Violence, Double Sestinas, and Barbie: An Interview with Denise Duhamel

Denise-DuhamelDenise Duhamel is the author of seven books of poetry, the most recent of which are Two and Two, Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems, The Star-Spangled Banner, andKinky.  She is a recipient of a NEA in poetry and currently teaches in Florida International University’s MFA program. Denise was kind enough to agree to this interview in February of 2006 when she read at Purdue University.

—Cody Lumpkin and Leslie St. John

Sycamore: What are you reading lately? What are you jazzed about?

Duhamel: I really like Beth Ann Fennelly. Both of her books, Open House andTenderhooks, are very strong. I always look for her poems in magazines.  There’s another young poet, Deborah Landau, whose book Orchidelerium is really good.  I feel like whenever I make these lists I’m going to leave out someone really important…Major Jackson.  Leaving Saturn is really solid and wonderful.  I’m interested in younger poets coming up.  I never thought I’d be the old one, but now I am.  There’s a new anthology out, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin that’s supposed to be very good.  I just ordered a copy of it and I know a lot of the poets in it.  And there’s this poem by Bernard Welt called “I stopped writing poetry…” by Bernard Welt.  It’s from Best American Poetry 2001, edited by David Lehman and guest editor Robert Hass.   I don’t know his books or anything.  It’s the only thing I know of his, but it’s this amazing poem where he says, “I stopped writing poetry because…” and then lists all these reasons: hip-hop says it’s so much better, comedy says it’s so much better.  And it goes on and on, but then, in the end, it’s this amazing poem…

Your most recent book of poems, Two and Two, seems somewhat of a change of pace for you.  How did you go about composing the poems in that book?

My friend Stephanie Strickland helped me put this book together.  When Queen for a Day came out, it was 2001, and I had started to put that book together probably in 2000.  It was a selected, so I had poems from around the time of Star Spangled Banner—1998 all the way up to 2004.  So I had this huge amount of work, literally piles of it. I knew it was time for another book, but I didn’t have a theme, exactly.  So I had Stephanie help me with it and she said, “This is an important poems,” and she picked the 9/11 poem, (“Love Which Took Its Symmetry for Granted”), and once that was in there, everything else sort of fell into place.  So that’s why, for example, the poem “Noah and Joan,” begins the book—Joan of Arc and Noah kick things off historically and then “Carbo Fresco” concludes the book, where I’m looking way into the future when Florida is destroyed. So once the 9/11 poem was in the middle and those two were at either end, we just sort of filled in the blanks, trying to have each poem link thematically.

And this was also the first time I wrote so directly about violence, so I think Two and Two is about violence on this macro-level because of 9/11.  But I also tackle violence on a micro level in the poem “Crater Face” (about child abuse) and the poem “The Accident” (about my parents’ escalator accident.)

It’s interesting that you mention violence, because I’ve been reading Ai’s book, Dread, and she’s so in your face about violence.  And your book, I wouldn’t think immediately of violence as one word to describe it.  Do you think that you shadow violence with humor?

Well, perhaps.  I love Ai’s work, I have to say I really see her as an influence—but I find when I write about violence, it’s hard to write about it without explaining it, or feeling like I’m explaining it, or I’m giving in to the violence.  It’s a very hard thing to articulate. I saw the movie, The Accused (with Jodi Foster), in Times Square—it’s supposed to be an anti-rape, anti-violence movie—and all these guys—it was probably out of nervousness—were yelling, “Do her, do her” during the rape scene. I swear to god.  And I remember my skin crawling.  By the end, these guys had totally settled down and gotten into the movie, but it was this idea that by presenting violence that happens to the body in a really graphic way, even though my poems are pretty graphic and out there, I feel like I didn’t want to add to it…

There’s a certain sense you get from watching Saving Private Ryan or reading the Iliad.  It’s violent, and people’s entrails are popping out, but it’s also just so beautifully written, so beautifully composed—so how can you not glorify that in some way?

And I think that’s problematic, morally.  It’s part of life, obviously—violence is part of life.

And particularly relevant given the political climate right now.


How do you go about finding your obsessions, especially in some of your poem cycles, some of your earlier work like the poems in Kinky.  I guess there are some subjects that are worth a poem or two, but how do you get ten, twenty poems?

By pushing it to the extreme. For example, with the Barbie book, I remember writing one poem, and thinking, “Oh, that was really fun and interesting,” and then there was a second one.  Actually, the first Barbie poem I wrote, “Miss America 1990,” was about my friends and I playing with Barbies as kids.  The second Barbie poem I attempted was about my nieces playing with Barbies.  A few poems later, I began to write from Barbie’s point of view, and then that was sort of when I realized I could write a whole book about Barbie.  The same sort of process happened with The Woman with Two Vaginas. I was working on a series of poems about fairy tales, traditional fairy tales, which actually did turn into a chapbook called How the Sky Fell, and in doing that I ran out of fairy tales that I could remember completely.  So I was looking at a book by Angela Carter called Fairy Tales Around the World and in it I found the Inuit tales.  I thought, “Wow, this is so weird!  I just have to write one or two,” and the more I researched, the more I uncovered, and then I was just in it for a year.  I mean, I just couldn’t stop.

It reminds me of what you said once about dealing with pop idiom, the “vessel of pop.” It’s almost like you find a voice and that allows you to access something, to be taken up into this other world for a minute.

And also, a different way to explore the same obsessions.  The same obsessions I may have in a poem in the first person.  All of a sudden I can get at the same obsession, but through Barbie, through an Inuit tale, or a fairy tale.

Maybe just to jump off that, how do you feel about writing on difficult subject matter?  You seem to do it really well.  In something like “Bulimia,” it feels like I’m there, like this is a speaker who knows what she’s talking about.  The details are powerful.  I can’t get it out of my mind.  

Thank you. Well, a lot of those poems—the bulimia poem and other poems from personal experience or personal crisis really come from my journals.  So a lot of time I do free-writing.  A lot of the first person poems come basically just from writing and writing, day after day and then looking back at some point and the poem is in there, surrounded by a lot of other rants or junk.  I wrote the bulimia poem all in one sitting in my journal.  There was a lot of not-very-good stuff before it, and some stuff that trailed off at the end that wasn’t very good.  I didn’t sit down thinking, “I’m going to write about this,” at all, but just by doing free-writing habitually, I am able to access a lot of difficult material that pops up.  I actually write things like “Oh, I should be doing my laundry now” or “I’m so exhausted.  Maybe I should just go back to bed,” but just by showing up and continuing to write, something eventually clears and then I’m able to access things that I didn’t even really know I wanted to write about.

How do you use form in your work?  One poem that comes to mind is “Mobius Strip: Forgetfulness,” a poem about Alzheimers.  Using the mobius strip—something without out a beginning or end-is an example of, I think, how you handle really difficult subject matter by using form to buffer it.

That’s a very recent development—that I’ve been able to use formal devices, but that poem really did come out of free-writing as well—a lot of it was really terrible, self-pitying, trailing off—but I wrote and wrote and then I highlighted the things that I thought were poems or part of poems.  In the bulimia poem, I was able to pull out just one chunk of writing, but in the mobius strip poem, when I looked down at what I had written, the highlights were all over the place.  So then I just cut those pieces out. Literally.  I scotch-taped them together.  And I was trying to figure out a beginning or an end and I just couldn’t and that’s when I came up with the idea for the mobius strip—a poem without any beginning or ending—because I thought any last line would be too over the top.

My first books don’t have many formal poems, one sonnet in Smile!, but its not a real sonnet, it’s a sonnet-esque thing.  I always felt comfortable with prose poems, but early on that was about my extent in form.  But then through collaborations with Maureen Seaton, who can write sonnets as naturally as some people write free-verse, I came to love form.  She said to me, “Let’s try to write an Exquisite Corpse sonnet,” and I could do it with her.  She demystified the whole process and made it seem fun. Then I started writing in form on my own and oddly enough Maureen went into these gigantic prose poems, sort of adopted some of the things I was doing.  So I approach formal poetry with fun and as a way to open up the poem rather than something serious.  If the form doesn’t work, I just throw it into free verse lines.  I don’t torture myself.

Yeah, I guess you’ve always got to try to keep a certain looseness about you.  You don’t want to feel constrained.

I like that you say you approach form as something fun, because my favorite poem of yours that uses form is “Incest Taboo,” which is a double sestina. It is fun. It has moments of laughter, “a parrot who wants her Prozac-cracker,” but it goes deeper and gets darker. A few lines later we read about the brother “hovering” and pushing Jane on the bed, and the parents just seem oblivious.

I had heard New York poet Star Black give a reading in which she read all double sestinas—and I just couldn’t believe it.  I’d never even heard of one before—it must have been 1995, and I couldn’t even figure out what the form would be,  I asked my friend Tom Fink if he knew of the form and he said, “Oh yeah, I have that on a handout somewhere.”  So he gave it to me and I wrote maybe six or seven and boy, to write a draft takes about eight hours.  They’re really incredibly hard. And basically, when I started “Incest Taboo,” I didn’t even know where the poem was going to go, but I knew I wanted to deal with that subject.  As the poem unfolded, it led me to this narrative.  Somehow, that form just gave me access to this subject that I didn’t know I had.

In a kind of Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town kind of way, the form can lead you to discovering the subject.

I remember hearing that in graduate school, and I didn’t believe it.  I graduated in ’87 and I didn’t start writing in form till ’97—10 years of reading poems in form, looking at them sideways, and not writing them.

In certain poems you make an interesting use of the third person.  Some of the Barbie poems have a distant, observant voice that seems close but is in third person.  What dimensions, elements do you think writing in the third person can offer?  How do you approach writing in the third person?

For the Barbie poems in Kinky, I tried writing them in first person, but I couldn’t get the outfits or accessories in.  She’s an object, right?  And I wanted to be able to twirl her around in my mind.  When you’re writing in the third person, you can describe what people look like, but if you’re writing in the first person, it’s a lot harder to do.  In so many first person novels, the “I” has to walk by the window or brush her teeth to see her own curly hair or her own brown eyes—so there’s a self-consciousness that would have been hard to pull of if the Barbie poems were in first person.  I just wanted the readers to be able to see her.

“Egg Rolls” is one poem I did experiment with in the first and third person because it starts out in first person and then turns to third and then comes back to the “I” at the end.  Because I’m writing about an experience that was so long ago, I feel like I did see myself as this “other self.”
I keep going back to this, but how do you feel you use aspects of pop culture in your poems?  In a certain sense, they seem to lend authenticity to the work, and in another, the use of pop culture almost takes on a sacred quality.

I keep going back to this, but how do you feel you use aspects of pop culture in your poems?  In a certain sense, they seem to lend authenticity to the work, and in another, the use of pop culture almost takes on a sacred quality.

I remember in grad school having this poem with Dove soap in it—we used to put pins in it and make faces—and I thought, I don’t think I can use Dove because that’s a name brand.  Do I have to put ™?  No one I knew of at the time was using any Coca Cola or anything in her poems.  And Tom Lux, my teacher at the time, said, “Why not use name brands?  Think about how great name brands are—and how wonderfully sounding nail polish colors and lipstick colors are.  Advertisers spend a lot of money coming up with those names and you should use them in poems.”  And then shortly after I read Updike’s story “A & P.”  I remember thinking: I can’t believe he titled his story “A & P!”  That made it seem very Americana to me.

And, I guess, there’s a certain weight to certain brands.  Guitars—it’s a Fender or it’s a Gibson.  It has a more loaded association.

Yes, and name brands are a way of not using as many adjectives.  You can get to the image more quickly.

How do you use the internet for research and inspiration?

I wrote Kinky before the internet. Alright, not before the internet, but before I had internet access.  So I had to get Barbie Bazaar Magazine, I went to Mattell Headquarters in New York and got all these pamphlets about Barbie, and researched her in the library, because you couldn’t just go online and find out what her outfit was, or what her haircut was in 1964.  And now, internet access has given me so much more in terms of research so much more quickly.  We just went through Wilma, this horrible hurricane that hit Florida, and so I wrote this big collage poem for Green Mountain Review’s issue on the apocalypse.  I got an email about the apocalypse issue right as Wilma was happening, and I wrote this big, collage, but of course it was really heavy-handed because I was feeling really bad for myself.  But then my husband Nick had the idea that I should put Wilma Flintstone really in it.  I had one line about her, but it wasn’t enough. So I just Googled “Wilma Flintstone,” and in about an hour, I had all my information.

Some kid who loves the Flintstones has a website, and all that stuff I need was there: the lyrics to the theme song; the Elephant Vacuum; the Octopus Dishwasher; the Flintmobile; the Dragon Toaster; and Fred’s Bumblebee Razor (he caught bee in a clam shell to buzz off his stubble. So, now, the web is really helpful.  What would have taken me a trip or two at least to the library—“Do you have any Fred Flinstone books?” Actually, I remember one time researching something about Lucille Ball and going in New York to the Museum of the Moving Image, where one can look at old TV shows, and it took me six hours to get one line that Lucy said because I had to go through all those tapes. And now—

But I guess you’ve lost the experience of going to the museum?

Well, that’s true.  But on Google, you kind of get that too, because you’re researching one thing and then, Ooh!, you kind of get—