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Portraits of Poets

An Interview with Denise Duhamel [by Aspen Matis]

Denise DuhamelDenise Duhamel is the author of Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021). Her other titles include Scald; Blowout; Ka-Ching!Two and TwoQueen for a Day: Selected and New Poems; The Star-Spangled Banner; and Kinky. She guest edited The Best American Poetry 2013 (Scribner) with David Lehman, series editor. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Duhamel is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Duhamel via email about her newest book Second Story, her guidance for young poets, the radical nature of telling the truth, and poetry as a place where words exist to help people live by expressing the sublime.

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Your new book of poems Second Story is sharp and vibrant, painting the humdrum and the disastrous alike in bold and searing images that endure in my mind like places I’ve really been and scenes I’ve really lived. The poems awakened in me both wonder and fear. In flashes of joy and insight, the collection “investigates our near-catastrophic ecological and political moment,” exploring themes of climate change, exploitation, poverty, robbery, social complicity, personal agency, resistance to sacrifice, guilt, memory, and the convenience of forgetting. In the words of the publisher, “With fear of the water below and a burglar who enters through her second story window, [Duhamel] bravely faces the story under the story, the second story we often neglect to tell.” What would you like to share with readers about the second story you illuminate so powerfully in this latest collection? Why is the oft-hidden nuance you highlight and evoke so important to perceive?

When I moved to Florida in 2000, I was confident that Al Gore would become president, that we’d have clear policies to curb ecological degradation. I was so sure of it, in fact, that I moved into an apartment close to the ocean. It wasn’t so much that I had my head in the sand (no pun intended) the years that followed. I still understood the urgency—and by 2005, I had lived through my first major hurricane, Wilma, which made its Florida landfall barely two months after the more infamous Katrina. Then I live through the disaster of the Deepwater Oil Spill in 2010 and the insidious BP commercials that followed, promising “funds to study the Gulf’s wildlife,” like BP was somehow the good guys. But 9/11, the subsequent wars, and the financial crash of 2008, kept me busy protesting other things. I still had a naïve hope that the climate crisis, horrible as it was, was manageable and that eventually politicians and industry would respond accordingly. One of my first political acts was as a fifth-grader writing to President Nixon protesting aerosol cans that were harming the ozone layer. When the EPA banned them shortly thereafter, I had a sense of accomplishment and justice that must have infused my thinking. Then in 2017, Hurricane Irma destroyed my apartment just ten days before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. I kept a journal in my most terrified moments and transformed these entries into “Terza Irma,” the long poem in the center of Second Story. Once I’d finished that poem, I started to write others about my Uncle Wil, an early environmentalist who rode a Vespa when I was a teenager. Corporations continue rob our natural resources, which made me think of all the other things robbed from us, including our very lives in cases of police brutality and Covid-19. Shortly after I’d finished the Second Story, the pandemic hit and I put in two extra poems that also address the severity of our political moment. 

What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? 

All of the above! We are lied to, day in and day out. Advertisements, self-help books, and politicians have coopted language to such an obscene extent that “friends” are now just clicks on Facebook. And don’t even get me started on how our former president perverted the word “patriots.” Poetry is a place where words are there to help people live, to say something sublime. Poets aren’t selling anything, not even their books really, as you can hear people read poems for free on Vimeo or YouTube.

What is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work?

To tell the truth, warts and all.

Do you have any wisdom or guidance you’d like to share with young poets? 

Yes! I am of the age now when I start sentences with “Thirty years ago, I…” so I am entering my “impart wisdom” decades. Even though I don’t understand all the challenges young poets face, which are slightly different than the ones my generation faced, I would like to say to young poets…Be fierce and fearless. Don’t worry about the fame or recognition part—easier said than done, I know. But each poet’s path is different. I had three small press books (all out of print now) before Kinky was published by Orchises Press, a press no longer publishing books but lovingly maintained by Roger Lathbury. I was 39 before I was hired by Florida International University, my first permanent, “real” job. I was 40 before University of Pittsburgh Press started publishing my books. Not everyone will win a big book prize their first time out. Or ever. If you love poetry, you love poetry. If you read a lot of good poetry, you will get better at writing it. Being patient doesn’t come naturally to me, but I work at being patient every day, especially as I coax out my poems. I hope that will give some comfort and perspective to the young poets coming up.


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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly

Radio

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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