Former poet laureate talks life experience
Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 00:04
American poet Rita Dove has always been interested in people on the underside of history—the “thoroughly forgotten” of the past who have been lost through lack of documentation.
Dove said she doesn’t have a specific place where she finds inspiration to write, but finds rather a “musicality” to the lives of everyday people.
“I never really know when something is going to strike me,” Dove said in an interview. “I think reading is what started me writing. As a kid when I was reading, I’d write stories. All of life and any moment can be an inspiration.”
As part of the Transnational Encounters Visiting Writers Series, Dove detailed her research process and the creation of her latest book of poems “Sonata Mulattica” in the Trabant University Center Multipurpose Rooms on Thursday. The theme of unnoticed people appears in “Sonata Mulattica,” which explores the life of one of Beethoven’s accompaniments.
The event was organized and hosted by the Department of English, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and the Department of Women and Gender Studies, which celebrated its 40th anniversary with the Dove lecture.
Dove, one of the foremost poets of contemporary literature who is recognized for her poetry both nationally and internationally, has received numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987, the title of United States Poet Laureate, National Humanities Medal and a National Medal of Arts.
Her interest in documenting unknown lives began with her desire to know her grandparents better. They had passed away by the time Dove received the Pulitzer Prize for her book about their lives, “Thomas and Beulah.”
“I was just hoping that somebody would read that and say, ‘Yeah, this is a whole era that’s gone unnoticed of ordinary people,’” Dove said in an interview.
During the lecture, Dove read excerpts from “Sonata Mulattica” and spoke about re-creating the life of an unknown man, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Her novel illuminates the life of the biracial violin prodigy who is otherwise lost among the records of celebrity musicians.
Freshman Jerelene Thorpe was one of many in the audience who was not aware of Bridgetower’s existence.
“I didn’t know there was someone along [Ludwig van] Beethoven accompanying him,” Thorpe said. “Everyone knows Beethoven, but no one had ever heard of Bridgetower.”
Dove presented excerpts of her poems with a slideshow of pictures of the ottoman janissary, Windsor Castle and King George’s castle to illustrate the culture and events in her poems.
Sophomore Alex Carroll thought the presentation made the lecture more interesting and helped communicate Bridgetower’s life.
“I always think these talks are more interesting than you expect them to be,” Carroll said. “I’ve never seen information presented like that with poems. She really told the history and the story.”
The idea to write about Bridgetower’s life came to Dove after she watched the film “Immortal Beloved,” which documents the life of Beethoven. One scene stood out in Dove’s mind, where Beethoven passes a troupe of musicians with a black violinist. This prompted her to do research, which illuminated the violinist as Bridgetower, a mixed-race prodigy.
The movie, Dove said, seemed like serendipity.
“I was fascinated by his very existence-a biracial prodigy violinist at the turn of the 19th century,” Dove said in an interview. “What was it like for him as a biracial person? At first I thought it was a case of prejudice and I was imposing my 21st century ideas of what race meant on the 19th century.”
Dove said her background strongly attracted her to Bridgetower’s story and before beginning to write, she wanted to understand as much as history would allow her.
“Sonata Mulattica” is different from Dove’s other books due to the amount of research she conducted, Dove said in an interview.
The research forms the sensibility of the book, Dove said, but due to the limits of documented history, the poems mix fact with fiction to provide her depiction of Bridgetower’s life.
“I was poking and prying with purpose,” Dove said at the lecture. “I didn’t know what I would find when I poked.”
Dove discovered that Joseph Haydn trained Bridgetower when he was a boy, Thomas Jefferson saw him perform and Beethoven composed a Sonata named after him, though it was later renamed.
Freshman Gerti Wilson said she thought the most interesting part of Dove’s lecture was elaborating on little-known pieces of history. Her talk reiterated the point that some people can be remembered and famed while others can be completely forgotten.
“Through in-depth research you can look through the archives and look through history and you can bring people back to life just through narrative, discourse and writing,” Wilson said.
Justine Hofherr contributed to reporting in this article.