On April 10, 1964, Muriel Rukeyser participated, via telephone conferencing, in a course, “American Life as Seen by Contemporary Writers,” which was offered, simultaneously, in six colleges (Stephens College, Drury College, Langston University, Morehouse College, Southern Illinois University, and Tougaloo College). Offered at each college and co-taught by collaborating teachers at each institution, the course brought together students, teachers, and writers through the use of telephone networking, an innovative technology at the time.
During her telephone interview with students from the course, Rukeyser read and discussed three of her poems: “Gauley Bridge,” from Book of the Dead; “Double Dialogue: Homage to Robert Frost”; and “Waterlily Fire,” which had recently been published.
Responding to a student from Langston University about the meaning of “crooked faces” in the opening section of “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser said:
I have thought very often of the street full of people hoping for unity in themselves as being broken into pieces. It seems to me one of the crimes of our life, of the order we live in, is to require a partial response from people. If you look at their jobs, you know, you see how often they are partial responses to things that are demanded of people to make the jobs go. If you look at people in their professions, in the way they work, in the way they live, when they compromise, when they cut down on their fullness, when they destroy by forgetting, when they destroy by distorting, the fragmenting of the person–I meant it in that way, in the way of distorting–you see this very clearly on some streets. You see it, of course, as a projection of yourself in certain things. It was the setting up of this kind of distortion of a belief in some idea of security rather than the idea of living in change, living in movements, living in the procession of images that is the long body, that makes the main idea. I was interested in what is not so secure in life but necessary, to go on living, to go on moving and breathing as a living thing. (142)
Rukeyser’s responses to student questions about these three poems provide an excellent insight into her relationship to readers of her poems in general. For instance, when one student (again from Langston University) asked Rukeyser if she used “I am a city with bridges and tunnels/Rock, cloud, ships, voices,” as a metaphor or a symbol, she replied:
I would like to throw this right back. What do you think? I’m sorry, I apologize for that but I’m very interested in what you’re saying, the way it comes through. Unfair of me, I know.
When the student answered: “I’m not sure,” Rukeyser said: “It’s all right to be not sure. It’s all right” (146).
For more of this interview, see Talks with Authors, ed. Charles F. Madden (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), pp. 125-150.