—Denise Duhamel, from CHIMERA: an interview with Denise Duhamel by Karla Huston
|The Shadow of Sirius,|
the latest book from
current US Poet Laureate
W. S. Merwin
Do you know who the current US Poet Laureate is? Of your state? (Or, if you are one of my mysterious Denmark readers, the analogous position for you?) Can you name any poets who live in your city? Most people who live near celebrities (here in Miami, we have more than a few) know about them and find it a point of pride, but poets live in relative obscurity. Yet, there’s something about knowing your local poets that’s . . . alive. There’s a reason why Plato expelled poets in The Republic. Your local poets are tapped into your hometown in a way no one else is. They know things!
As we enter the second week of National Poetry Month, take the time to find out whom your local poets are. During this month, there’s more going on than usual, and you may get the chance to attend readings and events not available later. There’s something about hearing and seeing poetry read right in front of you that’s impossible to grasp on your own. Poetry is more of a performing art than prose is—to hear the way a poet delivers a poem is always interesting. Most readings also have Q&A sessions afterward where you can actually talk to the poet, ask her or him anything you want. How cool is that? If you’re unsure where live events are taking place, poets.org has a calendar searchable by state here. You can also check your local newspaper, your local bookstore (especially independent ones), libraries, and surrounding universities. If all else fails, try Google.
One of my favorite locals is Denise Duhamel. She teaches at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood (Florida, not Cali). I met her once at the Miami Book Fair. Made a complete ass of myself. Went up to her after the reading, offered her my sweaty palm, and said, “You read my favorite poem of yours!” (which is “Kinky”). Then I laughed and scuttled away before she could reply. But it was so cool to hear her read. Her poetry is very messy on the page, hard to hear without her breathy delivery. There are a few YouTube videos of her reading, but they are mostly all very bad quality, seemingly recorded by someone in the audience with some kind of unsatisfying gadget. Hearing her read made me appreciate her poems better. Since then, I’ve made her a staple of my creative writing classes. Young students like her organic meditations on pop culture, and, since most of my students are locals, they stand a good chance to catch her live at a local event.
|Kinky (Orchises, 1997)|
Duhamel’s poetry is often described as “ultra-talk.” To learn more about ultra-talk poetry, you should read David Graham’s excellent article at Valparaiso Poetry Review. The way I try to make it simple for beginning students, however, is to describe it as deceptively chatty. It seems like the poet is just rambling, but that’s an illusion. Behind the chatty presentation is accumulated significant detail that culminates in a surprising, serious message. Graham also discusses the following qualities: highly discursive, or “hyperjunctive”; garrulous; self-reflexive, associative, humorous; concerned with pop culture; accessible; workaday; expository; having an “anti-leap aesthetic.”
Perhaps the best way to grasp the style is to look at one of Duhamel’s poems. Here are the opening lines from “Sex with a Famous Poet” (you can read the whole poem here):
I had sex with a famous poet last night
and when I rolled over and found myself beside him I shuddered
because I was married to someone else,
because I wasn't supposed to have been drinking,
because I was in fancy hotel room
I didn't recognize. I would have told you
right off this was a dream, but recently
a friend told me, write about a dream,
lose a reader and I didn't want to lose you
You can see how she appears to be just chatting, just thinking of these lines as they come to her, almost like she’s writing about writing instead of writing, a kind of meta-poetry. She addresses you, the reader, directly, telling you of her desire to keep you. The lines are ragged, with no meter or rhyme, and this and many of her poems have no stanza breaks. The poem continues meditating on the guilt over the dream given the fact that she is happily married, and given also that she did not particularly approve of this famous poet the one time they met:
. . . He disgusted me
with his disparaging remarks about women.
He even used the word "Jap"
which I took as a direct insult to my husband who's Asian.
After a series of seemingly rambling memories concerning her husband’s dreams and her suspicion that we are trying to guess the identity of the famous poet, she culminates in the following:
but how much fame can an American poet
really have, let's say, compared to a rock star
or film director of equal talent? Not that much,
and the famous poet knows it, knows that he's not
truly given his due. Knows that many
of these young poets tugging on his sleeve
are only pretending to have read all his books.
But he smiles anyway, tries to be helpful.
I mean, this poet has to have some redeeming qualities, right?
For instance, he writes a mean iambic.
Otherwise, what was I doing in his arms.
Unexpectedly, the poem has taken a serious turn, even within the humorous content of dream interpretation in which she places it—this seemingly quirky “chat” is really a meditation on the state of American poetry, on her unrealistic desire to be famous despite her own disdain for the wish.
It’s a particularly satisfying kind of poetry, especially for the reader who prefers poems and poets who do not take themselves too seriously or pretend to deliver The Great Truths in their poems. Duhamel’s poetry has somewhat of the same appeal as Billy Collins’s, in that respect, minus the osso bucco and French wine trappings that can be a turnoff to the pop culture crowd. In the everyday moments, in Barbie, Snow White, and Sean Penn, Duhamel finds revealing and often poignant messages that spring from the self but speak to all of us.
It’s no wonder she’s a cult favorite. You can read more about her at poets.org, and join her fan club on Facebook, Fans of Denise Duhamel OR A Group of Duhamalites. Meantime, I have an exercise for you. Read Duhamel’s poem, “On Being Born The Same Exact Day Of The Same Exact Year As Boy George,” which you can find here.
Then, write a poem called "I Google My Birthday and Find Out _____" (you fill in the blank with whatever it is you have found out; it could be a fact about something or about yourself). Actually do this. Carefully, meticulously record your thoughts and feelings and any actions that you take (including clicking, reading, or answering the phone) while you are doing this. Focus on detail. In your poem, narrate these details as if they were happening as the poem unfolds. Use natural line breaks that emphasize where you would pause while reading. End your poem by arriving at an oblique revelation or epiphany. Take care not to abandon the "ultra-talk" mode by becoming too abstract or philosophical. Use an action, like Duhamel does by writing to Boy George at the end of her poem, to reveal this final thought.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and one of the best ways to expand your poetry repertoire. One of the great things about sampling a wide variety of styles in your reading is that it helps you grow, to try new things. As you continue your poetry quest this month, try to read as many different styles of poetry as you can. They will stay with you, and eventually help you shape your own. And don’t forget to sign up for the Big Poetry Giveaway—there’s still plenty of time to enter to win, and, who knows, maybe meet a new muse.