Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Not-Too-Precious Novel About Poetry

When I was bookless at the beginning of this week, a dire circumstance in my life, my husband strongly urged me to read Carol Muske Dukes' latest book, Channeling Mark Twain. He had read it for school and we had gone to see her read at his school, and I just didn't feel like reading it. I liked her reading/interview, but I was resistant, probably because it was a semi-autobiographical novel about her youth as a poet. I was afraid it was going to be self-indulgent and pretentious, and as a younger poet, I was concerned that it would hit too close to home.

I was incredibly mistaken. I mean, there are points when I did want to smack the narrator for her naivete, but it was authentic and accurate. And you don't really read the book for the narrator, but for her experiences. Muske Dukes centers the story around her experience teaching poetry and Rikers Island penitentiary, during the seventies. She eventually created a successful writing in prison workshop called Writing Without Walls, which extended for several years.

The novel follows several inmates as they learn to express their experiences through poetry. In fact, each chapter is divided by poems from the inmates (although actually written by Muske Dukes herself). Through this conceit, the author creates an argument for writing poetry in order to chronicle and decipher one's life. The argument is political, as the inmates are in some ways products of their poverty, gender, and race. But it is also personal, as these are women trying to define themselves on their own terms. The narrator herself is able to interpret her life as she slowly composes a poem throughout the course of the book. The book also provides an interesting insight into the art and practice of writing poetry, in all of struggles and moments of clarity.

The book is a fluid and easy read and I would strongly urge anyone interested in the life of poetry to give it a try. I burned through it in less than a week, and now sadly, I'm bookless again.


Poet with a Day Job said...

great recommendation. I like Muske Dukes a lot.

Jennifer Gandin Le said...

This book sounds fascinating! I love the cover. Thanks for the recommendation -- I doubt I'd have found it otherwise.