When I think of Denise Duhamel, I think of a really funny poet, but after seeing her and hearing her read on Tuesday night, I feel I need to expand my description. Yes, she is funny; she is also extraordinarily enthusiastic, filled with gusto and an infectious smile, and a peek at her process reveals an inventive collaborator with a surrealist methodology. Duhamel read from two collaboratively written books, 237 More Reasons to Have Sex (with Sandy McIntire) and ABBA, with Amy Lemon, who was present and joined her in reading. ABBA was developed according to particular parameters: Duhamel and Lemon wrote eight quatrains in ABBA rhyme; the poets took turns writing lines. Duhamel’s book with McIntire followed a similar methodology. It was an ongoing exchange, and each “reason” (to have sex) is numbered. Some of those reasons included: “#3: Because I was on all fours anyway./ #4: Because of the plums, so delicious, so cold.” “#15: I thought you were somebody else. #16: I thought I was somebody else.” The collection was inspired by a scientific study called “Why Humans Have Sex,” and it is just one example of how research lends itself to Duhamel’s poetry.
Duhamel also writes in forms, such as the sestina, which she redefines by adding an additional restriction — she calls this the “sestina plus one.” Inspired by Maidenform bra ads from the 60s (eg., “I dreamed I went to blazes in my Maidenform bra”), Duhamel wrote “I Dreamed I Wrote a Sestina in my Maidenform Bra,” a poem that details the bra sizes of Tinkerbell (32A), Snow White (36B), Cinderella (38C) and Sleeping Beauty (40D). Duhamel concluded the reading with a poem featured in The Best American Poetry 2009 titled “How It Will End.” Duhamel explained that this poem tells a story indirectly and is, according to a psychologist who heard Garrison Keillor reciting the poem on his radio show, a classic example of projection.
During the Q&A David Lehman asked if Duhamel’s ideas come first or if they surface in the process of composition. Duhamel said she is committed to automatic or free writing, which she does daily for twenty minutes. Of her collaborative exchanges, Duhamel stated, “If someone is waiting for you to come up with a line, you will do it.” Lehman suggested that there is a blend of sensibilities in collaborative writing, and a kind of third person or writer is created. Evidently Lehman and Duhamel have worked together on a play called What Women Want, but it remains unfinished. When asked when she came to consider herself a poet, Duhamel explained that she began writing novels at age ten but didn’t know there were any living poets. She thought poets were like cobblers—extinct! Duhamel is radiant evidence to the contrary, though she may be a rarity at the bowling alley where she composes lines based on the number of pins hit. This eccentric exercise requires a special trip to the lanes. Lace up those shoes, poets!