A Conversation with Poet Denise Duhamel
By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Denise Duhamel is the type of poet one recognizes immediately. Call her "risk-taking" and she will not mind. Her voice, witty, sexy, rhythmic, brutally honest and sometimes crass, speaks to readers with a familiar urgency, and her range keeps readers reading. In her vibrant collection, Kinky, Duhamel adopts the voice and perspective of Barbie, exploring the inner conflicts of girlhood and womanhood, while her latest collection, Blowout, grapples with the age-old quandary, the question with no good answer, the question Frankie Lyman & The Teenagers put to rhythm in 1956, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" I'm privileged to say I caught up with Duhamel this past winter for this Conversation.
Duhamel was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and received her B.F.A. from Emerson College and her M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence. She was the guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013, and has received numerous grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: In what ways do you think we can begin incorporating poetry more into the national conversation?
DENISE DUHAMEL: It seems to me poetry is ideal for our rushed age. It's compact and suggestive (like a wonderful noncommercial commercial; i.e. a commercial not peddling a product). Good poems are full of wisdom/mystery/wordplay and can serve as antidotes to expected formulas—murders solved in an hour, "housewife" taglines, and the canned laughter of sitcoms. I think poems are part of the national conversation now, but I don't think it's possible to make people read poetry. We just have to have it available.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: I remember reading that you once felt hesitant to send "political" poems out for publication, and yet your collection Kinky is taught across the nation in feminist studies courses. What would you consider the difference between a political poem and a poem of passion?
DENISE DUHAMEL: I am much less frightened of political poetry now than when I was writing the poems in Kinky. At that time (1990-1996) I was afraid of being didactic, of being "wrong." Now I am of the mind that poems are expressions of a moment, an argument, a performance. That is not to say that I don't feel responsible using language, that I'm not careful and thoughtful—it's just that I don't get as hung up about it as I once did. I think political poems can be passionate and passionate poems can be political. The personal is political, as Adrienne Rich taught us. Conversely, the political is personal as well.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Who are the poets that you believe have been influential and necessary, politically speaking?
DENISE DUHAMEL: Ai, Sherman Alexie, Marilyn Chin, Martha Collins, Jayne Cortez, Rigoberto González, Terrance Hayes, David Hernandez, Van Jordan, Dorianne Laux, Harryette Mullen, Sharon Olds, D.A. Powell, Adrienne Rich, Maureen Seaton, Stephanie Strickland, David Trinidad. Just to name a few.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Can you talk a little bit about the value of a poem, regardless if it's published or not?
DENISE DUHAMEL: A poem can be an essential learning/feeling/transformative experience for the poet whether or not she publishes it. Poems are a way to see herself thinking out loud, making leaps that are quite impossible to make unless they are written down. The value of a poem to a reader is not unlike a prayer, a secular prayer.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: In what ways do you think rhythms of pop culture enter and/or inspire poetry? How does music influence your writing?
DENISE DUHAMEL: Pop culture and poetry are at the opposite ends of the spectrum—low and high art, bubblegum and caviar. Poems can be pop culture's cultural critique, if you will. Poems can celebrate or slam pop culture, but a poem does not accept pop culture at face value. Poems engage and explicate and contextualize. I love music—and quite a lot of pop music—but I'm not sure of its effect on my writing. I am more of a visual person, so film and art play a bigger role.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: When I teach, "How It Will End", it instantly becomes the class's favorite poem. Some students praise its humor, others its relatability, while others cling to the familiar yet haunting imagery. When you read a poem, what attracts you to it most? That is, what elements of a poem do you find yourself praising?
DENISE DUHAMEL: I am a sucker for story, so a narrative poem—especially one with a plot twist—will keep me rereading it. Also surprising imagery of any kind. For that reason, I admire good line breaks. And the sonic qualities of those lines.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: If you had to pick a moment from your career to best pinpoint the switch from emerging poet to prominent poet, when would it be?
DENISE DUHAMEL: It is hard even now to realize I am even a prominent poet. Like most poets, I just go about my life and no one—not my neighbors, not the people at the grocery store, not my family members, not my doctor or dentist—ever mentions my poems to me or I to them. But I do remember an AWP at which I had a long line of people waiting to sign books. (That had been after years of having no one in my line.) At that same AWP, a grad student from somewhere in the Midwest kept following me around and telling me how great she thought I was. Then she sat right behind me during a reading and threw up! Her vomit splattered on me. (I realized she'd been drunk and maybe not the best judge of anything literary.) But somehow I knew I was no longer emerging.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Every season, I feature the work of some truly magnificent emerging writers. In what ways do you think it's different to be an emerging writer now, with the rise of Internet journals and Ezines? Can you offer any advice for those young and hungry poets?
DENISE DUHAMEL: When one of my teachers told me she'd won the Yale Younger Poets Award in the 1960's, she beat out eight other poets! Imagine? Only eight other poets had entered. Now even small press book contests can have 750-1000 entries. So the competition is very different. But in the 1960's, probably the eight people entering the Yale were amazing, as talented as the finalists now in a contest. Advice I'd give—and give myself—is this: hunger is good for poets. A book is honestly not going to change your life that much. I know you are thinking, "Easy for you to say, Denise!" but I am serious. The only thing that truly counts is the writing. The publishing will come. If I could go back to meet my thirty-year-old self, I would tell her to relax. I know that young self wouldn't listen, just as young people don't really believe me now, but the publishing will come if you are patient, persistent, hell bent on getting better, and stay true to your art.