then I suspect they only want to talk about themselves."

She adds, "Don't wait for inspiration. Go find it."

Age: 53

Why here? The University recruited me. I wasn't ready to move and had no idea that Virginia was not "the South," especially Charlottesville. I met so many interesting people during my exploratory visits, that I was convinced.

Worst about living here? No big jets flying out of CHO.

Favorite hangout? Any place holding a ballroom dance would be a safe bet.

Most overrated virtue? Prudence, perhaps, which many people use as an excuse for close-mindedness. Abstinence is a close second– the absolute denial of anything teeters dangerously toward fear masquerading as self-righteousness.

People would be surprised to know: I can't swim. Never could.

I've defeated every teacher I've had.

What would you change about yourself? I'd stop being a worrier.

Proudest accomplishment? Getting the Pulitzer for a book of poems that tells the story of an ordinary couple living in the distinctly "unpoetic" town of Akron, Ohio.

People find most annoying about you: If I knew, I'd be perfect! But there's a lot I find annoying about myself– my propensity to be a hermit, a need to fret, a touch of smugness.

Whom do you admire? Zadie Smith. How is it possible for a 30-year-old to know so much about every sort of person and to write such eloquent, layered, and funny novels?

Favorite book? The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Omeros by Derek Walcott. Now you've got me started!

Subject that causes you to rant? George W. Bush.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Video iPod.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The ghost of Christmas Past (Vietnam)

returning as the Iraq War. We've learned nothing.

What do you drive? A 1991 Mercedes 350 SD (turbo diesel), for 16 years now. It's black and usually dusty.

In your car CD player right now: Music from the Cape Verde Islands, with Cesaria Evora. Ute Lemper sings Kurt Weill.

Next journey? Journey implies some distance– so, skipping the little

business trips during National Poetry month, that would be the summer trip: to the International PEN Meeting in Berlin, returning by ship with the QM2.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? As a 16-year-old, I begged off going to church, claiming to be sick; but once my parents had gotten dressed and gone, I slipped out and walked the three blocks to the high school to meet up with my new boyfriend. We walked around the football field, necked a bit in the grass. He insisted on walking me home, and I thought we had enough time; but my parents, concerned, left church early and turned into our street just in time to catch me walking hand in hand with this boy, a few dry grass stalks sticking out of my hair!

Regret: That I didn't begin ballroom dancing as a teenager. That I didn't

begin singing as a teenager. That it's humanly impossible to do everything!

Favorite comfort food: potato chips, with ridges.

Always in your refrigerator: hummus

Must-see TV: Everybody Hates Chris.

Favorite cartoon: Family Guy

Describe a perfect day. Rise around 1pm, rested (for once). A perfect

cappuccino, good cheese on homemade bread. Write all day in my study with the music set on automatic replay, pages and books everywhere, with most of a successful poem finished by sundown. Watch sundown without turning on lights; then dress for a light dinner and dancing. Return after midnight for champagne and a good movie on DVD, which my husband and I will discuss merrily until sunrise. No duties the following day; I fall asleep without setting an alarm.

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm a major rock star with an incredible voice,

dazzling outfits, and a devoted entourage– a cross between Patti Labelle

and Bette Midler, with Whitney Houston's body. I write my own songs, which have caused heads of state to tremble and scientists to weep.

Who'd play you in the movie? Alfre Woodard.

Most embarrassing moment? This event in New York was very world-weary and casual-chic, a when-in-doubt-black-is-always-good kind of affair. I had gone to the rest room and bustled back into the room, smiling and chatting, when a woman I didn't know grabbed my elbow and began tugging at my side. My mid-calf, gathered skirt had gotten caught in my pantyhose when I hiked it up in the toilet stall, and there I was parading all my goods – well, the left hand portion of my goods at any rate!

Best advice you ever got? A quote from Goethe's Faust that my college German professor told me to carry in my wallet when I went abroad for the first time: "Entbehren sollst Du lernen – you must learn to do without." Austere stuff, but it helped me get through that year in another language.

Favorite bumper sticker? When religion ruled the world, they called it The Dark Ages.


Rita Dove

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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