Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997). She teaches creative writing at Florida International University.
“Pornomiseria” struck me in my first reading as a play on the ghazal form. What, if any, place did this form have in the drafting of the piece? How did you decide on the titular refrain word? When/Where did you first hear the word?
My student Ziggy Pastor told me about "pornomiseria" one day in class when we were talking about wallowing in complaint or disappointment. I fell in love with it! I tried to write a more traditional ghazal as I followed my urge to use the word over and over again. I also wrote a version as a list poem but then blended the two together and settled on a poem that was somewhere between the two.
The poem explores the complexities of our relationships to others’ pain. The speaker even asks whether poetry is complicit: “And what about confessional poems? / Are my sad narratives adding to the culture of pornomiseria?” Is there a relationship between the confessional mode and pornography? Between the confessional mode and misery or shame?
I don't know! I guess the more I thought about our obsession with misery, everything (even poetry) became suspect. I guess one definition of porn is a bold plea to make a person react in a predictable way, a plea to our sense of arousal. I think great poetry is beautiful and complex (anti-porn) but I guess I was making fun of myself and my more sad sack poems....
The sections of your most recent book, Scald, are each dedicated to feminist figures. Could you speak a little bit about their influence on the book, and what draws you to them as dedications? What do you see as the role or importance of a dedication in a book or section of a book?
The first poem in the book is actually dedicated to Shulamith Firestone, and when organizing the book I realized how she had informed other poems in that section as well. Firestone believed that until women could be freed from their biology (baby-making) that they would never achieve equal rights. She looked to science—test tube babies and the like—as a way to make more humans. She believed children should be raised communally rather than in nuclear families. So many poems in this section have to do with her thinking. The second section, dedicated to Andrea Dworkin, has to do with the commodification of women's bodies. Andrea Dworkin believed that prostitution and pornography, especially, degraded women. The third section, dedicated to MaryDaly deals with religion as it applies to women. Daly started out as a theologian until she gave up on Catholicism's patriarchal stance. She famously said that the Virgin Mary was date raped.
I see Scald as reclamation of the important contributions these women made to feminism. I am wrestling with these second wave foremothers and visionaries as I try to understand our cultural moment. I do include more recent thinkers like Susan Faludi and Eve Ensler, but I guess the big three that cast their presence over the poems are the ones who formed my own feminist awakening when I was younger.
In the poem “Reader/Writer,” the speaker/poet feels like she “flubs” a moment with a bulimic reader who approaches the speaker to tell her how much her work has meant during her recovery. The speaker longs to have been able to respond to the reader in a letter, saying that “If she had written to me, I could have written / back something heartfelt, grateful that a poem of mine / actually reached a person who needed it, a poem like a FedEx box.” Could you speak a little bit about the relationship between reader and writer? What is it about the space of the written page that makes us feel so much more secure sharing with others?
There is an intimacy in writing—poetry especially—that invites a kinship with its readers. Many poets I admire—like Sharon Olds—are amazingly vulnerable in their writing, so much so that I feel like they are my best friends. But of course they are not. They are just my imaginary poet friends—and in some ways those voices are just as important as my real friends. I was interested in exploring the way poetry can sometimes create more of a connection that the actual poet can.
Repetitive forms—pantoum and villanelle—play a significant role in Scald. What draws you to these forms, particularly for the subject matter you’re considering here? How do you keep the momentum of the poem moving forward as you work in these forms? In general, does the writing process for these poems look different from the free verse ones? How did you get into pantoums, specifically?
Pantoums, specifically, made me think of cultural regression—how women (or any oppressed group) makes strides and then there is a backlash. I wrote the poems before our current president came to office but I was very aware of the misogyny Hilary Clinton experienced. That women in general experience as they gain power. I guess the form really held for me the concept of "one step forward two steps back."
One of the recurring themes I noticed in Scald was the tension between conforming or “giving in” and unrelenting activism. You write that “Giving in to / authority means you can always blame / your hot flashes and night sweats / on the military industrial complex” (72). Could you speak a little bit about this tension and other places it plays out in your work?