Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952 as the daughter of the first African American research chemist who broke the race barrier in the tire industry. Her mother, Elvira Dove nee Hord, had been an honors student in high school and loved to read literature -- a passion her daughter would share with her early on. Dove graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from Miami University in 1973 and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1977. Her time in Iowa was a turning point in her life: In the fall of 1976, a promising German writer, Fred Viebahn, came to the United States as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. The two young rising writers fell in love and married in 1979. Their daughter, Aviva, was born in 1983 in Arizona, during Dove’s tenure as assistant professor in the English Department at Arizona State University in Tempe (1981-1989). Dove left Arizona State with the rank of full professor for a position as Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In 1993, she was named Commonwealth Professor of English, a position she continues to hold.
In Iowa City, Dove lived in a rented apartment at 24 Van Buren Street, and Fred Viebahn lived in the Mayflower dorm. The Dove-Viebahn family kindly provided pictures of the time showing various aspects of their life here.
Dove was 27 when Carnegie Mellon University Press published her first collection of poems, The Yellow House on the Corner. The Rita Dove’s Plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk has a quote from this collection:
"Sometimes a word is found so right it trembles at the slightest explanation."
Searching for these right words led Dove to write poetry that secured her a lasting place in American literature. Between 1980 and 1999 (“before the fire”) she published seven collections of poems, a collection of short stories, Fifth Sunday, 1985, a novel, Through The Ivory Gate, 1992, and a play, The Darker Face of Earth, 1994. She was awarded a number of prizes and awards, among which are: the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Thomas and Beulah, 1987; the Ohioana Award for Grace Notes, 1990; the Carl Sandburg Award, 1994; and the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, 1996. Dove was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995 and Special Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress bicentennial in 1999-2000. From 2004 to 2006, she served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia. Dove has received honorary doctorates from 22 American Universities. Currently, she is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She is a member both of New York-based PEN American Center and Los Angeles-based PEN USA. Dove taught creative writing at Arizona State University from 1981 to 1989 and is teaching creative writing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville since 1989.
In 2004, after five years of hard work, she published American Smooth that “pulls the ultimate dance trick: she makes it look easy” and in which the poems “possess an elegant aggression all their own.”1 In 2009, Dove published another major poetic work, Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. The story of her character, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, is “a corrective to the notion that certain cultural forms are somehow the province of particular groups.” 2In Sonata Mulattica, Dove has breathed life into the almost legendary story of that violin virtuoso, the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father, who died in South London in 1860. The poet imagines, that “this bright-skinned papa’s boy/could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame/straight into the record books.” When Bridgetower was 23, Beethoven composed a sonata, which the two men performed for the first time in Vienna in 1803, with Beethoven on piano and Bridgetower on violin. The sonata was dedicated to Bridgetower. Shortly thereafter, apparently in a fit of pique after a quarrel over a woman, Beethoven removed Bridgetower’s name from the sonata, and, by the time it was published, in 1805, it had morphed into the “Kreutzer” Sonata, dedicated to the French violinist Rudolph Kreutzer, who disliked it, saying it was unplayable, and never performed it. This true story inspired Dove to compose her poetic narrative about Bridgetower, the mulatto of Sonata Mulattica.
The story of the book’s conception was told by Dove in an interview taken by Charles Henry Rowell.3
“ROWELL: How did you come to the subject of Sonata Mulattica? What led you to this story, the life of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower?
DOVE: It was one of those things that seemed to be waiting for me: This book was waiting for me. I think my background had a lot to do with it—because I am a classically trained cellist, because there’s always been a special place in my work for people who drop out of history. I came upon Bridgetower’s story by a fluke: In 2003 I had just finished my last poetry collection, American Smooth, and was taking a break, slacking off by watching movies and reading crime novels while copy-editing the new book. One night Fred and I rented a movie on Beethoven called Immortal Beloved, which wasn’t supposed to be very good, but we decided to watch it anyway, just for the music. There’s a scene in the film—just a brief moment—where Beethoven walks through a room and you see a black violinist. I looked over at Fred and said, “What’s that?” Was this some kind of “politically correct” colorblind casting, or what? I ran to the Internet and found out that indeed, at one point there had been a black violinist in Beethoven’s life, and so I began to research George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. I soon realized that I had known the rudimentary story long before that movie pointed me in this direction but that I had passed it by because I hadn’t been ready for it yet. Now the fascination with this oddity began to grip me, so I jotted down some notes in my notebook, thinking I might write a poem about this character who had had a role in musical history and then pretty much vanished. At that point I wasn’t ready to write the poem; I had notes, I had scribbled a few lines, and that was it. A year later, I was busy going on the road with American Smooth, and every once in awhile I would come across my Polgreen notes, as I called them, and say to myself, “No, I’m just not there yet.”
Finally, in the spring of 2005, after Carnival in Venice where we attended several balls with faux Renaissance scenery and costumes, and after five weeks of traveling around Australia in a motor home where I gained not only geographical distance to daily life but distance of the mind, I began to write a few snippets and do more and more research; the deeper I delved—every time I turned a corner, so to speak—another fascinating tidbit would emerge. So I dedicated an empty notebook to him and to everything about that time period. Part of me was terrified because not only was I going to have to deal with this mulatto violinist, but with the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century, England, Vienna, and of course Beethoven and Joseph Haydn: the Big Boys... you know, the marble busts standing on your piano.
Then, in the summer of 2005, Fred and I were invited to Martha’s Vineyard to spend a week at Peter Norton’s house in Oak Bluffs, and we were looking forward to a completely relaxing time. The day we arrived, Peter greeted us with his bags packed. He had to go back to New York for a couple of days and was very apologetic. “Please, just make yourselves at home,” he said—and left us alone in his gorgeous house for three days. Suddenly there was this little pocket of time I hadn’t planned for with no obligations, not even social ones—nothing but a beautiful wrap-around porch and a table where I sat down and looked through my Polgreen notebook. This unexpected free time pushed me deeper into the story, and by the time Peter returned from New York, I had finished pretty good drafts of three poems. At that point, I also sketched out an outline and realized that it might turn into a big book, one I would need plenty of time to flesh out. As I said, the book had been waiting for me to be ready to devote the energy that Bridgetower demanded. … MORE
From Private Experience to Universal Meaning
Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn have lived in Charlottesville since 1989. They had a fire in 1998: lightning struck their house. Dove speaks about the effect of the fire on her writing in an interview with Camille T. Dungy, which was conducted after the publishing of her seminal book American Smooth (W.W. Norton & CO: New York, 2004)4
“BEYOND THE FACT that it’s the kind of tragedy you work your way out of, it also split the creative work. I identify my poems now as “before the fire” and “after the fire.” I was halfway through a book when the fire intervened; the manuscript took a different path, and the path it took turned out to be American Smooth.
Because of the fire, my husband and I began ballroom dancing. After about a week of recovery, our neighbors came up to us and said, “It’s time to get out of the ashes. We’ve bought tickets for a dinner dance this weekend, so Rita, buy a dress; Fred, get a tuxedo. Let’s have fun.” We went; and when we saw people dancing—really dancing, like swooping across the floor—I said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that.” […]
The title [American Smooth] refers to a type of ballroom dancing—American smooth is the jazzier, American version of fox trots, tangos, and waltzes. When I first encountered the term, it seemed representative of so much that is quintessentially American. By ”quintessentially American” I mean more African American, the way we kind of riff on things and make them our own. And that became the overlying metaphor of the entire book, the idea of taking whatever you’re handed—whether it’s history’s ironies or a dance style—and making it your own.
DUNGY: You speak several different languages. You’re also a musician; you play the viola da gamba and the cello. Now you speak the language of dance, which has its own technical terms and its own physical language. How has the language of dance influenced your poetry? […]
DOVE: Well, in some ways all of us have different languages that we move by, that we think by. […] I can say that dance has brought more physicality into my life—when you dance, you have to get up and move—but I also think it adds more body to the poems; they want to get up off the page and strut around. There’s an energy in the new poems that’s different from the energy that happened before.
I’ve always been intensely musical, and my poems have often reflected that musical impulse. First of all, let me say it straight out: I believe that if a poem doesn’t sing, it has no business being a poem. Granted, each poem must have its own music, but it should sing that music without any kind of shame. During the course of my writing life I’ve heard and played many different musics—blues and jazz, call-and-response, symphonic and ensemble—and I think now my poems are actually getting up and walking around. […]
DUNGY: You talk about the different ways that you use the term “American Smooth” and what that implies in terms of being American and operating in this world. One of the things that is a central part of the book are the soldiers in World War I. Could you talk about how you became interested in these soldiers? In particular in the journal that you use with the poem “The Passage”?
DOVE: Those poems started over 20 years ago with a beautiful photo I had seen, I can’t remember where—one of the black army regiments from World War I: Lieutenant James Europe’s military jazz band marching up Fifth Avenue in perfect formation, for the Victory Parade in 1919. These proud black soldiers who had brought jazz to Europe—what was it like to play while the fighting raged around them? […] I discovered they had enlisted as Americans but had entered the war under French command because the leaders of the segregated U.S. forces could not envision black soldiers fighting side by side with white soldiers. Just one more of those absurd situations produced by this country’s racial trauma. What incredible story—here they were, fighting in the war that was supposed to make the world “safe for democracy.” Yet coming from a country that clearly had not been honoring the spirit of democracy and would not live up to its promise of democracy upon their return. The more I read, the more amazed I was. So little was known about these men! […]
Saturday, March 30, 1917
this morning at 2:45, breakfast at 3:30,
a beautiful sky, warm, and the moon bright.
I slept in my clothes, overcoat and socks […]
It is now 4:30 in the afternoon.
The whistle has blown for us
and everybody ordered down off deck.
I am not worried; I am anxious to go.
I turned my head to see how the fellow next to me,
Corporal Crawford from Massachusetts,
was taking it. Our eyes met and we both smiled.
Not that we thought it was funny, but— we were soldiers.
There are more things in this world
than a woman’s tears.
I began thinking about how I wanted to present these remarkable soldiers. Ideally as individuals—let each man speak his piece, bear witness in his own particular way. “The Passage” emerged from a marvelous bit of serendipity … it was a gift, actually, in the purest and least metaphoric sense of that word. In 1987, when I received the Pulitzer Prize, I was living in Tempe, Arizona; when interviewers asked what I was working on, I mentioned World War I soldier poems. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by an elderly black gentleman, already in his late eighties then, who had retired from Ohio to Tucson. “You know,” he said, “I kept a diary during my tour of duty; I’d be happy to talk to you.” So my husband, Fred, and I drove down to Tucson and spend a wonderful afternoon with him and his wife. As we were preparing to leave, he gave me his diary and said: “I’m not going to use it anymore. I remember it all: I don’t need a diary.” What a treasure! […] I tried to be true to his words—the innocence, the hope that was also a kind of stoicism—“Okay, I’m not going to be afraid, I’m a soldier. I know what’s expected of me”—indeed, the honor with which he entered battle.
DUNGY: [In your work] there’s history from an official sense—this is the story that happened, let me reinvestigate the story. There’s the personal history, just as you’re talking about with “The Passage.” And there’s the speculative history, as you’re talking with the James Europe poems—these are stories we have, images you have, about James Europe, Hattie McDaniel. […] I remember in the poems in On the Bus with Rosa Parks you look at figures of other people on the bus, people you don’t often hear about, as well as Rosa Parks. What do you think about the intersection between those different kinds of history?
DOVE: I consciously work at exploring them because I find those junctures—where History with a capital H intersects with lower-case history—fascinating. I believe each of us experiences history on all these levels. […]
I was 17 when I graduated from high school in 1970; the Watts riots happened five years before that, and though I was aware of them—you had to be locked up under a mountain not to notice that the country was erupting—I was 12 or 13 years old then and obviously wouldn’t have been actively engaged in protest. So I listened to adults talking. For a large part of my life growing up, I felt I was watching history occur; I was on the sidelines. The march on Washington—August 28, 1963—took place on my eleventh birthday. My whole family drove down to Washington so my father could march, and I stayed at my grown cousin’s house watching it on TV. I was always looking through those kinds of frames, which influenced my perspectives greatly. And during the big Vietnam protests, I was still too young to demonstrate in the streets. So it set me to questioning—I think every human being, at some point, wonders about things like this—if the situation presented itself, would I have protested or not? Would I have been the person to remain seated on the bus in Montgomery in 1955? Would I have been the person to get arrested or clubbed in Selma? How much do we imagine we would do the right thing, and how ready would we really be when it came to putting it on the line? That’s the central question in my book On the Bus with Rosa Parks. Who among us would have been ready to do what she did?
DUNGY: Do you think you would have gone on the march?
DOVE: I remember watching it on television and wanting to be there. My cousin said, “You’re too young, you’re staying right here.” But I really wanted to be part of that crowd. And later, when I graduated from high school, college in the early seventies for me was in the small town of Oxford, Ohio—let’s put it this way: I was spared that decision.
DUNGY: […] In many of your poems, there’s this potential for violence, a barely masked sense of destruction or potential for destruction. You even speak about it in the epigraph to one section of American Smooth. There you say, “Our hearts are forged out of barbarism and violence” and that “we learned to control it, but it is still part of us.” Can you talk about the way that tension between the potential for violence and the decision not to act in violence is coming through in your poems? I’m thinking particularly about “Meditation at 50 Yards, Moving Target.”
Meditation at Fifty Yards, Moving Target
Never point your weapon, keep your finger
off the trigger. Assume a loaded barrel
even when it isn’t, especially when you know it isn’t.
Glocks are lightweight but sensitive;
the Keltec has a long pull and a kick.
Rifles have penetrating power, viz.:
if the projectile doesn’t lodge in its mark,
it will travel some distance
until it finds shelter; it will certainly
pierce your ordinary drywall partition.
You could wound the burglar and kill your child
sleeping in the next room, all with one shot.
Fear, of course. Then the sudden
pleasure of heft—as if the hand
has always yearned for this solemn
fit, this gravitas, and now had found
its true repose.
Don’t pull the trigger, squeeze it—
squeeze between heartbeats.
Look down the sights. Don’t
hold your breath. Don’t hold
anything, just stop breathing.
Level the scene with your eyes. Listen
Soft, now: squeeze.
Guys like noise: rapid fire,
think-and-slide of a blunt-nose sliver Mossberg,
or double-handed Colts, slugging it out from the hips.
Rambo or cowboy, they’ll whoop it up.
Women are fewer, more elegant.
They prefer precision:
tin cans swing-dancing in the trees,
the paper bull’s-eye’s tidy rupture at fifty yards.
(Question: If you were being pursued,
how would you prefer to go down—
ripped through a blanket of fire
or plucked by one incandescent
dark dark no wind no heaven
i am not anything not borne on air i bear
myself I can slice the air no wind
can hold me let me let me
go i can see yes
o aperture o light let me off
go off straight is my verb straight
my glory road yes now i can feel
it the light i am flame velocity o
beautiful body i am coming i am yours
before you know it
i am home
DOVE: The idea of mastering the potential for violence is certainly the spirit in which I was raised. The nonviolent tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: know your enemy but never let them see you sweat. If you react to their taunts, if you explode in violence, then they’ve won. What you have to do is get better than they are. And then there was Malcolm X on the other end, scaring the white folks silly. There are positive aspects as well as dangers to either approach. But adhering to the principle of nonviolence was how I was raised. Being naturally shy, it was a path I walk fairly easily.
I believe that my poems work best when violence simmers just under the surface. It’s more frightening, more threatening, to feel it is right beneath the polite, contained exterior, ready to burst. Take the poem “Meditation at 50 Yards, Moving Target.” It’s a poem about guns and the eerie pleasure of target shooting, the power and the danger. Since gun control is a very bristly topic in this country—everyone has an opinion—our defenses go up immediately. I wanted to circumvent all that by backing into the issue.
The personal story behind all this begins with the house fire, too. My husband and I took up target practice when a neighbor approached us after the fire and offered to teach us how to shoot. He said we should at least know something about self-defense. He was a retired high-ranking army officer. He started out from the standpoint of safety—here’s what to do to keep from shooting off your own toe; this is what you need to know in order not to hurt anyone. I didn’t want anything to do with the whole thing—forget it, I don’t want to hold the gun, this is horrible. But as I began firing, I felt something very interesting happening—an immense, unsettling pleasure, a strange sense of power and possibility. Now, I could have sat at my desk and denied those feelings, said no, this is wrong. But that doesn’t mean the sensation doesn’t exist, nonetheless. I think it’s important to acknowledge these kinds of feelings if we’re going to understand anything at all about controlling them.
Also, it really gives you a strong sensation of success to be able to hit a target. I’m not talking about just guns; I’m talking about all the kinds of targets one aims for.
So I wanted to get at that sense of exaltation—the beauty of a gun with a name like Glock, or Keltec. And then, right in the middle of that beauty, to remember that this thing can kill. It can go through walls. To comprehend that kind of power unleashed, not only the beauty but the danger—not only the danger but the beauty. At the end of the poem, I have a bullet speak, which is a strange thing to do. There’s something unimaginable about a bullet, how fast and single-minded it is, how completely without right or wrong. I enjoyed inhabiting the bullet’s consciousness, though it scared me to death. But I gradually understood that the challenge was, in essence, the point: a bullet moves so fast, faster than thought—it’s pure body, yet it takes the body with it as it burrows through. To render that kind of violence in a restrained manner is to my mind more penetrating (pun intended) than an outburst of protest. Because vehement protest only convinces those who already believe. You’re preaching to the choir. It’s better to sneak in and get to someone before they know they’ve been persuaded. […]
In this poem, the focal point won’t stay still and we circle it as well—let’s look at safety, let’s consider men versus women, who’s the better shot, let’s take the bullet’s perspective, let’s analyze the act of squeezing the trigger, how controlled an action that is, if you really want to hit your mark. I never sit down to write a poem in […] parts. On the other hand, it’s rare that I’m writing and think it’s finished when it’s not. […] I knew that “Meditation at 50 Yards” would have at least two parts. “Safety First” talks about how a gun should be handled. And I knew there would have to be something about male/female differences, which became the third section, called “Gender Politics.” I learned that women tend to be better shots than men because our heartbeat is slower; we actually shake less. But writing that section led to the fourth part about the bullet. Now, the last thing I thought I’d ever do was to write from the point of view of a bullet. But by then I’d reached the point where accuracy depends on the speed of a heartbeat. How close is that to pure body? How intimate is that? That’s when I thought, oh gosh, I’ve got to do the bullet. People think I’m out of my mind!”
“Poetry unfolds at the heart of the language. If one is going to succumb to the spell of writing, then it seems to me that poetry is the purest love. It’s adoring the very syllables on which everything hinges. And not only the syllables, but the breath between syllables. It verges on the first utterance ever made by Homo sapiens that was understood by other Homo sapiens. Therefore, writing poetry approaches anthropology. And it embodies music, because it relies on sound, sound that has been made to spawn an emotional response. And then history comes in, and linguistics. History because words change their meaning, and the way that they make us feel changes with that meaning.
[…] [Poetry] takes on music, for example, or that when I string words into sentences that spiral down the invisible central axis on the page, the thrill derived from fitting things together—which in turn becomes a third, larger entity—is similar to sewing or doing crossword puzzles, two of my passion hobbies. Gosh! Then there’s the lure of history with its event trajectories and my general love for books—the feel of pages turning, the discovery of little-known facts, philosophy of why we are here and keep insisting on proclaiming, “We are here! We are here!” Poetry can contain all those things. To me it’s the noblest of arts.
[…] Poetry was my first real passion. It will always be my true love. It is glorious and impossible and bigger than me.
DUNGY: How do you think that your poetry has influenced other poets?
DOVE: If anything, I’m part of a tradition that is still growing among African-American poets: that is, finally exploring the freedom to write about anything we choose without it necessarily having to be about “being black”—whatever one imagines by that. To have the poetry emanate from the entire person, with race, gender, age, etc emerging in the poems as needed, as they color the life, without such distinction being the sole point of the poem. I hope poets of my generation and younger no longer feel the “burden of explanation”—that […] as a minority we should explain our cultural references in the text of the work itself. You know, the Norton Anthology has footnotes telling you what a bodkin is or what Keats meant by “lucent fans” or “dales of Arcady”; and no one thinks anything of looking up all the footnotes to “The Wasteland.” And yet an African-American writer would be expected to explicate “Dixie Peach” within the context of the poem. What I’m saying is we should be able to write “Dixie Peach” in full confidence that a reader won’t merely ask, “What the hell is that?” and feel excluded, but will be interested enough to look it up. I think the more diverse our writing becomes, the more it touches on all aspects of life as if it’s the most natural thing in the world—and it is—then the more that burden will be relieved. I do think that some of that is contained in my work.”5
“ALEXANDER: What advice do you have for young poets?
DOVE: First of all, keep aspiring—stay curious, hungry, alive. And secondly, read. It’s amazing how many young poets aren’t reading. They’re writing away, you know, they want everyone else to read their work. I say to them, “Think about it: if you’re not going to be reading anybody else, why should anybody else read you!” Also, if you don’t like to read, you’re not writing for the right reasons. You’re not writing because you love poetry; you’re writing because you want attention. […] I would get so angry at young women students who turned up their noses at T. S. Eliot, or the black writer who would read only Eldridge Cleaver because he was young and angry; I was ready to scream: “Dostoyevsky! Read Dostoyevsky, if you want to know something about punishment and torture.”
And my third bit of advice, I guess, is to believe that what you have to say, what you have lived and thought and felt, is important and deserves to be told to someone else. That doesn’t absolve you from the task of revision. It’s not the fact that you’ve lived it that makes an experience meaningful; that’s where you begin. Don’t let anyone tell you because you grew up in, say, Akron, Ohio, you can’t write about Akron, Ohio because it’s not Paris, France. We all can’t be from Paris. It’s probably very difficult to write about Paris, anyway, so many have written about it before. So—you have your own song to sing, and there’s no event too small or seemingly insignificant that happened to you that may not blossom into a poem.”6
The Sky Is the Limit
When the sky’s the limit, how can you tell you’ve gone too far?
“I ask myself that question to make sure I keep going further. You might want to say to some writers, “Put a lid on it”; I always have to remind myself to dare a bit more, because I have a natural tendency to be economical in my work, not to wander “off topic” or get too rhapsodic. It has to do with being a good daughter but also, as an African American, wearing Dunbar’s mask, not letting people know they’re getting to you. Consequently, I have erected a force field to protect myself and my work. So, I must continually remind myself that I have to push on until I hit the edge of the sky. Until something bounces me back. And maybe, maybe it won’t happen at all, you’ll just keep flying! What holds me back is my inclination toward rigor. That’s a good thing too, but one’s strong points can widen into pitfalls.
So, that line in my poem is an admonition to fly. You might go too high; you might pass out from lack of oxygen and fall back to earth—maybe the air will no longer hold you up. But you can’t really figure that out until it happens, so you might as well go on up there, and keep going.”7
The poems "The Passage" and "Meditation at Fifty Yards, Moving Target" are reprinted with the kind permission of Rita Dove. We are grateful for Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn for providing photos from their personal archives and for their invaluable input to this profile.
Text by: Zlatko Anguelov
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