Chimera: An Interview with Denise Duhamel
Karla Huston: Your poetry has been called freewheeling, quirky, and self-conscious with a "roll-up-your-sleeves-and-fight examination of the self [with a] casual anecdotal quality" to your lines (Rain Taxi). You have been praised for writing with a "zany humor that holds terror at bay" (Caesura). Your poems have been called "life-affirming" without being cloying (Booklist). In Poets & Writers (March/April 2004), you were described as being a "Stand Up" poet—one who uses "humor, informal language, and references to contemporary urban and pop culture." So—what kind of poet are you anyway?
Denise Duhamel: As a poet, I do believe I'm a bit of a chimera. (Remember that Greek monster who had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a dragon?) While I hope that I have lived long enough and written enough poems to have developed a voice, I also think I'm a hybrid. While I value humor in some poems, I am also very interested in the dark side, politics, spirituality, storytelling, and word play. Sometimes I am able to get two or more of those interests into a poem and other times not. I'm really honored to be included, for example, in such diverse anthologies as Bum Rush the Page and Best American Poetry. I guess I'm a crossover poet. I actually don't believe so much in poetry camps to begin with, so I'm happy to be among any poets who'll have me.
KH: When did you realize that you were serious about pursuing a career in writing?
DD: I don't think there was a definite moment in which I became serious about my career as a poet. Instead it was a series of steps: deciding to pursue an MFA (which takes guts since so few poets make it, career-wise); deciding to send poems out to magazines; then deciding to pursue reading venues. I suppose, after getting my MFA at Sarah Lawrence in 1987, I felt that I was in it for the long haul and wanted to be published. It took six years to place my first book at a very small press.
KH: In an interview published in Main Street Rag (Spring 2004), you said that you'd been a writer since childhood, creating little novels of your own. Coincidentally Little Novels is the name of your collaborative book written with Maureen Seaton.
DD: I never made the connection between the little novels I wrote as a kid and the little novels, sonnets based on novels in the canon, that I wrote with Maureen. But this makes me think of my love for chapbooks, little books. I have a big collection of chapbooks of all shapes and sizes. I love chapbooks, small books, handmade books of all kinds. And I actually ask students in my advanced undergraduate workshops to make their own chapbooks for a final project. They have to figure out the page layout, sew the spine, design their covers, and write up a little bio to put on the back. My students seem to like the project. It brings them back to childhood, and many students tell me that they also made books as kids or turned their notebooks into books, filling the pages with their own stories…
KH: How do you nurture your imagination? Do you follow certain writing rituals?
DD: One of the rituals I have is to play with words. Artists are always sketching, right? Musicians are always practicing. So sometimes I hear or see a word and think "sestina," and I write the actual end-words I might use if I had the time to write the poem. For example, this morning I was reading the poet Honor Moore and I thought: Honor Moore, Michael Moore, More cigarettes, more or less, moreover, morbid, moral, mortuary, Maury Povich, forever more, one more time, and that disco song "More more more, how do you like your love?" I'll probably never write such a poem, but writing notes, however silly, keeps my brain constantly making connections with words…
KH: How has writing poetry affected the way you read?
DD: I believe it's impossible to write good poetry without reading. Reading poetry goes straight to my psyche and makes me want to write. I meet the muse in the poems of others and invite her to my poems. I see over and over again, in different ways, what is possible, how the perimeters of poetry are expanding and making way for new forms.
KH: Does being a writer make you more critical or more conscious of what other writers are doing with imagery, form, line, diction, and syntax?
DD: I occasionally read, hyper-conscious of what others are doing, but that
is usually when I am creating assignments for students based on the texts
they are reading…But when I read poetry for myself, for pleasure or nourishment,
I read it for pure enjoyment. And that is often when the muse comes to visit
me—when I'm completely open to the poem I'm reading.
I love to read lyric poems yet I rarely write them…I try to read every kind of poetry, though it's easy to fall behind. My husband Nick [Carbó] is interested in visual poetry and hypertext poetry, so I read that as well.
KH: Many poems in The Star-Spangled Banner are written about your relationship with Nick and the sometimes joyful and complicated juxtaposition of two different cultures. Nick has written poems about you, as well. How do the two of you handle the sometimes-slippery slope of writing about each other?
DD: Nick is an amazing husband and poet. He actually loves when I write about him. I always show him my work before I send it out. He's never asked me to refrain from putting anything out into the world. I'm always happy when he writes about me as well, even if he's making fun of me. Our motto is that it's better that we're writing about each other than someone else.
KH: Speaking of couples, recently, Mattel, the toy maker, has decided Barbie and Ken will break their long-term relationship. Knowing your book Kinky explores them in depth, are you compelled to write about this new wrinkle in their association? Or are you finished with them? Have Barbie poems now become clichés?
DD: You know, I think I am done with Barbie. I don't think that Barbie poems have become cliché, and I still run across some very good ones, every once in a while, but I think I've just exhausted myself poetically with Barbie. I'm still really interested in what is going on with her though—this break up with Ken is so bizarre. I've always thought Ken was gay and that the whole relationship was a sham. Maybe Barbie just couldn't take it anymore?
KH: Your previous books are sometimes wildly different in content. For example, the books Smile!, Girl Soldier, and The Star-Spangled Banner are largely personal narratives. Kinky and Oyl, co-written with Maureen Seaton, are ironic examinations of pop culture. How the Sky Fell and The Woman with Two Vaginas are reshapings of myth or reinterpretations of fairy tales. In Little Novels, also co-written with Maureen Seaton, you nearly rewrite the canon. Can you talk about the impetus in these vastly different subject matters and your ability to leap from the personal to, some would say, a feminist and/or quirky perspective? How did you make the jump from writing about personal experience and politics to writing about Chicken Licken and Snow White?
DD: I think at some point I just overdosed on telling my own stories. My first book Smile! and my third book Girl Soldier, both of which were full of first person narratives, were actually written consecutively. Though The Woman with Two Vaginas was my second published book, it was really written after Girl Soldier. I just happened to find a publisher for it more quickly. So, in essence, I had written two books of personal poems before I shot off into the land of myth, fairy tales, and pop culture icons such as Barbie and later Olive Oyl, with Maureen. I think that pop culture and myth were ways to simultaneously get out of myself and into big themes—feminism, class issues, domestic violence, body image, and such. I wanted to write about gender politics without necessarily retelling my [own] story. I also wanted to use social satire to avoid, I hope, didacticism. Actually, I say this now, looking back, but I'm not sure how aware I was of all this at the time. But I do consciously remember saying to myself, Enough with the "I" poems already.
KH: In a sense, you're still telling your story but using a different voice. Do you think enough personal narrative poems have been written? Or is personal narrative the entry point for beginning writers?
DD: I would never say that there were too many personal narrative poems. I think that storytelling is one of the things that first drew me to poetry and kept me there. I think it's very important for poets who need to tell their stories to continue, to do so and not worry about literary trends or fads. I wrote first person narratives as a starting point, but even after delving into all the myth and pop culture stuff, I still continue to write first-person narratives. The Star-Spangled Banner is full of personal poems, and my latest book Two and Two has quite a few as well.
KH: Marge Piercy, in an interview in the Writer's Chronicle (May/ Summer 2004) says, "Writers strive to make sense of the events of our lives and try to find a pattern that proves where we are has some meaning." Do personal narrative poems function in a similar way to memoir, that of making those connections and patterns?
DD: Yes, I do think personal poems are similar to memoir. Even if the poems are not strictly autobiographical in detail, personal poems at the very least flirt with autobiography…
KH: Piercy continues to say that after writing about a particular memory, it "metamorphosizes [in poetry, maybe it's metaphor-morphosizes] into something else strange and different. Actually it's hard to tell what actually is part of your life. In a sense, part of my life is lost to me because I've given it away." Do you find this to be true? How does taking poetic license with life's events affect the original memory?
DD: This is such a fascinating question, the question of what is true. The details of an event are different from the tenor of an event. In poetry, one may use the tenor/tone/feelings of an event, but change the time and place. I also find that using different fixed forms of poetry forces poets to stray away from the exact details of experience in order to fit the form. Paradoxically, many times this can also make the poem seem truer than what actually happened. Writers tend to mythologize their stories, leave out the boring parts (they hope!). Changing or altering the memory within a poem may be transformative for a poet and a reader. The French have a term "l'esprit d'escalier," meaning "the wit of the staircase," referring to the witty response one could have used to put a foe in his or her place, but that one doesn't think of until after the fact. The wit of the staircase is something I experience a lot. "I should have said this when he said that." Poetry and fiction are the places where staircase wit can be realized. A poet has the chance to write a revisionist history of her own life, to have the last word. Of course, the haunting real memory is still the real memory, but playing with the memory is liberating…