Writer-in-Residence Carol Muske-Dukes: Poetry, Prose, Prison
March 14, 2006. Spring 2006 Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence, Carol Muske-Dukes, read in the Engelman Recital Hall from her forthcoming novel, Channeling Mark Twain, and her most recent book of poems, Sparrow, a collection of elegies dedicated to the poet’s late-husband, the actor David Dukes, which was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award in Poetry.
English Professor Roslyn Bernstein, director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program, noted the program’s support of workshops, readings, and prizes, singling out a high school student in Baruch’s College Now program who had received a creative writing award.
“If there is such a thing as a poetry activist, Carol Muske-Dukes is one,” said Grace Schulman, poet and Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, referring to, among other things, the writer’s experience teaching in prison as well as academia. Schulman praised Muske-Dukes’ facility with both poetry and prose, before announcing: “I claim her as a poet.” With Sparrow, Schulman said, Muske-Dukes “confronts her deeper self and makes it available to us all by connecting personal loss with the human predicament of loss.”
“I have taught the most wonderful students here,” said Muske-Dukes, adding: “I don’t know how many of you are here for extra credit.” She concurred with Schulman’s taxonomy, stating: “I consider myself a poet first and a poet at heart.”
Muske-Dukes read an excerpt from Channeling Mark Twain, about a poet’s confrontation with a pimp while teaching at the Riker’s Island prison complex. She later revealed the book’s title refers to a character’s belief in being a descendant of the famous writer.
Reading from Sparrow, Muske-Dukes said: “I wanted the poems to be more than just documents of grief or autobiographical accounts of a death,” and that the poems were also “meditations on acting and poetry.” Many of the poem titles are modified references to the names of plays her late husband had been in: “Waiting for” (Waiting for Godot); “The Importance of” (The Importance of Being Earnest).
During the Q&A, Muske-Dukes expressed her disdain for the unnecessary enforcement of boundaries between poetry and fiction, which she described as “the ghettoization of genre.” Her style was more lyrical and “abstract for abstraction’s sake” before the death of her husband, she said, and her notions of death have since changed. She noted, however, that “imagination is a powerful thing,” and an inexperienced writer can approach and address traditional themes of love and death through reading. “A creative writer,” she said, “should be a creative reader, also.”
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