with Michael Hettich
An Interview with Denise Duhamel
Denise Duhamel is one of those rarest of poets whose work is not admired simply for its felicities of form and technique, but adored for its honesty, depth of feeling, intelligence and humor. Her audience is large and enthusiastic, and it consists of an unusually wide range of readers—from fellow writers to that almost extinct species (at least in the poetry world), the general reader. Beyond her work on the page, Duhamel is an exceptionally generous person, loved by her students and indeed by the entire South Florida community of writers and artists among whom she lives. To my mind, she epitomizes the highest calling of the artist: to make the world larger and more various.
Duhamel has published numerous books of her own poetry as well as collaborative books and anthologies. Her many honors include an NEA Fellowship, A Guggenheim Fellowship, and The Crab Orchard Review Prize (for The Star-Spangled Banner, 1999). Her Blowout (2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has been published in all the major journals and has appeared in six editions of Best American Poetry. She served as editor of that anthology series in 2013.
I have known Denise since 2000, when she moved to South Florida to teach in the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University. Over the years, many of my creative writing students have gone on to study with her. She participated enthusiastically in a collaborative poetry/visual art project called The Sweat Broadside Series I co-coordinated. Although we have often talked about poetry and about students we have had in common, we have never spoken formally about our shared art. Though this interview was conducted by emails between my home in North Carolina and hers in Hollywood, Florida, I often felt as though we were having a face-to-face conversation, actually talking to each other, as the sound of her voice echoed in the syntax and tone of the emails she shared: open-hearted, gracious, and vividly alive.
MICHAEL: Can you talk a little about your background? I know you grew up in Rhode Island, but I don’t know much about your family circumstances or formative childhood experiences. I’m also curious about how and when you first knew you wanted to dedicate yourself to writing poetry.
DENISE: I can’t believe we never spoke about this! But, of course, I do believe it as so many times when we got together in Miami we were both busy and teaching. I grew up in Woonsocket, RI which was basically a dying textile mill town at the time. I saw factories close one by one during my childhood, and many of my friends’ parents were unemployed or underemployed. My father was a baker and my mother a nurse so they were lucky and always had jobs. I grew up working class, my parents buying a ranch house in 1971. I was ten and it was their first home purchase. My sister and I shared a room and got to pick out the wallpaper—we chose a purple flower pattern. Very mod. I suffered from asthma my whole childhood and that year was also significant as I went into the Crawford Allen Children’s Hospital in Providence and spent much of fourth grade there. It was a tough year, and a transformative one as that is when I started writing in earnest. I actually made “books” and dedicated them to the different children who were in the hospital with me. My self-published “novels” were written on 3-hole paper, tied together with a ribbon spine. I did the cover art too. I wish I still had some of them, but I gave all my one-of-kind creations away. I had no idea living poets existed (until I was in college!) so before that time, I thought I’d be a novelist or a journalist of some kind.
MICHAEL: I wonder if you could speak a bit about your daily practice as a poet.
DENISE: I am a big proponent of “freewriting” and I use either a journal or my laptop to “free write” every day for at least twenty minutes. Some days are purely awful and some are just rants about politics. As you can imagine, there are a lot of those these days. I don’t judge myself though as I go along and sometimes it takes me a month or more before I even go back and reread anything I’ve written. Then I highlight what might be useful for poems—lines or images—and sometimes around day 12 there is just an almost finished poem and the next day is gibberish or wordplay exercises. When I have long stretches of time to sit down and write, I always have my freewriting to get me going so I don’t have to start with a blank page.
MICHAEL: Many poets are admired for their verbal and “technical” dexterity; far fewer are loved for the power of their work. You are clearly a poet whose work is loved—and deeply admired as well. I think this has to do at least in part with the quality of honesty you bring to your writing. But honesty isn’t a simple thing; it’s a big word that carries many implications, since we all have so many “selves” to be honest about! Can you talk a little about what honesty in poetry means to you?
DENISE: Thank you! I honestly believe that I was initially so honest in my work because I never thought anyone would read it. I was very ambitious in terms of wanting to learn how to write well, but I had this notion that so few people read poetry that I would be “safe” to write from an almost therapeutic place. And in the macro sense, that is true. Early on my friend and collaborator Maureen Seaton and I told each other we wanted to write for our younger selves—the misfits, the loners, the oddballs. And I guess I just did that—and still try to do that—hoping in some way that some of the people who could benefit from what I had to say would find my poems. Just the way I found poetry.
MICHAEL: One of the words I associate with your work is “courage.” Not the courage of the firefighter or nurse, obviously, but the courage of the true artist. I see this courage as more than merely “risk,” which is something that might apply to the poem itself. The courage I’m talking about is a larger, more fundamental quality. It may be difficult to discuss in relation to your own practice, so can you think of any writers or poets for whom the word applies?
DENISE: Yes! That person for me—and for a lot of women of my generation—is Sharon Olds. Her work is so “courageous” and so technically gorgeous that my heart races when reading her. Her poems invite a visceral response—they are shocking but not going for shock value. Each taboo she breaks she breaks tenderly and deliberately and with great purpose. Dorianne Laux also is fearless in her poetry and brings in politics to her poems in a necessary, intimate, humane way. And Jan Beatty harnesses anger and humor like with great effect. She is generous to her readers, each of her difficult disclosures rendered with grace. Ai is a very different kind of poet who until her final book eschewed the confessional or post-confessional impulse, but her persona poems exploring violence and poverty and celebrity culture are sublime. And speak to an “honest” account of lives lived.
MICHAEL: One of the unfortunate but perhaps necessary tendencies many artists in all the disciplines embrace is the development of a “signature style.” In poetry this often results in the poet writing virtually the same poem over and over. How do you keep your work from falling into such a habit of mind and approach? And how do you do this while still maintaining a personal style and voice in your work?
DENISE: When I put my selected and new poems together for publication, Ed Ochester asked me to try to make it “book” rather than just picking out poems that I thought were the best in terms of technique. I remember thinking that would be impossible—I’d written about so very many things—fairy tales, Inuit mythology, Barbie dolls, and personal narratives. I had the naive thought that each of my books was singular in its approach, an entirely new project. But as I read my early work with distance, I realized I basically wrote about the same five topics—feminist concerns, class concerns, the rights of children, environmental degradation, and the possibilities of love in a capitalist, transactional society. I think I am still writing about all of those things now though our political moment is much more dire. So I guess I am always trying to approach those subjects in a new way. Most recently I am using a lot of traditional form as both a challenge to myself but also to see how my subjects will evolve. I am not hyper-aware, of course, of these things as I am writing, but I am easily bored and am afraid of repeating myself (unless I’m writing a pantoum).
--after Eve Ensler
The ones who save us are the ones killing us.
Religion, corporations, the military, and cops
all promise a better future, free from evil.
The mammogram machine radiates
religion, corporations, the military, and cops,
our breasts on cold metal plates.
The mammogram machine radiates.
But don’t worry, you’re safe, says the technician.
Our breasts on cold metal plates,
we say we’ve read that exposure causes cancer.
Don’t worry, you’re safe, says the technician.
The benefits far outweigh the risks.
We ask, But doesn’t exposure cause cancer?
In 1775, chimneysweeps got scrotal cancer.
The risks far outweighed the benefits
for those boys diagnosed with cancer.
In 1775, chimneysweeps got scrotal cancer
from soot. Other carcinogens now
for those diagnosed with cancer—
tobacco, asbestos, tanning beds.
We’ve gone from soot to other carcinogens—
Dow chemicals, gasoline, the coloring agent in Coke,
tobacco, asbestos, tanning beds,
Monsanto’s Roundup weed-killer.
Dow chemicals, gasoline, Coke’s caffeine,
hormone replacement therapy, BPA water bottles,
and Monsanto’s Roundup weed-killer
all make life easier. Giving up to
hormone replacement therapy and BPA water bottles
may rid you of hot flashes and night sweats,
make life easier. Giving in to
authority means you can always blame
your hot flashes and night sweats
on the military industrial complex. Religious
authority means you can always blame
God, yourself, or a nebulous enemy made up by
the military industrial complex. Religions
all promise a better future, free from evil,
God, yourself, or a nebulous made-up enemy.
The ones who save us are the ones killing us.
From Scald (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)
HOW IT WILL END
We’re walking on the boardwalk
but stop when we see a lifeguard and his girlfriend
fighting. We can’t hear what they’re saying,
but it is as good as a movie. We sit on a bench to find out
how it will end. I can tell by her body language
he’s done something really bad. She stands at the bottom
of the ramp that leads to his hut. He tries to walk halfway down
to meet her, but she keeps signaling don’t come closer.
My husband says, “Boy, he’s sure in for it,”
and I say, “He deserves whatever’s coming to him.”
My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think
she’s sick of him only working part time
or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.
The lifeguard tries to reach out
and she holds her hand like Diana Ross
when she performed “Stop in the Name of Love.”
The red flag that slaps against his station means strong currents.
“She has to just get it out of her system,”
my husband laughs, but I’m not laughing.
I start to coach the girl to leave her no-good lifeguard,
but my husband predicts she’ll never leave.
I’m angry at him for seeing glee in their situation
and say, “That’s your problem—you think every fight
is funny. You never take her seriously,” and he says,
“You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?
Maybe he should start recording her tirades,” and I say
“Maybe he should help out more,” and he says
“Maybe she should be more supportive,” and I say
“Do you mean supportive or do you mean support him?”
and my husband says that he’s doing the best he can,
that's he’s a lifeguard for Christ’s sake, and I say
that her job is much harder, that she’s a waitress
who works nights carrying heavy trays and is hit on all the time
by creepy tourists and he just sits there most days napping
and listening to “Power 96” and then ooh
he gets to be the big hero blowing his whistle
and running into the water to save beach bunnies who flatter him,
and my husband says it’s not as though she’s Miss Innocence
and what about the way she flirts, giving free refills
when her boss isn’t looking or cutting extra large pieces of pie
to get bigger tips, oh no she wouldn’t do that because she’s a saint
and he’s the devil, and I say, “I don’t know why you can’t just admit
he’s a jerk,” and my husband says, “I don’t know why you can’t admit
she’s a killjoy,” and then out of the blue the couple is making up.
The red flag flutters, then hangs limp.
She has her arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
He whisks her up into his hut. We look around, but no one is watching us.
From Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013)
DELTA FLIGHT 659
to Sean Penn
I’m writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ball point pen.
Ever since 9/11, I’m a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can’t x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn
variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read, in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live—his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war’s impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra
of doubt. “So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up?” He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh café. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you’d penned
that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle towards your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menacing penguins.
But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won’t stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no script or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.
I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:
Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child’s first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.
From Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)
NOAH AND JOAN
It's not that I'm proud of the fact
that twenty percent of Americans believe
that Noah (of Noah's Ark) was married
to Joan of Arc. It's true. I'll admit it--
Americans are pretty dumb and forgetful
when it comes to history. And they're notorious
for interpreting the Bible to suit themselves.
You don't have to tell me we can't spell anymore--
Ark or Arc, it's all the same to us.
But think about it, just a second, time-line aside,
it's not such an awful mistake. The real Noah's Missis
was never even given a name. She was sort of milquetoasty,
a shadowy figure lugging sacks of oats up a plank.
I mean, Joan could have helped Noah build that ark
in her sensible slacks and hiking boots. She was good with swords
and, presumably, power tools. I think Noah and Joan
might have been a good match, visionaries
once mistaken for flood-phobic and heretic.
Never mind France wasn't France yet--
all the continents probably blended together,
one big mush. Those Bible days would have been
good for Joan, those early times when premonitions
were common, when animals popped up
out of nowhere, when people were getting cured
left and right. Instead of battles and prisons
and iron cages, Joan could have cruised
the Mediterranean, wherever the flood waters took that ark.
And Noah would have felt more like Dr. Doolittle,
a supportive Joan saying, "Let's not waste any time!
Hand over those boat blueprints, honey!"
All that sawing and hammering would have helped
calm her nightmares of mean kings and crowns,
a nasty futuristic place called England.
She'd convince Noah to become vegetarian.
She'd live to be much older than 19, those parakeets
and antelope leaping about her like children.
From Two and Two (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005)
Michael Hettich has published ten books and a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently TO START AN ORCHARD, which was published in September, 2019. His work has appeared in such journals as TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Orion, Prairie Schooner and Terrain.com. He lives with his family in Black Mountain, NC. His website is michaelhettich.com.