‘Appropriating the name of Greek women warriors’: A Conversation with Denise Duhamel, curated by Kristina Marie Darling



Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997). She and Maureen Seaton co-authored CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). Duhamel is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The guest editor is for The Best American Poetry 2013, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami. William D. Waltz in Rain Taxi, writes, “As I read her work…I feel like I’m taking a sneak peek at the future: Duhamel hints at a poetry that transcends irony and alienation. There’s plenty of both here, but she’s busy working them over…pushing so hard that the next step may be beyond what is known.” I recently had a chance to ask Denise a few questions about her newest poetry collection, writing women’s history, and archival poetry as feminist practice.
Kristina Marie Darling: First, let me just say how much I enjoyed your new collection, SCALD, which was just published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Here poetry becomes a way of excavating the narratives that have been buried by history. We encounter Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, and many other fierce women of past generations as they are brought to life in the imagination of the poem’s engaging and irreverent speaker. I’d love to hear more about the relationship between modernity and the archive in your creative practice. What do these historical narratives make possible for representing and contextualizing your own experience?

Denise Duhamel: Thank you, Kristina, for your careful reading of SCALD. In the 1970s, I became a feminist in grade school and junior high, hearing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” on the radio and reading Erica Jong and Betty Friedan. By the mid 1980s I was in college and had moved from pop culture, if you will, to reading Shulamith Firestone, Mary Daly, and Andrea Dworkin (who I was lucky enough to see speak once in NYC). When I was putting SCALD together and trying to group poems into sections, I realize that I’d mentioned these three women by name. They’d all died over the last twelve years and were on my mind in many ways. So while I wrote the poems before conceiving the book’s sections, these three feminist thinkers helped me organize my poems into sections with their philosophies in mind. My friend Stephanie Strickland helped me put SCALD together and it was her idea for the groupings.

KMD: You came to this collection with an extensive background in collaborative poetry. Additionally, in a recent interview in The Best American Poetry, you spoke about co-authored projects as a way of fostering shared consciousness among women. I’d love to talk more about the relationship between these collaborative projects and SCALD. What did these previous co-authored texts make possible in your thinking about this new book? Do you also envision SCALD as a collective, polyphonic, and shared endeavor, much like your collaborations with Julie Marie Wade and Maureen Seaton?

DD: Wow—that is a fascinating question! And one I hadn’t thought about before. Maureen Seaton and I have always talked about feminism and she was the one who introduced me to writing in forms, so she was also in my thoughts as I wrote many of these poems. My more recent experience of writing creative nonfiction with Julie Marie Wade is probably most evident in “Maybe Your East Village Was Better Than Mine: A Braided Poem.” Julie was born the year I graduated high school, so she experienced feminism in a different way than I did and I could talk to her for hours on end about it. Thought I wrote the poems in SCALD solo, I did heavily lean on these two friends and other women, step on their shoulders if you will. One poem in particular, “Lady of the Milk,” is an ekphrasis in response to a Catherine Opie self-portrait. Opie and I were born the same year and started exploring our art at age 9. She through photography, and I through writing. You can see her portrait here.

KMD: SCALD gracefully weaves together many different forms, ranging from the villanelle to the lyric and even hybrid prose. What did these different literary forms open up within your thinking about poetic voice, especially when considering the task of giving voice and visibility to the numerous figures from women’s history that populate the work?

DD: Both the villanelle and the pantoum rely on repetition of whole lines. The villanelle seemed well suited to feminism—the need to repeat often and insistently to be heard. The interweaving of pantoum lines, to me, mirrored the idea of cultural regression—one step forward and two steps back—and the way simple messages can be manipulated and taken out of context. I like employing prose poems to “bust out” of the line entirely. “Rated R” is the most prosey of the prose poems and I was thinking of the movie screen shape.

KMD: The poems in SCALD drift seamlessly between many different discourses, including scientific language, the rhetorics of popular culture, and poetic diction in the traditional sense. I admired the ways that these vastly different lexicons are brought into dialogue with one another. But also, these incredibly varied textures of language are brought to bear on the question of gender, its artifice, and its social constructedness. Gender is revealed as a confluence of vastly different, often contradictory, conversations circulating within culture. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about your engagement with this popular material. What decidedly non-literary texts do you find most inspiring, and most generative, for your creative practice?

DD: Great question. I initially thought this book would be called NATURE. I had traveled to the Galapagos—my dream since hearing about Darwin as a child—assuming the whole book would be about the female species of different animals. Surely, I thought, there are animals with equitable partnerships between male and female. I searched, believe me, but didn’t come up with much. So with that impulse gone, I instead wrote much more about the Amazon, which was part of the Galapagos trip. The Galapagos was amazing and everything I hoped it would be, but it’s a protected environment, pristine and glorious. And you know the old saying, “no trouble, no story.” I had nothing tense or political to say about that part of my adventure. But the Amazon was in trouble—global warming is such that my trips to the rainforest happened on sunny days. I was very much interested in writing about our troubled planet and used that as the starting point. I read historical accounts of the Amazon; and before going to the Galapagos I read Darwin, of course. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America by Kimberly A. Hamlin was mind-blowing. Hamlin traces how feminists, initially excited by Darwin, were disappointed as ultimately social scientists used Darwin against women and people of color, labeling them as “inferior.” I listened to speeches by Eve Ensler, songs by Bikini Kill, and podcasts about the Castrati, boys who, in the eighteenth century, were castrated by the Catholic Church to sing in choirs.

KMD: Though you engage difficult questions about history and our shared cultural imagination, I’m intrigued by the way you’ve also carved a space for humor within the archive. We are made to see history in all of its irony and strangeness. What advice do you have for poets who are interested in writing humor? How do you balance wit and reverence within your own creative practice?

DD: I have thought about this quite a bit as I think humor and irony are valuable tools in poetry, especially political poetry. When someone is laughing, they are less likely to be angry and more open to a different point of view. I remember the first time I heard David Chappelle talking about hitting on a provocatively dressed women who says, “Wait a minute! Just because I’m dressed this way does not make me a whore!” I was afraid I didn’t like where this joke was heading—I could feel myself getting defensive—but then Chappelle ended his bit by asking his audience—what if he walked down the street in a cop’s uniform and someone came up to him saying, “Oh, thank God. Officer, help us!…” And Chapelle says, “Oh-hoh! Just because I’m dressed this way does not make me a police officer!” Checkmate. He had me laughing! Misogyny, racism, classism, and homophobia are on full display this cultural moment, this moment of regression. It is absurdly funny—except that it is not because it is real and impacts us all. I think the way to balance humor, at least for me, is to implicate the self. I don’t think humor works when it is too mean—or at least I am not good at pulling off that kind of wit. Even irony can be compassionate. I don’t think it is imperative for poets to use humor if it doesn’t come naturally to them, but if it does, it’s a fun tool in the poetry toolbox.

KMD: What are you currently working on? What projects, publications, and collaborations can we all look forward to?

DD: Julie Marie Wade and I are writing essays together—and our first collaborative book (my first book of prose!) The Unrhymables will be published in 2018 by Wild Patience Press. Maureen Seaton and I are writing poems together. And I am writing my solo poems. It’s so hard to say what the next books will be because I am in the midst of them, but I am lucky and happy to continue on my various writing journeys.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Harvard Review, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief at Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.