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.