The poet Rita Dove, a lush, smoky-voiced woman, remembers being a shy child who made herself utter a few words as soon as she got to class to get the talking over with. Writing stories in secret and playing the cello became her vehicles for self-expression. “I didn’t think they were mutually exclusive,” she said recently about the two arts that have sustained her for decades, though she has devoted her life to writing. “I learned so much from music that applies to poetry that I cannot separate them.”
Dove (at left), a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, visited Emory University earlier this week for a three-day residency encompassing several readings and musical performances of her work. She was joined in a public conversation about the relationship between literature and music by Robert Spano, conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and distinguished Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton, with whom Dove has collaborated in the past.
Like the musician, the poet is conscious of measure as she writes, Dove explained. In “Sonata Mulattica,” her latest collection of poems, music shines through as the center of an imaginary biography. Dove traces the unexpected life of George Bridgetower, an 18th-century mulatto violin prodigy whom Beethoven championed in Vienna until the two fell out over a woman, resulting in Bridgetower’s quick slide into obscurity.
Singleton, who has adapted three of Dove’s poems into musical compositions, attribute the success of their collaborations to their shared temperament of restraint. His earliest venture with Dove, “Between Sisters,” is based on her poem “The House Slave,” about a young slave awakening in the master’s house to the horn summoning less privileged field slaves to work. While the words make clear that Dove “dislikes that institution [slavery], she never raises her voice,” Singleton observed. “And that guided me.” So there were no runs on the flutes in his composition, no flamboyancy in the piano playing. Instead, silence became a strong feature of the piece. An excerpt from this mournful song, marked by the trilling sound of a slave cry, was played, and Dove listened with eyes closed in contemplation, as though trying to gain its full meaning.
“My mother used to say, ‘If you want someone’s attention, whisper,’ ” she recalled. And that sense of quiet assertion, or sometimes refraining from assertion, is the attitude she takes in giving over her poetry to a composer. Singleton is one of several musicians she has worked with over the years. It doesn’t bother her, Dove said, if instruments sometimes swallow her words. Her poem “Ozone” has been deconstructed into syllable sounds that will accompany a solo dancer at an upcoming performance at the Kennedy Center. Though the composer was “terrified he’d torn the poem apart,” Dove said, she was “fascinated to hear what sounds he heard.”
The key to a successful partnership between artists, Spano proposed, is an “intuitive understanding” of each other. The newly appointed director of the Aspen Music Festival recalled how the vision of a set designer completely transformed what he considered a crushingly boring musical passage into something glorious, through the sheer originality with which she lit and arranged the stage. It was her visual interpretation of the composition, Spano noted with amazement, that changed his musical understanding of it.
“Sometimes if you get caught in your discipline, you find your way out through another,” Dove said. To shake up her writing students at the University of Virginia, she took them on field trips to photography exhibits. She herself associated her poems with different hues and arranged them in colored folders — red ones, green ones.
On stage at Emory, she was dressed neutrally in black, but subtly articulated her persona with color: a silvery blouse beneath a black cardigan, eyelids smudged with a thick dark blue shadow, and long fingernails painted alternately red and green. The poet, in person, appeared to be a kind of physical reflection or refraction of her poems: distinguished, elegant, almost classical pieces cracked with modern lingo or vulgarities or sensual flourishes.
“I wish all artists — writers, musicians, painters, dancers — could be in one building,” she mused, picturing a creative utopia of influences and cross-currents. Singleton recalled the pleasure of growing up among jazz musicians in Brooklyn. Though he was made to study classical piano, he was so infatuated by the neighborhood sound, he said, that he composes to this day thinking in jazz structure. Spano mentioned a painting in his house that so affected him that it became part of his “inner life.” For all three artists, nothing else seemed as rich or influential as art itself. “Thinking,” Spano declared, “is a form of dancing.”