Since childhood, I have gone around claiming to be a poet, though for many years I feared this was an anachronistic occupation. All of the poets I studied in high school—Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—shared in common something more than their exceptional literary prowess: they were dead.
For me, the aspiring poet, this fact struck an ominous chord of self-doubt. Could I even be a poet? Was such a vocation even possible?
Happily, in college, I learned there were in fact living poets still writing poems, and I took a special interest in their lives. Before I would read a poetry collection, I invariably checked the index to make sure there was only a birth year, hyphen, and blank space after the author’s name. If there was a death year, the book was likely to remain on the shelf.
In 2003, I moved from Washington State to Pennsylvania to pursue an MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. Shortly after my arrival in Steel City, a new acquaintance recommended a poet to me. “You should be reading Denise Duhamel,” she said, with an air of authority. “She writes about everything you care about, and there’s no pretense—just really good poems.”
I remember my eyebrows arching with suspicion. “Is she alive?” I wanted to know.
Nancy smiled at me. “Very much so.”
I started reading Denise Duhamel’s poetry a full decade ago, and I never stopped. She may be the only poet about whom I can say that I have read everything and then read it all again. When I hear a line buzzing around in my head like, for instance, “believing, even then, in all kinds of answers” or, “It was just the alabaster moon, a little girl, and a young woman,” odds are, the line is from a Duhamel poem. Over time, her words, questions, and images have become part of the soundtrack playing in my mind.
I began teaching Denise’s poetry collection, Kinky, in 2006, in an Introduction to Feminist Studies course at Carlow University. Since then, I have continued to teach her work in Contemporary American Literature, Creative Writing, and Gender and Sexuality Studies courses, always to resounding positive response from my students. “We thought poetry was boring!” they say. “We thought poetry was hard to understand.” Sometimes students confide in me that they, too, used to believe that all the great poets had already lived and died. Yet here is Denise Duhamel—youthful, spirited, inspiring—a woman in the prime of life writing at the height of her powers.
Denise Duhamel’s poems have been reprinted in more than one hundred anthologies and textbooks, including nine volumes of Best American Poetry, and her individual poems have appeared in more than three hundred literary journals. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she is professor of poetry at Florida International University in Miami.
Last year, in a stroke of outrageous serendipity, I joined the FIU faculty in Creative Writing, where Denise is now my colleague, my faculty mentor, and my friend. She remains not only one of the most inspirational and influential poets writing today, but one of the liveliest women and writers I am lucky to know.
The Rumpus: Over the last twenty-five years, since the release of your first chapbook Heaven and Heck in 1988, you have published eleven books of poetry, five chapbooks, and six collaborative poetry projects. You are not only an immensely prolific poet, but your poetry leaves the reader with the strong impression of someone who is always questioning, always seeking, always open to the world around you. Is there any topic you intentionally shy away from in your work, or a topic that you perhaps unconsciously avoid?
Denise Duhamel: Julie, that is a great question. Though it does seem like I have written an immense amount of work, over the years I have pushed the pause button. I have poems that I haven’t sent out for publication, mostly based on political/social issues. I just felt too unsure of myself—and afraid I’d hurt the wrong people. Not that a poem can “hurt” someone the same way a physical blow can or even a mean remark can…I just felt unsure that my tone would be taken the right way and/or unsure of my own writing, that I couldn’t maintain the tone I wanted. These aren’t exactly failed poems—I have a lot of those that remain unpublished!—but just poems that haunt me a bit.
I don’t know if there are topics that I unconsciously avoid, but as soon as they pop up in my writing, I try to take on those topics, whether or not I publish the poems.
Rumpus: Are there poems you can write now that you couldn’t have written ten years ago, twenty years ago, or vice versa?
Duhamel: I think some of my earliest work is actually more challenging in terms of subject matter than what I write now. I had no idea, when I was writing early on, that my poems would be published or read by anyone, never mind people I knew or would meet. I just wrote urgently—naïvely, I suppose, looking back. Now that my poems have a better chance of ending up in print, I am more circumspect. This is not to say I censor myself—I still write what I need to write—but I can’t deny that something has changed when I think about sending work out. Maybe it’s just growing older and feeling more responsible to the world.
On the flip side, I have more fun with sheer language now. I have internalized more in terms of craft. Twenty years ago I couldn’t have written the poems I now write, since I just didn’t have the technical chops to do so.
Rumpus: How has your process of poetry-making evolved over the years? What have been the constants in your life as a writer?
Duhamel: I started wanting desperately to say something, to make a point, to be heard—and I still feel that way. Free verse served me best when I embarked on poetry.
Over the years, I became more and more interested in the forms and techniques in which things could be said. I came to writing traditional formal poetry quite late. I remember wanting to take a sonnet class with Joan Larkin at Sarah Lawrence in the late 1980s and then chickened out at the last minute. She had published an amazing crown, “Blackout Sonnets” (in her book A Long Sound), and I recognized the way she was invigorating and enlarging the form. I wanted to learn how to write like she did, but I was so afraid of failure that I wound up becoming her fan instead of her student. I continued to read formidable formalists, like Marilyn Hacker and Molly Peacock, but couldn’t bring myself to try to even rhyme. I finally learned form through my collaborations with Maureen Seaton. We often played exquisite corpse, and she wanted to write exquisite corpse sonnets and pantoums. Maybe because I only had to come up with half of the lines, I wasn’t as afraid. Maureen gave me some training wheels. After writing with her, I was able to approach form on my own. In addition to writing in received forms, I have also had fun making up forms—Möbius strips and visual poems, particularly.
What has stayed true in my life as a writer is my dedication to writing—I try to write every day, no matter what—and the joy that writing has given me. I know writers for whom the act of writing is a necessary chore. They suffer to write great work. I am very lucky that for me writing is a delight.
Rumpus: Do you have an ideal or imagined reader you are speaking to when you write?
Duhamel: Yes…I am speaking to other women, usually younger than I am. That is not to say those are the actual readers of my work, but I picture such women in my head. Maybe they are my “poetry” daughters.
Rumpus: Poet Jean Valentine has written about you: “She chose poetry but she could have chosen music videos or comic strips: Denise Duhamel is wildly satiric, and we are blessed by this true and fierce mirror of our straight gate.” Why do you think you chose poetry? Or did poetry choose you?
Duhamel: As a teenager, I loved acting, painting, photography, and making films with my friend’s Super 8 camera. But I always loved writing the best. I chose writing even before I knew poetry was available to me. (Until I was an undergraduate in college, I’d never read a contemporary poet—only poets who had died—and in some mind blip I assumed there just weren’t any poets anymore.) I always wanted to be some kind of writer—I wrote plays and songs and “books” before I realized living and breathing people still wrote poems.
Rumpus: If you weren’t a poet and a professor of poetry, who would you be?
Duhamel: Jean Valentine may be right—I might have been a maker of comic strips or music videos. I remember my friends and I making music videos before there were music videos, before MTV. My favorite was one my high school friend Nancy made about Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”—at the end she quick-cut the “actress” rocking a baby, with the same actress in the same position rocking a bottle of booze—no easy task as this was before editing machines. This song and Nancy’s image was my first true understanding of existentialism.
I also could see myself as a stand-up comedian, a fashion designer (for people of all sizes), a hairdresser, an earnest and eventually burnt-out politician, or the owner of a small bistro. But I fear that, without poetry, I would have simply been going through the motions, feeling like Peggy Lee in the song. But since I became a poet, I answer Peggy Lee’s question, “Is that all there is?” with a big “No! There is poetry…”
Rumpus: Who/what have been the biggest influences on your own work as poet?
Duhamel: Jean Valentine and Jane Cooper were my professors at Sarah Lawrence College—and they were uncompromised in their art. They gave me models of how to live one’s life as a poet. I also studied with Michael Burkard and Thomas Lux, both of whom instilled a love of poetry of all kinds and were encouraging as any mentors I could hope for.
As to the reading of other poets, there are many influences—the short list would include Sharon Olds, Ai, Albert Goldbarth, Frank O’Hara, Edward Field, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. I also spent quite a bit of time at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The spoken word community was significant in making me want to write accessible and urgent poems. Bob Holman, in particular, was an impressive figure.
Many of my peers (in terms, roughly, of age or generation) also are important for the possibilities they display in their work. I’m thinking specifically of David Trinidad, Tim Seibles, Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Nin Andrews, Terrance Hayes, and Tony Hoagland.
Rumpus: I remember reading once that Robert Frost was asked if he had to choose which poem from his entire body of work came closest to saying everything he needed to say, what poem would it be? Frost chose “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” What poem from your own canon would you choose?
Duhamel: Robert Frost is a lot better at this than I am, but here goes: I choose “Playa Naturista.”
Rumpus: I don’t know if Robert Frost was asked a follow-up question, but I wonder if you could say a little more about why you chose this poem. “Playa Naturista,” as I recall, features the lines I love:
My husband and I slip out of our bottoms
and run like Adam and Eve, if
Adam smoked Dunhills and Eve
Duhamel: Many of my poems up until “Playa Naturista” were concerned with body image—women’s in particular—and a speaker who was a little more than obsessed. The speaker in “Playa Naturista” is nude, as are all the people around her. There is a connection to these many imperfect bodies, and a gratitude and celebration of her body and others and the natural world.
Rumpus: In “Old Love Poems,” a poignant and powerful poem from your new book Blowout, your speaker begins:
I can burn the pictures, but not the poems
since I published them in books, which are on shelves
in libraries and in people’s homes. Once my cousin told me
not to write anything down because the words would be there forever
to remind me of the fool I once was.
Are there any poems from your body of work that you regret writing/publishing?
Duhamel: Not really. Ultimately, I think “my cousin” was wrong. Writing is performative—and while, yes, the words in essence will be there “forever,” poems are often about ecstatic moments rather than trying to pin down a particular truth of an event. The “truth” is the poem itself. Just because someone writes a poem about a feeling she has does not mean that the feeling will stay forever. The truth of the emotion of the poem remains, even if the particular truth of the poet changes.
Rumpus: What do you wish you had known as a young poet just starting out? If you could give your former self one morsel of advice, what would it be?
Duhamel: While poetry was less professionalized than it is now, I still had this urge to win prizes and see my work in magazines, to get an “A,” as though poetry could be graded. I wish I had been more patient and less frantic about getting published. My advice to my younger self would have been, “Chill. Concentrate on the poems. Everything else will work itself out.”
Rumpus: One poem from Blowout that I especially love is an emulation of Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” titled “Having a Diet Coke with You.” In this poem, as in many poems from Blowout, you raise important meta-questions about the nature of poetry and the relationship between art and life:
because some things I want to be just for us
and there it is I suppose the problem
with all narrative post confessional transgressive poetry
whatever this kind of poetry is referred to as in this moment
how to keep loyal to the art without being disloyal
to the love and what to tell and what to hold back
This excerpt alone makes me wonder about a number of things. How do you classify your own poetry? Are there any classifications of your work that you would object to?
Duhamel: I have no idea, actually, where I fit in, in terms of poetry camps. At AWP conferences, I have been on panels about humor, collaboration, visual poetry, confessional poetry, gender, and the body, as well as tributes to Edward Field and Albert Goldbarth. I felt at home on all of them—most poets straddle more than one school. And unlike Woody Allen, I would be happy to be part of any (poetry) club that would have me.
Recently I have been reading about The New Sincerity. Jesse Thorn wrote a manifesto that includes these sentences “…’Be More Awesome.’ Our lifestyle: ‘Maximum Fun.’ Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity.” I am, I guess, The Old Sincerity.
Rumpus: What have you figured out about keeping “loyal to the art without being disloyal to the love”?
Duhamel: I am still figuring it out—but I can tell you this. If you are my friend and say to me, “Please don’t write about this,” I won’t. I don’t think I could have agreed to that twenty years ago and would have been only able to say, “I’ll try my best not to!” I remember going to a poetry panel in the mid-1990s, and someone asked if Sharon Olds might be part of a cultural nexus that included talks shows like those hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah. The audience just sort of giggled and the panel didn’t address the question, but I do think there is something to that notion. Not that Olds herself watched such shows—I have no idea if she did or not. But the question asked by the audience member suggested that there was something in the zeitgeist that allowed for and accommodated disclosure.
My students rarely wrote about personal topics when I first started teaching, but now they are more forthcoming with seemingly personal details. There is less embarrassment around certain issues. We have come far from the days of the first confessional poets. In 1959, M.L. Rosenthal actually referred to Lowell’s Life Studies as a “as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.” I can’t imagine any reviewer writing that about a book of poems today, although I suppose TMI has made it into our lexicon for a reason. Reality TV takes this notion even further. Viewers follow “real” people, not only when they are in crisis or giving birth, but also as they do the most mundane things.
Rumpus: When I think about Blowout as a whole, I realize there is a lot of love in this book—loss of love, longing for love, letting go of love, discovering of love anew. You conclude one poem, “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” with the line, “So what if he couldn’t dance? That was love.” In another, called “Sleep Seeds,” you write: “Back then, before I met you, /I thought gross. Now I think love.” Did you begin writing Blowout with love in mind?
Duhamel: I didn’t conceive of Blowout as a book until after all the poems were written. I had been writing a lot of poems about love and loss, unsure what I would do with them. After my marriage ended, I had an urge to skip that part of my life completely in terms of poetry, not publish anything at all about it. I had failed another human being, and I wanted that part of the past in some sort of box (and not necessarily the box a prose poem makes). I had a fleeing notion that if I was going to write about this particular heartache at all, it would be a memoir making fun of Eat, Love, Pray, a book I found decidedly unhelpful and rather insulting to those of us who had to work for a living and get on with life.
I had pulled together some poems about that time for an e-chapbook, How It Will End, and I thought, “Okay, that’s that.” So when I tried to put poems together for the book that would become Blowout, I thought it would broadly be about romantic love, cultural expectations, and a speaker’s limitations. I included poems about early love and middle-aged love. The book’s first drafts made absolutely no sense because the most obvious poems were missing. It was only when I added the more tragic poems that the book started to take shape. The title comes from a poem that mentions a blowout (a party) but also carries the associations of a blowout, a sudden rupture in a car’s front tire. My friend reminded me last night that you can also ask for a blowout at the hairdresser, a term I hadn’t intended, but that, in a strange way, works too.
Rumpus: Bruce Beasley, another poet whose work I admire, said once in a graduate workshop, that we only write about six things our whole lives or in any given project. What would you say are the six things you are writing about in Blowout? (Or feel free to tweak the number as needed.) Are these the same things you have written about in your larger body of work, or have new topics/themes emerged in this book?
Duhamel: Bruce Beasley is right! Though I might have only five. When I was putting together Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems, I was sure I would have trouble segueing from the selections from one book to the next, as I thought I had written about so many different things—fairy tales, folklore, Barbie dolls, and more personal narratives. But the truth was I’d written about the same obsessions over and over again, just using different modes of access. The big ones, of course: love and death. I think my three others are: feminism, class, and violence (macro and micro). These were present in my first books and are also present in Blowout.
Rumpus: Some hallmarks of your work include its playful and accessible language, feminist sensibility, engagement with popular culture, and laugh-out-loud humor, all of which are characteristic of the poems in Blowout. I also notice in this book in particular a number of cinematic references—for instance, the film An Unmarried Woman, with Jill Clayburgh, appears in two poems and provides the title for one, and another poem, “You Don’t Get to Tell Me What to Do Ever Again,” takes its title from a central character in the film, American Beauty. How have movies influenced your life and shaped your poetry?
Duhamel: Frank O’Hara writes it best in “Ave Maria:”
Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images…
Mine is a soul that has indeed grown in that darkness. I love going to movie theaters, even in the era of movies on-demand and Netflix. When you are in a movie theater, no one can reach you by phone or other means. (I play by the rules and shut off my cell.) It is the only place I can think of where you can—and, in fact, are encouraged!—to eat in the dark without shame. In almost every book I’ve written, there is a reference to a movie—legendary films, actors and actresses, and forgotten made-for-TV movies. The leaps poems make are not unlike the cuts in a film. The miniature and avant-garde prose poets have perhaps the most obvious ties to film, as a prose poem in its shape is not unlike a movie screen.
Visual media is the dominant art form in our present day culture, whereas poetry is, at best, a proxy. Yet poetry and film are both “dream factories.” One of my favorite stories about Gertrude Stein (though it may be apocryphal) is that she and Charlie Chaplin met and talked about cinema and its possibilities.
Rumpus: Another of my favorite poems from Blowout is called “My Strip Club,” which was also reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2011. I find this poem laugh-out-loud funny—subversively so:
In my strip club
the girls crawl on stage
then slowly pull on
gloves, ski masks
and hiking boots.
As the music slows,
they lick the pole
and for a tantalizing second
their tongues stick
because it’s so cold.
They zip up parkas
and tie tight bows
under their hoods.
A big spender
can take one of my girls
into a back room
where he can clamp
on her snowshoes.
I’m curious as to how the idea of “My Strip Club” came about, and how you decided on its placement in this book, where many of the other poems are more explicitly autobiographical and rooted in lived experience.
Duhamel: I wrote the first draft of this poem with my class during one our writing exercises. I can’t remember the prompt I’d given, but I was specifically thinking of two things, which I started writing about, though neither ever made it into the final poem. The first was an article I’d read about a Pole Dance Doll that may have been issued in 2008 by an Asian toy company to sell to off-price retailers, and I cite this in my comments in The Best American Poetry 2011. This doll was not a novelty item for adults meant to titillate—it was actually a child’s toy. A traditional-looking doll came with two accessories—a blinking stripper pole and disco ball. There was such an outcry in the blogosphere about the Pole Dance Doll’s inappropriateness that I didn’t have much to add. Some writers pondered—and hoped—that the toy was a Photoshopped hoax. Still, a similar toy, a Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit, was pulled from Tesco shelves in Britain in 2006.
I began to think about the extent to which nude and semi-nude female bodies are commonplace in our present day culture and how young girls might be affected. I wondered if, at some point, this bombardment of images could possibly get boring and that concealing—rather than revealing—would awaken sexual desire. I don’t think that will ever be the case, of course, but I was intrigued to write a poem in which dressing was just as erotic as undressing.
I had also recently revisited Diane Wakowski’s “Belly Dancer,” which has an interesting take on the erotic performer. The speaker of this persona poem asserts about her audience:
…most of the women frown, or look away, or laugh stiffly…
The psychologists would say they are afraid of themselves, somehow.
Perhaps awakening too much desire—
that their men could never satisfy?
Wakowski’s poem ends with an indictment of the men who “simper and leer”:
They do not realize how I scorn them;
or how I dance for their frightened,
The third and final section of Blowout begins with three short poems, as many of the poems in the second section are quite long. “My Strip Club” and the other two are like little flowers popping up after a long winter.
Rumpus: “My Strip Club” is decidedly shorter than many poems in Blowout, with its beautiful, tightly enjambed lines. Other poems, like “Take Out, 2008,” “Recession Commandments,” and “Having a Diet Coke with You,” are poems of length, size, and endurance. And there are also some signature Duhamel prose poems, like “Worst Case Scenario.” Could you talk a little about your relationship with the line?
Duhamel: I love the line and all it can do—reverse the meaning of the line before; speed up or slow down a reader; serve as the pause before a punch line. I actually made a long one-lined poem called “The Line,” that I wrote out by hand with a silver Sharpie onto a typewriter ribbon. This visual poem is experienced by spooling the ribbon through the typewriter.
When Ka-Ching! was published, I asked the designer at University of Pittsburgh Press that some of the prose poems (which started out as a visual poetry project, poems on the back of play money) be printed sideways in the book so that they could retain the shape of the bills. I am interested in the confines of the page and busting through/off the page as well. A writer must let go of the line when writing prose poems, which brings its own pleasures.
The “biggest” poems I ever made are based on the psychological principal of the “Johari Window:” what the self freely shares with others; what the self hides from others; what others hide from the self; and what is unknown to the self and others. I constructed prose poems to “fit” on four sides of Venetian blinds. I made a prototype of the blinds, printing out the poem on vellum and attaching text to the blinds’ slats. Readers/viewers can “open” and “close” the blinds to reveal and withhold information contained on the poem on the other side.
Rumpus: You conclude the poem “Take Out, 2008,” with the lines, “Still, I am trying harder, faster. Still, I am trying to learn the art.” What’s next for you, Denise Duhamel? Personally? Poetically? What are you most eager to learn?
Duhamel: I would like someday to write really good prose—pages of it in a row that make sense and have a plot of sorts. I would like to go to the Galapagos Islands and see a Blue-footed Booby. I am open to squeezing in whatever I can in this wonderful life. Instead of asking, “Is that all there is?” I seem, lately, to be always saying, “Wow!”