I first met Rita Dove in person at Emory University in 1992 after she read from her just-published novel Through the Ivory Gate, but in truth I met her long before that when in 1985 I discovered the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, edited by Dave Smith and David Bottoms. As much as I loved other anthologies, from the Morrow I devoured the poets, writing notes upon notes on its pages until they cracked and pulled away from the spine. The Morrow was where I found the largest group of kindred spirits, those contemporary poets who spoke to me unlike any others: Stephen Dobyns, Robert Hass, T. R. Hummer, William Matthews, Pattiann Rogers, Sharon Olds, Michael Ryan, Elizabeth Spires, Edward Hirsch, and many others—but most especially Rita Dove. It’s where always I traveled for a quick poetry fix, opening the book randomly and then returning to those I enjoyed the most. For many of these poets, it was their first exposure to a national audience, and it was my first exposure to such a gargantuan volume—nearly eight hundred pages.
I can scarcely remember a time when I opened this anthology and did not read “Ö,” where one sound changed Rita Dove’s neighborhood, and where one poem changed the way the young man I was read poetry.
In 1985, I was as green as it gets, just a student-poet trying to find a voice and something significant to write about in a poetry world of such vast expanse that I had no idea of its breadth. Poets such as Rita Dove, accessible through their poetry, were seemingly inaccessible in real life, like rock stars in a stratosphere unfamiliar to me—as if they lived together on a mysterious island for poets and the only transport to the island was by a small boat with an underpowered smoking motor, chugging and puffing, and the man steering the boat was an old poet who spoke every language. Even though you might be in the boat and on your way, he was the gatekeeper to the island of poets. It seemed that every young poet I knew wanted to be on that island, each of us writing and sending poems to journals. But the gatekeeper had a thousand questions at his disposal before you could get near the Island of Poets, and if you answered unsatisfactorily, he’ d turn the boat around without a word. And, yes, this mythical man turned the boat around, time after time, even when I could see the shore, and on a few occasions when we had nearly run ashore and saw the anchor in mid-air before the gatekeeper turned the boat around. Each poet is ready when he or she is ready. When I think back to reading Rita Dove and the others in Morrow Anthology, they were the poets I wanted to emulate, to hang out with at a party, and to talk with about ideas, life, and poetry. They were the poets on this island.
I was looking for love and adventure and the drama of life, and I found all of this in Rita Dove’s poetry, particularly “Planning the Perfect Evening,” which from a young woman’s perspective romances the event itself as much as the object of her desire, and does so in such a way as to elevate the courtship in the poem to a level of elegance. Most young men have no idea such grace exists in a young woman’s mind, as when she writes, “Now nothing, not even breath, can come // between us. . .” and then “Ah, / Augustus, where did you learn to samba?” The speaker reveals her early high school passions for her “sweet black bear,” and her ability to smooth the narrative with an expansion of the universe—which in the relationship may or may not lead to anything beyond the prom, but there is the possibility of love and more:
Even this far south
a thin blue ice shackles the moon,
and I am happy my glass sizzles with stars.
How far away the world!
Such an open-ended question disguised as an exclamation was precisely what intrigued me: How far away the world, which suggests a rhetorical tone because there is no question mark. Dove offers a question to be answered and not to be answered, yet at the same time the answer exists somewhere in her glass reflecting those sizzling stars and in the future of two high school students on the brink of discovery.
In “Champagne” Dove displays a distinctiveness in her poems that I had not seen before, the ability to compose opposites that work with each other: “On either side for as far as we can see, // racks of unmarked bottles lying in cool fever.” This “cool fever” burrowed inside me, as did (years later, in “Magic” from Thomas and Beulah) the lines when the young girl is “Sent to the yard” to sit at the grindstone and sharpen the knives where “she bent so long over / the wheel the knives / grew thin.” These phrases, “cool fever” and “grew thin,” are oxymoronic and intrigue the reader with their duality, the ability to describe something through its opposite.
I also took notice of how Dove used recurring images, among them birds, in many of her poems. She told me years ago that “Since my name is Dove, I’ve always had dealings with birds and heard lots of bird jokes. I even indulge a private literary joke by putting a dove in every poetry book.”
Of all her poems that moved me toward a better understanding and appreciation of language, the most important is “Ö,” the concluding piece in The Yellow House on the Corner, where “One word of Swedish has changed the whole neighborhood.” This book ends on a powerful statement about her future and where she is going. “Ö” is her understanding of the power of language and how it can alter not just the neighborhood, but the whole planet. She acknowledges that language is not only a tool but also a gateway into the future, the tool that will take her into the world.
This poem offers a moment of self-discovery in a neighborhood secured by her father Ray’s hard-fought battles to become a chemist at Goodyear and provide a better life for his wife and children. In fact, Ray Dove became the first African American chemist to work in the U.S. tire industry, and he and Dove’s mother set the foundation that allowed their daughter to imagine her childhood house becoming a majestic “galleon stranded in flowers” in a middle-class suburban life in Akron, Ohio, where the “roar of a leaf-mulcher” became the “horn-blast from a ship.” In this magical fantasy, her childhood becomes the playground for her imagination:
. . . if, one evening, the house on the corner
took off over the marshland,
neither I nor my neighbor
would be amazed.
Metaphorically, Dove captained that ship into a new world that provided more opportunities. Language changes the world because although “Families complete themselves / and refuse to budge from the present . . . ,” in her world Dove imagines “the present extend[ing] its glass forehead to sea . . . ,” and she understands “You start out with one thing, end / Up with another, and nothing’s / Like it used to be, not even the future.”
There are poets and writers you meet along your journey who influence you, who become acquaintances and friends, and then there are those who sometimes go to bat for you. In 2006, when I was editing Under the Rock Umbrella: Contemporary American Poets from 1951–1977, I had the responsibility of negotiating individual contracts for nearly five hundred poems, a task not uncommon in the publishing business. I had been given some wonderful advice by Cate Marvin and Susan Aizenberg about securing rights, and because Mercer University Press had no budget for reprint fees, it was essential for me to obtain all the poems gratis. This was daunting work, to say the least.
The promise I had to make to the publishers revolved around paying them if someone else was paid. So, it was crucial that I not pay anyone, or else the dominos would begin to fall and I’ d have to pay nearly everyone. Rita’s publisher asked for $1,500 per poem, and even with my rudimentary arithmetical skills I knew this added up to $9,000 for her work alone. I can laugh now, but at the time I knew this one fee would financially sink the project—or else I would have to omit Rita’s poems, which was crushing to contemplate. Many publishers had provided the poems without charging a fee, but I sat down one day and tallied what my potential exposure would be if I had to pay the fees. I stopped when the figure topped $100,000, knowing the anthology was doomed.
I wrote to Rita with my predicament, and a few weeks later a letter arrived from her publisher announcing all fees were waived, thanks to Rita’s requesting that I have access to any poems I wished to reprint for the anthology. That moment of graciousness changed my life, like the word “Ö,” and made me understand how fortunate a person is to have people who care about poetry and projects that need a push.
Rita Dove, born in 1952 in Akron, Ohio, earned degrees from Miami University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her record of achievement is unprecedented. When in February 2011 she received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, she became the first person to have received all three of the country’s highest arts distinctions—the others being the Humanities Medal and a term of service as Poet Laureate (2003–5). She has been a frequent guest of Bill Moyers’ PBS series. In 1987, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her third collection of poems, Thomas and Beulah, which is loosely based on her maternal grandparents’ lives. She also has nine other volumes of poetry: Collected Poems 1974–2004 (2016), Sonata Mulattica (2009), American Smooth (2004), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), Mother Love (1995), Selected Poems (1993), Grace Notes (1989), Museum (1983), and The Yellow House on the Corner (1980). She has published a collection of essays, The Poet’s World (1995); a drama, The Darker Face of the Earth: A Verse Play in Fourteen Scenes (1994); a novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992); and a collection of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985). She has edited two volumes, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011) and The Best American Poetry 2000 (2000). From 2004 to 2006, Dove served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia. She holds twenty-five honorary doctorates, is a classically trained musician (viola de gamba), and has done numerous musical collaborations, including Seven for Luck, seven poems by Rita Dove with music by John Williams, and Umoja: Each One of Us Counts, music by Alvin Singleton, commissioned by the Atlanta Olympic Summer Games. Since 1989, she has taught at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she holds the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English.
This interview was conducted at her home in February 2014.
William Walsh (WW): We first met at Emory University on November 5, 1992, for an interview when your first novel, Through the Ivory Gate, was released. I have to ask this relatively humorous and open-ended question: Since then, what have you been up to?
Rita Dove (RD): [Laughing.] Yes, sometimes I ask myself the same thing, because it’s gone by in a blink of an eye. And here we are twenty-two years later. Well, in 1992, I certainly had no idea that things were going to get even busier! The whole question of the public persona/private person was ratcheted up even more with the poet laureateship; there were events occurring during my tenure I couldn’t have imagined before, like going to the White House on multiple occasions. I served two terms as poet laureate, then tried to get back to my real life, doing what I loved, which was to write as many different things as possible. I also wanted to finish a play, have it produced, and get more glimpses of the theater world, which I found fascinating, very intoxicating.
WW: Could you have imagined the life you’ve had the past twenty years or so?
RD: Well, a little bit—in the sense that things were gearing up and I had already had a measure of experience dealing with high visibility. Let’s put it that way. So in a certain sense, I could imagine some of the brouhaha. But I’m still in the same house, even though it burned down and we built it up again. I certainly didn’t imagine the house would burn down, that we’ d have such a horrible experience—I know this will sound strange—however, it wasn’t as bad as I would have imagined it to be. I mean, it was bad, but in going through an ordeal like that, you learn what’s important. That’s something I could not have imagined. And I would never have imagined I would end up dancing ballroom.
WW: That came about as a result of your house fire.
RD: Yes, it did.
WW: Your friends took you out the next week and told you, “Rita, go get a dress. Fred, get a tuxedo. We’re going to take you out dancing.” And, that’s how you started ballroom dancing. Then you built a dance studio at your house.
RD: We did, yes.
WW: Have you ever thought about going on Dancing with the Stars?
RD: Oh, gosh. [Laughing.] I always danced just for fun. Friends have asked Fred and me if we’ d like to compete, but why would we want to? We were having fun; that was the main impetus, and that’s all we ever really want to do. Besides, I think it would be grossly unfair, if not against the rules, to go on Dancing with the Stars as someone with prior experience, someone who dances all the time.
WW: In regard to the fire, lightning struck your house, and you lost some material you were working on. There were experts who took your computer and were able to retrieve some files, and some parts of your manuscripts that were on paper were frozen in a freezer to stop the process of mildewing, and then people were able to reconstruct some of the material. How much did you lose and how devastating was that to you?
RD: I was very lucky. I had just finished the manuscript for On the Bus with Rosa Parks and sent it off to my publisher. Fred lost more than I did because the lightning struck his room; but quite a bit was recovered, too. What was lost was lost. I think I shut a door on it. There’s no point in trying to remember. There were a few notebooks destroyed by either the fire or the firemen’s hoses, but I don’t think about them. I felt I had to keep pushing forward. As we were going through the rubble, I decided I wasn’t going to worry about the writing; that wasn’t the time to agonize over it when I had to get a roof over my head again. So, I deliberately did not fret. I also had a bit of a cushion right then, because my book was safely deposited into the editorial process—and frankly, after the fire, everything I had been working on up to that point seemed trivial; it was not the world I was living through at that moment. I couldn’t go back to it anyway. It was, of course, the ballroom dancing that gave me the next book.
WW: The result was American Smooth.
RD: Yes, American Smooth.
WW: As a result of the fire, once everything was gone, was it cleansing?
RD: It was a very strange feeling. There was a sense of being able to do anything I wanted. The world was open. That sounds odd but it really worked out that way, which I think is one of the reasons why, when the neighbors said, “Let’s all take dance lessons,” both Fred and I replied, “Why not?” Of course, life always carries the feeling that your days are numbered. You never know when something momentous—good or bad—is going to happen. Survivors talk about the calm experienced during accidents or life-threatening situations; for us, the fire was almost liberating.
WW: I recently went back and read that first interview, where I asked about the introduction to your reading and how you did not want to be called a poet or fiction writer, but simply a writer. Has that outlook changed now that you are also a playwright?
RD: I would insist on thinking of myself as primarily a poet but emphasize that that doesn’t exclude other forms of writing. When I was poet laureate, I met so many people who loved poetry but felt inferior to it. That made me hesitate all over again—that is, to identify myself solely as such. Of course, after all’s said and done, I am a writer. But since I wouldn’t want to be subsumed by what the image of “being a writer” calls up in the popular imagination, I declare that I am a poet who occasionally also writes fiction and drama and essays. I don’t want to shy away from any genre.
WW: So, you’re a poet with options.
RD: [Laughing.] Very good. I like that.
WW: People often talk about the maturity of writers as they get older—how writing is more difficult to some degree because fewer poems show themselves. However, when you are writing, it seems the process is easier because you know what you are doing and what you want to do. How are you a better writer than you were all those years ago?
RD: That’s accurate, to an extent. The process has become a lot easier because even in the depths of despair—which happens more often than people might imagine—I have the example of all the other poems I’ve written and I know I’ve been through this before, so things will probably turn out fine. But the process is tougher, too, in the sense that it’s become exponentially more difficult now to find that kind of relaxed, extended time in which simply to muse about things, days upon days without having the outside world intrude. Now, the outside world might have its positives, but when it barges in via e-mail and Facebook with requests for appearances or even just to solicit my advice on poetry, all because I was poet laureate and won major awards—well, that’s really much more difficult. How’s the writing better now? I don’t know that it is. I suppose it is. I’m able to write more loosely and casually, and I can also compose very tight verse; I’ve gained that flexibility. But I’m still terrified every time I approach a fresh page.
WW: After our initial interview you became poet laureate. You did two stints in this position, back to back. Tell us about the process of being poet laureate and what is involved.
RD: First of all, I did two stints because, due to the constraints of that position, one cannot get much done in one year. One year is just kind of a showcase—so you can say, “I’m poet laureate,” nod and wave, and then you step down. But to actually affect any kind of change, to make any kind of impression, at least two years are required. At the time, as one of the youngest people to have held the position, I felt it was my duty to make some kind of impact. First, though, I had to figure out what a poet laureate does, because there was no clear job description—it was all rather vague. I figured it out as I went along, which was a treat. When you tell people you’re the poet laureate—no matter the economic level, whether they’re in government or business or literature or auto repair—whether they know anything about poetry or not, people will stop and listen to what you have to say. That was fascinating. It was an opportunity to promote poetry and have people take you seriously.
WW: The British previously assigned their poet laureates for life. Now it is for ten years. Do we need to do something similar to that? Maybe five years? Or three years, to allow for a little more extension in order to accomplish certain goals?
RD: Three years would be good. Five years might be too many—although when the Library of Congress offered me an unprecedented third year I turned it down, for a number of reasons. We are much more diverse than the British, ethnically as well as geographically, so I can see where we could get into a rut by appointing one poet for five years or, heavens forbid, a lifetime. For example, someone from the West Coast would present different views than a poet from the eastern seaboard or rural Oklahoma or New Orleans—we have a lot more variety. Still, after two terms, you’re ready to leave, even though it isn’t enough. Washington is a strange place for getting people interested in funding poetry. It’s arduous, and it also requires luck. I managed to do a few projects. I don’t know if I could have done more if I’ d had another year. Possibly . . .
WW: Such as?
RD: One project involved sending poets on a six-week to three-month stint to Antarctica, living side-by-side with the scientists stationed there. We had some promising initial conversations but there wasn’t enough time to get the entire mechanics of it into place, so it fizzled.
WW: Does the poet stepping into the position of poet laureate pick up where you left off and move forward with what you were doing, or do they start their own agenda?
RD: They start their own agenda. There are no rules, really, nothing set in stone about what the poet laureate is supposed to do except to plan a biweekly reading series at the Library of Congress. The rest is left up to the poet. So, nobody had to take over what I had been doing. I did mention the projects that were in limbo, like poetry and the environment, but every laureate comes with his or her own agenda, which in a country like ours makes sense. I would hate to be put into the position of having to take over the previous poet’s agenda, especially if I didn’t care greatly about whatever it was. But yes, three years would be really a good term.
WW: When you were poet laureate, did you stay at the University of Virginia and teach or were you in Washington, DC, most of the time? What was your daily regimen?
RD: First of all, UVA was generous in granting me academic leave for the first year. They offered the same deal for the second year, but I missed teaching, so I taught a graduate poetry workshop; I live close enough to Washington to be able to do so. The first half of the week I spent at home in Charlottesville. I did a lot of work remotely, by mail and fax and phone. There was no Internet to speak of during my years—hard to imagine nowadays, isn’t it? On Wednesday, I would take the 6:45 train up to Washington, meet with people all day, then stay overnight; on Thursday, I’ d welcome the guest poets and have them do a recording for the library archives, followed by the evening reading and reception. My husband would usually drive up Thursdays after our daughter got out of school; they would come to the reading then drive back afterwards, because our daughter had school the next day. Sometimes I’ d go back with them, or I’ d stay on and take the train back on Friday. Or I’ d go up on Tuesday. But the routine was that I spent the middle of the week in DC, and if there was an event at any other time, such as an invitation for dinner, I’ d make an extra trip. The second year I had the same schedule, except I never went to Washington on Monday when I taught the poetry workshop. My office hours were all screwed up—basically on Tuesdays, pending special events. I even scheduled conferences on weekends. Somehow we worked it out.
WW: What was the best part of being poet laureate, as well as the worst part?
RD: There were lots of little perks. Just going there standing in the poetry office and looking down from the windows was wonderful—the Capitol is across the street, the Supreme Court next door. Because the poetry office is located on the top floor of the Jefferson building, there were ways to a spot just under the dome where you could glance down into the interior lobby and the main reading hall. To be in that space was like walking through the dream of Enlightenment. Sometimes I would simply wander around the building, which at the time was undergoing lots of renovations; the main dome-space was closed to the public, but there were back ways, through the basement. That’s impossible now; because of 9/11, security is tighter; but back then I could scoot through the basement, slip into a service elevator, and emerge in the Great Hall, where I’ d walk around, looking at the engravings and ceiling, utterly alone. That was an amazing, intimate experience.
WW: While walking around and observing everything did you think, “Am I really here?”
RD: All the time. Pretty much all the time. The entire two years were punctuated by occasions I couldn’t believe were happening to me; I couldn’t believe that my life was happening to me! This was during the Clinton years, when security was fairly easy to navigate, so I could do a lot of things which are totally impossible now, like driving straight up to the White House and parking my car inside the gates, between the secret service vehicles. From the beginning, there were magical incidents: Right after I had been appointed I wrote to Bill Clinton, saying: “October is Art and Humanities Month; as the Poet Laureate of the United States, I think you should do something on behalf of the Arts and Humanities.” Just to have my letter reach his desk was amazing; but for Clinton to reply personally with “Yes, indeed; I’ll host a state dinner honoring the arts and humanities”—that was pretty wild. Then it turned out that the state dinner was on the same night as my inaugural reading at the Library of Congress, so after the reading Fred and I hustled up to the poetry office to change into our black tie attire, then rushed to the White House, where we caught the tail end of the receiving line. Okay, so that evening was not only incredibly bizarre, it did not even fall within the boundaries of
There were other cool moments, too—like when I invited a group of Crow Indian children from Montana to read in the Library’s Thursday evening poetry series. I thought they would be very excited, and they were—but they kind of dictated the terms: They wanted to bring their parents; “Fine,” I said, “we’ll figure that out.” And they wanted to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in honor of the Crow Chief Plenty Coups, who had spoken at the Tomb’s dedication. They also requested meetings with their congressman and the sole Native American U.S. senator, and they wanted to read their poems to them so they would understand what their lives were like. To make that happen was a wonderful feeling—to have helped to do something to make a difference in their lives.
WW: What was the reaction of the congressmen?
RD: The senator was quite excited, the congressman’s office a bit nonplussed at first, but then very sympathetic. I can’t believe I was so fearless! I was asked to read a few poems at the Arts and Humanities state dinner, and one of the poems I chose to read was “Parsley.” To their credit, although the White House asked to see the material beforehand, no one made a peep about my selection, and there was never any suggestion that certain poems were less welcome.
WW: Did you hear from Bill Clinton about the poem?
RD: No, not a thing—from him or his staff. He was graceful and perfectly charming and seemed to love the evening, so I was invited back a number of times. I was seated so often next to Orin Hatch at these events that it became a joke. We’ d look at the name cards and say, “Oh, here we are again.” And Alan Simpson and I would sit down and argue and talk about poetry. That was part of the strange amalgam of the Clinton era—recognizing that we stood on opposite sides of the political spectrum, even while entering into a tacit agreement that we would put politics aside to talk about poetry and the arts.
WW: Did Alan Simpson know much about poetry?
RD: Yes, he did, because his mother loved poetry. He came from a family that recited poetry and then talked about what they had learned. So we talked about bringing poetry to kids through the educational system, and how poetry can change the way children learn to read and pay attention to detail. I wasn’t trying to get this guy to go full steam and declare, “Let’s support poets!”—but I thought if I could get him to understand how useful poetry can be for all fields, that’s a beginning. He seemed quite open to the idea—if I had had another year, who knows what I might have accomplished! [Laughing.]
WW: In February 2011, the National Medal of Arts was presented to you by Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. I believe this made you the first person in the country’s history to have received all three of the highest Arts distinctions: the Medal of Arts, the Humanities Medal, and the office of Poet Laureate. Did you know this?
RD: No, I didn’t. Wow. Being back in the East Room for the arts medal ceremony felt very different from just returning to the White House after so many years, and this medal presentation was a very different affair from the time I received the National Humanities medal from Clinton. First of all, the security was staggering—anonymous and protracted, it involved waiting without clarification and then being funneled through a dizzying array of lines. Security was both more intricate and bumbling; they couldn’t locate some recipient’s papers, though they had the spouse’s paperwork, and my papers weren’t organized properly, whatever that meant. We were held up on the South Lawn behind a velvet rope, flanked by guards; but since we knew the medal ceremony couldn’t go on without us, we just stood in the sun, waiting until they got their act together.
Once we were in the White House, things ran smoothly. It was a weird feeling—terribly exciting but with a touch of déjà vu. Now I was back again with the Obamas—who were just as charismatic, elegant yet completely relaxed. Everybody was in high spirits; here were all these honorees, standing around mouthing clichés and cracking silly jokes, as giddy as children because they were in the White House. [Laughing.] As far as the ceremony goes, I remember watching my step as I walked up to the stage, willing myself to breathe and thinking: Why are you nervous? It’s not like you’re doing anything, just standing there while the President puts a medal around your neck. I remember when Obama leaned over with the medal, he somehow got me to laugh. Because the ceremony happened in the middle of the day, there was no huge State Dinner afterwards; but we all had our pictures taken with the President and First Lady, and then Obama had to rush off to do something else. Even though it was not an extended celebration, it was pretty intense. It was such an honor, and I felt completely inadequate. I think we all felt that way. I looked at the other honorees and understood why they were being honored, but why was I here? [Laughing.]
WW: That’s not too bad for a girl whose father ran the elevator?
RD: No, not too shabby. And I could add this to the list of things they got to see their daughter accomplish. My parents were very quiet about my wanting to become a poet. They never let on about how terrified they must have been. [Laughing.] Now that I am a parent, I understand. But they let me barrel ahead, and to have it come back around—well, I’m just so happy they’re alive to see that it was all worth it.
WW: Your father—when you first said you wanted to be a poet—said he didn’t understand poetry. And yet he wanted you to pursue it as long as you did so to the best of your ability.
RD: Yes, that’s how he ran his life. It took enormous courage on his part just to let me go. I think the temptation to exert control and to influence my life choices was there, but in the end he decided to trust that what he taught me would endure, that if I was determined to do this poetry thing I would do it to the very best of my ability, even though he couldn’t weigh in on it or understand it. And he was right: I’ve always been very, very hard on myself. That’s the only way I know to be.
WW: Your father did not read poetry, but I surmise that the reason you met your husband, Fred, is because of your father. During World War II, your father didn’t know if he was going to be positioned in Germany or Italy so he studied both languages in advance. As it was, he went to Italy; however, he had a book of German poems, which, years later, you as a young girl wanted to read. However, you could not understand the poems except for some key words so you studied German in high school in order to read that book while the other students were studying Spanish and French. And of course, this led to your interest in the German language and culture, and ultimately to your husband, Fred, who is German.
RD: There it is. Isn’t that amazing? You never know what small serendipity, what detail, will influence you. That’s how it works.
WW: And so, your father, in an effort to learn these languages for the war, which may have saved his life at some point, set the cobblestone path before you for so many things.
RD: Yes, with that one language. I think I would have been a poet in any case, but I could have picked Italian. Why did I choose German poems?
WW: Have you thought about how that book of poems may have led to you getting married in 1979?
RD: I’ve thought about it a great deal. Had it not been for my interest in German, who knows how my life would have turned out? What road would I have traveled?
WW: I love the story about your father’s great resolve, how he went to college and became a chemist, and while in college he tutored the other students in chemistry, and after graduation they all got jobs. However, he could not get a job as a chemist at the same company as the students he’ d been tutoring. He got a job on the assembly line. Later, he was moved into the main building but only as an elevator operator. He would usher people up and down the elevator, many of the same people he tutored in chemistry at the university.
RD: And yet, to the credit of some of these former colleagues, they began to make a fuss about him being the elevator operator—especially his former chemistry professor and his former high school principal, who told the company executives it was ridiculous not to hire him. I didn’t learn this story until I was older. When I asked my father why he had never told me, he said because he did not want me to be discouraged.
WW: I’m assuming that he saw down the road. Obviously, he knew his potential and what he could do, but he must have seen that there was going to be an opportunity, that there had to be. How else do you stay in the position of an elevator operator ushering your peers up and down the floors? It would be humiliating to take the same people up the elevator—who, had it not been for your father tutoring them, probably would not have their jobs. He must have seen the potential for change, that at some point something would occur in his life.
RD: I think he didn’t lose hope. Other experiences also steered him toward thinking outside the box. When he was studying toward his master’s degree early in World War II, the government decided to take these gifted graduate students in engineering and chemistry and put them on an accelerated course so that they could be helpful to the military. What I found out—around the same time as the elevator story—is that my father was chosen along with a bunch of other guys to go to the University of Illinois for this accelerated program, but the administration didn’t know he was black. When he arrived in Urbana, confusion broke out; what were they going to do with him? They couldn’t put a Negro in a dorm with everybody else. The irony is that my dad got the better deal out of it: he ended up occupying the entire third floor of the dorm by himself, while everyone else had to bunk up. The white guys were cool with it; because my dad had a whole floor at his disposal, all the parties were at his place. He had already begun to see the possibilities—yes, it was unjust; but sometimes injustice twists in interesting ways. A similar thing happened when he first reported for duty in the Army; because of his rank and his expertise, the army assumed that my father was white. Again, confusion: until they could arrange for his transfer to a black unit, my father got a space all to himself—this time, a lieutenant’s cottage—while everyone else was in the barracks. Those incidents gave him a tougher skin, but also a finely tuned sense of irony. Yes, it was humiliating to be an elevator operator; but he prevailed in the end.
WW: How long did he work at Goodyear?
RD: My dad’s still alive, but he worked for Goodyear until the age of retirement.
WW: I’ d like to shift gears and talk about your Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, published in 2011. Bill Moyers called it “a true melting pot.” It really is a melting pot of American poetry with a historical representation of the twentieth century. I’m a huge admirer and reader of anthologies because of the way they enable me to discover poets I either did not know very well or had overlooked. It’s also a way to be exposed to poems that are new or seldom published. There are fresh, new voices; also, with the more popular poets, you did not necessarily publish their more prominent work, which was refreshing. You chose not to publish the tried and true poems of most poets, but opted for some of their lesser-known works. What was your reasoning?
RD: The anthology was many years in the making, and there were a host of different properties that I worked through to come up with the final constellation of poets. You are absolutely right that my concept was to convey a historical trajectory of poetry in the twentieth century. I was asked to do this anthology by Penguin, and they wanted me to be the sole editor. There was no way I could compete—nor did I wish to—with the Norton anthologies, which are different kinds of compendiums altogether. I didn’t want the notes getting in the way of the poems; I wanted to stimulate that kind of naked reading experience, like the first time you opened a book and understood those squiggles on the page as the very words you had been living among. I wanted to create a space where the reader could go face-to-face with the poet, where no explanations or essays are needed. I wanted to let the reader come to his or her own decisions about the poems. Another point: I realized that if I was being asked to edit this without a team of researchers, the final product would necessarily reflect one person’s view of the century. There might be other anthologies on the market, but this was my vision.
First I had to decide when the twentieth century began and when it ended, in terms of poets’ biographies and publications. I opted for the historical divide—that is, anything published between 1900 and 2000—and just plunged in, reading like a madwoman and following leads from one poet to another. But what I was really interested in were the lenses through which all these poets viewed the world. If you are surveying twentieth-century poetry from a desk in 1976, you would be looking backwards through the lens of the bicentennial; an anthology published in 1960 would be still reeling from the Beats but with no inkling of the upheaval and disillusionment just around the corner, courtesy of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement; an anthology with a 1980 imprint would still be free of the impact of the Internet on social discourse; and so on. When I started work on the Penguin anthology, the twentieth century had been over for a few years; because it was the millennium, society had placed a pretty heavy lid on the era. So in my second tier of reading, I tried to go back into that century and regard it as history, to try to understand someone writing in 1920—what about the world they were living in pushed them forward? Instead of looking back on the poems from my point of view, I tried to apprehend what was important to those poets lodged in that particular point in time. That doesn’t mean I reprinted only poems that were important in their time, but looking at the collection from that angle was fascinating; suddenly I could visualize the whole trajectory of the century. In the end, my mission became less about a compilation of everyone’s best poems, but rather sketching a literary portrait of the twentieth century.
WW: There are poems and poets not included who are deserving—such as Plath and Ginsberg—because of copyright issues and huge reprint fees. But, as well, there are friends you did not include. That must be tough to see them and talk to them knowing they were omitted?
RD: It is tough. Colleagues warned me that if I chose to do an anthology, I was going to make a lot of enemies and lose friends. Well, I thought, if I lose them, they weren’t friends to begin with. Easy to say beforehand! I tried very hard not to think about whether a poem had been written by a friend or not. When I made my final decisions, I tried to be fearless. That was hard.
WW: Were there any cases where people came to you in anger and asked why they were not included?
RD: A couple of times I was approached—but indirectly, through another poet who would mention that he didn’t understand why I hadn’t included so-and-so in the book. And that was pretty much the end of it. Uncomfortable moments, for sure, but far worse—in fact, the worst part of the anthology experience—was negotiating reprint permissions with estates and publishers.
WW: One of the things I enjoyed about your anthology is the number of poets I was unfamiliar with, such as Countee Cullen, June Jordan, Angelina Weld Grimké. You think you know everyone, but you can’t possibly know every poet’s work, so it’s satisfying to read what are, to me, new poets. I especially like the fact that it begins with a selection from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which is not anthologized too much these days. At the time, it was groundbreaking, not to mention how angry it made people in the town he wrote about. It’s a brilliant book.
RD: Spoon River is brilliant, yes. I’ve never understood why it isn’t anthologized more often, though I understand the difficulty of excerpting from something that has related characters throughout an entire book. But it’s also a reflection on our late twentieth century’s anti-narrative tastes, that a poem with simple vocabulary and approachable syntax is thought inherently inferior to the poem which is complex, erudite, and possibly obscure.
This is a little tangential, but it’s an interesting anecdote. I recently came back from a poetry festival in Nicaragua, where there were 120 poets participating from all over the world. Many of the poets from non–English speaking countries used very direct and simple language; the poems opened up like flowers. Then along came an English-speaking poet, and the poems were significantly more convoluted and dense.
WW: Would you like to talk about the review of your anthology by Helen Vendler? She is a critic who has praised your work in the past, quite a lot, but she sort of attacked the anthology.*
RD: Sort of? [Laughing.] She laid into me.
WW: I’m being very nice.
RD: You are being very nice.
WW: She was not at all helpful.
RD: Well, actually she was quite helpful. Let me back up. At first, I was stunned by her reaction to the anthology. Of course, I was shocked at how visceral—nearly primitive—her reaction had been, but I was also amazed by how upset she was—so much so, in fact, that she kept committing significant blunders throughout her article . . . which is what I meant by her being helpful. First off, the review was poorly written. There are lots of ways for a reviewer to tear a book apart—skillfully mounted arguments that seem unassailable; quotes deftly excerpted to sound wrong-headed. But she didn’t do that; she laid herself open with moral innuendos and strident accusations that merely sounded desperate and were easy to refute. When I started reading the review—even though here’s this woman just stabbing at me, left and right—I thought, “No, something’s off here. This doesn’t read like a professional. Why is she doing this?” I began to understand that this had other, deeper roots. Suddenly, I was handed a forum: Her sad, fraught attack provided a platform from which to deconstruct her vitriol as well as an opportunity to talk about the anthology and how it worked. What better venue could there be than the New York Review of Books?
WW: What do you believe was her bottom line motivation?
RD: I have read that review over and over again, and I cannot dismiss the racial components. But it is complicated, and it’s not simply racial. Her review did have a whiff of outrage to it—like, how dare you get off making judgments about twentieth-century poetry? See, we’ve prepared a little niche for you, Rita Dove—you’re an African American woman poet—and you may not make pronouncements about poetry as a critic. I hate to say this, but I think Vendler felt I had ventured into her territory a bit too far by editing this anthology, which was going to get a lot of play because Penguin is a big publisher. As a critic, she not only felt insulted by my approach and that I was trespassing into her academic area of expertise without observing the proper protocol—scholarly essays, footnotes, blah, blah, blah. That was one aspect. There was also the more general split between critics and writers. I was a poet, and therefore I should stay a poet. I should not pretend to be a critic.
WW: Leave the criticism to her.
RD: Yes. Let her pronounce how it’s done, because she is, and has been for some time, a grande dame of American literary culture, someone who has defined not only what American poetry is, but what it is to be. She has enjoyed that role immensely, I think. She’s been a champion of contemporary American poetry—a little quirky, but a champion nonetheless—so this was her field, and I was getting in the way.
WW: I understand her point of view where she felt some encroachment into her area of expertise; however, I read your introduction first before I read any of the poems or book reviews, and the introduction is a beautiful historical journey of contemporary American poetry, taking us from day one up to the end of the century. What you also did was say, here are many poets you already know and many who have been unrecognized. I felt that if you were to write comprehensively on the subject, it would be five volumes; however, you took the reader though this history in about twenty-five pages in a succinct historical outline of the country. For instance, I didn’t know James Johnson very well. Or, as I mentioned earlier, Countee Cullen, a fantastic poet. Bringing poets to us whose work we may not be familiar with makes an anthology lively.
RD: That’s what Vendler didn’t like: She believes an anthology should include only those who have been vetted—the old guard. But the problem with the old guard—most of whom are in my anthology—is their standard may seem traditional to a group of select people, but not for everyone else. You can probably ask any other African American writer—not just poets—and they’ll tell you that they grew up with the poems of Countee Cullen and several others, like James Johnson and Langston Hughes. Those poems were practically part of my DNA, and not only mine—part of a sophisticated culture the mainstream didn’t know existed. Even people who didn’t write poetry knew them. Countee Cullen was a major force in the Harlem Renaissance, and anyone compiling an anthology of American poetry should include him alongside Langston Hughes.
This is a slight tangent, but not really: When Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady started Cave Canem, which is a nonresidential workshop for African American poets, it was inspired by the realization that many black people who wanted to write were intimidated by the idea of entering an MFA program because they would most likely be the sole black person in class. So Toi and Cornelius designed a rigorous program of study; none of this “Let’s pat each other’s backs and declaim black power poems”—the only criterion for praise was excellence. Now, the founding of Cave Canem barely raised a ripple in the mainstream cultural network, but a major shift did occur. Five or ten years down the line, the face of American poetry was going to change, because of the emergence of these accomplished young poets on the literary scene. This is why so many young African American poets are publishing today—because of initiatives like Cave Canem and the Dark Room Collective. Those are the kind of moments I try to bring out in the anthology, without skewing things. After all, if you think about it, Countee Cullen gives us Robert Hayden, and Robert Hayden gives us Michael Harper—and me, even.
WW: And, of course, Robert Hayden was the first black Poet Laureate Consultant to the country.
RD: That’s right. Followed by Gwendolyn Brooks.
WW: Okay, let’s move on to talk about some of your teachers. First, Bill Matthews. I’ d met Bill Matthews a number of times, and he was always such a wonderful person, and I remember the last time I saw him at a reading in Chattanooga. I’ d driven from Atlanta just to hear him read again that night, along with Marvin Bell. Before the reading, I had an opportunity to talk with him again where I mentioned that one of my favorite poems of his was “Black Box.” During the reading, after one poem, he said, “This next poem is a request.” And he read “Black Box.”
RD: [Laughing.] That’s Bill. I studied with Bill Matthews; he was an amazing teacher and poet. And through the years I’ve met others who had studied with him who share my sentiments. What’s remarkable is how many people he touched, even if they never studied with him, like you. It was the sheer attention he paid to the world. He had a phenomenal memory, plus the ability to reason and make profound connections on several levels effortlessly, with just the right amount of humor. And though his poems are reflective, there is a great ease and artful casualness to them. Then he died tragically early. If only he had lived to be 102.
WW: “Artful casualness” is an excellent description of him. What did you learn most from him?
RD: Well, I think it would be his way of handling . . . not humor . . . but bemusement, perhaps. How to inject bemusement into the poem’s way of looking at the world in order for us to bear the knife going in. [Laughing.] Something about that gentleness, an almost sorrowful compassion, with a slight ironic edge. That edge was always present; he showed us that an intellectual does not have to be cold. No one could turn a line like Bill Matthews. His enjambment—or lilt, if you will—was pretty extraordinary. And he was a terrific line-by-line critic.
WW: When you studied at Iowa with Bill Matthews and Marvin Bell, who was your go-to poet, the one who you felt was your favorite poet and teacher?
RD: Stanley Plumly was my favorite. Marvin was also good. Louise Glück was really intense, sometimes cryptic—but if you were patient, especially in conference, one on one—she could really extract the essence of a poem-in-progress. Stanley Plumly was superb with both line-by-line and the overall critique, and he also had a way of getting you to open up and relax, so you could hear the criticism.
WW: Sometimes people tighten up with anger.
RD: Stanley was great at diffusing the tension. He could push me to do things I didn’t even know I was afraid of. I wrote my first poem about black experience in his workshop, based on the slave narratives I had been reading; Stanley encouraged me to dig deeper, dare further, and I ended up writing a sequence of poems—it’s in my first book, actually. When I showed the first poem in the sequence to Stanley during office hours, I remember him saying, “Let’s see how the workshop responds. It can go two ways: They can actually read this for what it is—a poem—and critique it in a professional manner . . . or they’ll get all guilty and defensive and want to talk about race.”
WW: Can we talk a little about the writer’s life? Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Wow, I’m Rita Dove, the poet?”
RD: [Laughing.] That’s funny.
WW: Seriously, when you think of all that you have accomplished in your life—
RD: I usually wake up thinking, “What do I have to do today?” It’s a terrible thing to wake up to. I have to press back into the pillow to calm myself. I’ll think through all the things that are pending and sort out the stuff that’s really pressing, then remind myself of my accomplishments. I’ll take a few deep breaths and ask myself: Why are you so anxious? But my life still seems so unreal to me. See, I don’t ever think about the prizes I’ve received; I can’t imagine carrying around that kind of self-consciousness on a daily basis. I also don’t dwell on the memory of writing a particular poem or being in some fabled place. Each day I get up and there’s the page, waiting. Every time is like the very first time, and I have no idea if I am going to be able to make it.
WW: The past isn’t necessarily in the forefront?
RD: No, it isn’t. Some part of me tries to ensure it isn’t in the forefront. I expend a lot of energy making certain the past is out of the house, out of my space. I have to put it aside, compartmentalize everything. I can’t write if I’m thinking about myself. But sometimes when I’m standing in the wings about to go onstage to give a reading, I will say to myself, “You’re Rita Dove and they are here to see you—so get your butt out there and do what you know you can do.”
WW: Do you ever think Fred wakes up and says, “Wow, I’m married to Rita Dove?”
RD: [Laughing.] I don’t know about that! I doubt it. But he’s the one who will remind me who I am. He reminds me so I’ll remember that I should not be afraid. I was a shy kid and I’m still shy . . . but hey, a girl’s gotta do what she’s gotta do!
WW: You don’t seem shy when you address an audience.
RD: No, I’m aware that people come to hear me read, not see me bumble about. It’s funny: most shy people recognize each other—they can spot me across a crowded room—but most other people don’t know I’m shy and wouldn’t believe it if I told them. So when I’m in the public arena, I just have to get on with it. There is zero tolerance for shyness.
WW: Let’s talk about the interior life of the poet, which is what I have really been moving toward. You have students—do you ever discuss with them their interior lives and your interior life and how to capture that? What is the interior life to you?
RD: Actually, I talk to students about this pretty early on. I try to convey what it’s like for me to write at night. Not everyone is as nocturnal as I am; being creative might be something quite different for them. If you want to be a poet, the world has to fall away. There’s that feeling of diving deep and stirring things up without knowing exactly what is going to come out, and then to admit to that kind of mystery and confusion, to put it onto the page, is an essential condition for a poet. The interior life can spill all over the place; it’s vital for the poem, and every poet has a different way of accessing that vital fluid. But where do you start? It doesn’t work by subject or through emotion, though they may be the forces that propel you. I need to enter the interior through language; for me, experience, emotion, and prosody are inextricably bound together. Getting to the center of the interior life, then back out onto the page . . . the process is near-impossible to articulate.
WW: How do you get your students to dive into that body of water? Sometimes they write superficially on the surface. Other times they are trying to find the emotion in the heartbreak, and they can’t. Or maybe they are in those depths but unable to find their way to articulate it?
RD: First of all, if at all possible, you should plan to write during your optimal hours, when you are at your physical best. In other words, figure out when your body is naturally at its most energetic and write then. This marvelous bit of guidance came from Louise Glück. Seems obvious, but not really. In college, I was possessed by the notion that I should write in the morning, before the day’s minutiae clogged the creative juices—sounds reasonable, and everyone else in my class was doing it—but that was unworkable for me because I’m a serious night person. Also, I tell students that when you can’t get at something because it’s too close or difficult or complicated, you have to trust that it’s there and trick yourself into finding it. Don’t be afraid to mess around with the process. Write from a different point of view—from the viewpoint of a rock in the yard, or the sole of a tennis shoe. Tear into the language—use only one-syllable words, write in alternating tercets and couplets. Follow your instincts, whatever urging that tempts to lead you astray. Apply strange tricks until the whole thing looks so ridiculous you have to turn back. That can produce a lot of turmoil in a poem, but once you have something on the page, you can trim away the underbrush and keep working.
A while back I was struggling with a poem about pain, physical pain—trying to describe how I can be constantly aware of my dodgy knee yet still get through the day without dwelling on the pain that is always with me, like a nagging old friend. I tried to write, but I was stuck. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I decided to give myself a writing assignment: In each line, each word should begin with the same vowel or consonant—for example, the first line uses only words beginning with o, the second line is all p words, and so on. It’s hard because prepositions and articles get in the way; once I got going, though, the poem began to write itself. But the critical fact is, I didn’t know what was going to happen when I started. I just said to myself: Okay, let’s try something radical. Learning to trust your instincts while experimenting with the text is difficult, but if you do, sometimes—not always!—something authentic and amazing might slip through the cracks.
WW: Do you ever have a poem come to you almost as if it were a visitation where the entire poem simply arrives?
RD: I have had that happen. It’s an amazing feeling, isn’t it? You are just a scribe; the poem almost doesn’t belong to you. That’s how people imagine poets compose all the time—stretched out under a tree, waiting for divine intervention, followed by a flurry of pages. I wish! Whenever inspiration comes like that, you’ d be a fool to ignore it or think you’ll remember for later. You need to write it down then and there.
WW: In preparation for this interview, one of the things I did was watch all of your interviews with Bill Moyers. You looked as if you had a tremendous amount of fun with him.
RD: He’s an exceptional man. You can see how much he loves poetry. You can feel it. The first time he interviewed me was when I was poet laureate, and it took place at the poetry office in the Library of Congress. I was much greener then, flustered by the amount of makeup needed to look “natural” under the lights, nervous about talking to the legendary Bill Moyers; but once we got going I forgot all about the cameras. It was like chatting with your neighbor at a dinner and getting so engrossed in the conversation that you forget to eat. The most recent interview with Bill was about the anthology—this time in a New York studio with a full support staff and a proper stage setting. I spent over an hour getting prepped and came out of makeup looking orange as a pumpkin; Bill was orange, too! The setup was more formal, but as soon as we sat down it didn’t matter how much makeup they had slathered on us; it was as if we had taken up where we left off. That’s the interview where Bill came up with the idea that people should have dinner parties where the guests just trade poems or stanzas instead of anecdotes.
WW: What I like about Bill Moyers’ interviews is that he is not only enthusiastic, but he has read the poems, and he’s picked out his favorites.
RD: Exactly. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been interviewed and came to the realization that the interviewer had not read the poems. When that happens, I have to figure out how to steer the interview in the right direction; I have to be polite while answering obvious questions, tactfully correcting blatant mistakes so that whoever sees or hears the interview will learn something about my work without being led astray.
WW: As I read through your body of work, I realized something about many of your poems that I had not, over the years, previously realized. You are a very quiet political poet. Your poems are subversive in nature in that people do not realize they are being manipulated with the undercurrent of politics. And, I use manipulated as a positive verb. You are not shouting from the mountaintop the way some poets do when they come out with their politics, with their anger. You have poems that address the subject matter, which is usually race, where this could be an incident that happened or a perception, and you bring in an agenda that is very political. I like political poems, but most political poems don’t work, primarily because they become caught up in the shouting. I remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill and how the next week there were ten political poems in my workshop written against big oil—the poems were not much more than a rant, a counterweight to the poet’s life. I could say the same for Hurricane Katrina or a White House scandal. It seems that whatever the topic du jour is, it becomes the political topic for poems.
RD: First of all, I think the term “political poetry” has gotten a bad rap in this country. To label someone a political poet automatically suggests mediocre poets given to shouting for a cause rather than creating art out of the life of a cause. I believe a true political poem is a poem about people; after all, the words populace and politics come from the same root—polis. I also think we will tend to listen more intently to whisper; if it’s shouted, we’ll tune it out. I’ve never been a shouter, though it wasn’t a conscious decision. I just wanted to make mainstream America realize that a black person has the same emotional responses to the entire spectrum of human experience, and not only race—I wanted to write a poem about geometry without the reader being surprised that a black person had written it. It was important for my aesthetic to write from an inclusive human consciousness, even before Thomas and Beulah. But through the years, I think I have become more overtly “political” in my poems.
WW: Do you feel political?
RD: I do. I think some people were shocked by my response to Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books. They didn’t see me as an agitator. But I’ve always been wired that way. And I will fight back. I tell students that if they would like to write about something that is overtly political, put the subject in the title and don’t mention it again! [Laughing.] It’s rare that someone appreciates the political elements in my poetry, so I am very pleased you saw that.
WW: When you look at your body of work, what are the three seminal poems you’ve written, those you think back to as most important?
RD: My god. [Long pause.] Well, I don’t know about choosing three poems. I know that “Parsley” would be one of them.
WW: I always felt that “Ö” from The Yellow House on the Corner was a seminal poem in your career, and that as the last poem in the collection it seems to set the stage as the beginning of the next book, Museum, and the future for your poems in general. I’m thinking specifically of these lines: “You start out with one thing, end / up with another, and nothing’s / like it used to be, not even the future.” Although “Ö” is not the title poem, it is about the yellow house on the corner and the mysteries within as it becomes a galleon sailing away. As well, you were able to insert another bird reference with “cardinal.” “Ö” was the bridge to the next book.
RD: It was the bridge indeed. The first book was an apprentice piece, true—and the focus shifts with “Ö,” which is all about the way language changes our perceptions.
WW: How did you discover your subject, George Bridgetower, for your collection Sonata Mulattica? Perhaps his was not an obscure story, but I had never heard of him.
RD: Because I played the cello, I had heard of him, sometime in college—just that there was this black violinist who had had ties to Beethoven. But the seed of the idea was sown years later, in 2005, just after I had sent the manuscript of American Smooth off to my editor at Norton. I really needed to relax; I didn’t want to think about writing. So one evening Fred and I sat down to watch a movie, a biopic about Beethoven. In one scene, Beethoven is pushing through a crowd of musicians trying to curry favor, and there is a black violinist among them. I couldn’t believe it; I got up from the couch in the middle of the movie and Googled “black violinist Beethoven.” There were only a couple of short entries, mostly about Beethoven first dedicating his Kreuzer Sonata to a black violinist named Bridgetower, who had premiered it in Vienna in 1803. But my curiosity had been piqued, so I dug a little deeper and found an excerpt from an article in an old British Musical Quarterly magazine which claimed that Bridgetower, when asked why Beethoven had gotten so angry with him that he destroyed the dedication, replied with something like “I made a saucy remark about a girl.” That’s all there was online. That’s how little information on him the Internet had at the time.
Anyway, I didn’t immediately think, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Frankly, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as an author of poetic sequences: Mother Love, Thomas and Beulah, the sequence from On the Bus with Rosa Parks.* I resisted writing about Bridgetower for a while, though I jotted down into my notebook the few facts I was able to glean because I was curious about him as a human being—what kind of childhood he had and what the world was like for him to live in; how his environment had shaped and reacted to his presence. By the summer of 2003, I had amassed an eclectic collection of notes, including an unfinished drawing of Bridgetower—the only known portrait of him—plus a few affectionate lines Beethoven had scribbled during their brief friendship, inviting George out for a beer.
Still, I resisted; but the triggering moment was sneaking up on me like a perfect storm. A friend invited us to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of parties and barbecues; we cheerfully accepted. But on the day we arrived, he was called back to New York on business. He tossed us the keys, said the house was ours, he’ d be back in three days. There we were, in a beautiful house on a beautiful island, with three agenda-less days to fill. I took my iced tea out to the veranda—it’s that kind of house—and began to look at my notes, and I realized that part of my predicament was my fear of Beethoven, this larger-than-life musical icon, and that I needed to write his point of view, too. I had to muster the courage to imagine the lives of these men—not only George Bridgetower, but the Maestro as well. And since there were barely any factual details to be found, I had to presume—to guess—and believe my imagination was the best research tool. I began musing about their first meeting, and what Ludwig had been doing before this mulatto Wunderkind waltzed into his life. That was the moment I committed myself to writing the book. I was tired of fighting it.
WW: Were you able to research Bridgetower’s life or was everything based on speculation?
RD: There were bits I could research, like tracking his movements through concert appearances: for example, a mention in the Prince Regent’s financial accounts of his having attended—or played at—a particular social event. His living quarters could be gleaned from registries and their location pinpointed with the help of old maps. Library research yielded one really tremendous find: the two-volume diary of Charlotte Papendiek, assistant wardrobe keeper to the Queen of England. Her diary is full of chatty references to fashion and fretting about the weather and her children, but there are lots of intriguing details about the daily lives of those in service to the royal court. It turned out that Charlotte’s husband was a clarinetist, so we also get fascinating glimpses into the musical circles of the day: eventually her husband would sponsor the ten-year-old Bridgetower’s first concert in London, and in the diary the name Friedrich Bridgetower popped up first—George’s father—along with a cryptic mention of the concerts at Bath and Brighton, which sent me to historical records in Bath to check for concerts advertised in that time frame. That’s how I pieced together his childhood; I read both those volumes and chased after any musical reference, no matter how slight. I requested a few articles from the British Library as well. When Charlotte mentioned in her diary that George had played at the Adelphi Theatre, I checked concert programs to find out exactly when that was, and then this question arose: What was the London of 1790 like for a young boy? What did he see, hear, and smell as he walked down the street? That lured me into all sorts of weird tangents: I found myself reading articles with titles like “Street Life in 18th Century London,” which not only introduced me to a host of lively characters but led me to a whole substrata of musicians who played on the streets for money, like the fiddler Black Billy Waters. I tell you, reading all that stuff taught me patience! I couldn’t get up from the desk and declare, “I’m not going to slog through this mess,” because I never knew what tidbit of gossip or sly commentary might lead to the next revelation.
WW: The falling out between Beethoven and Bridgetower is an interesting story because they liked the same barmaid when Beethoven probably could have had any woman he wanted.
RD: Well, what’s interesting is that Beethoven probably wouldn’t have had much luck with women. For his time, he was considered a bit of a dud—a lot of people didn’t like his music and thought it was radical; he was chunky and not exactly handsome and socially inept, yet he tended to fall in love with pretty women. By contrast, Bridgetower was handsome, ten years younger, and by all accounts exceedingly charming. Two musical geniuses, sure—but you can see the train wreck coming. Enter a beautiful girl: and just like that, Bridgetower’s chance for lasting recognition was over, at age twenty-three. He lived to be eighty.
Because I am also a musician, I was able to sift through the reams of material on musical activity in London and Vienna fairly quickly. Here’s a lovely bit of synchronicity: I discovered that young George had played concerts in Paris in 1789, the same year Thomas Jefferson served as ambassador to France. Jefferson was also an amateur violinist; wouldn’t it be amazing if their paths had crossed? I looked and looked, but I wasn’t able to verify a meeting. Finally I sat down and wrote the poem anyway. Then a researcher at Monticello—I had my feelers out there, too—contacted me to say that they had come across an item in one of Jefferson’s accounting books I might want to take a look at. Jefferson kept extensive catalogs of everything—the seeds he planted, the food eaten for lunch—so he also recorded everything he did in Paris. Sure enough, in a list of artists for one of the many concerts Jefferson attended, there it was: the name Bridgetower. It was nice to have my presumptions corroborated!
WW: Back in 1992, during our initial interview, you said you would like to find the time to read a book from cover to cover without interruption. As your career has moved forward, have you been able to do that?
RD: It has gotten more difficult. The Internet has made things worse; even though I have an assistant who answers the phone and keeps my calendar in order, the Internet seeps through everywhere. E-mail is insidious because it demands immediate response, so distraction is persistent; we live in a world of continuous interference. I have yet to find a way to compartmentalize my thinking so that I only look at e-mail from, say, two to four in the afternoon. And since I work at night, I find it hard to write when I first get up, before checking e-mail, because my day begins at noon, when the rest of the world is already chomping at the bit.
But back to reading: Whenever I travel I’ll take a stack of paperbacks, mostly mysteries and detective novels. It’s one of my guilty pleasures; I can finish a crime thriller in one night, and because it’s light reading, if I’m interrupted by an urgent e-mail or some request promising to “only take a moment” of my time, I can pick back up where I stopped reading without much fuss—whereas trying to reenter the multilayered realm of a serious literary text can be frustrating.
WW: If not for poetry, what would you be doing?
RD: I would have been a musician. I would have continued playing the cello. I can’t imagine what else I would do. I don’t know—to read and write for a living, and through the reading and writing be able to travel, to invent worlds through words and yet understand more about myself as I’m writing—this is the dream I’ve been living, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
*Editor’s note: Vendler’s review appeared in the New York Review of Books on 24 November 2011; Dove’s response was printed in the 22 December 2011 issue of the same.
*Editor’s note: This sequence first appeared in The Georgia Review (Winter 1998) and is still available as a signed, limited-edition chapbook.