Denise Duhamel: “I confess that I’m a poet.”

Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 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). She is the guest editor for Best American Poetry 2013. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Denise Final

Denise was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I’d like this interview to be centered on your new book, Blowout (Release date February 17th). I am so honored and excited to be one of its first readers!  I will tell you that my experience when reading this collection of poetry was very much alike to that of reading good fiction.  I found myself forgetting about form or lines or even the words on the page.  Instead, I was swept away into the story.  The speaker in this collection is me!!  I’m not divorced or even married, but she’s me anyway.  The second-guessing, the constant self-evaluation, the lack of patience, the too-much patience, the feeling of being the last one to know, the feeling of being the one who knows something’s wrong, but can’t bring herself to do anything about it, the resentment, the rediscovering, the new love—all of it. 

Denise Duhamel:  Thank you!

MP: When reading William Archila’s book, The Art of Exile, I remember thinking, “Wow, this book is tight.” When I got your new book, Blowout, I read it cover to cover in one sitting.  I had the same feeling!  Every poem in the book is necessary.  When putting this book together, what did you leave out? How did you decide?

DD: Thank you, Marina.  I struggled with what poems to put in and what poems to leave out, what narratives would work best in light of the others.  I wanted to write about betrayal and implicate the self/the speaker, but I was also aware that a little bit of “love lost” goes a long way.  I didn’t want the reader to keep turning the page to find, “Jeeze, she’s still there depressed and alone,” or “What’s her problem?  I wish she would just get on with it…”  I wanted to pace the book in a way that showed healing and discovery faster than it can occur in “real life” but yet not seem glib or dismissive about the end of a long marriage.  I wrote many more poems about the end of love and the beginning of new love than appear in the book, so a lot of my time was spent culling.

MP: Blowout almost feels like a novel!  It tells a story, the characters seem to develop, and there’s even what I consider a turning-point moment. Section One is centered on the act – the divorce, Two is the reflection and aftermath, and Three is new love.  How did you go about ordering this book?  Do you feel that there’s an arc, and if so, was this arc intentional?

DD: I have always wanted to write successful fiction, so to hear that my book feels like a novel to you makes me happy indeed.  I was very aware of the arc and the three sections—and I also used “flashbacks” to young love to bounce the timeline a bit.

MP: So, to me, Blowout is very much a collection about leaving a marriage.  And I mean leaving as in, the husband has left the marriage, and the speaker has too.  It’s a book where the situation is divorce, but perhaps the story is abandonment. These issues are life-changing, private, and intimate.  When preparing for this interview, I found myself almost unable to formulate questions without getting too personal.  Finally, it dawned on me to ask what this was that kept me in this private space with the book.  My question to you is about the reader.  Where is the reader in this book? How did you envision her/him?

DD: In the United States, more than half of married people will divorce and almost everyone, married or not, will get her heart broken sooner or later and probably multiple times.  So while Blowout is intimate and specific in its details, I envision the reader as anyone who thought she knew someone and then didn’t.  Or anyone who thought she knew herself and then didn’t. I envision a reader who is tying to live an authentic life.  This is odd, but sometimes I envision Tony Hoagland as my reader as I wrote many of the poems in Blowout because of his knockout poem, “In Praise of Their Divorce,” which appears in his book Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf, 2010).  It first came out in American Poetry Review in early 2007, and I’ve carried that poem around with me ever since.

MP: To keep with the personal for a minute, let’s talk about breaking taboos.  In an interview you did a while back for Bomblog, you said you were interested in breaking taboos in your work.  Your writing in books like Two and Two, Ka-Ching!, and the entire Barbie series is a testament to your commitment to this endeavor.  While others breach these taboos in prose, you’ve successfully torn open these barriers with poetry, and especially with humor.  Even in your most serious poems, you seem to acknowledge a greater perspective, one that includes the absurd, the other, and even forgiveness.  This inclusionary aspect of your poetry is what I think makes these difficult subjects accessible, palatable, and effective.  When you are writing about your own pain and vulnerability, does humor help to communicate a truth or can it shield or protect from having to face it (even though I don’t think Blowout contains too many overtly funny poems)?

DD: The short answer—yes.  I think humor can simultaneously put me at a distance enough from my own difficult material to face it and also bring me closer by seeing “the big picture,” rather than my own particulars.  Mel Brooks is often misquoted as saying, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,” suggesting that only the pain of the other is funny.  But he really said, “Tragedy is if I cut my finger—comedy is if I fall in an open sewer and die.”  In his original quote, misfortune happens only to himself and he does not laugh at the suffering of others.  What he is getting at is this—the bigger the tragedy, the more ironic and awful the mishap, the more potential the situation has for humor. Breaking taboos is a bit more acceptable with humor, but some poets have broken taboos without much humor—I’m thinking here, most recently, of Sharon Olds and Ai, who, while having some funny poems, write in a predominantly serious mode. My previous use of humor helped me write the poems in Blowout, even though the humor doesn’t appear as fully as it might have in previous volumes. The TV host Steve Allen wrote that tragedy plus time equals comedy.  This statement has always comforted me, that no matter what happens, some day in the future we will, perhaps, be able to laugh about it.

MP: One of the aspects I love most about this book is the tenderness and honesty of the speaker, though now and then, I don’t like her.  I feel that she sometimes gets what she deserves – like in the poem “Fourth Grade Boyfriend” or in “Loaded.”  In both of those poems, I think that the speaker is a little mean or even callous.  But, then I get to a poem like “A Different Story,” and I realize that I’m the one being naïve or revisionist.  “A Different Story” contains within it a sense of urgency that is pulsating. And, it’s urgency for self-reflection, as though the speaker has to show us the underbelly of the poetic beast.  I also read it as an ars poetica because it says this urgency is part of the process, as is stealing, and escaping, and facing a truth.  Why did you include this kind of poem in a collection that is so tight around a narrative?  How do you view this poem?

DD: Actually, I don’t think you are being that naïve.  I was well aware of the speaker’s own culpability in the poems you site, and I found myself leaving in work that allowed her vindictive thoughts.  I didn’t want her to be too much of a victim.  Sometimes if characters are too goody-goody, I wind up rooting for the villain.  I never thought I would quote Zsa Zsa Gabor in a literary interview, but here goes…She said, “You never really know a man until you have divorced him.”  Leave it to Zsa Zsa to be profound!  We don’t know the cruelties of which we are capable until we are pushed into severe abandonment and rejection.  Our underbellies, of shadow sides, are not particularly pretty. “A Different Story” addresses this—the speaker calls herself “cheap, / fearful, controlling, duplicitous, a dunce.”  The stories within “A Different Story” include two women who were written about by others in an unflattering way. One appears pathetic in a self-help book; another killed off by her ex, a writer of thrillers.  I see this poem (as well as “You’re Looking at the Love Interest”) as gestures to concede that the speaker in Blowout is only telling one side of a story or a very incomplete story.  I was also thinking of the phrase, “Well, now that’s a different story…”

Your observation of this poem as “ars poetica” is also quite helpful and insightful—poets often steal the experience of others, and there is an urgent negotiation between experience and getting that experience down on the page.

MP: Section Two for me is key to seeing the speaker begin to understand what’s happened, reflect, and regain her strength.  In the poem, “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” you have a line that says: ‘I confess that I’m a poet.’  For me, that line is central to this poem and to the entire book.  At every crucial moment, I feel that we are reminded of the speaker’s dual role – as poet and confessor.  Did you feel that you had a responsibility with this book to tell your side of the story?  Or even to tell a story.

DD: I do indeed see Blowout as “confessional,” both in the Catholic sense (the telling of one’s sins) and in the confessional or post-confessional poetic tradition.  I didn’t feel so much a need to tell “my” side of a story, but I did feel the need to tell a story.  The story is nothing new—girl meets boy, girl loves boy, boy loves girl, boy and girl disappoint one another.  While these poems are extremely narrative, I also think they are like love songs—wrenching and maybe a little cornball even.  In “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” I wanted to point out that while “real people” may inspire poems, there is also fabrication.  The Love Interest, who has become the basis of a character in a memoir, is very cool about it, even a little proud:

But, hey, no hard feelings—he says he understands

why Meghan had to make him out to be a little bit of a jerk.

No conflict, no story, right?

MP: Let’s talk titles! How in the world do you come up with titles for poems?  Do they come first?  Or does the poem?

DD: I almost always come up with my titles after the poems are written.  I am a fan of long titles and provocative titles and the occasional exclamation point.

MP: And talk about titles, though I’ll probably change my mind right after I type it (because I can’t actually choose one!), “Little Icaruses” is my favorite poem in the collection.  It represents a starting over that I want so badly for this speaker who’s been through so much.  But, this poem is also my favorite because it’s so different from the others.  In very short and tight lines, this small poem delivers quite the punch.  And in its title, we know that this speaker is armed with new knowledge, and also the awareness that there is danger in returning to that great big world.  Please tell us all about how this poem and its fantastic title came about.

DD: I hope I don’t take the magic out of this poem for you when I say that I wrote it shortly after changing an actual light bulb—one of my least favorite household activities.  The dead insects inside the globe always make me a little melancholy and, this particular day, made me extremely melancholy.  As far as placement in the book, I wanted the opening of the third section to be a reprieve from the long poems, so there are three short poems in a row.  The insects are drawn to the light that will kill them is one way to read this poem—the speaker’s throwing away of the insect bodies also allows her to shake away, at least metaphorically, her past.  The poem, of course, also acknowledges the potential danger of moving forward.

MP: In my reading of Blowout, I see “Ten Days Before We Meet, I Dream You” as the turning point in the book. It’s the poem that first introduces the “you” as new love.  Even though this particular poem is difficult to stomach because of the violence at its core, I love the way the speaker now can view this memory with a different lens.  She is older and wiser, and she is in love.  From this poem on to the end, we are in the land of love poems.  As a fellow writer, I know how hard it is to feel and write at the same time. What’s more difficult for you to write: a poem of pain when you are in pain?  Or a love poem when you are in love?  Do you need a cool middle for revision?

DD: I can write in extreme states—pain, joy, anger—and that is how many of the poems in Blowout began.  I use the “cool middle” for extensive revision.  Much of “Ten Days Before We Meet, I Dream You” was in my journal (without a title, of course) before I knew what any of it meant.  I also wrote “How It Will End,” the first poem in Blowout, years before the more harrowing poems or the events that brought them about.  I think sometimes a poem knows more about its speaker than even the writer knows.  Or at least that has been true in my case.  It’s easy to manufacture details of a poem, but harder for me to manufacture emotion. “How It Will End” is about projection to a certain extent, who we think people are rather than who they truly are.   I guess in this poem, comedy plus time equals tragedy.  Yet the humane thing about extreme emotions is that it is impossible to live in these states very long as any one extreme emotion will eventually exhaust us.

MP: It might just be me, but I think that after a big project, I feel that I’m somehow different.  So, I’m curious about how you feel now that this new book is written.  What did Blowout teach you?

DD: Putting together the poems in Blowout taught me perhaps that I don’t always need to be the clown or jester, as much as I have been comfortable in that role for some time.

MP: There’s an interview you did with Cesca Waterfield a long time ago where you said something that I think is very true about poetry.  You were talking about how we must read contemporary poets if we are going to write poetry today. You said, “Poems are conversations with other poems,” and it made me wonder: Who were you in conversation with when you wrote this book? Who do you think Blowout might be in conversation with now that it’s out?

DD: When I handed in Blowout to Ed Ochester at Pittsburgh Press in the fall of 2012, I had no idea that two other contemporary poets, Sharon Dolin and Sharon Olds, were about to publish books about the ending of long marriages.  Dolin’s book Whirlwind and Olds’ Stag’s Leap are very different in tone—Dolin calls down the furies while Olds laments with an early forgiveness—so I like to think that these writers were paving the way for me without my even knowing it.  I was also always writing in response to Tony Hoagland’s wonderful ode.  Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop also were constant poetry companions—in particular Bishop’s “One Art” and O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”

MP: Last questions – and THANK YOU so much for taking the time to do this!  We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to really dig into this book and pick your electric brain about it! – Denise, what’s your job as a poet?

DD: My job as a poet is to say what is too hard to say in everyday conversation and to try to say it as beautifully and urgently as I can.  Kathy Griffin has written a theme song “I’ll Say It” for her new show Kathy, the lyrics of which are “I know what’s in your head, but if you turn red when you say it, well don’t you worry cuz I’ll say it, I’ll say it for you…”  Her show is pure fun and fluff and about celebrity gossip, but I think her song is saying something quite profound:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yShkrXBYCNg

Or, to quote the beloved Muriel Rukeyser, my job is to “breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.”

Read some of Denise’s poems here.

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