Still Outraged at 100: Muriel Rukeyser’s Centennial

Muriel Rukeyser has been dead for 33 years, but we just can’t keep away from her. On the occasion of her recent centennial, Chanel Dubofsky and I gave her a nickname and talked about the ways this incredible lady built essential bridges between art, activism, and work. 

Courtesy of the Paris Review.

Leah Falk: 

So–I guess I would like to start by asking you how you first came to/ heard about Muriel Rukeyser, or if we can give her a posthumous nickname, “The Ruk.”

Chanel Dubofsky: 

So I think I heard about, um, The Ruk in college. I was in this weird band of poetry people.

LF: The best band.

CD:  YES. Even though I’m not actually a poet, we needed each other. Anyway. Someone brought The Ruk to a gathering, and she immediately felt important to me.

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I Left Nothing Behind: An Interview with Kerry James Evans

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Your first career was as a combat engineer for the National Guard. Can you describe your path toward poetry and deciding to get an MFA?

When I started out in college I was—like many young students—thrust into the world, autonomous for the first time, and without any idea how to manage it. I wasn’t performing particularly well in school, and, mostly, I felt without direction. During my sophomore year of college I was deployed to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to guard a gate for a year. I got up at 3 each morning, went to the armory, and then guarded the gate from 5am-1pm. After, I did physical training for two hours then attended night classes at the local university. I made up sleep on the weekends, when I wasn’t studying. I knew after, when I returned to Missouri State, that I wanted to write poetry seriously, and to do that I had a great deal to learn. I still do.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

I worked as an editor for a certain program within the Department of Justice. Before that I worked for two and a half years as an investigator for a law firm in Springfield, Mo. I also picked up part-time work in the university library—a job I secured only for the chance to read literary journals (they could not be checked out). In high school I worked at Little Caesar’s for almost three years while running both cross-country and track. In middle school and early high school—before I had a car—I hauled hay in Mississippi and landscaped for local businesses.

I left nothing behind. I have always enjoyed work, and when I started the MFA program the job may have changed, but my work ethic did not.

Your first book, Bangalore, deals quite a bit with your experience in the military. How do you think being part of academia (as an MFA and Ph.D. student and now as an adjunct instructor) has changed your recent writing—the process of it, its content, or both?

I’ll just say this: as I evolve, my poems evolve.

How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?

I applied for Ph.D. programs during the third year of my MFA program. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Florida State’s Ph.D. program, which offers a teaching assistantship and the opportunity to teach a variety of classes in addition to studying with excellent writers and scholars.

Do you envision staying in academe? What do you like about it, and what gives you pause?

I do. I like learning, and teaching is a great way to learn. I want my poems to continue to evolve, and teaching allows me to be around talented writers with new ideas and different experiences. I have learned as much if not more from my students and peers, as I have through my own research, which is invaluable to me as a poet.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

I have no regrets about earning an MFA. I had the opportunity to work with great poets who I respect and admire—both professors and colleagues. It is an experience that continues to inform how I approach poetry.

Do you think that more MFA programs should draw students’ attention to other career paths than university teaching? How could this be accomplished?

I think a great deal of programs provide alternative career paths to students. The MFA program I attended did a great job of exposing students to a variety of experiences, whether working for the literary journal or serving as an intern for the university press. We also created a visiting writers’ series as well as a writers’ festival, which taught us a lot of valuable skills about things outside teaching, i.e. fundraising, networking, and time management. The faculty hosted a professionalism seminar each year where they answered our questions and told us about the job search process. The same kinds of opportunities were presented in the Ph.D. program I attended.

Do you have any other words of advice for writers entering MFA programs from the workforce?

I think it’s good to set specific, manageable goals. I know many people who have published books while still in the MFA program, and that’s impressive, but I would say that is an exception to the rule. Publishing is important, but learning one’s craft is more valuable. I think the more focus that students put toward honing individual skills, the better chance their poems can be heard.

Kerry James Evans is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon). He holds a Ph.D in English from Florida State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

Time Carved and Stolen: Curtis Smith on Writing and Work

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For the past thirty-one years, I’ve worked with special learning students in a public high school in Pennsylvania. My day job precedes my first short story by six years and my MFA by over a dozen. My job has its rewards—and its frustrations and heartbreaks. Still, I don’t mind getting up every day and going to work, and in the end, I understand I can’t ask for much more. Writing has been the complement to my work, a place all my own, time carved and stolen from each day’s beginning and end, bookends of quiet and reflection in an otherwise hectic ride. Writing has given me the gift of engagement and creation—and sometimes, of sanity.

My late twenties found me in a good place. I’d landed my teaching job a month before my graduation, and after six years, I felt established, no longer the new guy. I was in love and recently married. Yet part of me was restless. Many of my friends were artists and musicians, and I yearned to be creative. I’d made a few 8mm films, and I’d refinished some old furniture procured from basements and auctions. I’d enjoyed these ventures, their hands-on processes, their tangible results. Yet I wanted something more. Or something different.

So I started writing. I had no English background; in fact, I’d always been more of a science-and-math person. In college, I’d struggled with my comp and lit classes. Why, I wondered, did Madame Bovary’s bouquet have to be anything more than a bunch of flowers? Part of my attraction to writing was due to stubbornness, one of my less admirable traits. Not being good—or at least passable—at something bothers me. Vain, I know, but I accept it as part of my makeup—and sometimes, the results of this shortcoming have left me a better person. Finishing in the stragglers’ pack of a seventh-grade race has led me to be a life-long runner. Madame Bovary’s wilted flowers goaded me to a second career of trying to explain my heart with pen and paper.

So I wrote. Every day, every evening. I read voraciously. I began submitting, and within a few years, I started to publish, not much but enough to earn my entry into Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program. I was fortunate—in Pennsylvania, school teachers needed at least 24 graduate credits to attain their permanent certification, and many districts, including mine, offered tuition reimbursements. Vermont was my first choice—I was already familiar with the work of a few of their teachers. I couldn’t attend the winter residencies, so it took me twice as long as most to graduate, but this turned into a blessing that allowed me to stretch my legs, to digest what I’d learned and use it to develop new material.

In the past few years, I’ve been invited to talk to students at different MFA programs. I tell them that my MFA studies were a valuable part of my maturation as an artist. I learned and read things I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I developed friendships and connections I still cherish almost twenty years later. Most importantly, I came to understand that the people I met, all smart and motivated and creative, were also my competitors—and if I my work was going to find a place in the tight market of lit journals and small presses, then I needed to hold my writing to a higher standard. This scrutiny has become the most integral part of my writing routine, the continual asking if this story, this paragraph, this sentence is the best I can do.

Next year I’ll retire. I’ve had a good run with my crew, 33 years, and I’ve no doubt learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m already testing the waters of my next phase—I’ve been fortunate to have landed a number of visiting writer gigs at local colleges, and I’ve started some adjunct work, my MFA finally of use in an official manner to justify my employment. I don’t know what awaits—but I’m curious. And curious, I believe, is good.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside). His next book will be a novel, Lovepain, from Aqueous Books