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The Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive
As a “Living Archive,” our website is designed to engender lively interdisciplinary conversations about this important twentieth-century poet. We include a rotating number of selected poems by Muriel Rukeyser. Published with permission of Bill Rukeyser, the poet’s son, these offer a representative sample of her voluminous and variegated body of work. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, edited by Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog and available from the University of Pittsburgh Press, remains the most comprehensive collection of Rukeyser’s poetry.
Please take a minute to acquaint yourself with the site. Also consider contributing responses–critical, pedagogical, or creative–to the website by contacting us here.
Featured Blog Post
“What are all his escapes for?”: Making Sense of Muriel Rukeyser’s Houdini
Houdini is an odd play. Serious and silly, bawdy and surreal, this loosely biographical musical about the life of the great American escape artist seems to wink at its audience, asking us to join in on a joke we don’t always get. Over the course of two acts we watch Harry Houdini rise from poverty, find love, master his craft, and gain international acclaim. We see him break locks, escape trunks, evade death in a frozen river, and testify against fraudulent mediums in a congressional hearing. He exerts perfect control over his body and all his fears. Then, when Houdini appears at his most unstoppable, this self-made man suddenly dies, punched in the gut by a trio of medical students. When he speaks from beyond the grave in the play’s final lines, he commands the audience to liberate themselves, to “Open yourself, for we are locks / Open each other, we are keys”––right before making what might be an innuendo (“Touch yourself as I touch myself”). Is this a hero’s journey? A love story? A farce?
Houdini is a story about art. It is an exploration of the role artists play in society, an examination of the artist’s power to change their audience and the conditions of our shared world––and the limits of that same power. I know that sounds like a bit of a stretch. Isn’t this a story about a magician? More importantly, isn’t this a story about self-liberation, a story that can inspire us to free our bodies, psyches, and imaginations? The answer is: Yes, Houdini is all of those things. But it’s essential to step back and ask why a magician might be qualified to teach us anything about how to live in the first place, and I want to suggest that the play is uniquely aware of that strange tension: the delightful and sometimes untenable absurdity of calling a showman an artist. Even if you can accept that Houdini is an artist and not just an entertainer, a more troubling possibility remains: the possibility that even artists can’t do much to change a world riddled with injustice and inequality. Houdini does it anyway.
What makes Houdini’s performances an enduring art––not just fleeting entertainment? We can begin by looking at the play’s ambiguous setting and time.
I Make My Magic Published in Houdini (2002) I make my magic
Of forgotten things
Night and nightmare and the midnight wings
Of childhood butterflies—
And the darkness, the straining dark
Underwater and under sleep—
Night and a heartbreak try to keep
Myself, until before my eyes
The morning sunlight pours
And I am clear of all the chains
And the magic now that rains
Down around me is
A sunlight magic,
I come to a sunlight magic,
Join us for the upcoming panel on Rukeyser's Difficulty at the American Literature Association Conferences, 4:30pm, Thursday, May 26, 2022, Palmer House Hilton, Chicago.
A recording of the Houdini Webinar on March 20, 2022 is now available HERE. The recordings of two performances of Rukeyser's play will be available soon. Please check back.
In case you missed our February 19-20, 2021 webinar on Rukeyser's Elegies, you can now access video recordings of keynotes and presentations at Revisiting Muriel Rukeyser's Elegies in Times Like These. Also have a look at Dennis Bernstein's interview with Bill Rukeyser, February 16, 2021.
Muriel Rukeyser: The Contemporary Reviews, 1935-1980 is now available. Vivian Pollak, Professor of English at Washington University, has put together this invaluable resource in collaboration with Washington University's Digital Commons and Bepress. Have a look: Washington University Open Scholarship.
Catherine Gander's introduction to the Special Issue of Textual Practice centered on Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry can be accessed, free of charge, here.
Muriel Rukeyser’s iconic The Book of the Dead has been published as a free-standing volume from West Virginia University Press. The book, so Bill Rukeyser tells us, gets “as close as possible to realizing the 80-year old vision of both MR and [photographer] Nancy Naumburg that Book of the Dead be published as a photo/poetry work.” The book is beautifully introduced by writer and multi-media producer Catherine Venable Moore.
Our “Living Rukeyser Archive” is entering its tenth year, and we are planning to expand in significant ways. We hope you consider joining the growing number of contributors and bloggers, who have enriched this living archive over the years: Our bloggers have included Joe Sacksteder (now a PhD student at the University of Utah); Marian Evans, a writer and cultural activist living and working in New Zealand; Catherine Gander, lecturer at Maynooth University, Ireland, and author of Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: the Poetics of Connection; Adam Mitts (now a PhD student at SUNY Buffalo); poet and independent scholar Laura Passin; Canadian researcher and sound archivist Katherine McLeod, who produces monthly audio content for SpokenWeb’s ShortCuts as part of The SpokenWeb Podcast feed, and, most recently, Jackie Cambell who is completing her dissertation on Rukeyser at Princeton University. We have published many critical essays, by established and emerging scholars and readers of Rukeyser's work, among them, more recently, Vivian Pollak, Tim Decelle, Alexandra Swanson, Heather Macpherson, Aaron Pinnix, Trudi Witonsky, Eulàlia Busquets, Eric Keenaghan, Sam Buczkesmith, Modina Jackson, Vered Ornstein, Lily Pratt, Chloe Ross, Joely Byron Fitch, and Louise Kertesz. We’ve been lucky to receive wonderful creative contributions: Stephanie Strickland permitted us to post her poem “Striving All My Life”; Kellie Nadler, Ned Randolph, Victoria Emanuela Pozyczka produced sound remixes of Rukeyser poems. We are always looking for more!
More InfoCopyright Permission
Who was Rukeyser?
Rukeyser's Difficulty, American Literature Association, May 26, 2022
Revisiting Muriel Rukeyser's Elegies in Times like These: A Webinar, February 19-20, 2021
JNT Special Issue on Muriel Rukeyser Ordering Information
Rukeyser symposium 2013
Recent PostsWhat are all his Escapes For? Making Sense of Muriel Rukeyser's Houdini
A Conversation about Muriel Rukeyser and Harry Houdini between Carolyn Stroebe and Elisabeth Daumer
Celebrating Muriel Rukeyser's 108th Birthday--a collection of readings
Bill Rukeyser interviewed by Dennis Bernstein, February 16, 2021 KPFA Flashpoints
"Every elegy is the present": Listening to Muriel Rukeyser
A Visit with Louise Kertesz--Pioneer of Rukeyser Studies