California's new Poet Laureate inspired by faculty
December 22, 2008 -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed alumna Carol Muske-Dukes California's Poet Laureate. Muske-Dukes, who earned an MA in English and creative writing in 1970, is the author of seven books of poetry, four novels and two collections of essays and a recipient of numerous honors including National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships. "Sparrow," her latest collection of poetry, was nominated for a National Book Award.
Throughout the next two years Muske-Dukes will educate Californians about the state's literary icons and encourage a new generation of poets. "I am truly honored," she said. "I look forward to serving poetry, which reaches the hearts and imagination of young and old, in both urban and remote areas of our diverse state."
A native of St. Paul, Minn., Muske-Dukes earned a baccalaureate degree in English from the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She left graduate studies at Creighton University in Omaha for San Francisco where she found employment as a technical writer at an insurance company.
"I had no professional plans,"Muske-Dukes said. "Wanting to be a poet seemed to me the opposite of 'professional.'" She took an SF State extension poetry class with Kathleen Fraser, which led to Muske-Dukes' decision to complete her graduate studies.
"I had many unforgettable professors at SF State," Muske-Dukes said. She cites Stan Rice, Mark Linethal, Nanos Valoritis and Kay Boyle, also a St. Paul native, among those who most influenced her work.
Muske-Dukes said that Boyle taught her the role writers have in society. "She was a brilliant prose stylist and politically engaged," Muske-Dukes said. "She had just published 'The Long Walk at San Francisco State,' (an essay about the 1968 student-led strike for campus diversity) and she was deeply devoted to her students and their ideas of change."
On one visit to Boyle's home, Muske-Dukes asked Boyle to reminisce about her life in the 1920s. "She talked for hours about James Joyce and Gertrude Stein," Muske-Dukes said. "I was galvanized. She learned her craft from the great moderns and there I was at her feet!"
An English professor at the University of Southern California (USC), Muske-Dukes founded the University's graduate program in literature and creative writing in 1999 and served as its director until 2002. Married to the stage and screen actor David Dukes until his death in 2000, she acknowledges that Los Angeles can be a frustrating place for a poet. In her collection of essays entitled "Married to the Ice-Pick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood," Muske-Dukes refers affectionately to Los Angeles as "the capital city of illusion." She has no qualms about encouraging her students to look beyond the creation of illusion and embrace a more rigorous literary life.
"I remind them of Henry James' words," Muske-Dukes said. "'A writer is one on whom nothing is wasted,'" She also offers W.H. Auden's advice from his book of essays, "The Dyer's Hand."
"In the essay 'College for Bards'" Auden suggests that writers should learn to garden, raise animals as pets, read and memorize poems -- but keep no books of criticism at hand," Muske-Dukes said. "I think his point is that writers refresh their language by contact with the real world."
For more information about Carol Muske-Dukes and her work, visit: http://www.carolmuskedukes.com/
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