Carol Muske-Dukes

Q&A with Carol Muske-Dukes

Carol Muske-Dukes is Poet Laureate of California. Viking will publish her eighth book of poems, Twin Cities, in 2011. Sparrow (Random House, 2003) was a National Book Award finalist. Channeling Mark Twain (Random House, 2008) is the most recent of her four novels. Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood (essays, Random House, 2002) and Women and Poetry: Truth, Autobiography and the Shape of the Self (reviews & essays, Michigan, 1997) were both New York Times Most Notable Books. Her recently completed Poets Q&A appears at www.smartishpace.com. [bio updated 2011]


Is there a best way to obtain a review for a poetry collection, especially when sending unsolicited submissions to prestigious journals? Does a bio or cover design influence decisions? Thank you.

Alice Shapiro — Douglasville, GA, USA

There’s no way to “obtain” a review that I know of – unless you pay your sister to write one, assuming that she admires your work, or will give it a fair shake! “Prestigious” journals and non-prestigious alike simply publish work – reviews happen after the work is published. It seems to me that almost everything published on-line gets instant feed-back – how about that?


I love Sparrow, its elegiac voice in waves, the book of poems dedicated to your late husband. I have shared some of its poems with my writing students. The ones that have resonated include “Choice”, “The Importance of”, “Valli”, and “The Empty Chair”, among many others. Could you share with us your experience of working through grief, memory and lost love, and writing about it? Also, I’ve always had this pressing question and am pleased to be able to ask you this now. You end the book with “The Rose: 1984”, referencing Amanda McBroom’s ballad. This is a letter, written in prose, so much so I returned to the beginning of the book, to read each poem with new eyes, each as a missive. Could you share your thoughts regarding the elegy as poem or letter, of lament and mourning? In writing about discovering one’s authorial voice, Al Alvarez cited Plath as a poet “driven by the idea of linguistic perfection”, likely possessing Yeats’ idea of “the fascination of what’s difficult”, that of “simply getting it right – where ‘it’ is a work with a life of its own, wholly independent of the artist and indifferent to him”. Alvarez goes on to reflect on how he approaches the writing of prose and poetry: “As someone who writes prose for a living and poems when I get lucky, I assure you that the two activities are curiously different. No matter how many times you rewrite prose and how easily it seems to read when you are done with it, prose is never quite finished. There is always a word ill-chosen or out of place, a repetition you missed, an adjective that could be cut, a comma that should have been a semicolon – something to set your teeth on edge when you reread it later in cold print. Poems don’t work like that. They are as intricate as the giant locks on a bank vault: each one of the dozens of tumblers has to click into place before the door will swing open.” You’ve written novels and put out poetry collections. What sort of sensibilities have you come away with about the writing of poetry and fiction?

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingd� — Singapore

Thank you for your kindness re Sparrow. There are so many intriguing questions here – not to mention insights, such as the observation that the poems in Sparrow are missives. Perhaps all elegies are letters – some employing direct address – some not. Auden’s “Elegy for Yeats” comes to mind, i.e. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” I did not think of the poems in Sparrow as letters, or (separately) as prose – though the prose-poem to my daughter at the book’s end perhaps doesn’t qualify as verse. Direct address, letters, dramatic monologues are all forms or tactics of poetry – “My Last Duchess”, “Meadowlands”.

The poems in Sparrow were written in a kind of altered state – this had never happened to me before. After my husband’s death, I thought I’d never write again – and then a month or two after he died, I got up in the middle of the night and began to write furiously: poems just flowed from my pen. Of course, I revised, but this flood came from a source and in a style I was not accustomed to.  After I realized that I had nearly a book of poems, I spoke to my friend, the distinguished poet Louise Gluck and asked her why writing them was no comfort. “They do not comfort” she said, “but they clarify.” It was the clarification of those poems, whether more elliptical or prose-like, that I sought.

Re Alvarez’s distinctions between prose & poetry seem a little too facile to me. His logic follows a more or less “vatic” view of poetry, that the poem’s elements (diction, syntax) flow from an oracular “divine” source, un–revisable – whereas sturdy old prose is closer to carpentry than inspired composition.

I hold with Pound’s statement that poetry should be at least as well-written as good prose – in other words, the lyrical can exist in narrative, in dramatic verse, and (dare I say it?) in prose. (Think Virginia Woolf, The Waves, To the Lighthouse – this last, btw, she described as an “elegy”, which it is…)

I once wrote a novel and a book of poems simultaneously (Saving St. Germ, novel, and Red Trousseau, poems) and I found that there was a good deal of “cross-pollination” going on.  I didn’t think of writing in these different modes as “activities”, as Alvarez calls them – but then I’m a genre-outlaw from way back. I just don’t believe in segregating genres. I’m surprised at Alvarez – in Europe, journalists are poets and fiction writers are playwrights and many also write libretti.

Here in the U.S. (and in graduate writing programs especially) poetry and prose are kept apart – and students not allowed to “cross over”. This is simply a matter of the business of tuition and nothing more. Students in either genre (and in “creative nonfiction”, whatever it is, and other forms of writing) should all be allowed to live peacefully together in the Kingdom of Imaginative Writing.


What are your favorite rhetorical forms for poems? The pastoral? The epistolary? Or will simple chiasmus do?

Connie — las cruces, NM

It looks like, having written what I did above, that the epistolary is my baby. My first novel called Dear Digby is a true epistolary novel, a sort of Miss Lonelyhearts set in a Ms. Magazine milieu.


This poet is finished answering questions and we apologize if your question was not answered.–THE EDITORS

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