Rita Dove

Author and 2011 National Medal of Arts Recipient
Rita Dove
Photo by Fred Viebahn

Transcript of conversation with Rita Dove

Rita Dove: There were some incredible storytellers in my family and those storytellers again, for me, were people writ large. They lived full and robust lives and did things which I considered courageous that no one will ever know about. And so that memory and that legacy is all around me. It also comes from the fact that as a woman and as an African-American, I'm also aware of things which I consider quiet acts of courage on the personal level with friends and acquaintances that also will not make it into that mainstream. So rather than rail against it, I felt that the thing that gave me such sustenance as a young person growing up and reading was to discover that other people thought like I did, that they had fears, that they also wanted to learn a strange language that had nothing to do with their race or their gender <laughs> that kind of thing. To know that you're not alone in those kind of passions is one of the things that gave me such strength and so I feel like when I'm writing I am compelled to explore those intimate, very, very interior moments of humanity.

Jo Reed: That is poet and 2011 National Medal of Arts recipient, Rita Dove.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

A brilliant poet as well as a committed advocate for the diversity and vitality of American poetry,  Rita Dove has dedicated herself to building  popular interest in poetry, to making it a part of people's daily lives.

Rita Dove was not only the first African-American U. S. Poet Laureate, she was also the youngest when she was appointed back in 1993. She has also served as Consultant to the Library of  Congress and as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since 1989 she has been teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she holds the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English.

But first and foremost, there is the artistry of Rita's Dove own poetry. She creates work that are equal parts lyricism, critique, and politics. Her subjects are wide-ranging--- from  Thomas and Beulah,  a collection of poems loosely based on the lives of her maternal grandparents which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize to her most recent book "Sonata Mulattica,"  which tells the story of an African- European violin prodigy in the 1800s. Yet all her work combines her deep understanding of history with her gift of conveying complex emotions through rich yet precise poetic language.

Rita Dove has received far too many literary honors to  mention, but here's a highlight reel:  22 honorary doctorates, the 1996 National Humanities Medal, the 3rd Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, the 2009 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, and, this week, the 2011 National Medal of Arts.  

I spoke with Rita Dove in the late autumn from the studios at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Here's our conversation.

Jo Reed: First of all, Rita Dove, welcome and thank you so much.

Rita Dove: It's my pleasure.

Jo Reed: Rita, you wanted to bring poetry, or you want to bring poetry, into everyday life. What first drew you to poetry?

Rita Dove: Hmm. Well, you know I was first drawn to poetry actually through the stories that relatives of mine would tell at picnics and things like that, Fourth of July and things like that, because there were some incredible storytellers in my family and even though they might tell the story again and again, they knew how to change it up a bit with rhythm and with emphasis so that I began to understand how powerful language, if used artistically, can be. And I really think that was my introduction to poetry, through the ear. Now, when I was a young kid, when I first began to read, I started to roam the bookshelves at home and there was a book on the shelves, an anthology of poetry, Louis Untermeyer's Treasury of Best-Loved Poems and this looked kind of interesting because there were short pieces in there. So I started reading those poems. No one told me that they were difficult, no one said, "You should read this person and not this person," and so I was allowed to kind of wander through that garden and just pick the flowers that I liked. And because of that lack of fear, that lack of intimidation, I think my entry into poetry felt like the most natural thing in the world. And that's why I really want to bring that feeling to other people, because so many people are terrified of poetry.

Jo Reed: Why do you think that is?

Rita Dove: I do think it is because we have not been exposed to it very much. Poetry is one of the last things that gets taught in school and it's usually the AP class, "Okay. Now we do our poetry unit." And if you think about it, poetry is describing the indescribable. Poetry actually encompasses those most interior moments that we have when we're struck speechless because emotion, some kind of emotion, has rendered us so. And if that is the case, then of course it's going to be really difficult to write and describe a poem in an essay, because best words have already been used. So it's already a daunting kind of task if we haven't been exposed to it at an early age, if it hasn't been something that has been a companion to us. So I do think that fear comes from suddenly being thrust into this, "Okay. Now we're going to study poetry." And students think, "There's one answer. I got to get this right. There's one interpretation," because, of course, from the teacher's side, they have to quantify their teaching and prove that they have taught this poetry. Poetry doesn't lend itself very well to quantification.

Jo Reed: It's interesting that you say that, because I think of myself as somebody who really dwells in fiction. But at times of extreme experience, whether it be grief or joy, its lines of poetry that immediately come to my mind.

Rita Dove: Yes.

Jo Reed: Because poetry is such a distillation of experience and emotion, I think.

Rita Dove: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think your experience is one that happens with many people. When I was Poet Laureate I would get letters from all sorts of people, not just educated, higher education, people of higher education or doctors or lawyers or things like that. But all sorts of people who would write in and invariably they'd begin their letters with, "I don't know much about poetry," or, "I don't understand poetry, but…" and then they would describe an experience where poetry helped them. And I say, "Well, they understand poetry very well." It's just like anything else. You have to be in the same room with it for a while also because poetry deals with words, and we use words every day, of course, just a natural discourse. That's a different language, and yet we think that because poetry's in English that we should understand it immediately. When we listen to music we know just kind of without anyone telling us that this is a different way of communication, it's a different language used for communication. And we put ourselves in that mode and we don't think anything of being moved by a piece of music. We don't worry about getting it right, because we get it in our own way. So that's another one of those stumbling blocks in the way of understanding or appreciating poetry.

Jo Reed: Yeah. And I also think poetry wants time for the reader to be with it.

Rita Dove: Yes.

Jo Reed: Just to be with it.

Rita Dove: Just to be with it. If I had my druthers, I could plan the entire educational system, what I would do is say that every class, starting at kindergarten, should end every day with a poem. And the teacher would simply read the poem aloud and then send the kids home. No conversation, just let it hang in the air. And if that were done every day or even every other day, after a while students would begin to ask questions, they'd begin to argue, they'd begin to say, "Hey, we want to hear that one again," or "What was that?" or "We didn't like that." And poetry becomes a part of your life.

Jo Reed: You studied music, you studied classical music. You played the cello, you played the viola gambo. Do you think that playing an instrument had an impact on your writing?

Rita Dove: I'm sure it did. I can't tell you exactly what kind of influence it was but I know that I grew up with an equal passion for playing music and for writing. And they seem somehow part of the same mix. I played the cello and I think also that having an instrument where I basically had to wrap myself around the instrument <laughs> was wonderful because the sound almost seemed to come from inside of me, even though it was being bowed across the instrument. It vibrated through my body. I remember that very distinctly. And to me, the human voice is as much a string instrument <laughs> as it is a wind instrument, because we go across those vocal cords and you can feel that. So I think that the idea that language is something that is physical is something that poetry understands and employs deeply.

Jo Reed: In your last book of poetry, Sonata Mulattica, you really explored music quite explicitly as well as history that's hidden from most people. Tell us a little bit about it. Who is George Bridgewater?

Rita Dove: George Bridgetower was a prodigy mixed race violinist who was born in 1780, lived full 80 years actually, and his claim to fame or the fame that was meant to be his and then wasn't really, was that he had gone to Vienna as a young man in his twenties, met Beethoven and Beethoven composed a sonata for him, a violin sonata, which he premiered with Beethoven at the piano, and Beethoven had dedicated to him. And then they got into an argument over a girl. That's all we know. And Beethoven destroyed the dedication and what we know is the "Kreutzer Sonata" really should've been called the "Bridgetower Sonata." But what fascinated me about the story was that there was this mixed race person who lived and thrived during this time in England and in Vienna, all across Europe. His father called himself an African prince. His mother was born somewhere near modern day Poland. And my question was, "How did he come to be and how did he live and why don't we know any more about him?" And that began my quest.

Jo Reed: How did you discover him, Rita?

Rita Dove: Hmm, gosh. <laughs> Well, there are other African and mixed-race classical musicians of that era in various countries, but I really didn't know much, I didn't know about Bridgetower. What happened was my husband and I were watching a movie. We were relaxing, watching a movie called "Immortal Beloved," which is a biopic about Beethoven. And it's not too bad. It's not absolutely the best movie in the world, but it really had some very moving scenes in it. And in one of these scenes, Beethoven was walking through a room of musicians. He's going deaf and he's anguished and he walks through and goes into another room to be alone for a moment before he comes out meet these musicians who want to play his music. But as he passes through that room one of the musicians happened to be a black man with a violin under his arm and I was stunned. I said, "Where did he come from?  This doesn't make any sense." And so after the movie was over I went up to my desk and I Googled "black violinist Beethoven" and up came one single, very sparse entry on George Bridgetower. And with basically the information that I gave you. Not even that much. It didn't even have the African prince part. But I was both astonished and ashamed that I did not know of him. It just seemed like such an amazing accomplishment, and to have no knowledge of him whatsoever struck me as really a great loss. And so I didn't intend to write <laughs> a whole book of poems about Bridgetower. I simply was haunted by the story and I wanted to find out more. And so I just started looking. And I began making some notes but I had no idea what I was going to use them for. And it took about a year before I finally realized what really interested me was to get into the heads of the people who were living at that time. And there was a whole marvelous cast of characters from Beethoven to Haydn to the king of England and all sorts of people. And I thought, "What did they see when they looked at him?  What did they think when they heard him play?  What was his relationship with Beethoven like?" And that set me, of course, into the field of imagination and at that point I realized I had to do something with this and poetry seemed to me to be the right way to do it.

Jo Reed: Can you read a passage from "Sonata Mulattica" for us?

Rita Dove: Sure. Let me say that when I did begin trying to write poems I realized that one of my biggest fears or stumbling blocks actually was to write in the persona of Beethoven. Because Beethoven is, of course, that marble bust on the piano that we all labored under, and he's an icon, so how dare I presume to write in his voice?  So the first few poems that I wrote were actually Beethoven's poems, and so I'll read you one of his. This is one where he's going deaf and he has gone off into the country to recover, according to doctor's orders, sent him out to the fresh air, thought that would cure his deafness. And he has just decided to come back to Vienna. It's right before he meets Bridgetower.

"Ludwig van Beethoven's Return to Vienna."

Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn,

or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me…

                                                          —The Heiligenstadt Testament

Three miles from my adopted city

lies a village where I came to peace.

The world there was a calm place,

even the great Danube no more

than a pale ribbon tossed onto the landscape

by a girl's careless hand. Into this stillness

I had been ordered to recover.

The hills were gold with late summer;

my rooms were two, plus a small kitchen,

situated upstairs in the back of a cottage

at the end of the Herrengasse.

From my window I could see onto the courtyard

where a linden tree twined skyward—

leafy umbilicus canted toward light,

warped in the very act of yearning—

and I would feed on the sun as if that alone

would dismantle the silence around me.

At first I raged. Then music raged in me,

rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough

to ease the roiling. I would stop

to light a lamp, and whatever I'd missed—

larks flying to nest, church bells, the shepherd's

home-toward-evening song—rushed in, and I

would rage again.

I am by nature a conflagration;

I would rather leap

than sit and be looked at.

So when my proud city spread

her gypsy skirts, I reentered,

burning towards her greater, constant light.

Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly—I tell you,

every tenderness I have ever known

has been nothing

but thwarted violence, an ache

so permanent and deep, the lightest touch

awakens it…It is impossible

to care enough. I have returned

with a second Symphony

and 15 Piano Variations

which I've named Prometheus,

after the rogue Titan, the half-a-god

who knew the worst sin is to take

what cannot be given back.

I smile and bow, and the world is loud.

And though I dare not lean in to shout

Can't you see that I'm deaf?—

I also cannot stop listening.

Rita Dove: Yeah.

Jo Reed:  That's Rita Dove reading her poem "Beethoven's Return to Vienna." It's from "Sonata Mulattica." That's so beautiful, Rita.

Rita Dove: Thank you.

Jo Reed: Just beautiful. It reminds me so much of his "Heiligenstadt Testament."

Rita Dove: Indeed. And in fact, that's where the village was. That's where he had gone off. And I had read the "Heiligenstadt Testament" in an effort to get into Beethoven's mind and it was the springboard for that poem.

Jo Reed: You have, as you say, so many different voices in this book. It is really extraordinary how you manage to capture on such an intimate level figures that have been dead all these many years. Well, you said Beethoven was daunting, but you also have Haydn's voice and the Prince of Wales. Was that more daunting than, for example, the people in the audience the first night the "Kruetzer" was played?  Which was played by Bridgewater…

Rita Dove: <laughs> Yes, it was. The people in the audience weren't daunting at all actually. Once I leapt over that huge hurdle of Beethoven and realized he was a man like everyone else, he was a human being who was grappling with one of the greatest losses of the world, the loss of a central part of his talent. And once I realized that I could empathize and think along with him and presume to tell the story from the inside out, then it was almost a relief to go into other characters. And in the end, when I was finishing book, I missed them. <laughs> I missed all of these characters, the Prince of Wales who only wanted beauty, and Haydn, who was like everybody's dream of a father somehow.


Rita Dove: And I missed them. And so there's a whole little group of epilogues in the back. But I did play this sonata over and over again and, as you mentioned, I was trained in classical music. So I would look at it sometimes with the score and I realized that it was extremely avant-garde for its time. It doesn't behave like a sonata. It's not a violin playing along with the piano in the background. There's actually give and take. There's a call and response that goes on at the beginning.

Kreutzer up and hot

And once I listened to it with the ear of someone who was hearing it for the first time at that time, the audience reactions were crystal clear.

Jo Reed: I loved that part of the book. Can we hear a little about that part?

Rita Dove: You would think that I would begin with the concert, but of course it was one of the last things that I wrote about. I had a professor of writing once say that one should never write about music because it's just impossible to do. So of course I had to try it. But this poem, it's called, "Augarten 7 a.m." and let me see. I'll just pluck a few little sections of it. Because it basically was an outdoor concert at seven in the morning and Beethoven's at the piano, as I said. Bridgetower was playing this brand-new sonata and various people come for various reasons. So there are different people. I'll read to you, I'll just read the beginning three sections or so, and then we can talk about them.



"Augarten 7 a.m."

Spectator One

                                    Heavenly, to escape the city's poisons

                                    and breathe honey, honey, honey!

                                    All praise Morning's cathedral,

                                    the ranks of noble linden presiding:

                                    May we be privileged to pass through

                                    their green light and feathered fragrance

                                    with tipped hats and mute nods,



The British Ambassador

                           There goes Schuppanzigh, huffing up the aisle

                                    in his entrepreneurial trappings.

                                    Dear God, the man expands weekly!

                                    Ah, the Archduke. And Prince Lobkowitz,

                                    poor soul . . . such an unsightlyspecimen

                                    and feels just as miserable as he looks.

                                    I would have ended it years ago, gone out like a man.


Spectator Two      Curious beginning–– solo violin,

                      reminiscent of Bach but wilder, a supplication--p

                                    and the piano's reply is almost a lover's,

a bird on a cliff returning its true mate's call.

Child                             He moves around too much.

He's like a poplar in the wind!

So that's the beginning of this poem, and it goes on for a while yet, with different spectators and people who were responding to this strange situation. Everything is strange about it, right?

<laughs> One of the things I had I guess intuited is that as I mentioned, Beethoven was going deaf and then you have to wonder how could he accompany this piece, especially one that was like a call and response? And I realized that, one of the things I did find out, was that Bridgetower was quite extravagant in his playing. He did move around like a poplar <laughs> in the wind. And then I thought for someone who is going deaf to accompany someone like that would be a gift, because he would watch his playing.

Jo Reed: Throughout your career, you interweave history kind of writ large and the history that's made with everyday living. And I find that so interesting. I'm thinking, even back to your Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas and Beulah, that the lives of that married couple. But we're looking at the trajectory of their lives, but it's happening in the backdrop of the Great Migration, for example. So there's that awning of the Great Migration, but the focus is on the way these two people are living their lives.

Rita Dove: Yes. I think that because I'm African-American, I was always hyper-aware as a child that there was a mainstream and I needed to negotiate, let's say, navigate its waters. That being said, the idea that there was a life that I was living as a child and growing up, and then there was a world out there that I was going to have to fit into. Was a rubric that I grew up with. So it always fascinated me, where does the personal rub up against the writ large, or does it?  And when you think about it, all of us actually live every minute of our <laughs> lives with that dichotomy more or less. When we listen to the news, we're driving down the freeway and listening to the news and raging about it or not. But then at the same time we're thinking about taking the dog out for a walk. So that has always fascinated me. And it ended up becoming one of the things that I keep returning to.

Jo Reed: Poetry has always struck me as one of the most paradoxical of the arts because I think of it as something that is very intimate and created in such a private place. But it also has a very public parallel life.

Rita Dove: Yeah. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Juggling those two things, I would find it daunting myself.


Rita Dove:  I do too though. I must say. And you're absolutely right. It is. I think that <laughs> so many, if they are not naturally shy, are naturally introspective. And if you are dealing with that deep introspection, it is completely paradoxical to stand up in front of people and read <laughs> these poems about that. And yet. And yet that connection with the audience or to have some-- there's a real magic that happens when an audience feels like one brain remembering or thinking. And we've all felt this, whether it's with poetry or with music or whatever when you're in the audience and you're in your own world but you also feel <laughs> everybody else around you in that own world. That's an incredible magic. So it's also, it's the other side of poetry. What's daunting is to make that switch. As the writer, to write and to forget that the world is out there. And then at some point to say, "Okay." As Emily Dickinson said, "Here's my letter to the world." And that's a tricky moment.

Jo Reed: And in your duties as Poet Laureate I would think that's even doubled upon you, because that is a very public office.

Rita Dove: Yes. It was a very public office. And one of the things that helped me when I was about to step into the office, a friend and colleague Helen Vendler at Harvard had said to me, "You can turn to the public sphere and not write for a while. You will write again. Don't…" freak out basically, <laughs> "…if you find that you can't write for a while. Just do the thing you have to do and then come back." And having her say that or having her say, "You've been writing all these years. You're not going to stop now, and just because you're too busy or too public at a certain point to be able to do it the way you want to do it doesn't mean you're never going to write." That relieved the anxiety. So I actually told myself when I began that office, I said, "Well, I'm not going to write for a year." And because I gave myself that license, every time I did write something it was like a gift instead of, "Ah, the thing I should've been doing all along." Because it was difficult. I simply said, "This is the job I'm supposed to do right now, and I believe in it utterly and I certainly can give up that year of writing to promote the thing that I love most of all." And turned into two years and I did write in between. Not as much, but I also did try not to fret about it.

Jo Reed: Your most recent project is The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, which you edited.

Rita Dove: <sigh> Yes, yes, I did. <laughs> You hear the sigh.

Jo Reed: Yeah. That was something to take on. You had to make some hard choices there.

Rita Dove: Very hard choices. It was really, yeah, very hard choices. I agreed to do it because when Elda Rotor of Penguin approached me and said would I like to bee the sole editor of this anthology of 20th century American poetry, in a flash in my head I could see the trajectory of the 20th century of poetry. I just thought, "There is one. There is a sense that forms the century poetically." And it was as much a desire to bring that out to people as it was a desire to educate myself again, to go back and read all that stuff, to have the assignment to read the whole century again that made me say, "Yes." I thought, "This would be good for me, and hopefully in the end it'll be good for other people as well." So I agreed before I could get cold feet.


And then began the work. Most of it was really joy. It was just to be able to go, to read <laugh> everything I could get my hands on and say, "Okay. These are poems that I remember, that I have been "too busy" to go back to, but now it's my job." And so I gave myself license to do that. Most of it was really delight. The hard part came at the end, having to make choices in the contemporary realm particularly, but also just when the business end socks in, which is getting rights and permissions.

Rita Dove: And that was the depressing part. But the rest <laughs> was real joy.

Jo Reed: Well, in your introduction you really make it clear that you're providing both a cultural and a historical context for each poet, so that it becomes this wonderful tapestry.

Rita Dove: Well, I thought that I was given this unique chance to do that because every other anthology that had been compiled during the 20th century didn't have the end of the century as the framework. And so they were compiled in the middle of everything en media res. But here I was, I could say "This starts in 1900, it ends in 2000," and we could, I could say, "Does the 20th century have a sense of itself?" And I think that because it was also the end of a millennium that most of us tend to say, "Okay, the 20th century is now done and gone." We've put a lid on it, we've put the cap on and we've said, "Okay," and moved on. So now we can look back on it and be a little more objective. I also believe that poetry, it does bring out of life. It brings out of the life around us, the life remembered, the life imagined, and that's the impetus, that's the thing that's going to connect it to us. It's the thing that people tend to forget when they're afraid of poetry, that it actually comes from living, breathing matter. And to try to provide an anthology where you can see how that is connected to how these poems came out of the world in which they lived or in response to a reaction against the times in which they were engendered, was something that I had the unique opportunity to do, given the framework.

That was poet and 2001 National medal of Arts recipient, Rita Dove

You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" performed by Ida Haendel and Ilya Itin used courtesy of VAI MUSIC. COM 

Special thanks to the folks at the  studios at the  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

 The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, pianist and 2011 national Medal of Arts recipient, Andre Watts.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove talks about her writing with a focus on her most recent book of poems, Sonata Mullatica