Enjoy hearing–and viewing–various Muriel Rukeyser poems read, and in one case performed, in the 21st century to celebrate her 108th birthday on December 15, 2021. Submitted readings are from friends, scholars, and admirers of Rukeyser. Thank you to everyone who submitted a reading.
Bill Rukeyser, Interviewed by Dennis Bernstein, February 16, 2021, KPFA Flashpoints
Dennis: It’s a pleasure and an honor to welcome William L. Rukeyser, son of the late poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser, who we are honoring, studying, remembering, during this extended two-day webinar at Eastern Michigan University. Eastern Michigan University is creating an archive for the great work of the biographer and poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. And her son, William, has agreed to talk a little bit about his mom and what it’s like to grow up as the son of a great poet and a visionary.
Dennis: So, welcome, William Rukeyser, to “Flashpoints”, and it is very good to have you with us. And we should let people know that you are the William L. Rukeyser. There is another William Rukeyser, who was very close to your mom, but we are glad to have you with us. So, welcome.
Bill: Well, I’m glad to be here with you, Dennis.
Dennis: All right. Well, why don’t we begin at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about how you came to understand that your mom was a poet, a famous poet, that a great many people cared about, many loved, and some weren’t crazy about. Give us some background there.
Bill: Yeah. That’s absolutely true. And obviously, as a kid, as a little kid, I first understood that books were incredibly important in her life, in our lives. This was – when I was quite young, like three, four, before I understood her relationships with books, I saw them all around. And I remember, shortly after we moved back to New York City, that we were in a small basement apartment, and it was small enough that she had to, very reluctantly, get rid of many of her books, simply to make space. And I remember piles of books on the floor, when she was sorting them, and the fact that it was with a good deal of reluctance that she was selling them. So, that was my first introduction.
And then, in the next apartment, when we moved out of the basement and were on the first floor in a New York brownstone, what I remember is the huge table, worktable that she had, made out of a door on a couple of sawhorses, and the fact that she spent a lot of time writing. And back then, a lot of her writing was done in longhand, with an old pen. I’m not talking about a quill pen, dipping it in ink, but a fountain pen, which, even in the early ‘50s, was something that was going out of style. But she used a fountain pen with a very distinctive color of ink that she would seek out at stationery stores. And she would spend a lot of time, working, revising, crossing things out, trying to get the writing just right.
As far as the fame, that was something that I understood much, much later. And you have to understand that over the course of her career, she was kinda like Sergeant Pepper’s Band. She kept going in and out of style. And frankly, the early ‘50s were not a high point in terms of her public acceptance. That really was much earlier, when she was in her early 20s. For a few years, she was like a shooting star. Then, styles of criticism, currents in politics, wending in other directions, and so, I understood that the writing was important. I understood that there were vast disappointments in terms of her dealings with publishers.
And later on, in the ’60s, in the late ‘60s into the ‘70s, as the Women’s Movement gained steam, her career ascended again, in terms of an appreciative audience. But it was very, very cyclical. It was something that she dealt with, and she got – like many poets, she wrote from an inner need. She certainly didn’t write poetry to earn a living.
Dennis: And talk a little bit about the way in which she considered herself. You were – it was – she was a single-parent mom. I’m wondering how that made its way into your life and how that impacted on her writing.
Bill: Well, I think that the first thing to recognize is that, in the late ‘40s, in even a place like the Bay Area, being a single-parent mom was not a popular choice. It was not a socially acceptable choice. She told stories about life during her pregnancy and how very supportive friends of hers – and I’m not talking about people who disapproved of her choice to get pregnant and take it to term, I’m talking about people who were supportive – warned her about the challenges ahead, said, ‘You know, if you decide that this is not the choice for you, we will take care of your baby. We will adopt your baby, if necessary.’ So, this was not a choice made at one, single time. It was a choice that was repeatedly made.
And she had a difficult delivery in Berkeley. This was a time when mortality among mothers and babies was not unheard of. It was certainly a lot more common back then, than it is now. So, these were realities that she dealt with. The financial realities, I think came as a bit of a shock to her. And the long hours that a parent would have to put in, especially a single parent, in the years of cloth diapers and formula that you mixed by hand, I think that that was definitely a real challenge, more of a challenge than she had anticipated.
Luckily, she had good friends in San Francisco, who helped with my upbringing and then, admirers who helped her financially. And that made a huge difference to her and made a – obviously, an important difference in my life.
Dennis: How did – were you aware of perhaps how this might have affected not just her work but her relationships, say her relationships with her family and her parents? Was this a part of it? Did you, at a certain point, become aware of this as perhaps both a problem and an interesting situation? [laughs]
Bill: Absolutely. She came from a family which had been quite prosperous when she was young, that was hit by the crash of 1929 and some economic ups and downs that preceded that, in the construction business and the real estate business of New York City, which is what her father was involved in. And if people take a look at her literary style or her politics or both and don’t know about her upbringing, it may come as quite a surprise, but her parents were both politically and culturally quite conservative. She thought of them as very unsupportive, although in retrospect their choices of where to send her to school, their choices in terms of helping out at difficult points in her early life, may not support that view entirely.
Dennis: You know, there’s a – I’m blanking on the name. It has ‘Quarry’ in it, but the – in the first – in the first book of poems that won the Yale Younger Poets Series, there’s this incredible poem about her, with her father, at —
Bill: And her father, at a Long Island quarry, I believe you’re referring to [crosstalk]
Dennis: — can you tell me the story of that? Yes.
Bill: Sure. Her father, my grandfather, came from Milwaukee, and, like a lot of people in the late 19th century and very early 20th century, moved to New York to seek their fortune, if not their fame. And he ran into an Italian immigrant, and between them, with some ideas of business and with a few resources, like a horse-drawn wagon and connections to quarrying men, got into the sand and gravel business and later expanded to get into the ready-mix concrete business. And the company was Colonial Stone and Gravel. And this was the time when New York was shooting skyward, and concrete was a very important part of the construction business.
It was also a time of a lot of municipal projects. And one of the business skills that these two guys had was knowing exactly who to bribe in the New York City government and how much it would take to keep them bribed. And that led to all sorts of municipal contracts. One of the benefits was that if you altered the mix of the ready-mix concrete, just a little bit, you could build on – you can bid on the same job three or five years later, because you’d assure the – yourself that the concrete would crumble during that time, and they would have to rebuild whatever street or dock you had bid on originally.
So, in terms of money, things were very good for the Rukeyser family in the 19-teens and ‘20s. A cousin of ours, who was the father of Louis Rukeyser and the – really, the Louis Rukeyser of American media in the 1930s, his name was Merryle Rukeyser, once said, ‘The only thing that surprised me about your grandfather was that he died in bed.’ His partner was, if not a made man, at least had a lot of associates in the Mob. And so, the combination of knowing who to bribe, knowing enforcers if bribes didn’t work, made them very successful economically.
One day, my grandfather went into work, and his partner said to him, ‘We’re buying you out.’ And it was not an offer. It was not a question. It was a statement, and he was smart enough to simply pick up the box that had been left on his desk, walk out of the office, and never look back. Things could’ve ended up quite differently.
But in any case, getting back to – that’s a long digression. Getting back to your question about single parenthood and how it affected her relations with her family, not well. She made up stories about why there wasn’t a father on the scene. I don’t think that her parents believed her. Things were quite frosty, for years. And things were different with her younger sister, who – they had a quite interesting relationship. They in some ways resembled each other, in some ways were quite different and quite competitive and chose different vectors in their lives.
But what interested me and my cousin, my mother’s sister’s daughter, was the fact that my mother decided to get pregnant almost at the same time that her sister had her first child. So, you know, in terms of whether this was sisterly competition or simply emulation, we couldn’t speculate on that. But it was certainly a factor. And her sister was on Manhattan, and when we moved to New York, they were much more important in each other’s lives than my grandparents were in my mother’s life.
Dennis: And you’re listening to an interview with William L. Rukeyser. That’s the son of the late poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser. He is a part of this beautiful webinar being organized at Eastern Michigan University. And they are creating an archive to the late and great poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser, and this is a part of that honoring of her work. Let me ask you this. Did she consider herself a feminist, a political poet? What was her response when people sort of wanted to – like myself, wanted that — for me, she was at first a political poet, an activist. But how did she think about that, in terms of her own life?
Bill: Yeah. And of course, you knew her in her last years. Obviously, the Civil Rights experience was fresh in people’s minds. The Vietnam War experience was very fresh as well. So, I think, in a lot of ways, she was viewed through a political lens. She had just been the head of the PEN American Center and in that role had gone to South Korea, because of a political prisoner, who was also a poet or a poet who was also a prisoner, because of his political writing. And of course, she wrote about politics or politically related things during her entire career, some decades more so than others, and she was active politically.
But in terms of how she thought of herself, she definitely resisted labels and resisted categorization. And I think even more than she actually felt, she would verbally resist or downplay categorization. Was she a feminist writer? Clearly, she was a feminist writer. Was she political? Absolutely. You know, she broke ground in terms of writing about personal life and sexuality, things that were startling in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But she absolutely resisted categorization.
And she also resisted what I think of as ‘office politics’, within the poetry world. And she did so to such an extent that it probably cost her, in terms of the associations that a lot of creative people depend on, if not emotionally and intellectually, at least to get their careers on a smooth track. Her career was not one that followed a smooth track.
Dennis: I remember I [laughs] – I asked her the question once, right after – I guess it was right after she came back from Korea, and she was working on “The Gates” or had just finished “The Gates”. And I said, ‘Are you a political poet?’ [laughs] And she said something [laughs] I’m not sure I still understand. She said, ‘Well, let me ask you this, Dennis. When the athletes in 1968 raised their fists above their heads in the Black Power salute, were they athletes or political people?’ [laughs]
Bill: Yeah. That – that sounds like a very typical answer from her. I’m not surprised.
Dennis: Let me jump ahead a little bit here. You mentioned the politics and the other things. I wanna – a core at the center of her life was went down to join the Republicans and stand against the Fascists in Spain. Did she ever talk about that to you? What – from your perspective, what did that mean to her, that journey?
Bill: It was an incredibly important experience that stuck with her in her entire life. And she actually had gone to Spain on assignment from an English magazine. She was dispatched before the Civil War began, and the reason that she was sent to Barcelona was because this was the summer of ’36, when the Nazis were hosting the Olympics in Berlin. And a number of countries, including this one, had talked about boycotting the Nazi Olympics. Unfortunately, we did not, but a number of individual athletes, primarily Leftists, were not going to Berlin. They went to join what was referred to as the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona, organized by the Catalan government that year.
So, she was going to report on this Olympiad, which was gonna include athletics, cultural events, a number of things, which would be all over Barcelona that summer. Well, the Popular Olympics never occurred, because the Fascists attempted a coup, which was resisted. And that resulted in the Spanish Civil War. So, she was actually in far Northern Catalonia, the day that the Civil War began. She got to observe some of the initial combat in what was then the countryside, now really the suburbs of Barcelona. She got stuck there with this train that had had its locomotive taken away from it for several days. Finally, a Leftist group organized a convoy of trucks and took the passengers into Barcelona, and she got to observe the first days of the fighting there.
And one story that she always told was going to the U.S. Consulate and asking for assistance, because, you know, that’s what the foreigners were doing. The British people on the train went to the English Consulate, and they said, ‘Yeah. There will be a Royal Navy ship to take you out.’ And she told the story of going to the U.S. Consulate, and the Consul there said, ‘Well, I can give you a Letter of Safe Conduct.’ And she said, you know, ‘Well, what does that do?’ And she wasn’t the only American asking for help. It didn’t do anything. ‘We’ll give you a piece of paper.’
And luckily, she had met some Belgians on the train, and they said, ‘Our government is chartering a ship.’ It was the “Ciudad de Ibiza”. She never forgot the name of the ship. The Belgians had chartered this Spanish ship. They loaded all the Belgians who wanted to go. There was still room. She got on the “Ciudad de Ibiza”, and it went up the coast to the first French port north of the border. The six or seven days that she was there, at the beginning of the war, incredibly important, a life-changing experience for her. She wrote about it, a poem and a thinly disguised memoir, which was listed as a novel.
But it remained an important turning point for her life. It energized her politically. She clearly saw the Spanish Civil War as a dress rehearsal for World War II, and she – you know, it remained a major event for her. I can recall, in the early ‘60s, traveling with her. She went to that little port in Southern France called Sette [sounds like] and visited places she had seen in 1936. We drove down to the Spanish border. She refused to go across. It was still when Franco was ruling Spain.
She was friends with Spanish exiles. She collaborated on a book with an Austrian artist who fought in the Civil War. She knew a number of people who had fought on the Republican side. Coincidentally, one of my best friends in high school was the son of a minister from the Spanish Republican government, who went into exile in New York City. So, it was clearly a defining point for her that she carried with her for her entire life.
Dennis: Is that where she met and became friends with Pablo Neruda, or was that later on? Because this certainly was a part of his life as well.
Bill: No, I – I don’t believe so. And I really would have to check the records. I know that she was a great admirer of Neruda and wrote a poem about him. I don’t know about their meeting. I believe that there was a story about a conference, but not in Spain. A lot of the people who went to Spain because of the Civil War, as a matter of fact, all of them who went because of the Civil War got there after she left. The closest collaboration that I can remember was the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, who was in Spain for the Republicans. But they met in the Bay Area, during the ‘40s.
Dennis: We’re speaking with William Rukeyser. We’re talking in the context of this wonderful webinar being produced by Eastern Michigan University, where many of the archives and some of the archival work of Muriel is being collected and honored. And this is a part of that honoring. I – let me – I remember, I was interviewing Muriel. This was a promotion I was doing for Pacifica Radio, leading up to Muriel Rukeyser Day at Sarah Lawrence College. And as a part of the promotion, I actually showed up [laughs] – I think she was staying with a friend of hers, Monica McCall, up on the Upper East Side. And —
Bill: Yeah. Who was – who was actually her – both her literary agent and her partner for almost 30 years.
Dennis: — 30 years [laughs]. Yeah [laughs]. It seemed [laughs] like – and I remember the – you know, she had been using enlarged copies of her books, because she was having trouble with her eyes. But somehow, the books weren’t around. So, she sent me to the shelf, and she said, ‘You wanna do a little reading? Just grab whatever books you want. Sit in front of me.’ I tied her microphone to a broom, which she loved [laughs]. She said, ‘Invent! I love when we invent!’ I didn’t have a microphone, so I’m just holding the broom up, with the microphone. And I mention this because it was just before her collected poems were coming out, and she came to the poem, “Neruda the Wine”.
Dennis: And she read the – she read the poem about Neruda, and she comes to the end, and she’s looking for more poem, and she turns the pages, and she says to me [laughs], she says, ‘I swear this poem was a lot longer.’ And me being naïve and sort of silly and not knowing what to say, I said, ‘Well, maybe’ – in a little, peepish voice, ‘Maybe, Muriel, you haven’t written – finished writing this poem.’ And she comes [laughs] alive. She almost falls off her chair.
She says, ‘That’s – that’s it! I’ve been struggling. Here I am, a woman, about to have her collected poems published, and I – I don’t know where to go next, because for me, collected poems were always by men and by dead [with emphasis] men. And here I am, a woman about to have collected poems, and not knowing where that poem ends tells me where I should go and write next. I’ve been having a struggle, saying, “What poem do I write next? What one poem do I write next?” And now [laughs], seeing this tells me where [laughs] I have to go.’
Bill: Yeah. And of course, you knew her during a point that was very painful for her. You know, she had her first stroke when she was only 50, and then, a – as you know, a series after that, in the next 15 years. And it was – she made a remarkable comeback, after the first one. It had affected her speech very badly. And I can remember, I was in high school, she worked on recovering her speech, because she considered the oral presentation of poetry as an intrinsic part of what she did. And so, she was very concerned about losing her ability, first of all to speak intelligibly, and second of all to speak and convey art and emotion. So, she made a very thorough comeback from that. But the later strokes really diminished her, and that fact angered and saddened her.
Dennis: I bet. And anybody who goes and listens to the earlier work understands that she was clearly a visionary poet, but she was also an orator. And the delivery of those poems and of her work and of her very complicated, extraordinarily exquisite work and imagery required an orator to carry it off. Anybody who’s tried to read some of those poems, those earlier poems, those longer, more complicated poems, the “Ajanta” poems, knows that you have to [laughs] really have a lot going, to be able to deliver those poems publicly because of the exquisite nature of the writing.
Bill: Yeah. That’s absolutely – and one thing I should mention was that she, like you, believed in the power of radio. Back in the late ‘40s, when I was a toddler, she briefly had her own radio show on a local Bay Area station. And it was somewhat experimental at the time. She tried to combine poetry, talking about poetry, and music in ways that she felt the two things complemented and reinforced each other. So, definitely, she did not think of poetry as being static or solely on the printed page.
Dennis: Bill, did she ever tell you the story – I don’t know [laughs] if she made this up or I’m [laughs] making it up. But she told me a story about how she got fired or reprimanded for nudity on the radio? Did you ever hear that one?
Bill: Well, tell me that, because I know that the – the show didn’t last as long as it might have, but —
Bill: — I don’t know what happened to it.
Dennis: I think she was reading a D.H. Lawrence, very seductive story. Which one was it? “Son” or something like that, and the way I understood it, second, third hand, I think she told me this story, is that she just – you know, it – there was a very touching moment that was very seductive, and it got her in trouble with censors. Nudity on the radio.
Bill: Well, I’m not surprised. I mean, you know, one of the things about the ‘40s, especially after the end of the war, was that the U.S. took a sharp turn to the right, both politically and in terms of conformity. And that was something that weighted very heavily on her, and of course, back then, the FCC was much more restrictive. This was pre-Lenny Bruce, much more restrictive, in terms of what could be said on the air. And on top of that, this station, KDFC, was brand-new. It didn’t have a huge budget, and I don’t even know if they had a staff attorney. So, yeah. That does not surprise me.
Dennis: All right. I wanna – just one or two more questions. I appreciate your patience.
Dennis: And I’m sure everybody’s going to love hearing this. It’s gonna mean a lot to the folks participating in this webinar. I wanna ask you about the poem “Double Ode”.
Dennis: And if I remember correctly, it – the last verse ends – and she repeats it three times. It’s on the page. “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget. Pay attention to what they tell you to forget. Pay attention to what they tell you to forget. Beware of the guardians. There are no guardians. It’s built into me. Do I move toward form? Do I use all my fear?” I believe this poem was devoted to you and your wife. What do you suppose she meant by that? “Do I move toward form? Do I use all my fear?”
Bill: Well, you know, I think that that is really reflective – clearly refined, but really reflective of things that she said my entire life as a kid and a teenager and into my 20s. She was both very appreciative and very resentful of formal education and the gatekeepers of our society. You know, she – she was able to see things from a variety of perspectives simultaneously. And so, on one hand, she would advocate an absolutely freewheeling, be-your-own-person type of attitude, and at the same time, recognize the importance of intellectual discipline that you acquired from some of the same cultural gatekeepers that she distrusted.
And let me just tell you one story that she may have told you, when you were interviewing her. This was a childhood memory of hers, and it was from the Ethical Culture School in New York. And that is one of the indications I take that her parents were really interested in her intellectual development, that they chose that school for her. But in any case, the story goes that in one of her classes, there was one boy who was known for being a cut-up and a kid who would not take orders. And so, one day, the teacher comes in and says, ‘Class, settle down.’ Little Danny or whatever his name was is being a cut-up, won’t settle down.
The teacher speaks sharply to him. Things escalate just surprisingly quickly, and all of a sudden, she grabs him by the collar and says, ‘You can’t do that. I’m taking you down to the Principal’s office.’ Hauls him out of the room, he’s kicking and screaming. She slams the door, two minutes later, comes back and says to the class, ‘Little Danny is going to be in a load of trouble, and the Principal is gonna be investigating this thoroughly. I need each and every one of you to write down exactly what happened, so that I’ve got the evidence to present to the teacher – to the Principal.’
And so, they all do that, and she says, ‘Now I wanna – a few of you to read to me what you wrote.’ And so, she calls on a couple of different students. They all saw the same thing, and they it down in different ways. “Little Danny started the argument.” “The teacher was mean to little Danny.” “Little Danny hit the teacher.” “The teacher hit little Danny.” All these varying recollections, and so, the teacher goes, knocks on the door, little Danny comes in smiling. The whole thing had been pre-rehearsed, and the teacher says, ‘We’re now gonna begin our study of the American Revolution, using firsthand original documents.’
And the point was, you can see – everybody can see the same thing and yet, they all see different things. And this was a very important part of her outlook on life. And maybe it wasn’t the little Danny incident that gave her this perspective, but it was certainly something that she referred to a lot.
Dennis: All right. Well, we are gonna leave it right there for now. We have been speaking with William L. Rukeyser in the context of this webinar at Eastern Michigan University, being sponsored by Professor Elizabeth Dalma [sounds like]. This is going to be an archive of some of the Muriel Rukeyser papers, sound, and some of the great works she’s done. We thank you, Bill Rukeyser, if I can call you Bill —
Dennis: — as we say goodbye, for making this beautiful contribution. Anything else perhaps I forgot to ask, that you’d like to share with us, or —
Bill: No, I think that covers it very nicely. And I’ll see you on Friday.
Dennis: — sounds good. Looking forward to it. Please be careful. And we will see you soon. Bye-bye, now.
Bill: Okay. Take care. Bye.
Mike: All right. Let me hit save.