Category Archives: Poetry

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing Fund, Events, Poetry, Visiting writers

C.D. Wright: 11/09/09

Report by Nicola W.

C.D. Wright recently spent an hour with Professor Cooley’s Advanced Poetry Writing Workshop.  While her work can be mysterious and surreal, Ms. Wright is herself plainspoken and unassuming and was generously forthright in her answers to our many questions. She said she got into poetry “rather late” after a short-lived try at law school, confessing that as a young adult, she was afraid of not being good at anything and that she felt “a great longing to be part of something I liked and cared about.”  As a child, she cared very much about words, in part because she did not have access to any of the arts except for literature (her father was an enthusiastic reader), and that “books were my families … words were like real things to me.”

Her fascination with language remains; Ms. Wright described poetry as “a process of faith to the language … a truth of the word.” She loves all types of language, sacred, foul, archaic – “all the different layers of language” – and advised us to learn another language, because “when you learn another language, you can see the skeleton of your own.”

When asked about her writing methods, Ms. Wright said she likes to work with phrasing, adding “I never felt I had that much control over line,” that she couldn’t “artificially exact line” on her work, and often prefers to work with internal line breaks. The nature of what she is working on determines how she goes about writing: she is “always waiting for the poem to teach me something.”

Physical location and geography exert a strong influence on the work.  (“One Big Self,” her collaborative work with photographer Deborah Luster about Louisiana prisoners was the example she gave.) Her poems often start with just fragments “of things that are giving of a resonance.”  As the work progresses, she is always looking for ways to add texture.  When writing “Deepstep Come Shining,” Ms. Wright had been very concerned about how it looked on the page, posting pieces of the poems on walls and rearranging them to heighten certain patterns and threads.  She was drawn to writing book-length work as she was attracted to “the possibilities of including everything instead of distilling,” but noted that after writing a book-length poem, one must relearn how to write a lone poem!

She addressed the issue of personal courage.  When asked about how she had been able to write her more explicit poems, Ms. Wright described herself as “afraid of everything – except on the page,” a point she reiterated at her public reading a few hours later.   She shared that the hard part is always “breaking the silence. Even though I find the prospect of breaking into the page terrifying, I have the love for the adventure.” This leads her to keep learning new things and working with different forms.  She is not “one of the poets who find their form early on and stick with it.”  She likes to turn the page – “to see what’s on the other side.”

On practical matters, she called herself “not much of a planner,” but added that she does keep good notebooks.  For us less organized beings, it was inspiring to hear such an accomplished poet call herself scattered, that she felt like “a cat who can talk,” that she “can’t reproduce yesterday, can never find her car keys, and never drives the same way twice.”

Our class readings this semester have focused on work by non-American poets, so it was also interesting to hear Ms. Wright observe that in America, poetry was still “an invisible practice,” that our poets were the “unacknowledged legislators.”

Our time with Ms. Wright went far too quickly but, for me, continues to resonate.

C.D. Wright was the 11th Florie Gale Arons Poet. This annual program is sponsored by NCCROW (Newcomb College Center for Research on Women.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry, Visiting writers