One Toe In the Door

Interview with Denise Duhamel by Terrance Hayes

The following is an email interview conducted by poet Terrance Hayes with Denise Duhamel throughout the month of February, 2000.

I want really to get into using poetry as a kind of political weapon in your poems. And also my beef with the lack of respect/praise that I believe you get for the kind of “nonacademic” poetry you write. (Does the poetry world fear a wise, young, wise-cracking woman?) But I’ll start with the poems you submitted for this issue of HEArt Quarterly. In both of them I see the little guppies of formalism swimming beneath the surface. “Seven-Year old Niece Playing Valley Girl To Pass Time in a Long Car Ride” seems to be derived from the ghazal, and “The Brady Bunch” is a double sestina. Both are prime Duhamel in their wit, speed and pop-culture ties. How does form or a subversion of form play into your present writing?

Wow, you’re making me sound smarter than I thought! I actually didn’t have a ghazal in mind when I was writing “Seven-Year old Niece Playing Valley Girl To Pass Time in a Long Car Ride,” though I was insistent on using the word “valley” in each line. My niece is a seven-year-old Filipina and wants to dye her hair blond. Her idols, much to my dismay, are Barbie and Sandy [Olivia Newton John from Grease]. It’s very discouraging because her parents provide her with all these Asian role models, but it seems no use. The culture at large is just too imposingly blond. “The Brady Bunch” really is a double sestina. I’ve been writing quite a few of them. I think it’s interesting to use a complicated form (such as a double sestina which can really make your head feel like it’s going to explode) with such an inane subject as The Brady Bunch. I first became interested in this coupling of form and content when I read David Trinidad’s haiku about different TV shows.

You went right to your niece. That makes me wonder about your audience in your poems. Will you — have you — read the poem to her? Are you trying to tell her something, or is the poem born out of something else? Who’s your ideal reader?

I haven’t read the poem to her yet, but your question makes me want to! I actually think of my ideal reader as a high-school-aged girl or a young woman. I think that’s because this is the point in my own life when poetry started to mean so much to me. I guess I am trying to tell my niece something in the poem, but I read somewhere that children don’t get irony until after age 10. I think even more than trying to tell my niece something though, I’m trying to express this larger lament that comes through in a lot of my work — the Barbie poems and the body image poems. It’s just frustrating to me that so many woman (and little girls) are preoccupied with their physical selves to the point of self-hate. I guess I should say so many people, rather than women, as I just read this article on bigorexia, which is the opposite of anorexia: no matter how much men work out, the see themselves as puny.

See, now your answer has me heading where I figured I was bound to head, anyway. It’s about poems derived from “Popular Culture.” You read an article about bigorexia (interesting word), and maybe an idea for a poem begins to brew. The articles, the news broadcasts, the magazines and all the other perpetrators/perpetuators of the Popular — are they predominantly the sources for your work? Are you more inclined to read Cosmo and hit something about anorexia, than say, a psychology textbook or biography about an anorexic? What do you think of the notion that “true knowledge/art” is only of value if it is derived from “high culture?”

Well, I really enjoy the postmodern notion of mixing high and low culture — like Frank O’Hara writing a poem “Thinking of James Dean” and including high art details like listening to La Bohéme. So throwing in references to Cosmo and Andrea Dworkin or other feminist thinkers in a poem would interest me very much. I think a lot of the most interesting contemporary poetry being written is some sort of hybrid — the blending of performance poetry with difficult forms, let’s say, or using elements of word substitution within the confessional poem. I like blending more than one thing — source/form/impulse — into one poem. In a collaborative chapbook called Oyl, coming out with my friend Maureen Seaton, we wrote a villanelle, a sestina, a pantoum, and also used some OuLiPo techniques.

Yes, yes I agree. Collage is where it’s at in the 2K. I was thinking of Frank O’Hara too. Much of your poetry has a very O’Hara-esque quality to it, I think. Say, can you talk a bit more about your past and present collaboration(s) with Maureen Seaton? Readers may not know of the 1997 poetry collection, Exquisite Politics, which you co-authored with Ms. Seaton. What’s that like? What have you learned co-writing poems? And could you talk a bit more about “OuLiPo”?

Maureen and I have been writing together for about ten years now. It’s such a liberating and really fun thing for us! Since writing poetry is lonely business, collaborative work can break that loneliness and bring a different kind of joy to the process. Anyway, we began by just writing one line at a time — alternating — but then we started using the surrealist parlor game “exquisite corpse” in which each writer only sees half of her partner’s lines. Really amazing and strange things happen. We’ve also done timed writings and a lot of cut-and-paste. Maureen has always been much more comfortable in form in her own solo work and was eager to try form in collaboration. We made up this form called exquisite sonnets (we even did an exquisite corpse sestina) in which, again, we only see half of one another’s lines. So by collaborating in forms with Maureen, it really opened me up to trying them in my solo work. Thus, I’m now writing double sestinas. So I think that while the collaborative work Maureen and I do is really important to us, it also stretches us and helps us in our individual poems.

OuLiPo stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or in English — Workshop for Potential Literature. It’s a Paris-based writers’ group founded in1960 on the premise that “games” and formal constraints lead to artistic liberation. One such game is taking each noun in a poem and substituting that noun with the 7th noun that follows it in the dictionary. (For example these last two sentences in “N+7” would read: It’s a Parity-based Wroclaws’ grouse founded in 960 on the preoccupancy that “game law” and formal consubstantiation lead to artistic libertine. One such game law is taking each nova in poetic justice and substituting that nova with the 7th nova that follows it in the die casting. Crazy stuff like that but really fun. You’d probably really like it!

Wow that OuLiPo’s got my head wide open. I think playfulness is definitely one of the things that makes your work so dazzling. How difficult is the presentation aspect of such collaborations? Do you ever give readings of the poems without her? And I’m wondering too how such poems were/are received in the “poetry world?” Was it hard finding a publisher, for example? Do you think schools like OuLiPo are taken seriously by the “Academy?”

It’s been a mixed bag for us actually, trying to get our collaborations published. Some editors have rejected poems saying that collaborative poetry is “oxymoronic” and that poetry is about one voice. But others have been very open — The American Voice and Boston Review and Prairie Schooner. I guess it just depends. There aren’t that many people collaborating at the moment — I know Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalipino collaborate, and Olga Broumas has written two collaborative books (one with Jane Miller and another with T. Begley), but it’s not exactly a trend or anything. I have read the collaborations alone (as has Maureen), but it’s so much fun when we are able to read them together.

What kinds of trends come to mind when you think of the poetry scene these days? How would you characterize most of the poetry written in the last decade?

When I think of the poetry scene now, I think of performance poetry at one end of the spectrum and language poetry (or poetry of the extreme page) on the other. But there are all these wonderful mutants in between, and those are the kinds of poetry I’m most interested in. It’s hard to categorize poetry written now because we’re in the middle of it. But I think it’s an exciting time because there’s so much happening and everything coexisting, like the new formalists and the prose poem makers and everyone in between.

Your work definitely reflects the coexistence you mentioned. But if I get right down to it, I think poets like you and Maureen — Marie Howe, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, David Rivard — share a certain contemporary/alternative, quick-witted, self-aware sentiment. It’s very fresh and lively. And maybe it’s me, but the women, especially you, have the additional element of politcal/social overtone — which, well — I don’t know when that kind of voice has ever been welcomed to the Poetry Party. Do you feel a kinship with these or other poets? And do you think you (plural) are challenging old notions of Poetry (with a capital P)?

That’s a great way to put it — “the Poetry Party.” I think “political” poetry (or poetry that’s overtly political) is always suspect. In the Fall 1999 issue of HEArt Quarterly, Allison Joseph has these amazing poems (also in form) dealing pretty directly with racism. She writes to HEArt’s editors, “I hesitated sending [the poems] out. The subject seems to be anathema to traditional literary magazines, so in the back of my brain I may have thought, why bother?” That made me so sad to read … I mean, besides really loving Allison’s poetry, I also see her as a mover and a shaker, someone whose work would be really welcomed by an editor. In a graduate seminar I’m teaching at the University of Pittsburgh this semester, the issue of what exactly is political poetry has come up quite often. The seminar focuses on The New York School and the avant-garde. And while the avant-garde has always been thought of as apolitical, or even above politics, much of the work of Frank O’Hara, for example, does seem political. He talks of Charlie Parker being beaten up by cops and of his homosexuality.

Anyway, Maureen Seaton, Marie Howe, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, and David Rivard are all poets I admire — and yes, I see us with maybe one toe in the door to change. It seems, in a way, the poets you mention write from a place of personal politics which perhaps is less threatening than an anti-war poem. I think in Marie’s case, when she writes about her brother’s death from AIDS, it becomes political whether or not she intends that. The same with Maureen, when she writes about her (lesbian) lover. Know what I mean?

Yes, I think so. That political poetry has also been influenced by the mix-and-merge era. It resonates on multi levels of meaning and intent. Yes, that’s what I think your poetry demonstrates, too. You mention Howe writing about her brother and Seaton writing about her lover, about sexual politics. Many poets seem to have themes they explore and re-explore often. For example, you wrote Kinky, an entire book of Barbie poems. How does Barbie or any other recurring figures reflect your poetic project/poetic obsessions?

Well, in writing about Barbie in Kinky, and about Olive Oyl, more recently with Maureen in Oyl, I’ve been able to talk about what I want to talk about — issues of body image, race (in Kinky), domestic violence (in Oyl — remember Olive was always being knocked about?), and so on. But by having these venues that are not invested in the “I” of personal poems, I feel like I can even go further in matters of absurdity … social satire as opposed to irony (which is more evident in the personal poems). I also feel I did that to some extent in writing revisionist fairy-tales in my chapbook How the Sky Fell. Remember the first time we met? At AWP in Pittsburgh? And you asked if my poem about Bluebeard was about O.J. Simpson? I hadn’t really thought of it before you said it, but of course, you were right. Made perfect sense when you said it. I’m also reminded of Ai’s book of selected and new poems Vice. She has great O.J. and Jon Benet Ramsey poems. Really eerie — and she never even uses their names.

Yes, I remember that momentous occasion. How the Sky Fell remains one of my favorite chapbook collections. You know, I’m not really sure how to end one of these interview-things…I mean, how do you end a great conversation? Any suggestions?

Sort of like you get off the phone. You could say something like, “Oops, I hear the baby crying. This has been great. Talk to you soon!”

Word! I’d like to go on, but … I think I hear my bambino squalling. Thanks for talking with me!

Seven-Year Old Neice Playing Valley Girl to Pass Time in a Long Car Ride

by Denise Duhamel

You’re the valley mother and I’m the valley daughter, OK?
Can I go to the valley prom this week? Can we stop at the valley mall?

Can you buy me a valley bra? Here, use my valley phone
(hands me fruit roll up) and call our old valley house.

What? It was destroyed in a valley earthquake?
Pay them three million valley dollars to make us a new one right away!

Oh look over there! It’s our valley dog! I thought he died
in the valley earthquake! Roll down the valley window so he can jump in!

Oh look, he only has three valley legs. Where’s your other leg, valley doggie?
What? You left your valley leg in the valley earthquake?

Valley mother, let’s bring him to the valley vet.
Maybe then they can attach a stick so he can valley walk better.

Can I get a valley motorcycle? What if I wear a valley helmet?
I really valley need one! I have three valley proms this week!

After we go to the valley vet, we have to stop at the valley plastic surgeon.
I have to make my skin valley white for my valley prom date.

Nick Carter from the Back Street Valley Boys is taking me.
And I have to make my hair very valley blond.

Denise Duhamel; Photo by Gary Lanier

Denise Duhamel is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including: Blowout (University of Pittsburgh, 2013), Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (2005), Mille et un sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005), Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh, 2001), The Star-Spangled Banner, winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Prize (1999); Kinky (1997); Girl Soldier (1996); and How the Sky Fell (1996). Duhamel has also collaborated with Maureen Seaton on three volumes:  Little Novels (Pearl Editions, 2002), Oyl (2000), and Exquisite Politics (Tia Chucha Press, 1997).

Denise has received grants and awards from numerous organizations, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She is also the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2013. She teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood, Florida.


Terrance Hayes; Photo by Yona Harvey

Terrance Hayes is the author of Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), which won the National Book Award for Poetry; Wind in a Box (2006); Hip Logic (2002), which won the 2001 National Poetry Series and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Muscular Music (1999), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

He has received many honors and awards, including a Whiting Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, three Best American Poetry selections, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Guggenheim Foundation. Terrance is professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his family.