Denise Duhamel's most recent book Two and Two (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) is the winner of Binghamton University's Milt Kessler Book Award. She and Amy Lemmon are currently working on a series of poems with these two constraints: the stanzas are written in abba rhyme, and each poem must mention ABBA, the 70s pop group, at least once. Duhamel is an associate professor of English at Florida International University in Miami.
Superstition Review founding student editor, Michael Del Toro, conducted this interview with author Denise Duhamel.
Superstition Review: I was introduced to your poetry two years ago. The textbook we were using was Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, and you had three companion poems written in verse in the book, Ego, Superego, and Id. When did you decide that verse would be the main style you would work in?
Denise Duhamel: I always knew, from an early age, that I would be a writer of some sort. I wrote "novels" when I was 10 years old and I always kept journals throughout high school. It wasn't until college that I was introduced to contemporary poetry and fell in love with it. So since the 80's I've written primarily poetry.
SR: In the essay after these three companion pieces, you said that you always strive to have a very plainspoken, poet-to-reader voice in your work. After reading more of your poems, that conversational, humorous tone is definitely evident. Why do you think this is important?
DD: I don't think it's important that all poetry is plainspoken and I think there is definitely room for the elliptical and experimental in poetry. But, for me, clarity and accessibility are my goals; I really want to communicate feelings, even political ideas. My project is to write a poetry that can be understood by anyone who picks up my book.
It is a political and social act, I suppose.
SR: Your first manuscript published was entitled Smile! in 1993. How did it feel to get a complete set of work published in book form?
DD: Well, it was wonderful and disappointing at the same time. I thought my life would change when I was an "author" and nothing changed, really, at all. I wrote a poem about it the following year:
MY FIRST BOOK OF POETRY WAS LIKE MY FIRST BABY
Since I don't plan to have children I wanted people to love it and make a fuss, and, in turn, tell me what a great job I'd done.
My book wasn't reviewed in that many places, and when it was, one reviewer even called it sloppy. The grandparents weren't as doting as I'd expected. They went on with their own lives and didn't buy the book any presents. No one took a picture of me holding the book in my lap. My husband wasn't jealous that I was spending too much time with the book. My dog sniffed the book and walked away, unthreatened. Other books were getting cooed and fussed over, books cuter and more enchanting than mine.
There is no greater pain for a mother—seeing her child left out. Soon I knew I had a book that would never accomplish much with its life, that it wouldn't win prizes or be displayed in prestigious bookstores.
That my book would probably be a drop-out, that I'd have nothing to brag about when my cousins showed me graduation pictures of their kids.
That my book wouldn't buy me dinner or take care of me when I grew old. I tried not to let the book sense my disappointment.
I tried to love it for the book that it was, but it began to have the telltale signs of depression, hanging out with the wrong crowd, dressing like a rebel. The book reminded me of myself as a teenager, but when I told it that it shivered in disgust, blaming me for bringing it into this world in the first place.
SR: I've read that you don't give up that easily, submitting Kinky 54 times to publishers and applying for the National Endowment for the Arts grant for 13 years before finally receiving it. This hard working mentality is evident in your work and your willingness to be available for interviews and seminars. I guess what I'm asking is, where does this mentality come from?
DD: I grew up in a working class family so my parents were really good examples for me. They both worked full time and my sister and I hardly ever had babysitters. My father was a baker and worked early mornings and my mother was a nurse who worked second or third shifts.
Our household was very organized in terms of showering (we only had one bathroom), meal times, homework times, and chores; though, to be honest, my mother did most of them. There were schedules and routines that were strictly adhered to. To this day my stomach rumbles at 5 pm because that's the exact time we had supper. Though poetry is not a job, in that I don't regularly get paid for it, I am extremely serious about it. So I see not sending out work as laziness. If poems come back from one magazine, I get them out to another magazine within 24 hours. To be honest, I was about to give up on Kinky though! Even with my work ethic, I was running out places to send the manuscript.
SR: Speaking of Kinky, you seem to be able to take one idea and expand it into many ideas like with Barbie in this particular book and the Inuit people in The Woman with Two Vaginas. How are you able to pull so many unique ideas out of one subject?
DD: I love when I'm in the middle of a series of poems or a concept. It appeals to my working sensibilities. When I was working on Kinky, The Woman with Two Vaginas, or How the Sky Fell (a chapbook based on fairytales) I was able to get up every morning and know what I had to do. Reinvent Barbie once again, research Inuit mythology, mull over a familiar fairytale until it seemed strange. More recently I wrote a book called Mille et un sentiments, which is a 1001 line poem, each line beginning "I feel." This was a concept project I took on and it took up a good part of one summer. I also have a forthcoming chapbook, Help (in 47 Languages) based on a story I read—that when the famous linguist William Jacobsen was struck by a car, he shouted, "Help!" in 47 languages. I set out to write 47 prose poems, all of the same length, that have the word "help" in each.
SR: Many of your poems are lengthy. With the lack of people that are reading poetry nowadays, how do you keep their attention?
DD: Good question! Believe it or not, even my really lengthy poems are edited down, probably half of their original size. I tried to keep the reader engaged through humor, wordplay, reversals, interesting line breaks, as I would in a shorter poem. Even the longest poem I've written is shorter than a novel; well, so far, anyway! I have models such as David Kirby and Albert Goldbarth, who also write long poems propelled by their strong voices.
SR: Do you think there is a cure for this apathy of readers and if so, what is it?
DD: I have to say, I do get discouraged by the lack of excitement there is around books. I think poetry readings really help to inject enthusiasm. Buying a book becomes more of an event rather than a duty. I have to admit, I like being read to; it's like story hour. There is something really satisfying about it.
SR: What are you currently reading?
DD: Campbell McGrath's Seven Notebooks; Dorianne Laux's chapbook Superman; Thomas Fink's Clarity and Other Poems; Rick Moody's novellas Right Livelihoods, Caroline Knox's Quaker Guns, and Dorothea Lasky's Awe.
SR: I know that if I continue to read a certain writer that my style is affected. Are you able to stay in the same Duhamel style?
DD: I never thought of that. Hmm. I guess my Duhamel style probably riffs and borrows from a lot of other writers as I read them. I was never a very good mimic, though, so that's probably why the influences might not be as evident as they are in other writers.
SR: The Star Spangled Banner is heavy with the theme of interracial marriage and you have experience with this since your husband, Nick Carbo, also a poet, is of Filipino descent. It also won you the Crab Orchard Award in Poetry. How big of an inspiration is your husband?
DD: My husband is a huge influence. He has introduced me to Lorca and Neruda, two poets I'd read, but only casually. Nick, of course, read them in the original Spanish so he has a much deeper understanding than I do.
SR: I loved your most recent book, Two and Two, and was really attracted to "Our Americano." It was a piece experimenting with extreme alliteration starting at the letter A and ending at Z. It was awesome! Where do you get your ideas like that? Knowing how much pop culture influences you, who was the basis for this poem?
DD: I actually wrote this poem in Spain! I found a dictionary of American Slang that was published in 1961, the year I was born. I just started writing down words that I hoped to some day use in various poems. They were words I vaguely remembered from my childhood: skedaddle, Wisenheimers, a Real McCoy, highfalutin, and hoity-toity. When I'd finished writing them down, I decided maybe I could use them all in one poem, and began connecting them through a narrative I made up as I went along. I chose the abecedarian as a way to get a handle on the length of the poem and give it a shape. It was really fun to work with all that alliteration and assonance.
SR: Another theme that runs constant in your work is feminism and female sexuality. Some might say that your poems are risky. What is the reward for you by writing in this style?
DD: For me, the reward is that through poetry I make the female speaker the subject, not the object. Women in our culture are often objectified and ornamental, whereas in poetry they can have a voice.
It is risky, true, as some readers would prefer not to hear this voice. I am a feminist, lucky to have had many poets come before me to pave the way: Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich.
SR: Are you working on anything right now?
DD: I am at work finishing up galleys for a bilingual edition of my work forthcoming with Bartleby Editores in Madrid. The book will be called Afortunada de mi (Lucky Me.)
SR: Is it exciting for you to see a woman so close to the presidential nomination? You must be a little hip to Arizona for giving Clinton our vote.
DD: Yes, I am thrilled! But I also really like Obama as a candidate. I would like to see them both on the ticket in one way or another.
SR: One last thing, I've read a couple of your interviews and MiPo had a great little bio of you after your listed poems. You live with troll dolls?
DD: It is true! There are troll dolls hidden throughout our apartment. And Nick and I had a troll bride and groom atop our wedding cake. Some other things in our apartment: vintage Pop Rocks candy; a pink plush Peep rabbit; and magic fish you put in your palm to tell your fortune; and a Ben Franklin action figure complete with kite. If you every come to Florida, I'll give you a tour.
SR: Your collaborations with Maureen Seaton have run their course, producing such wonderful, vivid works of poetry. But collaboration seems to be one of the ideas you enjoy about poetry. Is there any future collaborations with other poets that complement your style as well as Maureen did?
DD: Yes! I am still very much committed to the collaborative impulse. I think it's a great way to keep writing, even when I'm too busy to write. If I'm working with another poet—lets say exchanging lines by email—and all I have to come up with is a line or two, I can always managet that. I am currently working with Amy Lemmon on a series of poems that have these two restraints: the stanzas are written in abba rhyme, with a mandatory mention of Abba, the singing group, in each poem. They have been truly fun to write. And three appear in this issue of Superstition.