“Danger Blue”: Dana Goodyear Interviews Carol Muske-Dukes

I don’t feel totally contained by it either, but I feel like I never really gave it its due. The University of Pittsburgh Press used to have a prize called the International Poetry Forum, and I was a runner-up. So, it was a book of apprenticeship, basically. It occurs to me now talking to you that using those forms allows you to hold that space for beauty in poems, musical beauty, and at the same time deliver a kind of manifesto. 
What you’re referring to is that I grew up listening to my mother recite poems by heart. Exactly. I understand now that it is a piece of the project she continues to work on, to tell “the truth about her life” and about the lives of female artists. Why don’t you? [Laughs.] I know what you mean. E. I would even go back and forth between a novel and a book of poems, cross-pollinating, so crazy! It’s still called Beckwourth Pass. I don’t know, it shouldn’t still be a question, but it is. Women are the heroes in these personal epics; recording them, Muske-Dukes recovers their lost narratives. Ina Coolbrith at essentially the same time …
And also she tried to make the mask too pretty, probably. This hurts your health, but it’s the only quiet time. I think we always wear a mask in our poems, maybe as we are being most ourselves. Like so much of the feminist literary canon, from Bradstreet to Rich and beyond, she has absorbed the lines and their implied directive. My study’s always a mess, but I sort of love the chaos. I’ve actually started writing poems again for the first time in a few years. Exactly. ¤
DANA GOODYEAR: Did you write all these poems in the years since Twin Cities, or are some of them older poems that took shape around the image of the blue rose that occurs throughout this book? 
CAROL MUSKE-DUKES: I said something in the notes in the back of the book about the “long journey” to Blue Rose. The words come to us and then we “test” what we’re saying by weighing the words in “the innermost ear of the ear” until they are found to be “sudden rightnesses.” That mystery of “hearing” in the ear as an actor, what is meant to be said, what is the sudden rightness, makes the vessel, the form, the mask, essential for an actor and the poet. And then once you sit down in your office, all you want to do is sign them up for AYSO and order them new socks. I grew up in Minnesota, but she learned those poems and dramatic soliloquies on the prairie. When my daughter was quite young, I wrote novels and books of poems. Do you find yourself being interrupted — speaking of interruption — by that voice in the middle of reading something else, in the middle of teaching? I’m fully here, and both of my children were born here, but there’s also part of me that doesn’t feel totally contained by it either. But here’s what I also believe, as I tell my students — and some of them agree with me and some of them absolutely do not — that beauty can still occur, that you can still write a beautiful poem, if that is your goal. That’s perfect. I was entering the temple. I think that poetry is urgent as we’re saying, and it’s vital, and we do need it, but we can’t really say it’s necessary. Now. I do, I mean it’s …
That’s an equivocal …
I moved so much growing up that I’ve now lived here twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else. She was also an Oakland librarian. I really feel I’m A.D.D. Her real name was Josephine Donna Smith. It was a turbulent sea. I think so, do you? Yet Ina Coolbrith had a hidden life. Sirens wail; the speaker is “[L]ashed to / a pallet”; newborn, the child is “danger blue.” Many of these poems take as their setting a private battlefield: bed, the site of birth and death and death in childbirth. So her life was almost entirely about keeping secrets, and being the repository of secrets. It’s her secret. They feel physical and fascinating to me. Because they’re her experiences. Yeah, fetishization of the afterlife [was] very prevalent then. Where is her real voice? She’s thought of now as one of the modernist painters, yet at that time she “couldn’t get arrested,” as they say. Well is it true that you hear the voice in your head, as everyone says? Like Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of California. It really is, despite the “long journey” reference. We are the mask. If they don’t have that energy …
A dead draft is a very sad thing. I was married to an actor, and I think the actor obviously acts as medium for the words he or she is given. Or a slipping mask? She knew that, she had that premonition that it was going to happen. Do you wear a different mask now? We were talking about the mask earlier. She was a — I don’t know how else to say it — she was a very anxious mother, and she was half-mad in a way. And then having this incredibly public role —
First poet laureate. I know I didn’t sleep, I mean I stayed up really late. You’re figuring out what you think by writing it down. And as you bring in a more public voice — or even as you bring more marginalized subjects and artists into the conversation, which is all good, and corrective, indeed — the question becomes, “What is a poem?” What are we talking about, ultimately? Or arguing with my daughter? Why not as a persona, as a mask of your own? Young poets? Buddy of Mark Twain, John Muir, Joaquin Miller — all editing each other and publishing in the Overland Monthly together. Oh my god, it was like 1975 or something like that. If art continues to concern itself with the enduring aesthetic, then you can write a poem that says something like “the blood of children ran in the streets / like the blood of children,” that is in a way describing the end of poetry, and still have it be a poem of great art, just as Neruda’s poem is a beautiful poem. Still, she believed so totally in herself. I worked on Antaeus with Dan Halpern, and I came up as a poet teaching at Columbia and NYU. I mean we talked about how the voice can interrupt you, but are you one of those people who knows that from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. The mask is not only too fixed but too ornate; nothing comes through it. 
Nothing comes through, I mean Dickinson was the mask: she’s got power with those dashes. Where you go out of your apartment, and you’re swept up in this cultural tsunami. I always thought of California as, you know, a place where you could be isolated. The book, occasioned by the death of her late husband, the actor David (Coleman) Dukes, is replete with classical, intricate, complex elegies. That isn’t meant to be an obvious question in the book, but I think it undergirds some of what the poems are approaching, at least in talking about these women’s lives. He was one of those actors who said, “It’s the words, it’s how you say the words, that’s it.” I believe that Stevens was right saying we’re like actors on a stage. While it wasn’t an overall goal of mine, there were lives that fascinated me, like Paula Modersohn-Becker, the artist who was Rilke’s friend at Worpswede Artists’ Colony. How did you see it in 1975 and how do you see it now? But Merwin said somewhere: “I’ve learned the same song at the feet of many masters.”
But I think, for young poets, writing the poems is the only way to figure out what you think. That’s a very nice way to talk about my own ignorance. “Completely sentimental,” the poet knows, and yet I think of that poem as the bulb from which Blue Rose (2018), Muske-Duke’s new collection, her ninth, grew. Coolbrith arrives in California, free and clear, but what she does — this is what is crucial I think in terms of what we’re talking about — she hides behind her writing. And I always work in medias res. I mean, I’ve been thinking about your work … you are a far more coded, restrained poet than I am, less narrative, but I think you’re on the edge between public and private often in your poems, and it’s a very peculiar place to be, because who writes that line? I always say to students that I’m completely disorganized. Who dunnit? I agree with that. You mean other forms, like just prose or ordinary speech, or yelling at my dogs? And sometimes that gets in the poem and sometimes not, but usually it’s stuff you wouldn’t say in everyday life. I guess I am to some degree superstitious about not being that person who works from X hour to X hour. Sometimes something will happen in Los Angeles, and an editor will call me from New York, and say, “Can you just write a quick little thing about what everybody’s saying about this event?” and I’ll think, there is no “everybody.”
You’re right. But there are many dying poems embedded in piles up there. It’s a perfect moment because these concerns suddenly seem mainstream, whereas poetry is usually read as private testimony, a series of all-but-repressed voices from the margins. Poets talk about poetry “saving your life,” and these words in a way saved my mother when her own mother died, when my mother was a teenager, poems of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. What if she had written about her real life? What you change, and what you leave. Is it possible? When Joseph Smith was murdered, she and her mother fled polygamy across country. Unmourned, and yet you’re very aware of it. Exactly. Her mother makes her take an oath to never write about her identity, being Joseph Smith’s daughter — not to tell anyone until she is on her deathbed. In other words, I think these two ideas can coexist. I want to make sure we talk enough about your book, because it’s so good. I have so many sad, dying poems around somewhere. What I tried to do in the poem about her was to try to point to that, quoting her, but not in a critical way. A few weeks ago, Carol and I sat in the kitchen of her cozy townhouse in Santa Monica, drinking tea from an English service she found on a back shelf, and talked for a couple of hours about her work, the women she admires, the women whose stories she wants to honor. I was trying to write like Merwin, and I don’t even remember who else! She was the niece and the daughter of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, because her mother was sealed to Smith after his brother, her father, died. I certainly matured there as a young writer. — but I know it coincided with my moving to Los Angeles in late 2004, and then a frenetic rush of conversation, emails packed with dashes and ampersands, so much to cram in. Those rhythms get into your head as a child, and, like anything you learn as a child, it becomes second nature. I don’t know how the hell it happened. [Laughs.] Camouflage is its name, which I misspelled in the manuscript. Maybe for all poets. Absolutely, all the time. I really feel if that distraction were taken away from me, and I was forced to write on a schedule, I would never write again. I think it has to feel necessary to the maker, but it can’t insist that it’s necessary to anybody else. Like Coolbrith, exactly. In a city like New York, you can feel like you know everything without ever having worked for a single opinion. — a woman, trotted out in public to be the secret-keeper. But the child is lost and under very violent circumstances, as the husband is abusing her, but she never allows any of this into her writing. Yes, and then I want to go back and practically smell them, like they’re a very interesting-smelling thing, you know? I’ve come to understand California differently over the years, and I love it now, and I see it as home. “I had my life back but covered myself with blood — / mine and some not — but still of me.” The body cleaves, the world splits. We always said we’d go back to New York, you know when Annie grew up. Yes, of course. I’m surprised, I never thought I’d live the majority of my life in California, but I didn’t think I wouldn’t. We touched upon Emily Dickinson’s notational style, interruption as a generative force, and the place for beauty in contemporary poetry, as well as the first poet laureate of California (a lineage Carol shares, having recently occupied that post), the University of Southern California (where Muske-Dukes founded the PhD in creative writing and still teaches), and Annie, now a research scientist, who looked like a blue rose when she was born. The mask is the end. So it’s really a document of the past few years in your thinking? Do you have a disciplined approach to making work? Now? The appearance of semi-revelation, the suspense of desire. [Laughs.]
But it’s kind of exhilarating to feel you’re crossing it. These poems seem to be about birth and death and mothers and daughters, if you had to say what the heart of the project is …
Yes, about all that — and to some degree about women who are, I don’t want to say “neglected,” but whose lives have been somewhat occluded by history. I remember her pushing me in a swing and reciting “How Would You Like to Go Up in a Swing?” by Robert Louis Stevenson, so I felt I was swinging within the arc of the poem, back and forth. I quote Merwin in the epigraph: “Unless I go in a mask, how will I know myself among many faces.” So it was a mask, but the mask was a way somehow to find out exactly what I was saying, what I thought, and who I was. Wallace Stevens’s wonderful poem “Of Modern Poetry” compares the poet to an actor onstage. But I just kept thinking, and I would never presume to try and write someone else’s poems, but when I wrote that poem about her I just kept thinking: What if? M. Death and birth in the same bed. Well, I certainly have changed. Yes, that’s great. Her work has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and she has twice won the James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. I hope. I grew up in this ocean of words. But they had so much money at that time from the NEA that they published it along with the winner, and gave me 500 free copies. It was her domestic life that was hidden. (Another collection, Twin Cities [2011], was published in between, and tacks between her Minnesota upbringing and her life in Los Angeles.)
Blue Rose begins with an emergency. It’s a dare to try to say something beyond that. It was written about Franco’s bombing of Madrid in 1936, and in that poem there’s a line: “the blood of children ran in the streets / like the blood of children,” to which there is no response, and that’s what he wanted. You know that oath sort of reverberates in the ear, like …
You’re not bound by it. Do you feel that the project of your poetry as changed? Twin Cities drew a lot from your native environment in the Midwest, while this book lays claim to a place where you’ve been making your work for a long time. 
I always thought the imagination was portable. [Laughs.]
From the sublime to the mundane: What year was your first book published? And then death was also made more palatable by thinking of it as birth — into the afterlife. My husband had a house here, and I got the job at USC. There’s no metaphor, no simile. There’s no poetic equivalency. You know, when my daughter was little, and my stepson a teenager, I was in the middle of it — you don’t get to have a “schedule,” right? A writer. It’s almost, to my mind, like Adorno saying that after Auschwitz, all poetry is obscenity. God, we’ve just written a critical exegesis. There’s no metaphor. I still have some on a bookshelf somewhere. For god’s sake, she was also the secretary of the Bohemian Club, where women were not allowed (still aren’t!), where all these alpha males trusted her because they knew she wouldn’t expose them. you’re going to be in your study, transcribing the voices you’ve heard in your head all day, or finding the scrap in your purse where you wrote it down? All these things that you must not say except with your dying breath. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
With a first book, it is the emergence and first outing of your written identity. But how about you? [Laughs.]
Exactly, you know your focus is so much on other things. I know there are a number of reasons you are attracted to classical poetic forms, and among them, I always think about your connection to your mother and memorized poetry and recited poetry. The Donner Party had just happened, and everybody was terrified to go across, and he found a way through. I’ve been thinking so much about this line by Neruda, from his poem “I Explain a Few Things,” if you know that poem. But she did not subscribe to that. So, in the last year-and-a-half, I revised it and put in new work. She’d always wanted to be a poet, but she couldn’t go to college because it was the Depression, there wasn’t enough money even with a full scholarship, so she was very frustrated. You must too, right? Thinking about women of that time — though it’s true now as well — giving birth was a pact with death in a way, and women knew that. Sparrow ends with a poem called “The Rose,” which takes the shape of two prose paragraphs addressed to her daughter, Annie, about a time before Annie’s remembering, when she was a toddler asleep in the backseat and her parents drove under a full moon to their new house, singing along with “The Rose” on the radio (“Some say love, it is a flower…”). But then of course some of them stink, and not in a good way, and then I despise them, and can’t go near them. And try to pretend that you’re them? In your poems, I’ve always noticed and loved that there is such urgency. On the other hand, she was very distracted … she had six children! Why not? She wanted to live. Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture, a work of nonfiction, came out in 2013. She was part of that last generation of Americans who memorized whole poems, in a course called “Elocution,” in a prairie school house in North Dakota. When I sent the manuscript to my editor, Paul Slovak — who’s wonderful and has been my editor for a while — I wasn’t really that happy with it. She never lets it slip. But she did reveal it on her deathbed. I thought of myself as a New Yorker for so many years, and to some degree I still feel that. In the last year-and-a-half. Is that possible? And interruption and disjointedness emerged, so that … I’ve never talked about this before, I’ve always praised my mother and that bath of words, that ocean of words — but really it was more a troubled ocean. She was set up as this symbol. He came from a very troubled background, he was abused as a child, so as he was trained as a Shakespearean actor at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he found the self that had run away inside him in the roles that he played. Well, I tried, but it’s not fair to take another poet’s life. In one poem, “The Year the Law Changed,” she unflinchingly describes an abortion. Well, I think it’s possible that you can have socially conscious criticism embodied in a poem, there’s no question. That’s when she meets James Beckwourth, who’s an incredible mountain man, frontiersman, who leads them across the High Sierras. Do you let yourself say things in poems that you wouldn’t say in other forms? Her art has been reclaimed in a way. I fought against moving to California when my late husband and I moved here when I was pregnant with Annie. She tries to prettify the mask, and I don’t want to call it Georgian but it’s, as you say, over-ornateness. JULY 4, 2018

“WHAT IF ONE woman told the truth about her life? So she lives like that, she changes her name, and then she has this very fraught domestic life when she marries in Los Angeles and has a child. When she recited, say, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, it would be like, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” — “Put that down right now!” — “admit impediment.” So in a way, she gave me the sense of the classical traditional form and at the same time the emergency of poetry, as in the term “emerge.” You know, a new strange half-spoken poetry, filled with angst. Her poetry is — it’s masked, but not in the “slipping” way that allows dramatic tension. I think about Coolbrith, coming to California in 1851, a child in a covered wagon. We’re putting out a version of ourselves or a version of our aesthetic in the poems. If I can impose myself, which is arrogant and wrong, on Dickinson, if I tried to identify with her use of dashes, I’d say that it’s like the mind moving just above the material, or just riding it in a way. I don’t remember how it happened — would I have been bold enough to seek her out? What do you say to your students about what a poem is, as opposed to a different kind of literary document? When David, my late husband, was alive, the mask saved him. So when he died, I went back to New York, I bought an apartment, but it didn’t work. That would be so interesting! Do you think? … and interruption. ¤
Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of two collections of poems, Honey and Junk and The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard. Who creates that? yet was never diagnosed with it, and I try to use it to my advantage. I called my first book when I was 25 or 26 Camouflage because I knew I was hiding. Here it is, folks. Yes, for sure. The deathbed revelation is such an incredible tradition. You were entering the temple by enacting the ritual. You’re not afraid of an exclamation point, and you’re not afraid of a quick turn, and I wonder what the relationship is to what you just described and some of those dashes and modes that are kind of Dickinsonian … even in your emails. She’s the one who cried out “Shame” on her deathbed, which was also her daughter’s birth bed. I mean first books tend to be very derivative. It just didn’t feel complete to me, and I think it didn’t to him either. Sparrow had been published the year before, a stunning, stricken collection (and a finalist for the National Book Award) in which she traced the arc of sudden loss. One of the things I’m responding to in the book is the assertion of California as a place for you. That line sounds like a poem, doesn’t it? She revealed to a journalist, to a San Francisco journalist. This is apt, for both disciplines. So you feel when you write your poems that you must write them, right? Carol has been my friend for years. I realized that California had become “my” place. / The world would split open.” Muriel Rukeyser’s lines, from a poem about the still overlooked German artist Käthe Kollwitz — whose etchings of working-class women, in mourning and struggle, made her a pioneer — are a touchstone for Carol Muske-Dukes. I’d quote some of those lines, where she seems to be just hinting at the possibility of letting the mask slip. It’s like you’re annotating something that has no concrete form, as if the writing were a score for the music. California was the end of the Earth for them, it was heaven, a “kingdom,” as their scout and guide James Beckwourth, the freed slave, called it. Is it possible for a woman trying to be a mother and a wife or partner to also be an artist? The stakes in these poems seem to circle around the risk inherent in being a woman, and these passages of birth and death, but also around the questions, “How do you live as an artist?” and “Can you live as an artist?”
Can you live? There’s a lot of intellectual freedom here, because you can’t really receive your ideas from anyone else. A “slipping mask”!