posted 2011-11-18 15:04:02

Carol Muske-Dukes Reads at Hunter

A poetess shines a light on the Twin Cities

Peter Dunifon—Staff Writer

Carol Muske-Dukes holding her book Twin Cities. Photo by Tom Doherty.
Acclaimed poet Carol Muske-Dukes came to Hunter College on October 20th for a reading from her new book Twin Cities. Just after sunset, about 60 people gathered in the faculty lounge on the eighth floor of Hunter West. A mixture of Hunter students, faculty and even some distinguished poets including Howard Altman, Grace Schulman and Meena Alexander came out for the MFA Creative Writing Program’s Distinguished Writers Series’ third event of the semester.

Jan Heller Levi, Assistant Professor of English in the MFA Creative Writing Program, gave an eloquent, and fittingly poetic, introduction. She described Muske-Dukes’s career path: she grew up in Minnesota, and later received her M.A. from San Francisco State University. She is one of California’s state poet laureates, and she spends her time in East Hampton and in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.

Levi stopped short of listing all of Muske-Dukes's achievements, because winning multiple awards is not the most important facet of a poet’s life. Levi told a short anecdote about the poetess Adrienne Rich, who was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. Instead of accepting the award, she decided to share it with other female poets, such as Audre Lourde and Alice Walker, and with women in general. “We can enrich ourselves more by supporting and giving to each other,” Rich stated in her acceptance speech. “And poetry—if it is poetry—exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison."

Muske-Dukes read several poems from her newest work, Twin Cities, which was published this year by Penguin Press. The book reflects her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota, a time she recalled nostalgically throughout several poems. She reflected on her teenage years, and admitted that she was never popular in high school. Then she paused for a moment. “I’ve never been popular, frankly,” she said. However, as an ode to the popular kids she knew, kids who drove fast cars down the windy roads that line the Mississippi River, she read a poem titled “River Road.”

Muske-Dukes displayed a great capacity for creating a clear image and atmosphere through her words, elevating them from the page and giving them a new life. She read each section of “River Road” with tension as she described a speeding car that was making sharp turns down a dark road. “Every intersection is dangerous, your life dangerous,” she read, and as the poem continued, Muske-Dukes’s words traveled far from River Road. She spoke of the ephemeral with a pedagogical tone: “Imagine the speed at which you could make what is happening not be true.”

Some of her most poignant poems followed a feminist approach, and she read them with twinges of anger and sobs of grief. Her committed delivery, consistent with the emotions of each poem, greatly enhanced the evening. With complete ease, she propelled various points of tension, contemplation, and also deep insight. Her offhand remarks were fascinating. At one point, before reading a poem titled “Widows,” she remarked that it is “a weird term... in the sense that one is defined by what one has lost.” Later she read a poem dedicated to her late husband David Dukes, “The Invention of Your Face.”

Still, even after more somber moments, Muske-Dukes was also quick to smile, even laugh. She read one poem, titled “Hate Mail,” that she described as a poetic exercise inspired by the real mail that she sometimes receives. “It’s really fun to write a hate email to yourself,” she said. “I really recommend you try it.”

She began the poem. “You are a whore,” she proclaimed. She found many ways to berate herself, including placing blame on herself for “the ruined ozone layer, which is, by the way, caused by your breath.” The audience laughed when she exclaimed boldly, “you are an aristocrat of trash,” then, as if to reassure herself, said, “I’m telling you this as an old friend.”

Before Muske-Dukes finished by signing copies of Twin Cities, she answered several questions from the audience. One student asked about her thoughts on the revision process, citing poets like Allen Ginsberg and Billy Collins whose poetry is known to receive few edits, subscribing to the idea of “first thought, best thought.” Muske-Dukes showed some bewilderment at the idea of poetry sans revision. She always revises. “I believe revision is it,” she said, “[revision is] the actual act of writing,” and several teachers in the audience nodded in agreement.

When another person asked what her least-revised poem was from Twin Cities, she thought for a moment and admitted that she did have one, a poem that took from the works of other poets. When performed, she said, it must be read in a parrot’s voice. Before she began, still in her normal voice, she remarked,” I obviously don’t care about making a fool of myself!” and then began to squawk recognizable lines of poetry that brought both laughter and smiles to the room. When she finished, she smiled and declared, “That seems like a good place to end.”