We embarked on a series of numbered essays a while ago. We started small with numbers like 13, 21, and 10. Then, we decided to go for 50 sections and write about each of these United States. It feels important to say that we wrote these before the 2016 presidential election.
The entire piece is both collaborative and call and response. We started out with a list of our states and each picked one, one at a time, wrote, and then sent our writing to each other. We used a word limit so that all our “states” would get equal time. We wove the piece back together alphabetically, starting with “Alabama” and ending with “Wyoming.” We have purposely not attributed any of the states to one of us or the other in the spirit of collaboration. You can read some of our other “states” on the Best American Poetry Blog.
When I think of North Dakota, I think of Fargo — the movie, the TV series, then the city itself. This is the same way the Wikipedia pages are set up. The Coen brothers based their dark comedy on actual crimes but invented new characters to commit them. For example, Richard Helle, from Connecticut, was the real person who put his wife’s body through a wood chipper. The whole country loved Frances McDormand, a pregnant police chief investigating murders. Life and death and a crazy accent all mixed into one. Before Fargo, all I knew of North Dakota was Lawrence Welk and his “champagne” music. His TV show was my grandmother’s favorite. We’d hear it in the background when we called her on the phone. I loved the “bubble machine” and asked to watch a wholesome episode whenever my sister and I had sleepovers. But now North Dakota is loaded with fracking and “fraccidents.” In 2015, three million gallons of fracking wastewater gushed from a leaking pipeline. It’s hard to make a comedy about that, even a dark one. Many North Dakota boomtowns have popped up where blue-collar men can make over $100,000 a year. Some fracking companies will even hire felons. Long gone are so many little sleepy towns with accordions. The new crime waves make Fargo, the movie and TV show, seem quaint. “There used to be a saying that 40 below keeps out the riff-raff,” one sheriff said. “That’s not true anymore.” The oil companies commit the real crimes but get men desperate for work to commit them.
How all we knew when we moved there, at twenty-three and twenty-five, respectively, was the meaning of the word—Penn’s Woods. How William Penn had been one of the good guys, hadn’t he, kind and Quaker with a vision of brotherly love? As it happened, there was no shortage of busybodies in Penn’s Woods, hoping to fix us up with one of the good guys, always wanting to know “Are you sisters?” and “Where is your family?” How to explain — that we weren’t sisters but we were family, that we had never lived anywhere so cold. The man at the hardware store: “Whaddya mean you don’t have a snow shovel? That kind is for digging graves.” The woman at the temp agency: “Whaddya mean you have a partner? What kinda business are you in?” How we never got the hang of the blue belt or the green belt, the highway system color-coded with bright dots that bade us follow. How we saw Fallingwater once in the autumn, because the guidebook said we should, and on the way home, we passed a hand-scrawled sign the size of a billboard: Please stop setting fire to our trailers in Normalville! In Pittsburgh, all the steel mills had closed. The pollution cleared up, but the people were weary, for the most part, bleary from generations of progressive loss. Maybe time would heal all wounds. The gas company was called Equitable after all, and they claimed to own the largest clock in the world.
As we drank our coffee at the bed and breakfast, a man tried to explain to me that slavery was about states’ rights. His wife pulled his sleeve. I joked, “Don’t tell me you are one of those quacks who...?” In my defense, I really thought he was kidding. He was younger than I—maybe only in his mid-thirties. The host, sensing trouble, came to say, “Who wants more pancakes?” The man glared at me, then left. The wife said that Yankees didn’t understand and folded her napkin, following him. We all had white skin in the living room of that inn. People in the north benefited from slavery, too. This I knew—cheap cotton for the mills. That’s what I would have said if the man had stayed, the blood of slaves on our whole nation’s hands. I was in South Carolina to do a poetry reading, to visit classes and read some student work. One young white woman had used the word “Mammy,” lovingly, in a tribute to the woman who took care of her grandmother. I cringed, telling her how today’s readership hears that word. She was defensive. But everyone loved Mammy. She was part of the family. I looked at my bacon strip and dipped it in maple syrup. As I ate it, I imagined a reader fifty years from now saying, “How could all those people have eaten meat? Even some of the enlightened ones didn’t seem to get it.”
Years before 9/11, I was invited to a poetry festival in Virginia. I was on a panel about censorship with two other poets who had much bigger careers. I was only included because one of my early small press books had been banned in Canada. I’d written a fifteen-minute talk about Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. I delivered my remarks about the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in R vs. Butler and the irony that it was enforced on a feminist writer’s work, i.e. mine. There was even an urban myth that Dworkin’s book wasn’t allowed past the Canadian border. I thought I would rile up the audience, and there would be questions. Instead, the other two poets, personal enemies — which I didn’t know at the time—began a debate about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I was out of my league and knew almost nothing about Islam, though the assistant the conference assigned me was telling me about Allah, how he had to pray at certain times of the day which we’d have to work around for pickups from the hotel to the venue. I’m ashamed to this day that I said, “You aren’t one of those fanatics, are you?” Later, he told me he had been abused in a jail in Israel during his teenage years, accused of throwing a rock. Years before “Je suis Charlie,” years before the bombings in Paris and Brussels, I sat between a debate I didn’t understand. The poet to my right thought Rushdie was a genius, the fatwa primitive. The poet to my left said, “One billion Muslims can’t be wrong.”
Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, Passages North, poemmemoirstory, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review and StoryQuarterly. Their first collaborative book The Unrhymables will be published in 2018 by Wild Patience Books. They both teach in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.
Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Scald (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005) and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001.) Her work has been anthologized widely and appeared in literary magazines such as American Poetry Review, Barrow Street and New Ohio Review. She was the guest editor is for The Best American Poetry 2013.
Julie Marie Wade is the author, most recently, of SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), selected by C.D. Wright at the winner of the AROHO/To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. Her other books include Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014), selected for ALA's "Over the Rainbow" reading list, and the lyric essay collection, Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016). She reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.