SMALL PRESS SPOTLIGHT: DENISE DUHAMEL

by Rigoberto González | Nov-16-2009

 

Ka-Ching! University of Pittsburg Press, 2009.

 

Denise Duhamel is associate professor of English at Florida International University. She is the author of ten poetry collections, including Two and Two and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems. The recipient of numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, appearing in six volumes of The Best American Poetry.

 

Because of the country’s current economic woes, the onomatopoeia of the title (and the precious stones and pot of gold illustrating the cover) hint at a book that’s going to take a critical look at our money-centric society. And it does, but through the working class lens--through the experience of a speaker who has worked hard most of her life to earn a living. The reader encounters a young woman trying to make tuition by being an overworked nanny, average citizens struggling to pay the bills, an aspiring writer bemoaning the fact that her screenplays go nowhere and that she’s going to end up a penniless poet. But the humor in the poems is what keeps these narratives from seeking pity from the reader. Will a sense of humor and a little poetry get us through the tough times? Why is it important to reveal the layer of hard truth beneath the fantasy of the American dream and the land of opportunity? 

 

George Bernard Shaw said, “If you're going to tell the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they'll kill you."  I’ve taken this to heart when attempting to write sociopolitical poems.  Sure, I still believe (kind of) in the American dream, but it’s important for poetry to go beyond the slogans and clichés of our country.  The hard layer does have to be acknowledged—how fortunes are more often accumulated through inheritance rather than as honest work, how racism and sexism and classism play into the distribution of wealth. I sure hope poetry and a sense of humor will get us all through.  I do feel it’s imperative for poetry (at least some poetry) to be socially relevant.  As I wrote the poems in Ka-Ching!, I truthfully didn’t know that the economy would become as dismal as it has.  I was interested in writing about the subject of money because it is taboo and barely talked about in polite society.  I thought to myself: poetry can accommodate any subject, why not finances?

 

You’re known as a poet who reinvents form. “Delta Flight 659,” for example, is a sestina in which all the end-words contain the three-letter word “pen”; and in the poem “Anagram America,” every line ends with a reconfiguration of seven-letter word “america.” These poems are entertaining to read, but their forms create a tension with their respective contents: post-911 fear of flying and a checklist of America’s politicized culture--“Welcome to America, where the letters can be twisted into almost anything.” In a way, these poems are celebration the best and worst of the imagination--an American imagination that can be creative or destructive (an echo of the line in “Basically”: “there are two kinds of children:/ those who like to torture and those who like to rescue”). Why is it that poetry can hold both of these extremes at once?    

 

Poetry—even verse sprouting sprawling lines or prose poems—is so pared down and exact, it is able to accommodate multiple readings.  The word “ka-ching,” for example means both a windfall (“I just won the lottery!”) or a big pay out (“I just paid my taxes.”)  I wanted both meanings to permeate the book.  Orwell’s “Doublethink” from Nineteen Eighty-Four was referenced a lot while critiquing the Bush administration—No Child Left Behind, The War on Terror, and the Patriot Act, etc.  So that, of course, was in the zeitgeist as I wrote many of these poems.  Similarly, or I guess I could say, “doublethink cubed” is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”  Every word we utter inherently holds its opposite.  Our shadows are always present, whether we can see them or not.

 

The section “One-Armed Bandits” is the terrifying story of a working class couple involved in an escalator accident at a casino. It’s also one of the most critical sections of the book because it illustrates the greed of corporations like insurance companies and how victims of tragedy become victimized yet again. The tone changes noticeably in this section. How was writing this section more challenging that writing the other work in this collection? And how did you determine if it still fit with the overall project of Ka-Ching! ? 

 

I included these poems into the new book because the accident happened in a casino.  The tokens, the slot machines, the false hope and horror of the place seemed metaphorically apt.  Such accidents take place everyday everywhere, but the dingy Atlantic City backdrop convinced me to put these poems in Ka-Ching!  I was interested in exploring violence on a spectrum—from war to harm done to the body via machines to childhood cruelty.   Big greed, little greed.  Piggybanks and corporations.  I had written a canzone called “The Accident,” about this same subject, which appears in a previous book, Two and Two.  That poem recasts the couple (my parents) as Jack and Jill going up the hill and fit in more with the theme of coupling that is present though out that book.

 

One of the themes you explore consistently in your work is womanhood. Poems like “Girl Talk,” “What Women Know” and “Cinderella’s Ghost Slipper” speak to the heartbreaking rites of passage of all females. The Cinderella poem in particular will remind readers of your book Kinky. In that one, variations of Barbie; in this one, variations across cultures of the well-known fairy tale. Yet there’s also something wickedly fun about these journeys--at least the way you write about them. How has writing about womanhood changed for you through the ten books you have published? Where are you taking women next?      

 

Thank you!  I am still interested in all kinds of fairytales and dolls—Bratz, American Girl…The landscape has changed a bit since Barbie ruled.  I am currently exploring the idea of the way females are having a longer sexualized “shelf life.”  Girls are becoming coquettish younger and younger and, with the phenomenon of MILFs and cougars, women continue to be objectified beyond menopause.  There is a certain kind of plastic surgery called “baby cheeks” which is frightening in and of itself. Yesterday I was reading about women who eat jars of baby food as a dieting strategy.  These issues both frustrate and fascinate me.  Emily Nussbaum writes this about Madonna in New York magazine: “It’s become taboo to criticize stars for plastic surgery—both because it is their choice and because they have no choice—but each time I glimpse that grinning mask, I wonder why it’s impossible for Madonna, with all her power, her will to shock, to ever stop 'giving good face'?...I feel exhausted just witnessing the effort it must take to maintain this vision of eternal youth.”  These are the kinds of issues that keep me writing.




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