Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, Passages North, poemmemoirstory, Prairie Schooner, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review, and StoryQuarterly.
Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Scald (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include 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). A recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she was the guest editor is for The Best American Poetry 2013.
Julie Marie Wade is the author, most recently of When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014) and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir. Her other books include Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), winner of the AROHO/ To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. She has received an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.
Duhamel and Wade teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. Their first jointly written essay collection, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, will be published in January 2018 by Wild Patience Books.
I recently had a chance to ask Julie and Denise a few questions about their writing practice, co-authored texts as social justice, and their forthcoming collection of prose collaborations.
KMD: How did your collaboration begin?
JMW: In the summer of 2013, I was reading a book I love by Amy Krouse Rosenthal called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. In the book, Rosenthal invites readers to tell her something new about the moon—and to send their moon musings to her directly! Rosenthal’s project is quite collaborative between writer and reader all the way through, come to think of it, and entirely whimsical.
I knew that Denise feels about the moon much the way that I do—always seeking new ways to describe it, to capture the lunar mystery and wonder without defaulting to cliché. So I asked if she wanted to write in response to Rosenthal’s prompt. What I meant was: do you want to write your own moon-musing poem, and I’ll write mine, and then we can send them to her? But Denise, a seasoned collaborator, sent me a first line: “If the Earth is a hotel room and humans are the rockers who trashed it…” In her signature, whimsical way, she wrote—Your turn—and that’s when I realized she meant for us to write one moon-musing poem together!
The result of our line-by-line collaboration was ultimately published by Green Mountains Review (https://greenmountainsreview.com/why-the-moon-matters/), but Denise and I realized almost immediately, I think, that we had started something we didn’t want to stop. The first collaboration was a prose poem, very compressed by design, but soon—and quite naturally—our work began to evolve, stretching in both length and form.
DD: I had always wanted to write nonfiction, creative nonfiction in particular, but I had used so much of my own life’s raw material in poetry that I felt I had little to say. Even though I had read nonfiction essays, I had always envisioned any memoir I had in me as a sustained, chapter-by-chapter, linear account. Prose in general baffles me—and I am the creator of three failed/unpublished novels. But when Julie asked me if I ever considered writing nonfiction, I blurted, “I’d write it if I could write it with you!” And it has been one of the most gratifying artistic ventures of my life.
Julie was born the year I graduated high school so I love writing with her about how feminism shaped our different experiences. She has been a great teacher! She doesn’t teach me in a formal classroom way (though she is a great professor) but rather through her example and her writing, especially, of course. I am indeed a seasoned collaborator, and I had no command of traditionally formal poetry until I started writing sonnets with Maureen Seaton. Julie has given me a much stronger sense of creative nonfiction and what it can do! I am so glad that I misread her email about the moon prompt. That lucky “misreading” on my part has opened up a whole new way of deepening my and Julie’s friendship. A lot of trust is required for collaboration to work. And I trust her implicitly as a person and as a writer.
KMD: Describe the mechanics of your collaboration. How did you exchange drafts? How much would each writer contribute at a given time?
DD: We have approached various essays in various ways. Most are written in alternate chunks/paragraphs on a particular subject or word. We started with very basic titles, like primary colors, and then each of us would alternate meditative paragraphs to which the other would respond. A few paragraphs are written sentence by sentence in similar fashion to “Why the Moon Matters.” Some of the essays have subtitles or sections. We have also used “drabble” techniques in which we each write the exact number of words back and forth about a certain topic. We have also created an essay in the form of a glossary.
KMD: You both came to this collaboration as accomplished poets, with multiple single-author volumes already published. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about what drew you to prose as a structure for project. What did the lyric essay form make possible within your collaborative writing practice?
JMW: I’m a long-time admirer of the collaborative poetry canon of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton as well as the lucky reviewer of Caprice, their recent volume of collected and new poems (https://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/11/05/caprice-collected-uncollected-and-new-collaborations-by-denise-duhamel-and-maureen-seaton/). But as much as I appreciate collaborations as a reader, I never thought of myself as a collaborative writer until Denise invited me to write with her. I confided in her that I had never collaborated with anyone before but was intrigued by the possibility, and Denise confided in me that she had always been intrigued by the possibility of writing prose. Since I have a long history writing prose, and Denise has a long history collaborating with other poets, our collaborative prose became a way for each of us to grow our writing by trying something new, but at the same time, we each bring an element of prior know-how to the enterprise.
Of all the forms that prose can take, the lyric essay seems the most natural extension of the poetic impulse. Like poetry, lyric essays tend to rely on language chosen for its cadence and aural qualities. They also tend to be propelled by associative leaps and thematic recursions rather than causal narratives. As poets, Denise and I both love to zoom in close to individual words or concepts and circle around them, peeling back layer after layer of associations. Early on, we began writing about colors and created a series of lyric essays, including “White,” “Pink,” “Red, “Blue,” “Green,” and “Black,” that explore personal, historical, and pop cultural associations with each of these colors. Later, we wrote an essay called “The Unrhymables,” which includes braided meditations on twelve, unrhymable words in the English language. (https://nimrod.utulsa.edu/archive/reimagined/DuhamelWade.pdf) This is, in fact, the title essay of our first collaborative book forthcoming in 2018 with the newly formed Wild Patience Books of which Julie R. Enszer is the editor!
Now we’re writing a series of essays that use numbers in their titles, like “10 Ways to Get Her,” “13 Superstitions,” and “31 Favors,” both to indicate the number of segments that comprise the essay and to comment upon its themes. The most capacious of these to date is “50 States,” which we hope is a timely meditation on our national zeitgeist.
DD: The lyric essay is also a manageable form for two busy writers and teachers. Because it is so elastic and malleable, we have been able to include not only life experiences but also what we have drawn from our latest reading. Some of Julie’s paragraphs have given me ideas to research in order to respond. The lyric essay feels like buying a ticket at the airport but leaving the destination blank. It is impossible to know where you’ll go, but you do know you are up for adventure.
KMD: In Saints of Hysteria, the Denise’s wonderful co-authored introduction describes collaboration as a way of fostering a shared feminist consciousness among women. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between collaborative writing and social justice. What unique possibilities does collaboration offer for dialogue and understanding within the writing community and beyond its boundaries?
DD: Collaborative writing is ideal for social justice work because it is implicit that the two women writing are nodding to each other to say “me too.” It is revolutionary, in my biased opinion, in creating a dialogue where differences ultimately don’t wind up being that different—that suffering and joy and frustration and bliss join women together. Julie and I are writing from different childhood geographies, class backgrounds, and sexual orientations, yet our voices seem to be one at many points in our work. Though we are also almost a generation apart in terms of age, our experiences reverberate with one another on the page.
JMW: I couldn’t agree more! One of my favorite of our collaborations to date—the glossary Denise mentioned above—is an assemblage of annotations for every woman and girl Denise and I referenced in our first book-length collection of essays, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose. These include women and girls from our personal lives as well as public figures, both historical and contemporary, as well as fictional characters. As I recall, the glossary was Denise’s idea, but it became our collective way of honoring dozens and dozens of female family, friends, and role models, some explicitly feminist and others not. Together Denise and I were able to shine a literary spotlight on so many of the female figures who have inspired us. Just the act of naming and describing more than a hundred women in a row—giving so many women “center-stage” in a culture where women are most often still defined by their relationships to men or left “off-stage” all together—feels like an act of feminist consciousness-raising to me. I hope we reach all kinds of readers with our collaborative work, but in particular, I hope we can inspire a new generation of young people not to be afraid of feminism, not to believe the stigmas and stereotypes attached to the word. Remember when Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” With Denise and me, two women are telling the truth about their lives in conversation with each other. I hope this means the world splits open twice as wide.
KMD: You’re also accomplished as teachers of creative writing, serving as mentors within the writing community. Do you ever have your students collaborate in the classroom? As educators, how do you approach collaboration ethics (i.e., teaching students how to be mindful and gracious collaborators)?
JMW: In my Introduction to Creative Writing class, I actually teach a collaborative poem from Saints of Hysteria called “82 Reasons Not to Get Out of Bed,” co-written by Denise and 16 of her former students from a graduate seminar she offered at Florida International University in the early new millennium. It’s an exemplary list poem, perfect for illustrating how powerful two words—“I fear”—can become when used as a lyric refrain. (This is also the poem I use to introduce anaphora into my students’ developing literary lexicons.) I invite my students to write their own “I fear” poems as a personal inventory and emulation but also to participate in a series of exquisite corpse exercises with their peers.
I’ve only been teaching creative writing courses for a few years, so I’m sure Denise has much more insight to offer here, but so far I’ve used in-class collaborating as a way to help my beginning students overcome their inner critics and combat the fear of “having nothing to write about.” So often I’m astonished (in the best sense of the word) by what a group of new writers are able to compose together just by passing a piece of paper back and forth among them and each writing in response to a portion of each other’s words for a limited amount of time—typically one or two minutes. When the students read aloud the entire poem they have generated, they’re frequently both surprised by what they learn about each other and themselves and also proud of what they didn’t know they had to say. Collaboration in my classroom has turned out to be the ultimate icebreaker to the workshop environment as well as the first time many students shed their literary inhibitions on the page.
DD: I’ve taught entire courses on collaboration and collage, and “82 Reasons Not to Get Out of Bed” is from a Form and Theory class in the fall of 2001. Our entire class wrote it the first day back after 9/11 when we were all on edge, some of the students having family in New York City. Collaboration is indeed a great icebreaker for the first or second meeting of any class as it helps writers to get away from the small self and into the larger self. So many writers want to “stick to the facts, ma’am” in their poems, and collaboration introduces the idea that a poem is going to want to go where it wants to go and that trying to impose a strict adherence to the way things happen can sometimes be a hindrance, that language and sound may take a poem in a completely new direction, that the “I” does not always have to be a date and time log of events. In addition, collaboration allows for surprise and mayhem, and who doesn’t want that in a poem or any piece of writing?
I have had given my students “cheat sheets” of pantoums, villanelles, and sestinas, and they collaborate a line at a time and are always amazed at how fun these poems are to write. I stress it is important to set ground rules with each other—I usually put them in place—so that a poet is not bullied by her collaborator. Sometimes people can get carried away and write two or three lines in a row instead of one, so I make sure that doesn’t happen. If the collaborators want to revise once the poem’s first draft is done, they are only allowed to revise their own lines with the permission of the other. This is really good practice for workshop etiquette down the line.
It is an honor and a delight to end with a selection of new prose collaborations....
An excerpt from “50 States”
A collaborative essay by Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade
The song has such easy allure, ideal for riding on the spin bike or singing along in the car. Gavin DeGraw and I have pedaled imaginary mountain passes and sped down winding highways crooning, “Hey West Virginia, Hey North Dakota, I think I love you, but don’t even know you!” We’ve sung the same to Massachusetts, Minnesota, Carolina, Oklahoma—though all are places I know, places I’ve been before. Then, the chorus turns the corner a little too fast, and we’re skidding toward “Hey Alabama…” I think I know something about Selma and Birmingham, Sena Naslund’s Four Spirits and the Civil Rights Institute. One of the best students I’ve ever had hails from the Heart of Dixie. At a reading, she said, “I’m from ‘Bama, and as you may know, we’ve had a little racism there.” We laughed. We were sad. She lifted us up with poems from her Magic City Gospel. I’m too old now, and not near enough naïve, to believe that racism keeps a single home address. I think I know something about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but I also know it’s not enough. I remember my first essay in school on Rosa Parks: “Someday I hope to have such courage.” In “Red Dirt Girl,” Emmylou Harris sings how the stars fell on Alabama—where there is such beauty and longing, so much hatred of difference and change. Now I am too old not to see how the stars fall on all of us.
I look out my window to the sea. For fifteen years I’ve wanted an ocean view, and now I finally have one. But on stormy days the white waves seem to crash too close to my window. Everyone agrees South Florida is sinking, the limestone below so porous not even a seawall can save us. Saltwater puddles appear in a park, startled fish circling their new small home. Something called a super moon floods the side streets, even though there hasn’t been a drop of rain. I keep rubber boots in my Honda’s back seat, sneakers in my office for overflowing parking lots. Yellow plastic ponchos. Umbrellas. Money in the freezer in case of a hurricane, in case the ATMs and credit card machines are down. The rest of the country blames us—our crazy politics and love of suntans, our reckless drivers and overdevelopment. I always thought Florida would be a great place to retire, but now I think South Florida and I have roughly the same life expectancy. You may have heard of senicide or geronticide, the Inuit practice of leaving an elderly person on a chunk of ice to float away and die. The last such known person was put to death this way in 1939. Now there are fewer ice chunks near the North Pole, the glaciers melting. I imagine all of Florida’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities filling with water, the beeping of life-maintaining machines drowned in salt. I think of my Florida town lovingly, like a spouse, hoping I die first.
“I came to Minneapolis because of the cold. I figured if I was frozen I’d keep better,” Rhoda tells her best friend on the popular 1970s sitcom. Though I wasn’t born until two years after The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s end, I found everything I’d ever need in syndication: Mary’s couch that folded out into a bed (mine was scratchy brown and came from my roommate’s brother…), Rhoda’s beaded curtain (mine came from Pier One Imports and consequently, was lacking a little funk…), and of course the headscarves. My mother had a drawer from which I pilfered, colorful leftovers from her own ‘70s life. Opening it was like reaching inside a magician’s sleeve and giving an artful tug. But you see, I didn’t care how warm or cold it was. I wanted to go to Minneapolis to become someone else, to recast myself as a straight mid-Western girl with natural fashion sense or a witty ne’er-do-well fleeing bad romance in the Bronx—I just hadn’t decided which. Later, well into our thirties, I traveled with my partner to the North Star State. It was April, it was snowing, I was recovering from a broken leg. The travel guide said, “Minneapolis is a top-ten city for lesbians.” The concierge said, “The Mary Richards’ house is 5 miles away, mostly uphill. Wouldn’t you rather see the statue instead?” We bundled up. I wore an ankle brace. We took small steps and breathed the crisp air. We made it after all.
The first time I visited I was five. My father says I told him, “I am going to grow up and live here one day!” He couldn’t understand why his child was drawn to subways that smelled like piss, to trashcans overflowing with rotting food. We went to the Empire State building where my mom had a panic attack—too many people—and we left before I could use the silver viewfinder, bigger than my head with its two owl-like eye holes. I had a red toy viewfinder at home but there were no pictures of Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge inside. I wonder, if we’d stayed atop that skyscraper, if my curiosity would have been satiated. Instead, I went back to live in New York City in one of the worst possible neighborhoods my twenties. I was part of the slow gentrification of Alphabet City where a homeless man once chased me down the street trying to urinate on me. Another time I couldn’t open the building’s front door, a dead body on the stoop blocking it. I greased my fire escape with Crisco after my apartment was robbed and I shivered in the cold because the thieves had even taken my blankets—maybe to wrap up my TV? A few nights later I heard someone—a crack addict, perhaps—thud to the vacant lot my window faced. I should have felt a little bad. He could have broken a bone falling from my slippery railings. I was a poet by this time, after all. But instead I wrote a sonnet, feeling victorious.
The mountains are memorable, of course, as are the apples and rhododendrons, both plump and red, as is the soft refrain of the rain. From our breakfast table, we watched ferry boats crossing Puget Sound. Beyond them lay the islands, which I learned to name: Vashon, Blake, Southworth, Bainbridge. There were others I would visit someday. Beyond these, the Olympic peaks rose unimpeachable as a painting. This was before I knew how white our green world was, before I recognized just how privileged our view. It was not a manor exactly, but I had been to the up-and-coming born, the only daughter of two-car suburbanites whose means extended even to lessons at the Fiorini Ski School on weekends. Those mornings we dressed in the dark, parkas and bibs, moon boots and mittens, then drove east toward the blinkered sun, sometimes with chains on our tires. At Snoqualmie Pass, how I loved riding the blue chair lift to the intermediate slope, then hunching low and picking up speed, leaving my ski-mates behind in a cloud of powder. Beauty was a given of that place, as was grace—a landscape I was expected to mirror and embody. This was before I understood about manifest destiny or the dreams my parents hoped to manifest in me. “Just look at this place,” my father said, like a prophet in pom-pom cap atop a mountain. “They had to cross the whole country to find paradise. No one in his right mind would ever leave.”
I spoke at a Women’s Conference in Laramie in 1997, then read at Second Story Books, a former brothel where upstairs you could see the small rooms where the women were paid $2 or $5 per session according to the clerk. Brothels were apparently popular in Laramie, the last of which held on until the 1960s. It was hard not to think of the degradation of the women who worked there. In 1804, a person who wished to remain anonymous wrote a column for Sporting Magazine—“Prostitutes have very improperly been styled as women of pleasure; they are women of pain, of sorrow, of grief...” Some of the women poets in 1997 tried to make whore jokes, but it was hard to get a laugh. I chimed in—“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don’t know, but it’s not funny!” Our host took us the next day on a hike through the Snowy Range Mountains where, at sunset, the clouds turned pink. Then, a year later, Matthew Shepard was beaten and tortured in Laramie, tied to a fence by his killers and mistaken for a scarecrow by a bicyclist. Upon closer look, the Good Samaritan saw Shepard’s face completely covered in blood except for a small patch cleansed by tears. Who has not, in a moment of lust, followed danger into a dark wood? Who has not wanted to be loved? I couldn’t help think of my time in Laramie, that beautiful place, the small dark rooms of pain, empty now of people but still on display.