Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021). Her other titles include Scald, Blowout, Ka-Ching!, Two and Two, Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems, The Star-Spangled Banner,and Kinky. She and Maureen Seaton have co-authored four collections, the most recent of which is CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). And she and Julie Marie Wade co-authored The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019). A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Duhamel teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.
Denise Duhamel crafts chatty, intelligent collections of poetry that wrestle with gender constructs, complicity, intimacy, Western cultural conventions, and psychogeography. Yep, even psychogeography. Denise Duhamel and I corresponded this summer. It was (beyond) lovely. She signs her emails with a heart––a black heart.
Adele Elise Williams: I’ve just finished reading your newest book, Second Story (what a stunner!), and re-read several of your past books as well, and the observation that struck me immediately upon finishing is the consistency of your style and voice. I guess what I’m getting at is this: You are a poet who sticks to her guns. How you say what you mean to say and what you mean to say all lives in this impressively self-realized world. And I suppose this impresses me because I am an emerging writer who often struggles with the demands of current trends. Do you ever feel that pressure to write what’s “popular”? … How have you navigated the evolution of poetry over the past twenty plus years within your own work?
Denise Duhamel: I know what you mean! As a younger writer, I also found myself wanting to be published in certain magazines and then trying to write poems for said magazines. It never worked. There was a joke in the early 1990s that if you wanted to be published in The New Yorker that your poem needed to contain a dead father, a birdbath, and something else I can’t recall. My friend the poet Sparrow actually picketed The New Yorker with a group of other poets who held up signs “MY POETRY IS AS BAD AS YOURS” and then Alice Quinn wound up publishing one of his poems. It was a simpler time—before social media. But I always loved that story.
At some point I gave up on poetry trends. I remember Tom Lux, one of my poetry professors, saying You don’t have to know how to do everything in poetry. Just pick three or four things you are good at and try to get better at your strengths. It was great advice. One of the things I really tried to focus on was clarity and voice. I was always committed to being accessible. So when my poems were a muddled, abstract mess, I translated them into Frank O’Hara speak. I always tried to say something that a general audience, not only poetry nerds like myself, would “get.”
AEW: I love this story! That advice! Do you mind saying more about accessibility as a priority of yours?
DD: Sure. I think sometimes poets confuse accessibility with a dumbing down of language or making poems “easy.” That is not what I mean at all. I adore clarity coupled with craft, whether that be in the traditionally formal poems of Patricia Smith or David Trinidad or the exquisite four-beat line of Sharon Olds. David Kirby and Barbara Hamby embraced “ultra talk” and contextualized it as a genre unto itself.
AEW: When thinking of clarity and craft in your work, your poem “Swedish Death Cleaning” from Second Story immediately comes to mind. How it moves and turns, switch-backing and inverting. The line breaks delaying the narrative as it unfolds piece by piece––the tension of the speaker, you, thinking and admitting in real time. And still how the poem “tells,” how it plainly speaks.
I vacillate from cluelessness to wisdom
sometimes what I utter sounds trite
though I’ve pondered it long and hard in my brain
some of my friends are dying which reminds me
of when I was young
we lost so many to AIDS
a few years ago a DJ said to me don’t worry
you are going to make it into the triple-digits
he was young and I was dancing with the young
That first stanza, starting with “I vacillate from cluelessness to wisdom,” encapsulates the vibe of this entire book—its overall existential investigation and confession. This is my favorite poem in the book! Where did it come from? Tell us more about this Swedish Death Cleaning you speak of and why it matters?! (P.S. this poem’s movement, momentum, and voice is killer).
DD: Thank you! In Margareta Magnusson’s book—I stole her title for this poem!—she writes, “Some people can’t wrap their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?” I love the scolding tone of her prose. And the first thing I thought of was—of course, poets want to be immortal. Jim Cummins has a hilarious poem about that, which appeared in Best American Poetry 2009:
The Poets March on Washington
What do we want?
When do we want it?
What do we want?
When do we want it?
What do we want?
When do we want it?
We fantasize about people reading our work after we’re gone. But Magnusson also made me realize I’ve accumulated paper and letters and literary magazines that no one, I’m quite sure, in my family will want. My friend and I have a pact—half joke, half serious—that if one of us dies suddenly the other will go into her living space to make sure it’s not a total mess before relatives arrive. So, I used this poem to write about those things as well as the fact that though I am getting older I don’t feel like my wisdom is in proportion to the years I’ve lived on the planet. I used the three-line stanza, but there is no obvious rhyme scheme, no terza rima structure. I love writing loose, unpunctuated poems, which is borne of my love of Frank O’Hara.
AEW: I’m deeply attracted to the way you embrace self-complicity and self-deprecation in your poetry. I’ve been told several times in workshops or by mentors to consider empowering myself more in my work, that the pitifulness is too “hat in hand.” But I don’t feel empowered! I regularly feel defeated, unattractive, uncool, stupid, blah, blah, blah. I am in awe of how you can call yourself out and even wallow at times without being whiny and of how you are able to do this with an awareness of your own positionality. That is the important part, and the part that I often miss in my own work. I don’t have a real question here, so as much as I’m wondering what your thoughts are about this take on your work. I’m thinking here specifically of “Questions of Faith” and “Wednesday, April 29, 1992,” both poems from your newest book Second Story.
DD: Right. This is a great question and I’m not sure I can answer it as well and fully as I’d like, but I think it may come down to authenticity. Being authentic/open/vulnerable is always a gamble because a reader could potentially not “like” the speaker, could think she is whiny or bratty, and dismiss the poem. But usually readers who do relate to the voice will do so with vigor because the poet is saying what they’ve thought and not dared to express. Or thought but didn’t think to express. My mother died this summer, and I am entering my “matriarch” years. But I don’t always feel like the wise woman who can confidently give advice to the young. I think for me it’s more authentic to say there is still much I don’t know but I will do everything I can to help. Like you, I don’t feel particularly empowered at every turn.
AEW: I adore the word authentic, the meaning, the potentialities, the implications, the way it feels in my mouth. It gets a bad rap though. I don’t care, I still love it! On that note, do you think poetry is losing authenticity/vulnerability? Humankind in general? (Is this too loaded of a question?!)
DD: Ha! I enjoy a loaded question, if this is indeed one. It’s clear that the U.S. and many parts of the world are suffering from an empathy deficit. There is a cruelty in our current political discourse—don’t even get me started on the insurrection—that is almost unbearable to witness. When I guest-edited The Best American Poetry 2013 (a simpler, kinder time to be sure, at least on the surface) I read up on the “New Sincerity,” which was first used in the 1980s to describe music that turned away from the cool irony of New Wave. New Sincerity has been embraced by many fields including philosophy and literary criticism. As I worked on compiling The Best American Poetry 2013, I noticed that many well-crafted poems in top literary magazines were distant, remote, exploiting or employing the tragedies of modern-day life without engaging with those tragedies. A case is to be made for those poems (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Oulipo, etc.)—how else to respond to the perils of modern-day life but to disassociate? But I felt unsatisfied. In a workshop I was teaching, one of my FIU students said she felt that people were becoming “apocaholics,” having given up on any chance to save the planet. They were waiting, instead, for the drama of the end that they were sure was coming, and that it was easier to give into a detached stance rather than give into terror. Her words resonated as I read more of these slippery and cool poems in my Best American Poetry 2013 research, and I soon became numb to their style and quirky appeal. I started to look for the poems that risked something emotionally, that “said” something. I realized that it was easy (if not technically, then certainly emotionally) to write “pretty.” It was harder to write “wise.” It was harder, in many ways, to be accessible.
AEW: OK. I’m holding several things in my mind right now. First, the idea of detachment over terror. Second, these slippery poems of late! And third, the rhetorical difficulty of accessibility––nothing to hide behind. I’m not really asking a question here, and I should be. So I’ll ask this. For you, what really makes a poem? What gets you going?
DD: I want to feel an investment in the speaker of the poem. I want to feel an urgency. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote “I know it when I see it” about pornography. (Funny—all the letters pornography and poetry have in common.) I know this is a bit of a non-answer, but there is something hard to articulate as I encounter a poem that I know will turn into a beloved poem of mine. And I know this is a high bar and all poems can’t achieve it—that’s why most poets are probably known best for just a handful of their poems.
AEW: There are several lyrically meditative and imagistic poems in Second Story that, I don’t want to say take me by surprise, but rather allow me to process and relate to the work this book is doing in a different way. For example, “Cinderella’s End,” “Facelift,” and another favorite of mine, “Life (With Apologies to Chekhov),” printed in its entirety below. These are also shorter poems in comparison to much of the rest of the book. Was there a specific “making” context to these poems? An intention for them/with them that differs from other poems in the book?
Life (With Apologies to Chekhov)
In this story, the gun
doesn’t go off. The sun
melts the pistol in a vase,
the intact barrel becoming a lip
to hold flowers. The un-murdered
kiss, their clothes sliding
to the floor, their orgasms proof
of a feminine ending.
DD: When I was putting the book together, I knew that I needed some shorter poems to balance out the long terza rima section. I love the intensity of short poems, and, for me, these are the hardest to write. They don’t come naturally to me as I am a chatterbox, in poetry and in real life. “Life (With Apologies to Chekhov)” was a way to obliquely reject gun violence and celebrate female creativity.
AEW: You write about whiteness, white privilege, and white guilt without being obnoxious, petulant, or disingenuous. This is difficult to do but so very necessary. It is also something that I believe white writers are nervous to do because it is perceived as a creative risk, as a topic too hot to touch. Perhaps it is a topic perceived as too revealing, too real––the writer’s monster is exposed, no room for virtue. What do you think about this? When you wrote these poems (“Beholden” for example), and then published these poems, were you at all worried about how they would be received?
DD: Now I am going to sound so white, but here goes. I was listening to Brené Brown on YouTube talking about white privilege and she said that not talking about race because you are afraid to say the wrong thing is the definition of white privilege. I had been working on the poem “Beholden,” feeling unsure, but her saying that gave me the gumption to finish it. I spent so much of my life writing about the ways I was disenfranchised (being a woman, coming from a working-class background) that I never gave much space in my writing to all the ways in which I had power and access. I took my whiteness for granted, unaware of the privileges it had given me on a daily basis.
AEW: Thank you for engaging sincerely with this question. It’s something I think about often––how to get away from myself in my poetry, which is not something I typically do or even want to do, because I don’t want to come off ignorant or tone-deaf. But there are much worse things than sounding dumb (being “dumb”!).
DD: Exactly! That should be on a T-shirt.
AEW: Can you talk a bit about book building? How do you traditionally compile your manuscripts? Did Second Story come about in the same way? Does each book have a different game plan, or do you have a sort of standard process? (For example, was Second Story built around the long-form poem, and middle section, “Terza Irma”?)
DD: That is a great question and something I am constantly thinking about in my own book-building and as I shepherd MFA students in ordering their own first books. Each case is different, of course, but I think it’s important to have a book-building buddy. In my case, that buddy has been Stephanie Strickland who has helped me with every book since The Star-Spangled Banner. Stephanie has a keen eye and ear for putting poems in an order that makes emotional, narrative, and sonic sense. For years, I had been sending out The Star-Spangled Banner only to have it be a finalist or semi-finalist. Then Stephanie read it and said, “That’s because this book is backwards! The last poem should be first….and the penultimate poem should be the second poem and so on.” It was so obvious once she said this! And, when I sent it out in this order, it was accepted and published.
I rarely think of “the book” until three or four years into writing poems. (The exceptions would be Kinky—all about Barbie dolls—or series based on myth and fairy tales.) The more normal route is that I usually print my most recent poems and create piles relating to theme or obsession. In Second Story, I did want to include “Terza Irma,” but in the original version it was mirrored by another long poem (this one in collage form) about Hurricane Wilma, which I lived through in 2005. Stephanie didn’t think the book could support two long poems and she was right. “Terza Irma” became the middle section and I fanned out the poems forward and backward from there.
AEW: Since you brought it up, it’s been over twenty years since Kinky came out. I first read that book in 2002 and had just started taking my writing seriously. Meaning, I was actually reading poetry and not just blindly writing. Ha!
DD: That makes me so happy to hear! Kinky was translated into Portuguese this year and published in Brazil as Mundo Barbie. My friend Dustin Brookshire is at work on a book of Barbie poems with a gay man’s sensibility. And I absolutely love Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang.
AEW: And since we are going back in time, Girl Soldier got me so good. That book nearly killed me. Do you ever go back and read those books? Do you think about them? Do they still impress you? Do you cringe?
DD: I am so happy that you read Girl Soldier! It was published by a tiny press and has been out of print for a long time now. I haven’t read it in a while, but I know that people use the poem “Things I Could Never Tell My Mother” as a prompt in their classes and that makes me particularly happy. Maybe one day I’ll go back and reread my early books for the cringe factor. I’m sure there are things that will embarrass me, but I also hope I see sparks for my later work.
AEW: Alright, this could be a bit of a heady turn in the conversation. I’m currently in a graduate seminar/workshop on Ecopoetics, specifically pertaining to the Gulf. I am also from Southern Louisiana and in that way feel inherently, often desperately, connected to the Gulf’s particular set of tensions. In another class I’ve been reading Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, wrapping my head around and through and within those ideas of being and totality and errantry and the imaginary; Glissant says “The edge of the sea thus represents the alternation (but one that is illegible) between order and chaos.” This all adds up to this question: How does your proximity (physical, mental, spiritual) to sea and shore and your experiences with the nature specific to that landscape affect your poetics? Do they?
DD: I actually do “see the sea / getting closer…” which is how Second Story begins. I’ve seen beach restoration, beaches wrecked by hurricanes, and also enjoyed the beach on so many clear days. I’ve seen protected sea turtle nests and oil spill horrors. For me, the sea is a sacred, healing space. When I was a little girl growing up with severe asthma, my pediatrician told my parents to take me to the ocean as much as possible. In Rhode Island, where we lived, the ocean is never that far; it was 45-minute drive for us to get from my hometown of Woonsocket to Scarborough Beach. My parents would bundle me up even in winter when I had asthma attacks and the sea air always helped my breathing. When I moved to Florida in 2000, I was sure that Al Gore was going to win and, by extension, the planet would win too. This alternate path we’ve taken is what keeps me and so many others up at night. In 2000, I thought living by the beach was glamorous and good for my health. Not so much anymore.
AEW: What is next? Ideas for your next book/project? Running for local office? Quitting everything and hiding in the hills?
DD: I am in that lovely place of poetic freefall so I am not sure yet where my poems will take me next. I am sure my mother’s recent death will be part of any future project. Since I have remained childfree, I am the last Duhamel (in name) in my family. So maybe I do belong in politics so that my name will live on not only in my poems. Eileen Myles ran for president in 1992 and wrote one of the most beautiful faux acceptance speeches after the disaster that was the 2016 election. In part:
I now officially make that white house a homeless shelter. It is a complete total disgrace that we have people without homes living on the streets of America. I have lived with them. Not for long periods of time but in the same way that I am the first president who knows what women feel because I am a woman, I am one, I have also eaten chicken with the homeless…
In 1996 Sparrow ran as a revolutionary communist within the structure of the Republican Party and wrote a book about it, Republican Like Me. I told him I would run with him as vice president someday but I’m not sure he is going to run anymore. I’m not even sure being a politician can really bring much change anymore. But it seems like a time in our history where we have to be outrageous, we have to run and fight for what we believe in, even when we know the odds are not in our favor.