One of my most interesting writing assignments was interviewing Ruby Altizer Roberts in the fall of 1999 for Expressions magazine, a Blacksburg art publication that is no longer in existence. In 1950 Ruby was voted the first woman Poet Laureate of Virginia by the General Assembly. In 1992, she was given the added title of Virginia’s Poet Laureate Emeritus, another first.
Born here in Floyd County in 1907, Ruby lived most of her life in the neighboring town of Christiansburg. I can still remember how nervous I was and what I was wearing – khaki pants, a black blazer, and a green printed scarf – on the day she opened the front door of her home in Christiansburg to greet me. Commenting on my Irish name and telling me that her estate was called “The Shamrocks,” her gracious manner soon put me at ease. I noticed the cameo-like pin she wore on her lace-trimmed dark dress, and that she had more energy than any 93 year old I had ever met before. She was faithful but not dogmatic, and as interested in metaphysics and preventative medicine as she was religion and history.
Even though my tape recorder didn’t work, and I later found two grammatical errors that I’ll never be able to correct in the published interview, the time I spent with Ruby was a delightful and memorable experience. I think she enjoyed it too. Although I was a novice at conducting an interview, soon after it appeared in print, Ruby sent me a postcard congratulating me for being “better than the best” and for “reading between the lines.”
“I have never been interviewed by a more intelligent and observing person,” she wrote. I think Ruby understood and appreciated that I recognized her for open-minded person she was.
When Ruby passed away in the spring of 2004, I was in Massachusetts for the Hull Village Reunion. A reporter for the Roanoke Times phoned my mother’s house, where I was staying, because I was the last one to interview Ruby, and she wanted my reaction. After talking for a few moments about Ruby, I told the reporter this: At one point during the interview, I asked her, “Why poetry? What is poetry’s purpose?” Ruby lit up and answered, “What is the purpose of a spring? It bubbled forth and I wrote it down.” And that’s how Ruby was, like a bubbling spring, I told the reporter.
Not only did the newspaper use my quote, they titled their article with it. “That’s the way she was, like a bubbling spring” read the Sunday, May 30th headline.
Sometimes I think no other land…Does exalt the spring…With cardinal flash, with redbud fire…And dogwood blossoming. For here it seems God set once more…And Eden print on Earth…And spoke another Genesis…Of man’s potential worth. Excerpted from “Virginia” by Ruby Altizer Roberts
Post note: For a timeline of past national Poet Laureates click on http://www.loc.gov/poetry/laureate.html