Poet Laureate Rita Dove Shares Work, Words and Wisdom

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

by Brendan Work

“We all share a kernel of humanity,” Rita Dove said last night at her poetry reading in the Lang Performing Arts Center, “otherwise, what would be the point of writing?”

A Pulitzer-prize winner and Former Poet Laureate, Dove visits Swarthmore College having just published her 9th book of poetry, Sonata Mulattica. In this collection, she imagines the life of George Augustus Bridgetower, an obscure but brilliant black violinist who shared a brief passionate friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven. He was erased from the pages of history because of their schism; a quarrel over a lady friend ended the friendship and Beethoven’s great Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, first dedicated to Bridgetower, was renamed the Kreutzer Sonata (though Rodolphe Kreutzer, ironically, could not play the piece).

In Sonata Mulattica, Dove narrates the voices of both Bridgetower and Beethoven. She compared taking on the voice of Beethoven to evoking “the voice of God,” but also said, “[he] was just a guy, [he] was just a guy who happened to be a genius.”

The event was “splendid,” in the words of Professor of English Peter Schmidt, who complimented the efforts of the student organizers. The English Department, Swarthmore’s Literary Review, the William J. Cooper Foundation and the Swarthmore African American Student Association all sponsored the event. The student, faculty and community turn out was higher that expected and all were enthusiastic about Dove.

“To have a poet who also teaches writing was just a wonderful choice,” alumna Kathy Garges ’77 said. Garges favorite poem was Dove’s first of the night, “Parsley” which also had a historical theme: the 1937 massacre of Haitian cane workers in the Dominican Republic. “I thought it was truly perfect,” Garges said.

Dove confessed that this particular poem took her two and half years to write. “I love revision. I know it sounds masochistic,” she said.

The reading was equal parts story-telling, shared wisdom and poetry reading. Dove read requests first and then shared her “new babies on the block.” From Sonata Mulattica she read “The Bridgetower,” “Ludwig Van Beethoven Returns to Vienna” and “The End, With MapQuest” amongst others. “The End,” fittingly the last poem read, was a reflective piece on Dove’s pilgrimage to the London home of her subject Bridgetower.

After sharing the life she imagined for a man who just briefly brushed with fame she left the audience with a simple rumination, “Do I care enough, George Augustus Bridgetower, / to miss you? I don’t even know if I really like you. / I don’t know if your playing was truly gorgeous / or if it was just you, the sheer miracle of all / that darkness swaying close enough to touch, | palm tree and Sambo and glistening tiger/ running circles into golden oil. Ah, / Master B, little great man, tell me: / How does a shadow shine?”

To become comfortable writing about Bridgetower’s experience, his relationship with Beethoven, and the era, Dove spent nearly five years researching and creating the world of these poems. She guessed that about five percent of her research actually made it into the poetry on the page, but that it was necessary to, “get the heart of it right.”

“It was very inspiring to see a strong black woman in literature,” Luis Penate ’13 said. Penate called himself an aspiring writer and was thankful to Dove for sharing her writing process during the question and answer part of the reading. When another student asked if Dove had thought to write a poem on the eve of the inauguration of President Obama, she said, “I was too happy to write â€Åš it will come.”

Dove attended the University of Miami and has an MFA in Poetry Writing from the University of Iowa. She has also published short fiction, a play and a novel. Dove said that she was first inspired to become a poet by a high school English teacher who took her to her first poetry reading. She is still in touch with the teacher, who is now ninety-seven.

When further questioned about her writing process after the Scheur Room reception, Dove admitted to banning herself from email for a solid month while writing Sonata Mulattica. She also declined giving any readings for a year. However, like the rest of us, she is not unfamiliar with everyday distraction. “I get sucked into Facebook,” she said, though she tries to live by the motto, “Do the most important thing first.”

After sharing her voice, words and wisdom with the Swarthmore community, Dove left aspiring poet and writer Swatties with the following advice: “Be curious about everything. First you read, read, read, but that can’t be your entire life, that’s just a part of it. You live, live, live.”

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