Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), U.S. poet & activist
‘Beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’, according to fellow poet Anne Sexton. I first heard of her twenty years ago, when a lover gave me a photocopy of Muriel’s poem The Speed of Darkness. I don’t remember why she did that. But I do remember that when I read The Speed of Darkness my hair stood on end. Held together with a now-rusty staple, the photocopy lives in my filebox-of-precious-papers, has accompanied me across the world and back, and between New Zealand’s two main islands. In that travelling, I let go of many possessions; I own only a dozen books and when I accumulate more I give them away. So why did I hang onto this poem?
And then friend suggested that I write a play. I’d written only one, ever, as an exercise during my scriptwriting MA studies, at the International Institute of Modern Letters. But I decided to have a go, partly because I’m interested in media convergence. Why tell a story on stage rather than onscreen or on a page? What elements are necessary in and unique to a literary form and what aren’t? Why write a play rather than a film or a game or a comic or a book of essays or poems? And I thought of The Speed of Darkness. Maybe I could write a play about that, about the woman who wrote it.
Eighteen months later, I have the second draft of a play called Throat of These Hours, about two women who work in a Wellington radio station, one of whom puts Muriel Rukeyser’s poems to music, for a solo show also called Throat of These Hours. The play needs at least two more drafts, but so far it seems to continue my preoccupations with the factors that silence women artists and writers and what makes it possible for us to tell our stories. And I’m slowly learning how plays differ from screenplays, experimenting with elements from film and elsewhere, going for convergence wherever it seems that it may enhance the storytelling.
I’ve read and re-read Muriel Rukeyser’s Collected Poems, The Orgy, The Life of Poetry. I’ve read what I can find of interviews with her, prose she’s written about herself, others’ memories of her and poems about her. I’ve had a very helpful conversation with her generous son, Bill Rukeyser. And as I’ve explored Muriel Rukeyser’s life and work, re-read Tillie Olsen’s Silences and Joanna Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing and continued with the autoethnographic research, writing and filmmaking for the activist Development project about women who make movies, the ‘Muriel’ of this blog’s title has become a beloved companion. The older woman I question and confide in, who’s there for my characters Tina and Meredith, too. My imaginary special friend to whom I’ve addressed posts that bring together the play and my other work. Here they are, gathered together from two other blogs, one of them my activist Wellywood Woman blog and the other my experimental writing blog Looking LIke Sean Connery.
On 16 March 2013, by Skype, I’ll make a presentation to the Muriel Rukeyser Symposium at Eastern Michigan University. It’ll be in three parts – an intro, a short film of a reading from the-work-in-progress (so there’s at least something if Skype fails!) and composer Chris White performing two poems from the play she’s set to music (when does a poem become a song?) and a Q & A with me and with Chris. Exciting and scary, to take bits of my version of Muriel back to her home in the States, to an audience of experts. Who, I imagine, also love her and her writing.
The Muriel Rukesyer Living Archive is here.
‘About’ is also about me in my garden whenever possible and the environmental concerns that inform the play.
This summer I have runner beans climbing over the sunflowers. BUT there’s a bee problem. The honey bees of spring who love my borage have gone. And when the other day I saw just one, it was disoriented, hopping from apple leaf to ripening apple, ignoring all the flowers surrounding her. My garden’s an organic welcome to many many insects and this is the first time I’ve seen so few summer bees, or a sick one. So I’m in and out to check if they’re visiting the sunflowers. They aren’t, though bumble bees visit the beans and today there was a bumble bee on one sunflower.
In Throat of These Hours the environmental concerns are with essential liquids that nourish us: water and breast milk.