On February 18th, a cozy crowd of New School faculty, students, friends, and admirers welcomed Denise Duhamel, honored guest of the Writing Program’s Poetry Forum at The New School. Duhamel’s dazzling smile, vivacious voice, and energetic demeanor elicited the audience’s attention as soon as she walked into the room. She graciously took the time to chat with friends and fans before taking command of the podium.
Duhamel, who received her MFA degree from Sarah Lawrence College, has published numerous collections of poetry, including her most recent, Blowout (University of Pittsburgh, 2013), which was a finalist for a National Books Critics Circle Award, Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), and Kinky (Orchises Pr, 1997). She was the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2013. She has collaborated with Maureen Seaton and David Trinidad to publish the anthology, Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry (Soft Skull Press, 2007) and served as guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013 (Scribner, 2013). Her play, How the Sky Fell (Pearl Editions, 1996) ran for four off-off-Broadway performances in 1997. Aside from being accepted into numerous international residencies, she has received many notable awards, such as from the National Endowment for the Arts, Puffin Foundation, Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust for Theater, and was named a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow.
“I’ve known and admired Denise Duhamel and her poems for nearly twenty years,” said Mark Bibbins, Part-time Assistant Professor and moderator of the forum.
“We were ten,” Duhamel chimed in, inciting laughter from the room.
“I remember being mesmerized as I still am by her openness, political engagement, fierce humor which as it so often does comes not only from places of anger and absurdity, but great tenderness and sadness sometimes too,” said Bibbins.
“Thank you so much for coming and for braving this [frigid New York weather],” Duhamel said when she took the podium. “I was so sure that this [event] was going to be cancelled, that I didn’t ask any of my friends to come.”
Duhamel read from her latest, Blowout, a book about a failed marriage, as well as a few new poems. Poet Barbara Hamby has described the collection as a book that “chronicles the journey from heartbreak to new love [and] so much more…It is a meditation on love and the sacrifices we make to create it in tenements, in condos, on boardwalks, and in our own hearts.”
Duhamel opened with “Old Love Poems,” which with its perfect honesty and nostalgic tenderness is sure to become an anthem for the broken-hearted.
“I can burn the pictures, but not the poems/ since I published them,” read Duhamel. “Once my cousin told me/ not to write anything down because the words would be there forever/ to remind me of the fool I once was/…there wasn’t really a beloved there anymore,/ just a strand of hair each left behind/ on the other’s scarf or pillow, a cologne trigger/ …“It’s still hard/ for me to accept the notion of love outliving the lovers.”
When Duhamel conceived the title Blowout, she was thinking about “a big party or…some kind of disaster, like when your tire blows out.” Perhaps the more obvious blowout, which she admits she had not considered, was “the kind that you get in a hair salon.” Fittingly, however, “If You Really Want To,” one of the poems in her collection, takes place in a hair salon.
“[L]oneliness is holding a piece of cardboard/ under your new kitchen cabinets/ as the handyman drills holes for the hinges/ that will hold the door in place,” Duhamel said, reading from her poem, “Victor.”
Although many of the poems she read reveals the demise of a relationship and a person’s efforts to survive the aftermath, Duhamel’s spirited reading of them
Many of the poems she read reveal the demise of a relationship and the to survive the aftermath, which from the mouth of another reader might have let the reminder of heartbreak linger on too long. However, Duhamel’s skilled and spirited renditions coax the spectators to turn their heads from looking backwards and to live on.
In “How It Will End,” Duhamel convinces you to befriend the couple on the boardwalk, even though you already know, you too, will have to take one of their sides eventually.
During the Q&A, the audience felt less like spectators and more like dinner guests joining in on Bibbins’ and Duhamel’s conversation.
“There are some poems that are better on the page and some poems that are more alive when read,” said Duhamel, when Bibbins noted the directness of her poetry and asked whether she was still inspired by slam poetry traditions.
She is also a fan of fixed forms, such as the sestina and villanelles, though she admits she writes in these forms when she feels “stuck.” Duhamel even enlisted her friend, Honor Moore, nonfiction coordinator and faculty member at The New School to discuss her much-anthologized sestina "First Time: 1950."
“Don’t keep hitting the same note,” Duhamel advised those giving a reading or arranging a chapbook, drawing from her experiences at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. “Let’s say Mark and I are slamming and he reads something really sad, I’m not going to compete with that. I’m going to read something hilarious.”
In Blowout, Duhamel shows you how to endure.
“[T]he plant…will bloom despite being uprooted,” she wrote in “Old Love Poems.” “It’s hard to believe when you are down to your last penny,/ when the soil is dry and rocky and full of weeds,/ when your love/ is freeze-dried into a metallic pouch and you are full of snarky rage./…Even if you no longer remember tenderness,/…you read the poem/ again, grateful, holding the words in your hands like a bunch of flowers”
Duhamel’s poems are like “a bunch of flowers.” They’re beautiful and diverse. They remind you that you are not surviving alone.