A Sewing Chat with Rita Dove

Thank you to volunteer sound designer for her work on this episode including the following music: 
“Chill Lo-Fi Hip Hop” by Skilsel; “News Corporate” by Skilsel; “Hip Hop Lo-Fi” by John Sib; “Hip Hop Funk” by John Sib and “African Percussion” by Sofra

More about Rita Dove

Whether she is crafting a line of poetry or stitching together her husband’s lavender velvet wedding suit, Rita Dove is a master of storytelling. In this episode of Stitch Please, Lisa talks with former US Poet Laureate, Rita Dove, about her introduction to sewing, the relationship between poetry and sewing, and how to walk along the seam sewn by those who have come before us. After graduating from Buchtel High School as a Presidential Scholar, Dove went on to graduate summa cum laude with a B.A. from Miami University in 1973. In 1974, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship from the University of Tübingen, Germany and later completed her MFA at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1977 where she met her husband, Fred Viebahn. In 1987, Dove received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1992, Dove was named US Poet Laureate and served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—a position she would later hold again as a Special Bicentennial Consultant in 1999. In addition to being the youngest individual and the first African American to hold the position of Poet Laureate, Rita Dove is the recipient of 28 honorary doctorates and numerous awards, some of which include: Poet Laureate of Virginia, the National Humanities Medal presented by President Bill Clinton, the National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama, several lifetime achievement awards, and the Gold Medal in poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Dove has published the poetry collections The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah (1986), Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems (1993), Mother Love (1995), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), American Smooth (2004), Sonata Mulattica (2009), Collected Poems: 1974-2004 (2016) which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her most recent work, Playlist for the Apocalypse (2021).  In addition to poetry, Dove has published a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992), and the play The Darker Face of the Earth (1994). Rita Dove is currently the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. When she’s not writing timeless literary gems, Dove might be found thumbing through High Fashion Sewing Secrets and creating her own wearable works of art.

Read Full Transcript

Lisa Woolfork 0:00

Lisa Woolfork 0:17

[Background music] Hello Stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please. The official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast, with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together. [Music swells and fades]

Welcome everybody to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And as I say, for every episode, this is a very special episode. But, this one is especially, specially special. It's hard for me to summarize who Rita Dove is and what Rita Dove does, but I can show you just a little tiny thing that might help. It is this [Lisa shows book]. Do you see this? This is the collective poems of Rita Dove from 1974 to 2004. And if you would think that a gorgeous, rich anthology of nearly more than two decades of poetry weren't enough, she also had a book that just last month was on the top 10 of new books we recommend. And that was her, "Playlist for the Apocalypse". In addition to being one of the first Black folks to get a Pulitzer Prize, of being an advisor to the Library of Congress, and the poet Laureate of the United States, and on juries for really prestigious prizes, I am certain that some of her poetry is on the SAT and the AP exam. She also sews her own clothes [cheers]. She sews! So when I started here, we're both colleagues at the University of Virginia--and I thank you so much Rita for indulging me in this conversation--but when I first got here, I was minding my own business in Joanne Fabrics, and I look up and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I think that's Rita Dove. That is, hey!!!' It was so much fun. It was not something that I expected, and so it has been just a delight. In the time that I've gotten to know you, this has been so much fun. Thank you and welcome, Rita Dove.

Rita Dove 2:24

[Poetry snaps] Thank you, Lisa. And I must say it's an indulgence for me to be able to be on this podcast and talk with you because, you know, there are people out there who don't so and I pity those folks. But I just have loved over the years watching seeing all of your creations and your inventiveness and just being able to dive into and talk about fabric. It's a great indulgence.

Lisa Woolfork 2:48

And I also have to give a shout out to my cousin Missy, who told me to tell you hello. Because she texted me after she read your interview in the New York Times, the one where you talk about your favorite books. And I think one of the questions was, 'What books would a reader be most surprised to find on your bookshelf?' And you had down "Secrets [sic] From High Fashion Sewing."

Rita Dove 3:08


Lisa Woolfork 3:09

So I was like, 'I think I have that book, too.' [indiscernible] And so I was like, 'You know that's right she does sew, let me just see if she has a minute--she probably doesn't--have a minute to talk with me about it.' So thank you so much, and welcome. And hello from my cousin.

Rita Dove 3:23

Thank you and hello. Hello Misty [laughing].

Lisa Woolfork 3:25

To get started: How would you define what your sewing story is? When did it begin? I know I've read some of your earlier work, and you talk about like falling in love with books and reading and imagery and literature as a young child. But what role did sewing play in that? And also, you said your mother was also a seamstress? And so I'm wondering if you were able to see this as simply labor or as something more than that?

Rita Dove 3:51

Oh, sewing has been with me as long as books have been with me, and which is to say it was in the home. And it was never a feeling of labor. It was a feeling--I got the sensation of inventiveness and a way of letting creativity come out. My mother was a seamstress. She had worked in a dress shop when she was young, though for her it began as labor. It was a dress shop, which meant doing alterations and doing things like that. But for her own work, when she was young, this meant tearing linings out of coats, right, and making dresses out of them. So, I have photographs of my mother when she was in her club hopping days. I mean she has these gorgeous dresses, made out of satin and stuff, and I'm like, 'What?' And she goes 'Oh, that was the lining of somebody's coat they didn't want anymore and I just made mess up the dress.' And so I always knew that you could take materials and if you knew how to handle them, you could make something glorious out of 'em.

Lisa Woolfork 4:51

I appreciate so much about the transformative powers of sewing. That's one of the reasons I was really drawn to it, the idea of starting with, like, some yard goods and maybe some thread or whatever. And then you end up with a suit, or a jacket, or something like that; like, the idea of transforming something into something else. I also appreciate how you were able to kind of separate what some would consider drudgery. Instead elevate that part that really feeds your spirit. I just really appreciate that part of the creative process and how it shows up in lots of different ways. And like in some of your works, you do talk a bit about sewing and like one of my favorites, I was saying to you earlier, is, "My Mother Enters the Workforce." And it just feels like, even though her days in that poem felt like they were day work and evening work, there was the blue shoes. There was the thing she was able to get with the sewing that put a smile in her heart, and that's the thing that I really appreciate about some of the power of creativity. Something else you said, somewhat surprising, so when you think about all the sewing projects that you've made, including the lovely dress you have on right now--I love a twist tie front, I love it, I really do. Of all the sewing projects that you've made, which one stands out to you as the most, like, Pow [explosive sound]! Are they things that are like simple that you just enjoy sewing? And it's like, 'Oh, this is a quick thing I can do?' Or do you have some garments, you can even look back in the past and say, I did something really amazing.

Rita Dove 6:24

If asked to single out one garment, I guess it would probably be the one that I have on display back here, which I found still in my closet, most of them are in storage. But because of the special situation, I wore this to Carnival in Venice. [Background music] And what happened was that these friends of ours, who were quite well off, had invited us to Carnival in Paris, and they had a suite and all this stuff. And it was one of those crazy things--you know, I was on leave that year, and I thought, 'I mean, you got to go to Carnival, right?' But everybody else had these outfits with real sequins, rhinestones, on they head, like couture stuff. And I knew that I couldn't compete with that, you know, and I wasn't going to spend all that money for one. So that meant trying to find materials, putting them together. So this was really put together out of like three or four different patterns and a little bit of improvisation and spirit--I just, you know the skirt you just put together gathered skirt, that's no big deal. But also finding materials, fabrics that I had, that I hadn't used yet. Like, for instance, the blouse, which is see through. I loved that. But I had no use for it. You can't wear it to a poetry reading or people will wonder what kind of skank you are. You can't teach in it. But I loved the fabric, and so I said, 'This is for Carnival.' So in the end, I ended up making that outfit, a velvet cape, long to the ground, which you can't wear anywhere else, but it's great for sweeping through the canal. You know [mumble]...I made about five or six crazy outfits for me and for Fred, for my husband. He has a matching vest. I'm going to grab it, it's over here.

Lisa Woolfork 8:10

And so what she's describing y'all, if you are a Patreon subscriber, you get to see this gorgeous outfit that she made. And I like that front cross lacing. I always think that that's such an interesting structure. Did you do eyelets for that, or did you do grommets? Do you remember? [Background music fades]

Rita Dove 8:26

I did eyelets and it's true to the century, in which--I was trying to call up the idea that women wore corsets. It's not a corset, per se, but it has that look...

Lisa Woolfork 8:37

Yeah, it definitely, definitely has the look, definitely...

Rita Dove 8:39

...A little peplum. For my husband who was going to--who bravely wore gold-colored leggins, you know, stockings and the little puffy pants, I don't even know what they're called...

Lisa Woolfork 8:52

...Oh my gosh...

Rita Dove 8:54

...And a jacket, which your subscribers can see, which is matching to the corset.

Lisa Woolfork 8:58

That is lovely.

Rita Dove 9:00

It was really fun to combine all that kind of stuff, to know that I had used salvaged materials that I'd loved, and put them together with this thing and made something that could stand up to all of the ones that have commissioned.

Lisa Woolfork 9:15

I mean, I would be hard pressed to see where you were out done. But you know, I wasn't there. So I think you did pretty fantastically. And that I do appreciate, that kind of, the illusion of the corset. Without the corset itself, it really does pull the whole piece together and the sleeves--really, brava.

Rita Dove 9:34

Well, thank you. Thank you. So that was fun to do.

Lisa Woolfork 9:37

It sounds like it was fun. I can see the love in the piece. You know, it's like looks like to me that there's a lot of care even as you, like, hybridize this garment from three different pattern sections or three different blocks and different fabrics from salvaged garments. That is something that not a lot of folks do anymore. It's starting to come back, as people are thinking about sustainability and recycling it, upcycling. But...

Rita Dove 10:00


Lisa Woolfork 10:00

...you've done it even before that. I was really excited that you made his wedding suit for your wedding.

Rita Dove 10:07

Yes, I did.

Lisa Woolfork 10:08

I am trying to understand and would love to hear more about that. Of all the things to do when one decides to get married, making the outfits for the spouse--mind blown. So tell us about that. How'd that come about?

Rita Dove 10:19

Well, the thing is that we had a very small wedding, we were married by the justice of the peace. Actually by the mayor of Elyria, Ohio, who was a woman, and that's why we decided to let her do this. But so it was a small affair, but for us, it was really a joyous affair. And at that time, my husband Fred was teaching at Oberlin College and I was a faculty wife. I just started graduate school. I was, you know, doing this kinds of things. I was experimenting a lot with folklore patterns. And so I ended up making a dress. An Afghani Nomad dress. I was really interested in how other cultures solved the problems of the human body, you know, with fabric, putting it together. How do you get around the boobs? And what do you do here? So I was doing a lot of experimenting, too, with the nature of fabrics and how you can handle a fabric. I had never tried a man's suit. Fred kept saying, 'I'm not wearing some straight-laced, navy blue thing.' You know, he didn't want to wear a suit at all. So I said, 'What about if I make you a suit that's, like, out of lavender, kind of velvet?' And he said, 'That sounds good.' [laughing]

Lisa Woolfork 11:32

First the lavender and then you throw in velvet. And so it was on.

Rita Dove 11:37

Yeah, it was on, it was like Liberace. And those were our, of course, our hippie days. And so I had found the material. You know, of course, I found fabric and said, I can do this. [laughing] You know, and then I got the patterns. And then luckily I had given myself lots of time. But it was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. I mean, tailoring and seamstressing, they're different kinds of things. All I can say is that it looked great on him. I would never show anyone the insides of that thing. But it looked good on him. And that's all that matters. And I will never, ever put another sleeve into a man's outfit again.

Lisa Woolfork 12:18

That is really delightful. And also the idea that you're like, 'I've never made a man's suit before. But if I'm going to try for the first time, why not for my wedding. You know, honestly, let me just start at a really low bar, low stakes.'

Rita Dove 12:34

Well there were fall back, you know, things. But, you've done a lot of wonderful things for your family, for your husband or for your sons. And so my...[indiscernible]...When I say, 'Oh.' But, I mean, men's garments, my hat really goes off to you.

Lisa Woolfork 12:51

Well, I thank you, I love it. I really enjoy it. I've always--I like the way you phrase it, solve for the problem of the human body.

Rita Dove 12:59


Lisa Woolfork 12:59

And I think garments and apparel really does do that. And it feels so unfortunate that it seems like choices for men are so limited, like women have lots of different choices, but men have far fewer. And so it means that I'm kind of sewing the same thing over and over again. And so I am looking into ways to kind of you know, spice things up and I have a new jacket pattern that he wanted for the fall. So I got them laid out. I'll probably start cutting it this weekend.

[Background music] You're listening to the Stitch Please podcast and I'm talking today with Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Poet Laureate of the United States, holder of 28 honorary degrees, who also sews her own clothes. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about the connection between poetry and sewing. Right after this break. Stay tuned.

[Jazzy background music] Black Women Stitch and the Stitch Please podcasts are happy to announce that we have another way to connect with our community. In addition to the IG lives that we do every Thursday at 3pm, we also now have a club on Clubhouse. That's right friends, they done messed up and given me the chance to have a club [trumpet fanfare]. Follow Black Women Stitch on Instagram, and now on Clubhouse, Thursdays at 3pm on Instagram, and 3:45pm on Clubhouse, Eastern Standard Time. And we'll help you get your stitch together. [Music swells and fades].

[Background music] You're listening to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork, and I'm talking today with Rita Dove, a fantastic poet with decades and decades of fantastic and life affirming poetry. She is an icon in literary history and in the study of poetry. I'm delighted to be able to talk with her today. And we're gonna talk now about the connections between poetry and sewing.

One other thing I was wondering about was, do you see any parallels between sewing, like the construction of a garment, and say other creative acts like building a poem? If you were to think about metaphors for creating poetry, [background music fades] I know some people tend to think more visually. But if there was a way--and I know sometimes thinking about sculpting--so there's all sorts of metaphors that people use to animate the art of poetry. Do you see any connections that might be meaningful between the needle arts and the sewing arts?

Rita Dove 15:34

This is a fascinating question. It's one, in which I've been kind of wrestling with trying to show those connections, 'cause they are there. I think that to make a seam just right, with the right tension, bobbin tension, and the right width of the seam, is somehow analogous to the way, in which a line floats across the page. Do you detect that it is a line? Or is it seamless? You know, does it flow into the next and yet at the same time, reverberate against lines that are above it and below it? And I think that that's what a perfect seam does. It's beautiful in itself. You see the seam, you see the light, but you don't think of it as utilitarian, you know, because it's not puckering, it's not pulling, it's not, you know. And so every time I sew a seam, I also think about that pacing it you need, too, when you're feeding it through. And that is so similar to what happens when I kind of move along the rhythms of a line of poetry. If it's right, if it turns correctly, does it fit together. The analogies are all there, but, you know, does it fit together. And then there is that thing, too, where, if we're minding upon that, has a narrative that tells a story. But at the same time is supposed to have echoes, you know, or backstory and all this stuff happening at the same time. I often think about the way, in which a zipper works, an invisible zipper works.

Lisa Woolfork 17:09


Rita Dove 17:10

And suddenly everything comes together, everything comes together on the body in a poem that is supposed to just close perfectly and at the same time reverberate. It's zipped.

Lisa Woolfork 17:23

So that's so beautiful, and I am here for it. I am really here for it. Because I've been thinking a lot about thread. I've been thinking a lot about sewing and something that I've been teaching, actually, for a class I'm doing next semester is called, "Sally Hemings University." That's the name of the class. And it talks about what would it mean to center a University on a marginalized and slave woman rather than her rapist, white slave owner. And part of the thing that I'm interested in is the liberatory strategy that I'm calling 'forecrafting,' instead of forecasting, but 'forecrafting.' And I have two models for that. The first one is Jochebed, who is Moses' mother, and remember she made the basket for him. And I thought for me that act of weaving that basket together, weaving that basket, not knowing--knowing that her child was going to face certain death. And she knew that to keep him safe, she had to push him away. Right? And so there's something about the prayer of that crafting of the basket, putting the baby in it and just praying that it all works out.

Rita Dove 18:34


Lisa Woolfork 18:34

And I see something similar in Sally Hemings' own work as a seamstress on the plantation, but also a 14-year-old girl who is kind of, like, stuck in France with this man who wants her to go back. She's pregnant and is like, 'I don't know if I want to go back.' And then negotiating as her sons--you know, as Madison said, extraordinary privileges, which included the liberation of her children--knowing that she would never see it herself.

Rita Dove 18:34


Lisa Woolfork 18:35

And there's something about that. And then Tobiah Mundt, who I'm partnered with, has this wonderful exhibit called, "Held Breath." It was down at the Welcome Gallery. And it's gorgeous. It's this eye and all of these beams of light and breath. Each strand connects to a person's name, or a community that survived attacks of White supremacy. And if they didn't survive, the thread stops. But if they did survive, it goes on. It's incredible. There's just so much, I think, in there in the theory of craft, about Black women's history.

Rita Dove 19:38


Lisa Woolfork 19:38

I don't think that we spend enough time thinking about it, I don't think, as much as, you know... I think that there's obviously, you know, poets, I can often think about Lucille Clifton's quilting, which is that poem, that the "Reply" poem, that poem, "Reply." We talked about that in class, the poem, "Reply," y'all, I'll put a link to it. It's this horrible letter that W.B. Dubois gets in the mail, and in the poem they asked, 'You are a person that we have been told is an expert on negros and we are studying emotions and wants to know if negros cry tears.' And the poem that Clifton writes is just two words for every like, 'they do,' 'we do,' 'she tries,' 'we try.' It's just gorgeous. And I think that that same kind of rhythm. Another thing I was thinking about what you said was about the tension of the stitch. I think we could easily take that for granted when it's going, right.

Rita Dove 20:25


Lisa Woolfork 20:27

When it's going right, it's like, 'Oh, that's just the way it is.' But then...

Rita Dove 20:30


Lisa Woolfork 20:30

...you look up, and it's like, we have this song with air quotes in it, because the thread has run out. And that kind of perfect balance between the top and bottom thread that you're not meant to see the top thread from the bottom or the bottom from the top. That tension of language, I think, is something that I really appreciate about what you do with your work. And I was thinking about a particular with this, with the poem about the girls following that gaggle of girls down by the village school, and I was like, 'I know what she's talking about.'

Rita Dove 21:00

You know, exactly what I'm talking--Well, you know, isn't that that fine balance that I think African Americans have, we have had to learn how to create and to walk in order to survive. I mean, it's that balance between knowing and not sharing, attending what else was not in the know, if you don't know then you aren't part of this thing. If you know, you know the underside, as well. That kind of balance that builds up the blues, that gives us that great sense of humor that we have, [laughter] that we need.

Lisa Woolfork 21:34

That we need. Absolutely. [background music] Rita, I am so grateful to you for your time, this has been so beautiful. I want to know what's next for you. Like, so, are you on a book tour? Are you like what's happening with the book? And what does pandemic publishing like for a poet these days?

Rita Dove 21:51

Well, you know, what's interesting is that the pandemic writing is actually very good. I mean, in the sense that you, of course, you take your lemon, you make lemonade out of it. But also, the kind of intimacy, the kind of being of isolation in order to do the work is something that as a writer, I'm kind of scrabbling to get anyway, so it was given to me or imposed upon me, and I said, 'Okay, I can deal with this.' I think I dealt with it better than a lot of people who aren't so inclined. Publishing is another thing, of course. I've discovered that just, you know, the thread and again, is that thread, the invisible thread between reader and a writer is sometimes we are forced by going out into, and actually speaking words, and being a storyteller, and actually, giving readings. And to give a reading of resume is just not the same. It's really isn't--I mean, we make do with what we have to do, but, and you know, this from teaching, you pour everything out into the screen, and it just [hesitation] goes away. You don't know, you don't know what you know, what it feels like. And so it's very draining. And yet, I also recognize, mainly through my students, who were all writing poems as well, how necessary it was. And so you do send it out into the air. It's sort of, in a way, like Sally Hemings knowing that, you know, secure freedom for her children, but knowing that, you know, she couldn't enjoy it. You send that out there, and you say, 'Okay, I give it to you, and I have no idea. I'm not gonna get much back from it. But I--the knowledge that you've got it baby will help me.' It's something that, I think, as though as a Black woman, I think that I've been schooled in this for a long time, you know. So the pandemic is really rough, but we know how to walk that line. I've had a lot of time to think of, you know--of course, all of us have during the pandemic. And as I go through these various publishing things, you know-- kinds of interviews and in tombs and stuff like that--I find myself thinking back to not only my mother, you know, who would salvage those things and make these things. But I realized that the line went [background music fades], you know, went back even further, my grandmother who was a milliner, actually, she put together hats for church ladies, and you know...

Lisa Woolfork 24:12

...Oh, that is a fierce and coveted and prestigious job. You cannot just put on anybody's hat.

Rita Dove 24:18

It's quite a skill. I mean, as a child, when my grandmother, my grandfather just died, and I was about 12, 13, or something like that, and I spent the weekends with her. And I would watch her build those hats. And in fact, there's a poem in my book, "Thomas and Beulah," which is all about those hats. And it ends, "O intimate parasol that teaches us to walk with grace along beauty's seam." And it's that walking, "with grace along beauty's seam," this is that balance. That's the seam we walk, right? Or we've learned to walk and that we give on further that thread.

Lisa Woolfork 24:57

And on that note, my goodness, thank you so much. Y'all, we've been speaking with Rita Dove, who is an American genius, and just amazing and all the things. I will try to put some of the things, I can't put all of the things, in the show, but I'll put some, 'cause-- she's, trust me--amazing. [Background music] And I think that now I'm going to be thinking about walkin' along that seam, the seams that our grandmothers sewed for us, and our mothers sewed for us, that we sew for those who will be coming behind us. That we try to leave this with them in trusting that they will know what to do, 'cause we've helped guide. Thank you for that. And for this time, and enjoy your outfit. Love it. [Music swells]

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at blackwomenstitch@gmail.com. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, p-a-t-r-e-o-n, and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month you can help support the project with things like editing transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really, really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews. But for those who do, for those that have like a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us and the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together. [Music fades]

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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