10 Questions for Denise Duhamel
- By Edward Clifford
I've checked the box acknowledging that, whatever happens,
it won't be your fault—that my insurance policy will cover
everything, except what actually breaks, that you are not responsible
for any data corruption, any mistakes in my bloodwork results,
that your mammogram can only detect so much.
—from "Poem in Which I Read the Terms and Conditions," Volume 64, Issue 3 (Fall 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer! I declared it to my parents when I was 5 years old, but I started writing “books” in the fourth grade while sequestered in Crawford Allen Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI. A severe asthmatic, I befriended other kids with ailments who became the basis for my characters. In one such “novel,” the girl with cancer has magical, witchy powers because of her chemo treatments and cast spells that turn our foul-tasting medicines into apple juice. In another, the boy with cystic fibrosis has a cape and, curing all our illnesses, leads us in an escape from the hospital. My one-of-a-kind, self-published “books” were hand written on 3-hole lined paper, tied together with ribbons to form a spine, and decorated with my own cover art. The backs spouted fake blurbs with celebrities popular in 1971: This book changed my life! Mary Tyler Moore. Or Possibly the best book of the century. Mr. Rogers. I also remember writing “a story about a pet” that a grade school teacher assigned for homework. I had no pets (because I was allergic to animal dander) so I wrote about a beehive that lived inside a rich lady’s beehive hairdo. I didn’t write poetry until college—because I didn’t realize living people wrote poetry until I went to my first poetry reading.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Sharon Olds was a huge influence when I was younger and continues to be. For many people my age she gave a permission to “go there” in terms of the body and sexuality. I love Patricia Smith’s work and her impeccable poems in which she writes in received forms. David Trinidad is at the top of my list as well. His formal gestures are impeccable as he writes about pop culture and nostalgia but there is also an ache in his poems that is completely genuine. I have collaborated extensively with the poet Maureen Seaton, who just died this past summer, and her poetry magic has also informed some of the leaps I have taken in my own poems. I’m always constantly surprised and delighted by the music of Dorianne Laux.
What other professions have you worked in?
As a graduate student living in New York City, I flirted with the idea of working in advertising. I freelanced as a low-level assistant for a marketing research group that was conducting focus groups for teeth whitening products. (This was the late 1980’s, decades before Crest Whitestrips.) I worked on a similar campaign to sell running shoes (that the first focus group found terribly ugly by the way) to women who would soon be wearing them, carrying their heels in a bag to work. I thought that writing jingles and ad copy would be fun, but I ultimately felt like it would be using my poetry powers for evil rather than enlightenment. One of my more glamorous jobs was working as a tutor on the set of the TV show Kate & Allie. I worked with Allison Smith who played one of the children. Jane Curtain (who played one of the moms) always asked me to get her coffee. Though it wasn’t one of my duties, of course, I did it! It was a lot of fun.
One of my first jobs in my hometown of Woonsocket, RI was a supermarket cashier. In retrospect, this was a pretty great job as I was in a union in high school! I remember the union rep saying if the boss asked us to stay a few minutes late we should wait to punch out until 8 minutes had passed so that we would be paid for a quarter of an hour. I also worked in a factory which made Christmas tree balls—this was a lot less empowering. No union. Our hands were always getting cut by the broken glass ornaments on the conveyor belt. I also waitressed and tutored along the way.
What inspired you to write these pieces?
The two poems that appear in this issue of The Massachusetts Review come from a similar impulse but use two different formal containers. “POEM IN WHICH I HAVE READ THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS” is from a series of poems I am working on, all having “IN WHICH” in the title. I was inspired by Emily Carr’s “Another World Is Not Only Possible, She Is on Her Way on a Quiet Day I Can Hear Her Breathing: A Poetry Pep Talk/Poetics/Spell Poem” that appeared in the May/June 2022 volume of The American Poetry Review. In her delightfully unconventional essay, Carr talks about rekindling intuition in poems, offering “a welcome antidote to whatever personal hell you, too, are in.” “POEM IN WHICH I HAVE READ THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS” addresses the powerless we (well, definitely I) feel in the age of consenting to small print disclaimers, the way the system continues to be rigged for corporate American to win. It contains some found language from actual website agreements alongside some more “poetic” declarations. BATTLE HYMN OF THE HYMEN uses the scaffolding of the patriotic song to discuss rape culture, the “marching on” of the patriarchy whether it be through war or more individual acts of aggression and cruelty.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
It may be New York City! I lived there from 1985-1998. I find sometimes when I walk on the beach here in Florida I am still on those concrete sidewalks searching for the ghost of Frank O’Hara.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I am able to multitask doing most things, but not when it comes to writing. I need silence or else I just start singing along with whatever music is playing. I do love music though and have pretty eclectic tastes. I enjoy Pink, OutKast, Liz Longley, and Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche (a mother/daughter band!) just to name a few. And when I am feeling nostalgic—the Clash, Tina Turner, the Go-Go’s, Prince, Queen, and Any Lennox. And I am pretty much obsessed with Sinéad O’Connor.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Not really. I have written pretty much anyplace where I can find silence or am able to zone out in some way—on the beach under an umbrella, on planes and trains, in bed in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. But I do have a desk and that is where most revision takes place.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Up until this past summer it was my dear friend Maureen Seaton. When she passed, I felt this deep appreciation of all the poems of mine (successful and dreadful and everything in between) she’d read. My friend Stephanie Strickland and I help each other put books together, ordering poems. She is an excellent reader and helps me cut the flab from my more outlandish poems.
What are you working on currently?
I am just finishing up a manuscript titled Pink Lady. It’s a series of elegies for my mother who passed away in July of 2021.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading Vievee Francis’s The Shared World, a breathtaking account of race/racism/love; sam sax’s Pig—a truly inventive meditation on the word to talk about police violence, capitalism, religious dietary restrictions, swine flu, and even Miss Piggy; and Robyn Schiff’s Information Desk: An Epic about beauty, forgery, and men (artists and patrons) behaving badly at the MoMA.
DENISE DUHAMEL’S most recent books of poetry are Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021) and Scald (2017). Blowout (2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a distinguished university professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.