USC professor named CA poet laureate

Carol Muske-Dukes received the prestigious appointment from Gov. Schwarzenegger

Steffi Lau, assistant city editor, diversity beat writer
Daily Trojan
November 19, 2008

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed Carol Muske-Dukes, a longtime USC English professor, as California’s next poet laureate.

Schwarzenegger announced the appointment Thursday, and while Muske-Dukes must still be confirmed by the state Senate, she said she is honored by the appointment.

“My first reaction was, ‘Yikes! How will I do this?’” Muske-Dukes wrote in an e-mail. “And then, ‘What an honor — to be given an opportunity to ‘represent’ poetry — to be an ambassador for this life-changing art, or, as we say about literature: News that Stays News! I feel like a reporter on Parnassus!”

In working with the California Arts Council as poet laureate, Muske-Dukes will be charged with “spread[ing] the art of poetry from classrooms to boardrooms across the state” and “to inspire an emerging generation of literary artists,” as stated on the California Arts Council website. She is required to have six public poetry readings and undertake a major project.

Muske-Dukes is the founder of USC’s Ph.D. program for creative writing and literature, which began in 2001. She has authored seven books of poetry, four novels and two collections of essays. She is the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and the Ingram-Merrill Fellowship.

“I think it’s a terrific choice,” said Bill Handley, associate professor of English. “She believes poetry is for everyone. She has a great passion for bringing poetry into people’s lives.”

Appointed only a few days ago, Muske-Dukes has yet to cement her goals as poet laureate. But she is considering starting a project related to a major interest of hers: poetry in prisons.

From 1972 to 1974, she founded and taught a creative writing program called “Free Space” at the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island in New York. This program later became “Art Without Walls-Free Space.”

“I’ve also thought about setting up a kind of ‘troubadour,’ musical approach to poetry — but haven’t gotten any further than that. I’d like to bring poetry ... to the beleaguered public schools of California, to children who have little exposure to poetry and the arts,” she wrote in the e-mail.

Colleagues said Muske-Dukes, who joined USC as a lecturer in 1984 and became a professor in 1993, is a respected faculty member.

“Carol Muske-Dukes is not only a distinguished, widely admired poet and novelist. She is an esteemed teacher and treasured colleague ... We’re thrilled at the distinction that her appointment as poet laureate confers on the English department,” said Meg Russett, chair of the English department.

In a statement, Schwarzenegger said, “Her commitment to the literary arts and passionate belief that poetry can transform lives will serve as an inspiration for all Californians.”

Muske-Dukes said USC has supported her in every effort she has made in creative writing, thanking her colleagues, including USC President Steven B. Sample, who she called a “closet poet.”

But most of all, she said she is grateful for the chance to teach.

“I love teaching the students I am privileged to work with, undergraduate and graduate,” she wrote. “I learn from them, always.”

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