Carol Muske-Dukes is a writer and educator, whose body of work stretches from the 1970s forward and whose achievements as an educator include the founding of two creative writing programs--one for inmates of New York area prisons and the other, a PhD. program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California (USC). Muske-Dukes, an accomplished poet, novelist, and essayist, has won a number of different awards, including the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award (Poetry Society of America), the Witter Bynner Award (Library of Congress), and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. While Muske-Dukes' career in education includes a number of notable positions, including brief stints at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, University of California at Irvine, and the Writing Division at Columbia University, her most notable achievements include the establishment of the aforementioned doctoral program in Literature and Creative Writing at USC and Free Space/Art Without Walls. What is distinctive about Muske-Dukes as both an artist and educator--though it is perhaps false to draw a line between the two--involves the blurring or challenging of conventional boundaries: the boundary between art and science (as evident in her novel Saving St. Germ), the boundary between "high" culture that the academic world can embody and the street culture which may be attributed to the incarcerated, and between established themes that have marked the tradition of Western literature and the more politically charged themes that may be seen as less transcendent in nature.
Carol Muske-Dukes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on December 17, 1945. In an article written for the December 29, 2002 edition of the New York Times, Muske-Dukes recalls the impact that her mother, Elizabeth, made in shaping her relationship to the English language. According to Muske-Dukes, her mother's ability to recite poems, a result from her schooling during the Great Depression, incubated Carol Muske-Dukes' ability to learn "words with my body as well as my brain." Muske-Dukes went on to graduate with a B.A. from Creighton University and an M.A. from San Francisco State College in 1970 (currently San Francisco State University).
After spending time abroad, Muske-Dukes settled in New York where she established Free Space/Art Without Walls in 1972, a writing program for female inmates at Riker's Island Prison, and developed her craft as a poet. Over the course of her time in New York and the various writers' conferences she attended in the 1970s, Muske-Dukes developed collegial relationships with Mark Strand, Grace Schulman, Daniel Halpern, Thomas Lux, and John Irving, amongst others. In 1975, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Camouflage, Muske-Dukes' first book of poems. In 1979, Muske-Dukes won the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, and in 1981, Doubleday published Skylight, her second book of poems. During her final years in New York, Muske-Dukes accepted visiting teaching positions at the University of Iowa and University of California at Irvine. At Irvine, Muske-Dukes met long time confidants Charles Wright, as well as Sherod Santos and Lynne McMahon (both students at the time), and at Iowa, she developed a friendship with Larry Levis.
In 1981, Muske-Dukes was awarded a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, which enabled her to travel to Italy to work on her third book of poems. In Italy, Muske-Dukes met actor David Dukes, whom she would marry in 1983. Shortly after the marriage, she and David moved to California, where their daughter, Annie, was born, also in 1983. By 1985, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Muske-Dukes' third book of poems, Wyndmere, which traces an arc from her family's roots in the upper-Midwest to poems voiced through the future-looking lens of a new mother. Muske-Dukes' first novel, Dear Digby (published by Viking-Penguin), was published in 1989, an effort that spanned nearly a decade including an initial collaboration with Ms. editor Curtis Catherine Ingham. Applause, which contains several poems that center around illness and the body, was also published in 1989 (by University of Pittsburgh). Saving St. Germ and Red Trousseau, were both published in 1993 (by Viking and Penguin respectively). Saving St. Germ, concerns the relationship between a biochemist and her daughter, who has a rather unique relationship to language. As part of her background research for this book, Muske-Dukes corresponded with a number of biochemists, including Richard Lewontin. Red Trousseau, like St. Germ focuses, in part, on how the mind connects and shapes the world through language. 1997 saw the completion of a volume of new and collected poems titled An Octave Above Thunder as well as Women and Poetry, a volume of essays about influential female voices in British and American poetry. 2001 saw the publication of Life After Death (Random House), Muske-Dukes' third novel. In October of 2000, Muske-Dukes' husband, David Dukes, died unexpectedly from a heart attack. In the wake of this loss, Muske-Dukes compiled a collection of essays titled Married to the Icepick Killer (Random House), which included work previously published by Muske-Dukes as well some original pieces, and Sparrow (Random House), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.
In 1985, the University of Southern California hired Muske-Dukes to teach Creative Writing. While at USC, Muske-Dukes helped establish the doctoral program in Literature and Creative Writing. The program accepted its first class of students for the fall of 2001, making it one of only a handful of such programs in the nation. Among Muske-Dukes' other achievements during her tenure at USC are the Witter Bynner award from the Library of Congress (awarded in 1997) and the establishment of the David Dukes Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded to students at USC's School of Theatre.
In 2007, Random House published Channeling Mark Twain, Muske-Dukes' fourth novel, a semi-autobiographical work following the story of a poet teaching writing to female inmates at Riker's Island. Like Dear Digby, Channeling Mark Twain is the culmination of years of drafts and revisions, including a novel titled Edelweiss and a short story titled "Contraband," which would eventually become the opening chapter of Twain. As this novel represents a process that spans a large bulk of Muske-Dukes' career, it is perhaps fitting that it interweaves poetry with prose, "high" culture with popular, the act of teaching with that of creation, political themes with those transcendent of the novel's historical moment; that is, the avenues down which have helped define Muske-Dukes' career.
In 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Muske-Dukes as California's poet laureate.