In CarolMuske_DukesPR_PhotoFULLaccepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Adrienne Rich delivered an address entitled “Poetry and Commitment.” Well, in living her life as a woman, poet, teacher, citizen, Carol Muske-Dukes daily enacts the kind of commitment that turns intention into action—action that is poetic for its unguarded intentions.

This coming Sunday evening, October 4, at Manhattan’s august Bowery Poetry Club, Muske-Dukes, Poet Laureate of California, will be among the presenters of The Get Lit Players from Los Angeles. Get this: These are teenagers who are part of a poet and literacy group. These teens have created Spoken Word poems that stem out of poetic conversations with lines from some of our finest living poets—Robert Pinsky, Joy Harjo, Jorie Graham, Bob Holman and Muske-Dukes herself. Watch one of the Get Lit Players, Jazmine Williams, as she spins words honed by such generous teachers:

Young people who text, who are on social networking sites, who like rap, who are with-it in every sense of that word are also in our world of words, because of this organization and because of  The Magic Poetry Bus, an initiative that Muske-Dukes (who else?) dreamed up and got funded within about 20 minutes of her appointment as Poet Laureate.

A night to remember is one way this poet does not forget to be a part of the world around her, the world that needs fixing.

broadside04To call attention to the worldwide health crisis, the people who respond to it, and the unrest and terror that is such a very large part of it, Carol has taken action in concert with two other women—printmaker/designer Amaranth Borsuk and visual artist Amy Bouse. The three have collaborated on a broadside for The Mutanabbi Street Broadside Project, to benefit Doctors Without Borders. (The Project is named for the Baghdad street, home to booksellers and cafes, that was badly damaged in a 2007 bombing). Borsuk says of the piece: “I envisioned a broadside that would stitch together three generations of women just as the bindings of books hold together language, and just as poetry binds us to writers in Baghdad and beyond.”

The piece Carol selected for the broadside, “Outside Santa Fe,” a deeply personal poem about the loss of a loved one, resonates with the public tragedy of the Mutanabbi Street bombing. From the outlaws “firing their pistols into the air,” an ineffectual triumphant gesture, to the injunction to “hear and translate” with which she ends the poem, I was struck by the way the experience of “Outside Santa Fe” in 1997 echoed an event that would happen a decade later and thousands of miles away. At the emotional core of the poem, the poet expresses awe for the way we seem to obey the voice of a master we can’t see, a voice whose commands we “willingly, dangerously, obey.”

This is not a woman who “willingly and dangerously” obeys anything or anyone but her own conscience. This is a poet in action, a woman with commitment, a friend to Women’s Voices for Change who has lent us her words and now lends us her example.
In “Valentine’s Day, 2003,” from her National Book Award Finalist volume,  poet/activist/teacher/guide “Sparrow” offers this opening line:

“By the heart, the heart is shaped for use.”

What will we do to use our hearts today in a way that is useful, beautiful and an enactment of our commitment to something beyond ourselves?

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