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The Books Interview: Rita Dove

Sophie Morris talks to Rita Dove, the youngest and the first black Poet Laureate in the US.

Carol Ann Duffy just became the UK’s first female Poet Laureate. In 1993 you became the youngest and the first black Poet Laureate in the US. Did you feel you had a lot to live up to?
It was terrifying. I felt like the Miss America for poetry! You have instant notoriety and it depends on how you want to use it. But I felt it was a sign they [US Poets Laureate are appointed by the Library of Congress] really wanted me to do something about poetry. That was wonderful and so many people wrote me right away with ideas – I did Sesame Street and Poems on the Subway. Since then, all subsequent Poets Laureate have taken an active role in promoting poetry. In the US, a lot of people are afraid of poetry because it has not been fully integrated into the curriculum. My experience is that if you read a poem to a class every day and don’t ask them to interpret it, just let it wash over them in the same way as music washes over us, they become accustomed to it and draw something from it.

How is the post different from the one in the UK?
It isn’t paid in liquor! But the salary is token, about $35,000, which isn’t enough to live on in Washington. Being so poorly paid is a comment on how poetry is valued in society. The US Poet Laureate sponsors a reading series and records things for the archive, but doesn’t have to write poems for specific occasions. I think it’s fair that Carol Ann Duffy should only compose poems for events when moved to do so. She is one of the pre-eminent poets in Great Britain and fully deserves this honour. What she will have to do is write wonderful poems, which is what she has been doing. Another female first in the world of British poetry – Ruth Padel as the Oxford Professor of Poetry – has just stepped down following the smear campaign against Derek Walcott. Derek is a dear friend and colleague and a phenomenal poet. He should have had a fair shake at this. The underhand way in which it was done is awful. It should just be
a question of poetry.

Your new work, Sonata Mulattica, rewrites the tale of the musician George Polgreen Bridgetower. Even though Beethoven originally dedicated the Kreutzer Sonata to the young virtuoso, Bridgetower is accorded just a footnote in the composer’s history. What drew you to his story?
I found him through a movie biopic of Beethoven. I was astonished that he was black and I hadn’t heard of him. I have played the cello for years and for Bridgetower to have retreated so far into the background of classical music history that even I, as a black American musician, hadn’t heard of him, ashamed me.
I wanted to know more about him. To me, just the fact that he was so good that Beethoven wanted to compose something for him to play was an enormous event.

Could he have changed the history of black involvement in classical music?
I really do think so. When I was growing up I had to defend my love of classical music both to white friends and to black friends, because they wondered why I wasn’t playing jazz. The notion that classical music was the white man’s field would have been exploded early on had Bridgetower had Beethoven’s sonata named after him.

How important is your own sense of musicality to your poetry?
It’s in my blood. I can’t imagine writing the poems that I’ve written without my sense of music. There was a time in my life when I [had to decide] if I would become a performing cellist or a poet. To me they’re almost the same. Musicality in language is the one thing that poetry has above other literary disciplines.

Interview by Sophie Morris

Rita Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. “Sonata Mulattica” is published by W W Norton (£16.99)