Free Verse for the People

Carol Muske-Dukes wants to show the world that poetry isn't just the lofty stuff studied in English lit classes.

Muske-Dukes, a local poet, author and USC professor, is bringing poetry and the common man, woman and child together as part of a national Favorite Poem Project. She's organizing an event (co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Central Library, the Los Angeles Times and the National Center for the Book) that will feature civic leaders and "regular" people reciting poetry, then talking about its importance in their lives. It will be part of the Times Festival of Books on April 26 at UCLA.

"I've always believed in grass-roots poetry," says Muske-Dukes, who has published six volumes of poetry and two novels. "When my mother was in school she memorized pages and pages of Tennyson and Keats and Milton--that was part of their schooling. But she also had an emotional attachment to the words. When she memorized them, they became part of her bloodstream. There are many people like her, who are touched by poetry, and they're not academics or scholars, they just have a deep, abiding love for the word."

Muske-Dukes is coordinating the event as part of a Witter-Bynner Fellowship awarded by the Library of Congress. The Favorite Poem Project, conceived by poet laureate Robert Pinsky, seeks to create an audio and video archive of Americans reading aloud their favorite poems. The archive will eventually stay in the Library of Congress.

Pinsky's idea was born in his own classes at Boston University. "When I asked students to read something they liked," he says, "I noticed that the way the other students and I listened had a special quality that was not unlike listening to a terrific performance, but it had a different depth to it. It could be that the poet is Emily Dickinson, but if the student is a different race or gender, the poem is transformed by that person's love for it."

It was Pinsky's wish to do readings in various cities around the country, kicking off with an April 22 event at the White House. He wanted to include civic leaders but not celebrities.

Muske-Dukes is in the midst of choosing participants for the L.A. event. (Mayor Richard Riordan has given his consent.) She muses aloud, "What would the architect of the new Getty museum pick? What would an artist choose? My mailman? In a way, everybody is made equal in this process. Poetry is tied up with our most private emotions, and this is a way of saying, 'Tell me a story in your private language.' "

Hoang Nguyen, a computer engineer from Fountain Valley, has agreed to read a poem in Vietnamese, then translate it.

"Poetry is very popular in Vietnam--we were brought up with it, fed and nurtured with it," Nguyen says. "There are verses of folk poetry that are nursery rhymes, and we started hearing them before we could understand what the words meant."

Also scheduled to read is Cynthia Rios, an 18-year-old USC freshman who is considering poems by Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and songwriter Silvio Rodriguez.

Her connection to poetry started in elementary school. "I had a teacher who forced us to memorize a poem by Robert Frost," she recalls. "I detested memorizing it. I was shy, and when I got up to recite it I was shaking, but suddenly the words started to take on meaning. It was an incredible experience."

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