Denise Duhamel

portrait Denise Duhamel

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 100 ~ September, 2005

Denise Duhamel, an award winning poet, is the author of Two and Two ( University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), as well as Mille et un sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005).

Duhamel’s poems have been widely anthologized, including selections of her work four times in volumes of The Best American Poetry (2000, 1998, 1994, and 1993). A recipient of an National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, Duhamel’s other books include The Star-Spangled Banner, winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Prize (Southern Illinois University, 1999), Kinky (Orchard Press, 1997),Girl Soldier (Garden Street Press, 1996), The Woman with Two Vaginas (Salmon Press, 1994), and Smile! (Warm Spring Press,1993).

In collaboration with poet Maureen Seaton, Duhamel has also published Little Novels (Pearl Editions, 2002), Oyl (Pearl Editions, 2000), and Exquisite Politics (Ti Chih Ch’u Pan She, 1997).

Born and raised in Rhode Island, Duhamel received a BFA from Emerson College and earned an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University.

Derek Alger: Since I’m not sure where to start, I’ll start at the beginning, did your family play much of an influence in your poetry and outlook on life?

Photo by Nick Carbó

Denise Duhamel: While my parents weren’t big readers, they were good at story-telling. My great great grandmother was a “Lady” in Scotland and lived in a castle, but threw it all away to marry the gardner. She was disowned and she and my great great grandfather moved to Nova Scotia where she had lots of kids and was, so the story goes, basically miserable. I was intrigued by stories like that as well as fairy tales and Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I suffered from severe asthma as a child and was indoors when most of the kids were outside playing. I had my stash of crayons and books. I was in my head a lot.

DA: Which came first, the feminist or the poet?

DD: The feminist came first. I had a teacher in sixth grade who played Helen Reddy’s 45 “I am Woman.” I loved that song — we all did, even the boys. We sang along. I saw feminism as inevitable in our culture and was sure that it was coming along quickly. I am quite shocked now when young women want to distance themselves from the label “feminist.” I see feminism as a wonderful peaceful social force, whereas some of the students I teach see feminists as shrill or undesirable.

DA: Was there a specific moment or experience when you realized you were definitely inspired to write poetry?

DD: Yes, I wrote fiction all through high school. it wasn’t until I read contemporary poetry — most notably, Kathleen Spivak’s book The Jane Poems — when I knew I wanted to be a poet. That was in my first year of college. Soon after finding that book I studied for a semester at Trinity College in Wales and read Dylan Thomas. I fell in love with his poems and went to his grave and vowed to him (not that he’d care) that I was going to be a poet, too.

DA: You ended up living in New York City for a while. How did that influence your life, and of course, your poetry?

DD: I lived in New York City from 1985-1999. Ever since I was a small girl, I’d wanted to live in New York City. I grew up in a small city (Moonsocket, RI) and as a kid I visited New York with my folks. New York City totally influenced my poetry — the rhythms of the street, the colorful stories, the poets with whom I became friends. I lived in many areas in NYC, including West 23rd Street, right across the street from the Chelsea Hotel, where Dylan Thomas stayed on his last trip to New York City.

DA: You once said you identity yourself more by gender than by nationality, could you elaborate?

DD: Virginia Woolf wrote: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” I feel more of a kinship to women, no matter where they are from, then I do to Americans. I feel extremely lucky to be an American, but also at times ashamed by our political actions.

DA: For those of us who are uninitiated, what do you think most people mean when they talk about sexual politics?

DD: The way in which people relate to one another based on gender, our expectations as based on gender . . .

DA: I mean this as a compliment, maybe even with a touch of envy, but it’s been said that though you may be a somewhat sex-obsessed observer of pop culture, you are definitely uninhibited in your writing.

DD: At some point in my development as a writer, I became interested in putting it all in, trusting my leaps, embracing vulnerability in imagery. I think sometimes my feminist poetry is interpreted as “sex-obsessed.” I don’t particularly feel more obsessed by sex than anyone else, but I do notice the crazy ways it is distorted by our culture. So many of the images of women we see are passive. While women are often objectified by our culture, I am interested in making them the subjects not the objects, active rather than passive.

DA: Mille et un sentiments is another unique collection, can you tell us about its evolution?

DD: I patterned this 1001 line poem, each line beginning “I feel . . .” on the lines of Joe Brainard and Herve Le Tellier. Brainard began each of his lines, “I remember . . . ” and Le Tellier began each of his lines “I think . . . ” “I feel . . . ” is perhaps a more feminine way of approaching the world — and I was having fun with that idea. I wrote the poem in 100 line chunks. Each line is numbered.

DA: You’ve collaborated with Maureen Seaton on a number of books. How did you two hook up?

DD: Maureen and I met in New York in 1987. We became friends fast and she is my oldest and dearest poetry friend. Neither of us had published much, if anything, when we met. Maybe only a dozen or so poems in magazines. We didn’t start collaborating until about 1990, after I went to hear the poet David Trinidad give a reading at the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City. I was surprised and a little confused when, mid-reading, David asked his friend Bob Flanagan to join him on stage to read some of their collaborations. It was the first time I had ever heard of collaborative poetry. Thenext morning I called Maureen, and explained as best I could what I had witnessed. . . Want to try this? I asked her. We’ve been collaborating ever since, for about 15 years.

DA: A collection of poetry based on the cartoon character Olive Oyl of Popeye fame is a rather novel concept.

DD: Yes, that was Maureen’s idea: I had done Kinky, a book about Barbie dolls. Maureen is a collector of all things Olive Oyl and invited me into the wacky world of Popeye.

DA: I’ll try not to be inhibited, but what prompted you and Maureen to collaborate on Exquisite Politics?

DD: Exquisite Politics was our first collaboration. The title is a nod to Exquisite Corpse, the surrealist parlor game. We had been collaborating for six years when we put that book together, which came out in 1997. It was not a theme book, necessarily. We’d just write the poems as they came and then put the book together when we had a large stack of work, but because of our obsessions, it turned out to be a book about gender politics.

DA: You became very involved in a project about breast cancer awareness?

DD: Yes, I did a number of poems in a series called “Surgical Light,” based on amazing paintings by Susan Shatter. She is a survivor of breast cancer. It was another amazing collaboration for me — and the first time I ever worked closely with a visual artist.

DA: I think other struggling writers would be inspired by your persistence in seeking an National Endowment for the Arts grant.

DD: I hope so!

DA: Teaching and writing seem to be a natural combination for many. How have you found the experience?

DD: The old joke is . . . Name the three best things about teaching: June, July, and August. It’s sort of a dumb and predicable joke, but what is great about teaching for me is the amount of time I have in the summer to pursue my own writing. I am also grateful to get to talk about what I love (poetry) the rest of the year.

DA: Congratulations, you’re the first poet I know who has an unofficial web page.

DD: Thanks! I fear Esther, the web master, has abandoned me though. The site hasn’t been updated in a while. I believe Esther was a very young (maybe in high school or college) when she first started it. I was happy to be her passion for a while.