Rita Dove on Poetic History, Her Book Sonata Mullatica, and Her Upcoming Visit to ASU

If National Poetry Month had its own celebrity spokesperson, you couldn't do better than Rita Dove.

She has the kind of musical voice that makes everything she says sound like poetry, and she is frequently photographed wearing bright lipstick.

She also has a laundry list of major credentials, like the Pulitzer Prize and a 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, but from1981 to 1989, she taught creative writing here in Arizona, at ASU. She'll be back in the Valley April 12, to deliver the annual Lorraine W. Frank Lecture for the Arizona Humanities Council, sponsored by ASU's Project Humanities, in honor of poetry month.

For the lecture, Dove plans to read from and talk about Sonata Mullatica, her 2009 book-length narrative poem about the English violin virtuoso George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.

The son of a Polish father and a West Indian mother, Bridgetower met Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna in 1803 and so impressed the composer that Beethoven wrote a sonata for him. But after the two men got into an argument (over a remark Bridgetower made about a woman, according to one account), Beethoven rededicated the piece to someone else. The two men never reconciled, and Bridgetower died in poverty.

Dove, who studied cello for decades and now plays the viola da gamba, says she first came across Bridgetower when she was younger.

"As an African American classical musician," Dove says, "I was aware of other people of African descent who were in the classics, because there were so few. So I had heard about this prodigy mixed race violinist from Beethoven's time. But I'd forgotten about him."

It wasn't until she was watching "Immortal Beloved," the Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman, that Bridgetower's story struck a chord.

"There was a scene in there where (Beethoven) walks through a room of musicians who are clamoring to play with him, and one of them was a black violinist, at least in the movie, and I thought to myself, 'Who is this guy and why is he in Austria in the 1800s?'"

She googled "black violinist" and "Beethoven" and found one short entry (this was in the early 2000s), but it took her a while to do more than that.

"I don't look for topics," Dove says. "They kind of find me and wrestle me to the ground." And this one seemed "too big." For one thing, she knew that if she wrote about Bridgetower, she'd have to confront Beethoven, which was daunting. But still, she was curious.

"I was haunted by this life that had disappeared so utterly. Beethoven had composed a sonata for him. He had called it the Bridgetower Sonata. So what happened?"

And Dove found herself driven by something more than just curiosity.

"Finally here was a person who I felt I understood," she says. "These are things that i've been thinking about all my life: Why is it an oddity for a black woman to play the cello or to study German and actually like German? That says something about our supposed colorblindness."

Dove speaks fluent German -- she chose to study it in high school because "everyone else chose French" -- and she says she often meets people professionally who are puzzled by her choice.

"On a nice day, i would say that they were just surprised it was German, that they didn't think of German as a particularly poetic language. But on most other days I would say that they thought that i would pick a language that would be closer to my roots. Meaning that i would choose French, or something like that. Or Swahili. But at least French.

"it's the same thing happened with the cello. I played cello, and people would say, 'Cello. Wow. Gosh.' And they would say, 'What about jazz?' And I would say, 'Well, I love jazz too, but i also love classical music.' And there would be this absolute bafflement about my love for classical music. So part of that sense of otherness I could translate into exploring Bridgetower's sense of otherness.

"In the end," Dove says, "I just thought there were so many things that were right up my alley, that I felt I could go into the 19th century armed with the trust that human beings, at some level, connect across ages."

Dove will speak at Tempe Mission Palms this Thursday, April 12 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.. The event is free and open to the public. More info about the annual Lorraine W. Frank Lecture & Humanities Awards can be found here

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Deborah H. Sussman