On Festival Poet Denise Duhamel


by Dawn Paul  
This is the fourth in a series of essays on the poets who will be featured at the May 1-3 Massachusetts Poetry Festival.
Attend Denise Duhamel's event at the festival.

Denise Duhamel was born and raised in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, so we grew up a few towns away from each other.  I lived in Coventry, another working class mill town in what felt like a working class state.  Rhode Island was called Little Rhody then, before it re-branded itself as The Ocean State, and some of that come-from-behind attitude dwells in Duhamel’s irreverent approach to poetry.  She dares you to not take her seriously—after all, how many poets of the academy can claim a series of poems on the Barbie doll, including Buddhist Barbie, from an earlier book, Kinky:

In the 5th century B.C.
an Indian philosopher
Gautama teaches 'All is emptiness'
and 'There is no self.'
In the 20th century A.D.
Barbie agrees, but wonders how a man
with such a belly could pose,
smiling, and without a shirt.

In her newest book, Blowout, a finalist for a National Books Critics Circle Award, Duhamel has a poem about a real-life pop icon, Madonna, that begins:

            Madonna and Me

Madonna and I went through
our divorces
around the same time
and I followed her and Guy Ritchie
on perezhilton.com
as a kind of therapy

But the poem moves swiftly from flippancy to a clear and direct look at her disintegrated marriage and her part in the destruction:

I had to work to support us
work just to survive
but the truth is
I was also happiest working
away from my husband
whose body left an imprint on the couch
like a chalk outline at a crime scene

Though Duhamel’s poems have a rough-edged bravado, she is always elegant in the delivery.  In “How it Will End,” also from Blowout, she crafts a scene in which she and her husband watch a lifeguard and his girlfriend have a fight on a beach.  In the first stanza, the poet and her husband speculate on the reasons for the argument: 

My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think
she’s sick of him only working part time
or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.

The poem gradually shifts and the married couple begins to conflate their marital problems with the young couples’ fight.  In Duhamel’s smooth transition, the two couples merge for a moment in their argument:

I’m angry at him for seeing glee in their situation
and say, “That’s your problem—you think every fight
is funny. You never take her seriously,” and he says,
“You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?

For all her fascination with tabloid content, Duhamel is at heart a lover of poetic forms.  My favorite of Duhamel’s playful formal poems is “Delta Flight 659”—to Sean Penn, from Ka-Ching!, which begins: 

I’m writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I’m a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can’t x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

In an interview in The Rumpus, when asked what she would be if not a poet, Duhamel replied, “I also could see myself as a stand-up comedian, a fashion designer (for people of all sizes), a hairdresser, an earnest and eventually burnt-out politician, or the owner of a small bistro. But I fear that, without poetry, I would have simply been going through the motions, feeling like Peggy Lee in the song. But since I became a poet, I answer Peggy Lee’s question, ‘Is that all there is?’ with a big ‘No!  There is poetry…’”

Poetry is Duhamel’s affirmative answer to all that life throws at her, from the dissolution of love to the certain knowledge that our time here is limited.  Though she will welcome you with the familiar or even the frivolous, she will drop you off at the big questions of transcendence and mystery, as in this prose poem, “Permanence:”


The barista at the coffee shop is covered in tattoos. She says there
are only two ways they hold her back. 1. She can’t work at
Starbucks. 2. She can’t wear a corsage, since she’d just be way too
busy, and this makes me laugh. She says no to gifts from prom
dates—the wrist corsage, the pinned corsage; no to bridal
bouquets, the get-well-soon carnations. One day soon her mother
will insist on sympathy wreaths around her coffin, which is closed,
lest she be confused with the flowers. 

Dawn Paul teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies at Montserrat College of Art. She is the author of two novels, The Country of Loneliness and Still River. Her poetry has been published most recently in the Nassau Review and the Lindenwood Review. Dawn has an MFA from Goddard College and has been a writing resident at the Vermont Studio Center, the Ragdale Foundation, the Spring Creek Project and the Whiteley Center at Friday Harbor Laboratories. She is also a frequent performer on the Improbable Places Poetry Tour.