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Carol Muske Dukes

interview by Douglas Eby 

 "A writer reads constantly."

 Poet and writer Carol Muske Dukes is the director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

An author of a number of books of poetry and several novels, Dukes says there is one "sure sign" someone is a writer: "A writer reads constantly, reads everything she can get her hands on, tears apart libraries and bookstores, never is without a book in hand."

She thinks the "whole point" of reading is "to lose the self, to let the self go, and be swept away by other voices and experiences, by the aesthetic power of language itself, by words."

She also sees reading as a way to "imagine worlds not like mine and to imagine consciousnesses not my own. We grow as writers by understanding the other, the new, the unfamiliar, and living within it."

With respect to writing as a woman, Dukes thinks it is "imperative to be aware of the history of women's exclusion from the worlds of literature and publishing. It's important for women writers living now to study and learn from the past. Men still control publishing in the present, and far fewer women than men are published."

She finds that women writers, "even when their work does get published, are not given the critical or peer attention that male writers accord each each other. Women are still marginalized. Much as I hate that word, it's accurate. I try to give my female students (and all my students) a sense of confidence and a realistic 'take' on the indifference of the world to much literary writing.

"And the indifference of the world to women in the expressive arts. At the same time, I try not to let the 'marketplace' enter into our discussions of craft and art. Young writers have enough pressures on them, without adding the heavy expectation of publication."

One of her novels, "Saving St. Germ," features Esme Charbonneau Tallich, a biochemist, with a young daughter considered by some to have an "emotional dysfunction." But Esme insists she is an 'unprecedented being' who is merely preoccupied and 'thinking hard.'" When Esme refuses to take their daughter for psychiatric testing, Esme's husband sues for divorce and custody.

Dukes says she did not write the novel to be about a specific topic, such as mental illness: "I wanted to write a book about science, about a woman who was a scientist. I also wanted this woman to have a child who was close to being diagnosed as autistic, but who was, in fact, gifted. I wanted the woman to come very close to falling apart.

"I don't think most writers write novels or poems out of a burning desire to confront a social issue, although that may be part of the impulse. I think it's complicated, like all human endeavor."

Her teaching of writing has included children, prison inmates and elderly people, as well as college students. "I usually concentrate on one genre, poetry or fiction, but this does not mean that I don't think beginning writers should not try everything," she notes. "They should. 

"Good writing is good writing is good writing. Write articles and recipes and lists and instruction manuals and plays and poems and love letters," she advises.

"In fact, writing letters - and I mean letters of real passion and attention to the language - is a smart, 'secret' way to get yourself writing heartfelt prose," she says. "Write a letter to God, to someone you loved who has died, write a letter to your dog, to a neighbor you hate, to a writer you hate, to a person you find mysterious." Her first novel, "Dear Digby," started out as "a bunch of letters."

Dukes does not often experience writers' block. "I think because I'm so busy and I have to 'grab' my writing time," she says. "In fact, I usually don't get it till about 10:30 PM; then I work till the wee hours when all is quiet. I'm so happy to be writing, and so tired that I don't have time to think about not being able to write. So I recommend being super busy." 

She emphasizes that writers should be interested in everything, and declares the nature of writing is to observe the world. Her subscriptions include medical, philology and science journals, a magazine about harp-playing, another on gourmet cooking and dining. She summarizes, "To be a writer, you need to know everything."

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novel: Carol Muske Dukes. Life After Death

Carol Muske Dukes website

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