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Words Won't Fail Us: Rita Dove Talks With Lara Downes

Words matter. And Rita Dove's words matter tremendously to untold numbers of readers, including me. As our former U.S. poet laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, author of hundreds of poems, a novel, a play, essays and articles, she's written countless words, all of them full of meaning and melody. Her words bring characters to life and shared experience to light.

I first wrote to Rita in 2011, asking permission to use her poem "Testimonial" as part of a concert piece that was being written for me to perform that year. Rita is a musician herself and loves collaborating with musicians. She said yes, and as we became friends her words became a fundamental part of my creative life.

"I gave my promise to the world / And the world followed me here."

I've spent the last decade sharing those words from "Testimonial" with young people all over America, asking them a simple question: "What is your promise to give to the world?" You'd be astounded to hear their answers. There's boundless promise in the hearts and minds of our children, and it turns out that a line of poetry by Rita Dove is enough to set it in motion.

This past year has tested all of us, challenged us to redefine what's possible and to reimagine our own promise. Rita's words have been with me through this time of reckoning. They've kept me tethered to the power of knowing my purpose and giving my promise. In truth, those words probably drove me to start this series of conversations with my friends and colleagues, which are really all about giving our promise to the world and hoping that the world will follow.

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