A writer and poet whose verse recently appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris Review–Carol Muske-Dukes has long been interested and active in presenting a public face of poetry. A former poet laureate of California and a teacher for many years, she founded the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and began a writing program, in 1972, at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island in New York. On the heels of National Poetry Month, I spoke with Muske-Dukes at her home in Southern California about the many contemporary approaches to reading, writing, and thinking about the art of poetry, from hip-hop to “unoriginal genius” and how language matters.
What do you think the public face of poetry looks like?
Recently, a judge of the prestigious 2014 British Forward Prize for Poetry was moved to observe that “there is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today,” but we need education, because “we have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music—that you can’t expect to read it like a novel.”
A few years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed of mine, about learning poetry by heart. The response to it confirmed that people of all ages think about poetry as a kind of inspired music, embodying beauty and insight. On one hand, poetry has always flowed from music, as rap and hip-hop remind us big-time. Rappers know how poetry walks and talks. So we have music, or deeply felt recitations of poems that belong to collective memory. On the other hand, we have overly instructive prose poems, as well as the experiments of certain critical ideologies, or conceptual performance art. These aspects seem to represent the public, Janus face of poetry.
Is there a particular critical ideology you have in mind?
I’m thinking of the idea of “unoriginal genius,” though no one outside of the academy much cares about how some academic critics are now promoting it. “Unoriginal genius,” oxymoronic as it sounds, means simply that you can call yourself a genius in this age of technology if you’re savvy at editing, deleting, and erasing certain words from canonical poems and calling what remains proof of your genius. You also use collage and citation, à la Benjamin’s Arcade Project, and appropriation—as in borrowing the words of others—to promote your ability to use scissors and the delete key.
What do you think people are trying to accomplish by approaching poetry in that manner?
At a time when people appear to want poetry to make some sense, or maybe offer a bit of beauty and wisdom shaped from the chaos in which we live, or at least offer insight into the contradictory realities in which we live, it is particularly unfortunate that this retreat into obscurity and critical narcissism is the response by those who study poetry and think about it. Proponents of unoriginal genius would say that they are putting forward a version of interpretation and illumination of a technological age. But the fact is, this mirroring of disjunction represents no real speaking or reading or thinking population. What is being conflated is a salvation notion of technology as popularity—which ultimately, it is not. The struggle here, as it is with overly accessible, catchy poetry, is a struggle to be both popular and enlightening.
We live in a time when language matters. Not only because of the constant threat of misunderstanding in translation—in diplomacy, in wartime, in the university and literary life—but, as always, in individual human relations. So the abdication of accessible rhetoric and a turn toward so-called scholarship is an abdication of the human. The academy has opted for pointless experimentation in language compared to my mother’s generation—she’s ninety-eight—of well schooled, publicly educated students of poetry who know pages and pages of poetry by heart. Should anyone who believes in sense be ostracized from the ongoing conversation of literature?
What was this sense of poetry that your mother had, which she passed down to you?
Long ago, on a cold, snowy Minnesota afternoon, standing in line at the post office with my mother, I sighed in boredom and heard the quote, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.” This famous line would probably not be recognized now, not only because so few passionately read poetry, including those who write it. Few might recognize the author, fewer still that the observation is timeless—lightning outside of century or culture.
The line asks the listener or reader to consider something mysterious, profound, and marginalized—those who hope not to be erased! Readers still engaging with Milton know how to think aesthetically, how to feel tone. Do I find this ultimate line of Milton’s “On His Blindness”—or in fact, the entire sonnet—far more moving and challenging intellectually than a collage poem by conceptualists? Well, yes. I have nothing against the incorporation of great lines into ongoing contemporary poems, in the style of Susan Howe’s or Susan Wheeler’s successful poems. I’m not attacking unconventional inventiveness or types of homage or citation. I’m talking about the deadening of poetic sensibility—a version, I guess, of tone deafness.
So if the public face of poetry is a bit shadowed, it’s still visible. For every genius celebrating his or her unoriginality, there are those who still read and think, connected to the force of original thought—the art of consciousness.
Is “unoriginal genius” something that, in your experience, is confined to the academy, or have you encountered it in your time teaching?
I founded a Ph.D. program in creative writing/literature in a university setting, but I also established, years ago, a prison program at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island, and we ended up offering writing workshops in poetry, fiction, and playwriting throughout all prisons in New York State. The writing was student-ish—often bad political verse or excessively romantic rhetoric or familiar memoir self-pity. If the inmates’ poetry struggled to breathe, so does the poetry of academia, so does the imprisoned spirit of misogynist rap. Writers “inside” responded to the prompt all poets need to hear—your voice still matters, but you must read everything, you must enter into the great conversation of literature and listen to the voices of the dead and honor them, talk to them, and then, and only then, write. Not one of the inmates—though they became great readers of literature—cared about erasures. Their whole lives were erasures. They would have said that those who erase memory, the past, an enduring aesthetic, only erase themselves as writers.
There is the idea that poetry is essential but that it’s divorced from ordinary life and ordinary experience.
If you took a survey of the U.S. population, it would seem that poetry is irrelevant. I’ve found that students and citizens of other countries have a stronger connection to poetry. If American poets still seek to reach a public or community—apart from poem excerpts on the subway—they have to return to what makes poetry both powerfully solo and yet connected to all living things.
In recent years, you’ve written novels and nonfiction, and those forms get more attention than poetry does.
Poetry is like mailing a letter to the void. But maybe this is as it should be. “I’m nobody / who are you?” But “the soul selects her own society” all the same. I write about this in a collection of essays of mine, Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood, which was just republished as an e-book. I haven’t given up on technology.
Why did you recently do a book signing at a Hudson News in the Los Angeles International Airport?
A USC colleague of mine, the splendid David Roman, was in the United Terminal at LAX, and as he was walking by Hudson News, he saw my name emblazoned on the bookstore marquee. He saw Melville and then this nobody, Carol Muske-Dukes, so he took a picture and sent it to me. Then I heard from somebody at that bookstore asking if I would come out and sign books. I signed both novels and poetry, but the novels were the ones people were most interested in.
Was there a good crowd?
Actually, it was pretty good. I mean talk about a captive audience! They’ve never heard of me but they’d buy a book because I was there. I had this idea—what if we had something called Air Poets? Give readings and sign books at various terminals all over the world. Now there’s a terrible idea!
You run the writing program at USC, and I’m curious if you think that writing programs specialize too much.
I don’t run it anymore, though I advise and participate. But I did found and launch the thing, on my own. I had to overcome resistance on the part of English department. Former friends, colleagues tried to deep-six the program, which they thought would be a threat to the status quo, plus it would “specialize too much”—a studio art in academia. I fought hard for it and won. Now the program is very successful and the naysayers adore it. I chose to start a Ph.D. program, rather than an M.F.A., partly because I felt that many M.F.A. programs weren’t emphasizing reading enough. It was all about writing aimlessly, that is to say, specializing—like majoring in shop without making a birdhouse—caught up in literary trends specific to a genre ghetto. You enter most programs as a poet or a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer and you stay in that club.
I’m fascinated by how many writers are uninterested in poetry.
Writers think there’s nothing in the art of poetry for them. They’re wrong. I’m a genre leaper. I don’t see much difference among types of writing, prose or poetry. Most writing students haven’t read poetry extensively, broadly, wildly. If poetry students don’t read broadly, why should anyone else? They read only their contemporaries, no interest in the past as present. Every writing program or conference should offer refresher zones—reading without writing for a brief or long while. Fill up the well if you want to be a writer. We live in an age where you can celebrify yourself instantly. You can pimp yourself in poetry or fiction overnight—anybody can publish anything now because of the Internet. With no critical standards and little reading, we aren’t talking about imaginative writing anymore. We’re talking about a cottage industry and the creation of artifacts and trinkets. The solitude of the writing experience—solitude that reads and converses with the great dead—seems an enemy of technology. Though, finally, I don’t believe this is true. There are poets of all ages who are not threatened by technology but do not have to use it as a club—in both senses of the word.
And just to bring it back to where we started, we’re talking about the public face of something that is largely created and experienced in solitude.
Wordsworth was right. That’s how he defined poetry—emotion recollected in solitude. Does that sound like a cliché? The reality is that we live in an age that works against poetry. Poetry is an act of attention and we’re in a time where having an attention deficit is the norm. We’re bombarded with images and information, but images and information are not knowledge—and they’re certainly not poetry.
Alex Dueben has written for The Poetry Foundation, The Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times, Suicidegirls, and others. His interview with William Gibson was included in Conversations with William Gibson.