Monthly Archives: March 2010

Poet Laureate Series: Rita Dove, 3/8/10

Report by Nicola Wolf

In a much-anticipated public appearance at Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium on March 8, former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove read thirteen poems from her latest book Sonata Mulattica, a book she said she hadn’t expected to write.  In 2003, while watching IMMORTAL BELOVED, a fictional account of Beethoven’s life, Dove noticed a black violinist in an orchestral scene.  Her subsequent investigation lead to George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a prodigy of African and European descent, who at age twenty-three, had met and befriended Beethoven, who named his ninth violin sonata “The Bridgetower.”  Later, they fell out over a woman, and Beethoven removed the dedication, renaming his famously difficult masterpiece “The Kreutzer Sonata” after another acclaimed violinist of the day.

Dove couldn’t let Bridgetower go.  Fascinated by what it was like to live as a prodigy, as an outsider of mixed race, and to have encountered the pinnacle of one’s career so early in life, she embarked on what would become years of meticulous research, “following the direct line” wherever it took her.  Sonata Mulattica blends fact with fiction.   In the poem “What Didn’t Happen,” Dove slyly places Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson in the audience of Bridgetower’s first Parisian concert.

After the reading, Dove took questions.  She spoke of the challenge of writing from so many different voices, of “capturing the rhythm and cadence” of Bridgetower, Beethoven, a street musician, the Mistress of the English queen’s wardrobe, and many others.   Anxious about whether she could pull it off, she wrote a poem in Beethoven’s voice first.  While Dove had “obsessively” immersed herself in research, once she started writing the poems, she didn’t touch her notes until a final fact check right before deadline.  The same was true about the Kreutzer; she listened to it repeatedly, but stopped once she began writing her own composition.

When asked about spoken word, Dove called it “poetry for the stage – for performance” which, while sometimes too simplistic, may need to be so, because “you can’t go back.”  However, she also commented that “poetry for the page can be a bit too elusive.”

Continuing on the subject of poetic elusiveness, Ms. Dove addressed her remarks to a class of high-school boys who had come to the reading with their teacher.  In her opinion, students become conditioned to “approach poetry with fear … because so many of us are given poems to read, asked to analyze them, and then told we are dead wrong … that because poems are made of words, we tend to address poetry at the intellectual as opposed to the gut level.”  She recommended approaching poetry like music, “because nobody makes us analyze that,” and “we can just take it in.”  When first encountering a poem, one should read it aloud to yourself, “in a voice like you are talking to a friend,” and not to worry if you don’t understand it.   She cited her own high-school English class experience with Ezra Pound’s Cantos as an example of having to let go of the need to know exactly what a poem meant.

Earlier in the day, Ms. Dove had valuable advice for college students when she attended Professor Peter Cooley’s advanced poetry class.  Her warm manner, radiant smile, and wry sense of humor quickly put students at ease.   She also sported a festive set of gold, green, blue, red, and orange-striped fingernails.

Each semester, the advanced poetry students must complete a set of poems around a specific project or theme.  Ms. Dove approved, saying that a project “gives you a wall to butt up against, to trick the unconscious.  A wall is the edge of something that is new and dangerous, where you are scared but ecstatic, and this is where you are full of life.”

On the subject of getting published, Dove acknowledged that “you do want to touch someone, a stranger” – that this is one of the reasons we write.  However, she cautioned that “none of us know if we are going to survive as a poet,” explaining that history is full of poets who were immensely popular in their time but are now all but forgotten.

She advised student poets to learn other genres like fiction or playwriting “to see how you push up against it.”  Dove considers playwriting the closest to poetry “because of all the things that must be left out.” The pivotal point in Sonata Mulattica, where Bridgetower and Beethoven disagree, is written as a short play, complete with detailed stage directions.  She also told students that they should learn another language because they will learn more about English in the process.  A fluent German speaker, Dove observed that “every language does something that no other language can.”

Ms. Dove is an accomplished ballroom dancer.  She sees dance as an application of the physicality of music, and like poetry, is iambic, with stress and non-stress on the beat.  She noted that “we tend to syncopate because that’s the way we talk.”   She has been a musician for most of her life (cello and viola da gamba), and considers the music of poetry a tool for engaging the reader.  “You must create your own music so the reader breathes when you breathe.”  In comparing poetry to visual art, Ms. Dove said the visual often “gives it to you immediately,” whereas poets must go “one step at a time,” using the medium of “the word, the silences on the page, and the density of the language.”

On the creative process: Dove writes what moves her at the moment, but the struggle is always in how to communicate.  She drafts her poems in longhand, saying that “it gives her time to think,” and because she “needs the tactile, to feel it.”  The instancy of computers and internet, “fractures one’s attention,” and that screens lead us to read faster.   She pointed out how we usually tend to think of e-mail as “provisional.”  With typewriters and computers, she found herself “coming up against the tyranny of the right-hand margin.”  She also does not want to read online.  However, she thought computers can be very useful, because when a student is struggling, they can play with the font, turn a poem sideways, and use other techniques “to make it strange,” which can help them make a breakthrough.  When she puts poems together for a book, she spreads them out on the floor and continually rearranges them like tiles to see which ones naturally come together.

On poetry in the schools:  Dove offered this recommendation – “Read a poem to the kids at the end of every day, and then just send the kids home.  Don’t talk about it.”  When the kids are ready, they will naturally start talking about the poem, discovering, engaging, and learning on their own terms.  For Dove, “to love poetry was one of the luckiest things to happen to me in my life.  Poetry is the ultimate – it is the pearl.”

Rita Dove’s visit to campus was sponsored by the Great Poets Series of the Tulane Creative Writing Fund. This was the third annual event in the Poet Laureate Series, following visits by Louise Gluck and Billy Collins.

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Edmund White 02/01/10

Report by Katie McGinnis:

When contrasted against the commanding power of his work, Edmund White is surprisingly genial in person. Students, faculty and community members were treated to his reading on February 1st in the LBC’s Kendall Cram Room. White read from his famous work City Boy, an autobiographical documentation of the New York gay scene in the 1960s and 70s, and then answered audience questions.

Edmund White has lived an extraordinary life, which needless to say has influenced his writings. Born in Cincinnati, he was raised in Dallas, Texas with virtually no connection to the art scene. He explained that the first published writer he met was in New York when he was thirty, and that before then he had fantastical expectations of writers. He thought them to be sacred, wealthy people who never left their limousines. However, what White proves is that writers are everyday people, with pasts of struggle, hardship, and self-discovery.

Penniless, White moved to Paris, and then to Rome. He returned to America after going broke again by “taking people out to dinner.” After this, he drove a fruit-juice delivery truck to support himself in New York until finding a job with Time Life Books. His first job as a paid writer, he said, was writing three one-thousand page textbooks on history and psychology.

The subject of City Boy is uniquely important to White. He described his first biography, My Lives, as difficult to construct because it required dividing his life into sections and drawing conclusions about choices in his life, which he often found himself unable to make. City Boy is not only an autobiography, but a sketch of a New York that has been forgotten to history. In terms of sexuality, White said, “the 80s were a total step backward.” The freedom allowed during the previous thirty years, when AIDS was nonexistent, religion lax, and society accepting, was gone in a moment.

In the years to come, many of the most outspoken members of the gay scene succumbed to AIDS, allowing a very different crowd—which demanded not just acceptance, but the rights to marriage and adoption—to take the stage. He suggested that the rally we see today for equality of marriage and family is “not always what it used to be like.” City Boy documents this, and also explores the literary fixations of New York in the 60s and 70s – when it was, White says, “a junkyard, with serious artistic aspirations.”

During the Q&A session, the author provided words of wisdom to the new generation of writers sitting before him. He expanded on a statement made during a dinner with students, when he asserted that being a writer means being a failure. White explained that “writing does not fit into normal life” and that one must “make time for it by taking away from other things.” He bravely claimed that when “a writer is born into a family, a family is destroyed.”

White also warned about the uniqueness of our literary generation: more is being produced than is being read. Aside from technological phenomena such as blogs, the tradition of the past—where friends would hurry out to read a book so they could discuss it—has degenerated into our present literary world of numerous genres produced in unreadable amounts. “The world is becoming more fragmented,” White contended, “not specialized.”

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