Poet Rita Dove explores creativity

There was always music in Rita Dove’s childhood Ohio home.

In the morning it could be a lively flute sonata or a lush Bessie Smith tune playing on the family stereo. In the afternoon it could be the sound of young Rita practicing on her cello. By high school she and some friends had formed a jazz ensemble that delivered Nina Simone ballads as well as tricky compositions of jazz fusion.

And long after she turned to words as her primary creative medium, Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the former poet laureate of the United States, continued to create music and draw on it for literary inspiration.

It is this union of words and music that will be at the heart of Dove’s three-day public residency called “Entering the World Through Language,” which begins Sunday at Emory University. The event will include readings and performances from Dove’s acclaimed 2009 book of poetry “Sonata Mulattica,” as well as conversations among Dove, noted composer Alvin Singleton, maestro Robert Spano of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Emory professor Natasha Trethewey.

Only three African- American women have ever been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, who is deceased, Trethewey and Dove.

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“One aspect of her poetry is her ability to tell a completely absorbing story,” said Rudolph Byrd, director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory and a longtime acquaintance of Dove. “And she has always been interested in larger themes of history and place. The story she has told in ‘Sonata Mulattica’ is a story that I didn’t know and that most people in the United States don’t know.”

“Sonata Mulattica,” doesn’t so much document as it reimagines the life of the prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Bridgetower was an 18th-century violinist, the son of a black father and a white mother, who served as an inspiration and something of a muse to Beethoven. What is now known as the “Kreutzer Sonata” was originally dedicated to Bridgetower and first bore the name “Sonata Mulattica.” The two played it together, Beethoven on piano, Bridgetower on violin. But after a spat between the two men over the affections of a woman, Beethoven removed Bridgetower’s name from the piece and it became known as the “Kreutzer.”

And for centuries since, Bridgetower’s name has remained relatively obscure, even for a cellist, poet and trained opera singer like Dove.

“How is it that something so phenomenal could be completely buried?” Dove said. “At first I had to dig it up in specialty publications.”

The more she read, the more intrigued she became. And the more intrigued, the more daunted, as she realized that she would have to take this man’s life on in verse.

“At first I thought, ‘This subject is just too big for me,’ ” Dove said. “But once I started I couldn’t stop. I was astonished at the contemporary parallels.”

For one, Bridgetower had a father that fit the very definition of a stage parent, pushing his son to perform for the right people so that the family could gain entry into some of the most rarefied circles in Europe. There was the inevitable rivalry between older mentor and younger mentee.

Then there was the musical relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower. Dove said that it had an improvisational quality that she has experienced in performing jazz music.

“There was call and response in the work,” Dove said.

The actual sonata will be performed Sunday night after Dove reads passages from her book. Though she’s an accomplished musician, she will not be playing an instrument. She laughed easily at the thought of it.

“It would be an insult to every musician in the audience for me to get up in front of everyone and play,” she said. “When I read my work, I try to bring out the music I hear when I’m writing it.”


Event preview: “Entering the World Through Language”

Sunday-Tuesday. Emory University. 404-727-2031, www.emory.edu

● Sunday: Rita Dove reads from “Sonata Mulattica,” followed by a performance of the sonata. 7 p.m. Schwartz Center for the Arts, 1700 N. Decatur Road.

● Monday: Conversation on creativity with Dove, composer Alvin Singleton and Robert Spano of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. 6 p.m. Presentation Room, 1390 Oxford Road.

● Tuesday: Creativity conversation between Dove and poet Natasha Trethewey. 6 p.m. Governor’s Hall, Miller-Ward Alumni House, 815 Houston Mill Road.

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