July 8, 2014 | by Alex Dueben
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. Read More »
April 8, 2014 | by Alex Dueben
Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.
The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.
Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.
Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.
I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that. Read More »
September 12, 2013 | by Alex Dueben
Over four decades, Gregory Orr has established his reputation as a master of the lyric poem. Throughout his career, which also includes books of essays and criticism and an award-winning memoir, Orr has primarily written short free-verse poems, but in the past decade he has turned to writing long sequences comprising of short poems in such books as Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005) and How Beautiful the Beloved (2009). His newest, River Inside the River, consists of three such long sequences: “Eden and After” retells the story of Adam and Eve; “The City of Poetry” explores a place “where every poem / Is a house; / And every house, a poem”; and the third, titular sequence explores redemption and language. All are themes that have been present in his work from the beginning. Orr and I spoke recently about the changes in his work.
You said that your newest books have been “a pivot toward something,” which is a phrase I like. How would you characterize the shifts in your work since Orpheus and Eurydice (2001)?
The first thing that persists is being a lyric poet—that’s going to persist across any change. For me, that means concentration of language in a given moment of time. What I’ve always been interested in is getting the emotional, imaginative, linguistic intensity of lyric but also getting the scope of narrative. There are two phrases that work as central nodes for my imagination. The first one is “gathering the bones together.” That came from a poem in my second book, The Red House (1975), when I was still working on personal material but working in a way that made my poetry less accessible than I might have hoped. The phrase comes from a seven-part sequence that concerns my brother’s death in a hunting accident and my responsibility for it. I was trying to use imagination and language to engage that story, but the central phrase was this kid wandering in a field gathering bones. That’s a pretty grim image. Read More »