Colleague, teacher, friend, poet, Rita Riddle made an art of nurturing community. After her death in the fall of 2006, one of these communities, the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC), decided to honor her by funding the publication of her last book of poetry, All There Is to Keep. Bob and Beto Cumming of Iris Press contributed their expertise in designing this lovely book, and many people helped with the editing. All of this evidence of Rita’s grand heart.
Rita Sizemore Riddle, fondly known as Dr. Mama in the Radford community, grew up in a coal-mining family in Dickenson County, VA. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1971 and began teaching English at Radford University, where she taught Shakespeare and creative writing until she retired in 2002.
Beyond these facts, Rita is best remembered for making an art of loving people. She connected with students more deeply than most teachers because she offered a way to open doors, a way to open their hearts to their own powerful words. Many of her students stayed connected to her for years after they walked out her classroom door.
And many of those students as well as family, colleagues, and friends, gathered on April 24, 2008, to celebrate her life through the posthumous release of All There Is to Keep. Over 100 people filled the room at Radford University for this event, and for most, the atmosphere felt like a family reunion.
Since Rita couldn’t be with us physically, guests from SAWC traveled from seven states to each read a few of her poems. These guests included Dana Wildsmith, Felicia Mitchell, Jim Webb, Ron Houchin, Jack Higgs, Beto Cumming, David Owens, Stacey Watson, and David Wayne Hampton. And I know the audience had a difficult time not shedding tears.
As editor of All There Is to Keep, I have to admit to reading and rereading all of Rita’s poems more times than I could count. Yet a highlight of the night was hearing how much poetry lives beyond us. As each person read Rita’s words, I heard the overlapping of her voice with the guest’s own voice, and the poem became a living thing again, fresh, and wholly new.
Though I never was in one of her classes, I too studied under Rita, walked through doors she helped me see. She took me along with her to my first gathering of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, and thus gave me a group of friends equally in love with turning the doorknob of each word.
But there was often something just beyond reach with Rita. Sometimes I was too young to understand an allusion, or my northern ear couldn’t catch her speedy southern tongue (that, as she described, “talks/ like her mouth is full of apple butter”). And that’s how our lives often are, just beyond the connection point, just out of reach.
When those moments happened between us, she’d sit back, reflect, and then make a joke, the twinkling eye seeing beyond our differences, the door of friendship always open.
All proceeds from All There Is to Keep will be donated to a Radford University creative writing student to further his or her education. Books can be purchased online from Iris Press (www.irisbooks.com) or ordered through any bookstore. Cost is $14.