Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday Muse: California's Poet Laureate

Poetry is, like prayer, spun from the imagination — from ultimate
contradiction — like the idea of a democratic crown. Who's lucky
or brazen enough to wear this headgear? I'm brazen enough 
to bow my head and gratefully accept the honor... *
Carol Muske-Dukes

California's Poet Laureate is Carol Muske-Dukes, who was appointed in November 2008 and will serve until November of this year, unless she is reappointed to a second term.

The position of Poet Laureate did not became official (under Assembly Bill 113) until 2001, at which time the term of service was changed also. The first unofficial incumbent was Ina Donna Coolbrith, who was appointed for life and served from 1915 to 1928. She was followed by Henry Meade Bland (1929-1931) who, in turn, was succeeded by John Steven McGroarty (1933-1944).  The position thereafter was vacant until the appointment of Gordon W. Norris (1953-1961), who was followed by Charles B. Garrigus (1966-2000), Quincy Troupe (2002), who had to resign within four months when it was discovered he had falsified his resume; and Al Young (2005-2008). 

As codified in state law (Government Code, Title 2, Division 1, Chapter 9.5), the incumbent is appointed by the governor for whom a panel created by the state arts council prepares a list of three nominees; the governor's choice is then confirmed by the state senate. A nominee must have  resided in the state for at least 10 years, have a "significant" body of published work, and be "widely considered to be a poet of stature". 

Accepting the position requires the appointee to give at least six public readings over the two-year term, with at least one reading occurring in each geographic region of the state. He or she also must undertake a project created specifically to "bring the poetic arts to Californians and to California students who might otherwise have little opportunity to be exposed to poetry." 

The law gives the state arts council the "right to solicit and receive gifts, donations, bequests, grants of funds, or any other revenues" from public and private sources to increase the Poet Laureate's stipend.

* * * * *
I hope to speak in a voice that is in touch
with California, about California... To speak about the state
of mind which is California... Perhaps, finally, and with great
respect, to readdress the ordinary California poppy — waiting there,
egalitarian in the gold marvel of its blooms.*
~ Carol Muske-Dukes

Carol Muske-Dukes is a poet, essayist, and novelist. Her collections of poetry include Sparrow (Random House, 2003), An Octave Above Thunder: New & Selected Poems (Penguin, 1997), Red Trousseau (Penguin, 1993), Applause (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), Wyndmere (Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985; available through resellers), Skylight (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1981; paperback, 1997), and Camouflage (Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975; available through resellers). Her most recent novels include Channeling Mark Twain (Random House, 2008), about a writer who teaches poetry in a workshop at Riker's Island prison, and Life After Death (Random House, 2000). Her essays are collected in Married to the Icepick Killer, A Poet in Hollywood (Random House, 2002; available through resellers); her reviews and critical essays comprise Women and Poetry: Truth, Autobiography and the Shape of the Self ("Poets on Poetry" Series, University of Michigan Press, 1997). 

Described as a writer whose "warm and compassionate voice mesmerizes", Muske-Dukes has been likened to the poets Jorie Graham and Louise Gluck in her approach to the abstract and subjective. She takes as her subjects love, marriage, memory, loss, and grief (as in the dramatic and elegaic Sparrow, dedicated to her late husband, David Coleman Dukes); color as metaphor for eroticism, heat, danger, murder (as in Red Trousseau); her own past, the power of imagination and art, and their intersections with the private, political, and public (as in An Octave Above Thunder); experience of the physical world (also as in An Octave Above Thunder); ritual and symbolism (as in Applause). Her work is often intense, sharp, highly observant, ruminative, deeply honest; sometimes colloquial or irreverent ("the Duino Elegies tattooed / on everyone's ass" in An Octave Above Thunder), sometimes academic ("apperceptive ecstasy" is a line in a poem in Red Trousseau, for example); varied in form and tone, as well as use of metaphor. It reflects a keen and also refined intelligence.

Some examples:

... The gods never die—but memory
clears itself like the sky over Ionia—
Ionia the dream that is always forgotten
at dawn. The eyes of the god, the upturned

eyes, take in everything, nothing escapes
that gaze—then it is all enveloped in fire,
invisible fire of waking, the shudder of
returning consciousness, the lit blades....
~ From "Ionic" in Sparrow: Poems

In Benares
The holiest city on earth
I saw an old man
Toiling up the stone steps
To the ghat
His dead wife in his arms
Shrunken to the size
Of a child —
Lashed to a stretcher.

The sky filled with crows.
He held her up for a moment
Then placed her
 In the flames.
~ From "Chivalry" in An Octave Above Thunder

Here's how we were counted:
firstborn, nay-sayers,
veterans, slow-payers,
seditionists, convicts,
half-breeds, has-beens,
the nearly defined dead,
all the disenfranchised live....
~ From "Census" in An Octave Above Thunder

... I imagined pain not as pain
but the flickering light embedded

in the headboard, the end
of the snake-wire uncoiling from
the nurses' station. The painkiller winked

in its paper cup, its bleak chirp
meant respect should be paid
for the way I too wielded oblivion,

staring at the wall till six,
gifts unopened in her lap,

the early dark deepening between us.
~ From "Pediatrics" in Applause

For her official Poet Laureate project, Muske-Duke created the Magic Poetry Bus, a "vehicle for the imagination". This online, interactive program uses a dramatic approach to teach poetry in classrooms and communities throughout California. The project's partners are Get Lit and the Get Lit Players, a group of teen poets from Los Angeles who perform traditional and spoken-word poems.

Muske-Dukes' Sparrow was a National Book Award finalist (2003, for Sparrow) and received the Yale Review's Smart Award and Columbia University's Chapin Award. Among many other honors, Muske-Dukes has received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a  Library of Congress Witter Bynner grant, the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnoia Award, and several Pushcart prizes.

Muske-Dukes teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. She's the founding director of the university's doctoral program in literature and creative writing. Her many critical reviews have appeared in both The New York Times Book Review and LA Times Book Review, for which she writes "Poets Corner". Her poetry has been published in The Nation, Poetry MagazineThe American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and other literary publications and has been anthologized widely. She blogs at The Huffington Post.

The poet plans to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology at the Institute for Cellular, Developmental, Molecular Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.


All Poetry Excerpts © Carol Muske-Dukes

* Quoted in Carol Muske-Dukes, "Single Laurel, Common Voice" in Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2008

"Q&A with Carol Muske-Dukes" at Poets Q&A, Smartish Place (This is interesting for the insights Muske-Dukes gives into the writing of Sparrow and her thoughts about poetry and prose.)

Carol Muske-Dukes, "Tom Healy" Bombsite, June 2010 (Website-only Interview)

"Carol Muske-Dukes, 'Channeling Mark Twain'", NPR, July 5, 2007

Carol Muske-Dukes Reading "Boy", The Atlantic, July 20, 2009

Carol Muske-Dukes Reading "Suttee", Slate, June 15, 2010

Carol Muske-Dukes, "San Clemente", VerseDaily, 2010

Carol Muske-Dukes, "Twin Cities", The New Yorker, July 6, 2009

Carol Muske-Dukes, "Twin Tree", PoetryDaily

Interviews with Carol Muske-Dukes

Jack Hughes, "A Review of Carol Muske-Duke's Poetry: After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes", MIPoesias Magazine, Vol. 15, January-March 2004

Poetry Foundation Page for Carol Muske-Dukes (Eleven poems are here.) Page for Carol Muske-Dukes

USC Faculty Page for Carol Muske-Dukes

YouTube Video, Muske-Dukes Reading Favorite Poetry, with John Lithgow

California Association of Teachers of English

FaceBook Page for Carol Muske-Dukes

Magic Poetry Bus on FaceBook

"Poems don't have to deal with life. Poems are art": In the brief video below, A Life of Poetry, Carol Muske-Dukes talks about how poetry is part of both her life and work. The video is available through USC's College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.


Louise Gallagher said...

Poetry is spun from the imagination-- how beautiful!!!

Like you!

Joyce Wycoff said...

Loved learning about my state's poet laureate ... and it became utterly fascinating when you added that she is going to work on a doctorate in molecular biology. Poet to molecular biology ... wouldn't I love to know the links along that path!

Thanks for starting my week with a new view of possibility.

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

Brushing the cobwebs from my mind I think that Carol and I go way back, to Smith Park Poetry Days and St. Paul.... a wonderful, full meal on this terrific poet as ever, Maureen! xJenne'

Word Actress said...

I wasn't aware that Carol Muske Dukes was my state's Poet Laureate. I remember reading something years ago about her actor husband dying while on stage of a heart attach in Washington state or Oregon.At least I think that was the story. I also seem to recall reading some of her stuff and it was good.
Because all of my writing is poetic at its core, I love that she's trying to introduce its magic to school kids in California. I keep thinking poetry needs a new name, something that will bring it happily to today's youth and relate it to their world of texting and social networking. I'm usually really good with that kind of thing - but a new name escapes me. Maybe that's b/c the old name - poetry - is just fine...Mary Kennedy Eastham