October 2010 Issue
Sharing the Beauty of Language
Poet Rita Dove returns home for a special award.
Rita Dove is soaring. As autumn dawns, the renowned poet is preparing to wing her way toward a whirlwind round of speaking engagements in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New York. She’ll also be making a stop in Washington, D.C., to read her work at the Library of Congress and the White House.
“The next few weeks,” she admits with a laugh, “are going to be very, very busy.”
And on October 15, her journey will come full circle. Dove is returning to Ohio — the place where she was born, raised and attended college — to receive the Book Award for Poetry from the Ohioana Library Association. The awards ceremony is part of a two-day celebration in Columbus that includes a Friday evening panel discussion and Saturday luncheon at the Statehouse.
It’s a weekend the Akron native is looking forward to.
“No matter where I go, Ohio always seems to be in my thoughts,” says Dove, 58, during a phone interview from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she’s a professor of English. “It’s where I’m from. It’s where I feel at home.”
“I do a great deal of traveling, and when I cross the state line and hear that the speech inflections are slightly different, I say, ‘Ah, that’s me,’” Dove adds with fondness.
The Ohioana Award is the latest in her litany of achievements, which span more than two decades. In 1993, Dove was named one of 10 Outstanding Women of the Year by Glamour
magazine, and the NAACP honored her with its Great American Artist Award. That same year, she was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, making Dove the youngest person and the first African American to receive this highest official honor in American letters. During her two-year term, she presided over national ceremonies and coordinated poetry readings across the country.
To celebrate the millennium, Dove collaborated with composer John Williams for director Steven Spielberg’s “The Unfinished Journey,” a documentary about American life and history that premiered at the Lincoln Memorial on New Year’s Eve 1999. She’s also narrated an NPR program about songstress Billie Holiday and a PBS documentary on Southern literature, appeared on “Sesame Street” with Big Bird, and has been a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Dove’s penchant for rhyme and verse hark back to what she describes as an idyllic childhood in Akron, where she was the second of four children. Her father, Ray, was a research chemist at Goodyear. Her mother, Elvira, was the quintessential stay-at-home mom who loved quoting lines from Shakespeare as she cared for her family. Dove happily reminisces about the summers she and older brother Tom whiled away by penning short stories, plays and poems revolving around Jet Boy and Jet Girl — two superheroes the siblings created.
“For me,” she says, “writing was one wonderful way of exploring the world.”
After graduating from Buchtel High School in 1970, Dove attended Miami University in Oxford, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1973 with a bachelor of arts degree in English. She earned her master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop four years later.
Along the way, Dove has always been grateful for the pivotal role the printed word has played in her life.
“When I was poet laureate, people would write to me about their experiences with the poetry that had changed their life,” she recalls. “Yet, very often, they’d preface their story by admitting they didn’t know much about poetry or didn’t understand it.
“My goal,” Dove explains, “has always been to reduce that fear. And I began to realize that I was really lucky because I had always had books around me and parents who let me read anything that I could.”
“I was given the opportunity,” she adds, “to approach poetry on my own terms.”
It’s easy to hear why Dove is warmly received wherever she travels. Never pompous or presumptuous, her poems come straight from her heart and reflect universal thoughts, feelings and emotions. The ballroom dance classes she took with her husband, German novelist Fred Viebahn, for example, served as the springboard for American Smooth
, a vibrant exploration of rhythm, music and life. Dove put her readers On the Bus with Rosa Parks
when she paid homage to the acclaimed civil rights activist and other African American women who’ve stoically endured personal suffering to make the world a better place. And the familial joys and heartaches her maternal grandparents experienced inspired Thomas and Beulah
, the collection of 44 poems for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, when she was 34 years old.
Clearly, Dove’s topics are as diverse as her verse. And, she adds, never planned.
“My subjects always find me. I never go in search of them,” Dove says simply, as she explains how her latest book, Sonata Mulattica
, came to be. She and Fred had rented “Immortal Beloved,” the 1994 biopic about the life of Ludwig van Beethoven, and the two settled in for a quiet evening at home. As the DVD progressed, Dove was startled to see a black face in the crowd of musicians clustered around the composer.
“My husband and I looked at each other, as if to say, ‘Well, we’ve heard of colorblind casting, but this goes a bit too far,’” Dove recalls. “But by the end of the movie, I realized that they wouldn’t have put this black man in it unless he had really been there.”
Dove turned off the TV, Googled “black violinist” and “Beethoven,” and was introduced to George Polgreen Bridgetower, a mixed-race violin prodigy whom Beethoven met in 1803. As the story goes, the two become friends and the great composer writes violin sonata No. 9 in A major for him. Bridgetower plays it beautifully and Beethoven is bowled over. During the celebration that follows, Bridgetower makes a cheeky remark about a woman Beethoven knows. A quarrel ensues, Beethoven renounces the violinist and rededicates the sonata.
“My curiosity was immediately piqued,” Dove recalls. “As a writer, I always keep a notebook nearby, so I jotted the facts I learned in it and set it aside.”
But Bridgetower was never far away.
“George haunted me for a year,” she adds, “before I decided to slip into his skin and do something about it.”
Published in 2009, Sonata Mulattica
is patterned after a composition in five movements. Dove describes it as “a tale of light and shadow.” The New York Times
lauded her for “breathing life” into a virtuoso who’d been relegated to footnote status in classical music history.
“Poetry is the most musical way of expressing one’s soul,” Dove says. “It moves, it uses the beauty of the language to convince and cajole.
“There’s nothing I love more,” she adds, “than sharing that.”
For more information about the Ohioana Awards celebration, visit ohioana.org.