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On tour: With Carol Muske-Dukes

September 28, 2007 |  3:33 pm

One often hears writers complain about book tours. Traveling constantly, facing small crowds, having the dream of the next book interrupted by the need to promote this one--it’s all too much. Not to mention the unpredictability of facing the public--whom will you meet? Friends or foes?--which can make the experience more adventurous than some authors would like. Two pieces earlier this week touched on that, one in the Baltimore Sun and the other a satirical article on the Spoof about Alan Greenspan’s "rock star status" as he tours for "The Age of Turbulence." (Please remember, that piece is a fake!)

I’d expected to find poet and novelist Carol Muske-Dukes, back in L.A. this week to promote her novel "Channeling Mark Twain," just as weary about book touring as everyone else. Instead, she felt energized by the opportunity to discuss with live audiences a book that has eluded her for 20 years.

"I had the ideas for this book for a long time," she said before Wednesday night’s reading at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore. "But I was surprised with how long it took to find the right means of expressing them."

Muske-Dukes’ novel follows the experiences of Holly Mattox, a young professor teaching poetry to prison inmates and struggling to find her own place in the literary world of 1970s Manhattan. Part of the problem with writing it, she said, was that she saw two separate projects--one about makingMuske_2  a literary life in the 1970s and another about teaching poetry in a prison. Then, the reasons for keeping them separated faded away; hey, she thought, I can do what I want, or, as one of her characters declares, "I get the whole all."

Muske-Dukes told the audience how the novel embodies her own struggle between a commitment to art and a commitment to social activism. Nothing, she said, challenged her notions of being a poet in the modern world more than teaching female inmates on Rikers Island, which she did for many years.

"There’s an urgency there, for these women need poetry to keep body and mind together," she said. "I went there thinking I was the instructor. I didn’t realize I’d be the one who was taught so much."

Next month, she will begin a new poetry course for inmates at Manhattan’s Bayview Correctional Facility. She said she hopes to bring along some young poets ready for the teaching challenge.

Her reading, punctuated by many asides, afforded a special learning opportunity. During her research, she said, she found that Mark Twain frequented brothels during his years as a riverboat captain. This leads to the claim, by one inmate character in the novel, that she is related to the great American novelist. (That is where the book’s title comes from.)

"Twain said he only went to the brothels to drink and get into fights," Muske-Dukes said, grinning. "I’m sure we can imagine other dalliances, can’t we?"

The crowd laughed. There were also laughs as the author read the novel’s opening, in which Holly encounters a group of pimps in the waiting area at Rikers Island.

Intrigued by some of the poets Holly encounters, I asked Muske-Dukes on whom they might be based. (She acknowledges, after all, that the book is semi-autobiographical.) The magisterial, exiled Russian poet Joseph Kyrilikov? Easy: Joseph Brodsky. And the stuffy former poet laureate Baylor Drummond? Muske-Dukes said that after Mark Strand read the manuscript, he told her with amusement: "I hope I don’t act like that now!" As for Sam Glass, the literary magazine editor who cozies up to Holly ... well, she says, some questions are better left unanswered.

The most memorable part of the reading, though, was Muske-Dukes’ closing words. She read from a poem by a female character, based on someone she had actually encountered, whose face has been disfigured by her pimp:

...So he say: You never look good to no
Man again. And so right--I look no good
To him that other day when I shot him once

Then got the gun up under his chin.
Slick? I say--Better smile one last for me.
’Cause now you get to have a new Face too.

The atmosphere in the room was charged. Somebody gasped. I guess book tours do have their advantages.

Nick Owchar

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