In a Time of New Illiteracy an interview with Carol Muske-Dukes
author of Blue Rose, by SoFloPoJo Senoir Editor, Judy Ireland
author of Blue Rose, by SoFloPoJo Senoir Editor, Judy Ireland
Judy Ireland: These poems seem to find their truths in the bodies of women and in the biographies of women (and some men). Some people criticize women poets for focusing so much on the body. What makes the body a place of artistic creation for you?
Carol Muske-Dukes: Your question is insightful, though I am not typically aware of overall "focus" as I write. If I write a poem about a woman who is an artist, for example, like Paula Modersohn Becker, who does indeed focus on women’s bodies – in an attempt to “re-see” them artistically – I will follow that lead. – She is among the first women who re-configured the “gaze” re. The Female Body. As a painter, she moves the eye away from the “traditional” posed nude to a head on depiction of women nursing, pregnant, simply staring into space. This level of inquiry into how we look, intrigues me – whatever the object of the gaze. Women’s bodies, in particular, are often not “seen” until a visual “veil” is pierced by new apprehension.
JI: The poems in this book make me think of a line in your poem, “The Link” where you write about “the linked chain of being”. What do you think is the thread or threads that connect all these poems and the people in them?
CMD: I guess I was referring more to the the Elizabethan "Music of the Spheres" – or a Darwinian notion of the "Chain of Being" – not so much "threads" that connect all poems and people in them. I don’t know what that connective tissue would look like?
All of art is a conversation between the living and the dead. That’s as close as I can get to an answer.
JI: Your poems never turn away from injustice or the grittiness of life, but I also see signs of hope in your poems, and one example is “Seminar: Zebra Fish”. Do you write your way toward hope? Or do you find it in the life you’re observing?
CMD: In "Zebra Fish" - I was attempting to praise young scientists - (as I observed them in a grad lab seminar I visited) – the medical application of their research leads to treatment of terrible diseases in childhood - via discoveries made as the result of lab work. Science gives me hope. But when whole populations turn away from science, I almost despair. We live in a time of new illiteracy, when crazy conspiracy theories arise and are embraced – instead of the "prove-able" hope that science provides.
JI: Images of light and brightness are recurring in your poems in this book where the subject matter is often so heavy. Where does the light come from?
CMD: Not sure how to answer this. Generally, light is a trope of illumination and clarity. Light in art, light in science – and perhaps in my poems functions as a pathway through darkness…
JI: A review of Blue Rose in the Rumpus said that the poems make more sense on a second or third read. I think one could say that about almost any poem. Is there something about these poems themselves that requires a deeper attention or engagement?
CMD: That Rumpus review was one of the best notices the book received. The reviewer really “entered" the poems – spent time with them and returned to read again. I don’t know about the “making sense” idea. As that is a very subjective view. Different readers “read" differently. I don’t like to think that my poems are too easily accessible – Just as I hope they are not overly – obscure. It is a great compliment to note that a poem might require “deeper attention" – as all poems are acts of attention, as D.H. Lawrence said.
Carol Muske-Dukes is a professor at the University of Southern California and a former Poet Laureate of California. She is an author of 9 books of poems - most recent is Blue Rose, which is a 2019 Pulitzer Prize short-list finalist. Earlier books of poems include Twin Cities (2011), Sparrow (2003), from Random House, a Nat. Book Award finalist, and others. She has also published four novels, inc. Channeling Mark Twain from Random House, 2003. She is also an essayist and anthology editor. Her two collections of essays, include Married to the Icepick Killer: a Poet in Hollywood (S.F. Chronicle (Best Book) -- and an anthology of poems, co-edited with Bob Holman - Crossing State Lines: an American Renga (from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) + two children's poetry "handbooks" - The Magical Poetry Blimp Pilot's Guide, 1 & 2. Many of her books have been NY Times Most Notable Books.
She is professor of English/Creative Writing at the University of So. Calif. where she founded the PhD Program in CW/Lit. She completed her term as Poet Laureate of the state of California.
She writes for the NYTimes Book Review & Op Ed, the LA Times (where she was poetry columnist for some years), the Huffington Post, and the New Yorker, Page-Turner on-line, the Wall St. Journal, the Atlantic, etc.
She has been the recipient of many awards & honors, inc. a Guggenheim fellowship, Nat. Endowment for the Arts grant, Library of Congress award, Castagnola Award, Ingram/Merrill, award, etc. Finalist, Nat. Book Award, LA Times Book Prize, etc. She is anthologized widely and published her poems and essays widely as well, from the New Yorker to SLATE to the Atlantic, APR, etc. Also poems in BEST AMERICAN POETRY, 2012 - and the 25th Anniversary edition of BAP.
She is bi-coastal - NY & L.A. - and has completed a play called "I Married the Icepick Killer". Carol has been a professor for many years at USC, but has also taught at Columbia's MFA Program, the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Univ. of Virginia grad MFA, UC Irvine's MFA Program and the New School's MFA."
Her website is www.carolmuskedukes. She has been interviewed by Terry Gross, Michael Silverblatt -- also Morning Edition with Renee Montaigne, "On Point' and interviews (with cover) of Poets & Writers Magazine, the LA Times, L.A. Magazine, etc.
JUDY IRELAND’s poems have appeared in Hotel Amerika, Calyx, Saranac Review, Eclipse, Cold Mountain, Coe Review, and other journals, as well as in two anthologies, the Best Indie Lit New England anthology, and the Voices from the Fierce Intangible World anthology. Her book, Cement Shoes, won the 2013 Sinclair Poetry Prize, and was published in 2014 by Evening Street Press. She is Co-Director for the Performance Poets of the Palm Beaches, as well as a poetry & reading series Editor for the South Florida Poetry Journal. She teaches at Palm Beach State College.
An interview with George Wallace
SoFloPoJo: Tell us how you came to poetry. Give us a bit of bio.
George Wallace: Like many New Yorkers I was raised up in the materially-conscious '50s, child of second-generation immigrants caught in the dizzying confluence of the mundane American experience. We were a family of modest material origins and expectations, a family that held to an idiosyncratic idea of what constituted wealth, creators of our own strange cocktail of high art and low humor, with pronounced assimilationist tendencies and stubbornly persistent old-world dispositions, We had a predeliction for the pleasures of a small garden, french dejeuner and rich conversation under a willow tree at a cheap wrought-iron table in summer, classical music on the radio, and the Sunday New York Times to broaden our vocabulary.
Not that it was a conflict-free upbringing, but for the life of me I cannot recall a voice raised in anger or argument, we spoke in quiet confidence, punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter or delighted surprise. In fact I felt myself to be a child on the edge of cosmopolitanism, rooted in the soil and a citizen of the world.
High hopes were placed on me at home (I was musically precocious by the age of 4, and erroneously considered 'Julliard material'), and I was schooled at the family hearth in Whitman, Saroyan, Chagall and Bach. It was a bricolage of wide and idiosyncratic broadcast -- most everything was considered fair game for examination if it served to broaden an understanding of the human experience in this spiritually alive fabric of the universe we tend to think of as our home.
Like I say, I was a pretty fair performer in certain arts -- classical music, and grade-getting among them. No bets were placed on me, however and few expectations named, beyond finding my own dream and pursuing it -- anything more than that would have been considered unseemly, not to mention bowing to an unacceptable external interference in deciding how one might live.
But the expectation of quiet curiosity and explorative drive was always there, And in fact for much of my childhood I felt I was on such a long leash that I was essentially untethered and let out into the world on the strength of an underlying and unquestioned regime of trust.
How I arranged my affairs and conduct was understood to be my business and supervision of that process an insult to my personhood.
Sound idyllic? I suppose it might have been. I am an old man now and permit myself to look back fondly without descending into vulgar nostalgia. Certainly it would have been even more idyllic if it hadn't been the Eisenhower 50s, which offered a whole lot of nothing to a curious child left to his own devices.
Precious little sacred and a whole lot of mundane. It WAS the 50s, but also the zeitgeist which spawned the counter-cultural beat movement -- and fortunately, the voices and visions of that movement were out there, and they called to me.
In particular, I was taken by the ideas of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with his foundation in inner city 'let-loose-the-fire-plug' chic, his pure and sassy American iconoclastic tendencies, his overlay of European sensibility, and his stubborn insistence that the miraculous in all things is discoverable. All that aligned with the values I had learned at the family table.
Ferlinghetti stated my case and my direction plainly to me. He recalled being a young child 'falling in love with unreality.' He said that he was 'waiting for a rebirth of wonder.' He wasn't too American to admire French poetry but liked the idea of a stray dog pissing on the leg of a policeman. He opened a bookstore modeled on George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and found delight in translating Jacques Prevert.
I was hooked on the package, recognizing myself.
And when he declared that a poet might 'climb on rhyme, risking absurdity and death, to a high-wire of his own making,' I realized for the first time that pursing the art of poetry was a way out of the vise I was in. Ferlinghetti's search for the miraculous, in the spiritually wounded fifties, was my own.
I took up the pen at the age of 17, and I've been writing poetry ever since.
SoFloPoJo: So you were hit pretty hard by the Beats. You were at the right age. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always seemed to think your poetic sensibility has been— I'll call it—Beat-infused? You've hosted or were integral in being part of, and/or presenting Beat events. Orlando, back some years ago?
GW: Well yes, though I'd say that the Beat influence over the years has been something more than a 'stage of life' phenomenon for me, much as I was grappling in late adolescence and early adulthood with your typical post-Holden Caulfield identity issues of self, relationship to society, practical organization and tactics of my personal life and strategic occupation goals. As I 'grew my art' as a writer over the years, I explored a number of aesthetics that happened to intersect anyway with the range of concerns thought of as existing under the wide umbrella of the Beat writers.
As you well know, grouping people whose writing is as diverse as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Snyder, di Prima, Hirschman, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Lamantia, Lew Welch, etc. is a challenging business, perhaps an admission of eclecticism, rather than a declaration of genre or expression of some unitary artistic manifesto. I suppose you could say that most of the people we call Beats today were 'thinking outside the box' in one way or another in the '50s, during an era when the dominant force in American poetry was a kind of Academic Modernism that, for all its vigor and accomplishment, was a pretty narrow window to fit through.
But like I say, when it comes to the Beats themselves, I came upon them over the years as I explored the sources of their aesthetics, not as a matter of 'studying the Beats.' Whitman and Blake led me to Ginsberg, Cendrars and Max Jacob and Apollinaire led me there too. Dada led me to Corso. Surrealists like Breton, Desnos and Prevert led me to Lamantia, political radicalism to Hirschman and di Prima. And a host of 60s-era political, spiritual, and cultural/spiritual influences (South and East Asian, particularly) to Snyder, Welch and McClure respectively.
Then of course there was Kerouac, whose grand novelistic vision was placeable to me in the literary firmament with Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner -- one great opus, in this case a mad outflow of bop prosody and wistful child-like search for celebration, prodigal stories told in the context of interacting with fringe societal outsiders and /or 'decadents,' like Hunke, Burroughs, Orlovsky and eventually Neal Cassady.
As a corollary, i would have to explain that many of the fine individuals were somewhat like literal neighbors to me in a sense, ie locale. Born and bred a New Yorker, the NYC haunts of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso were to an extent my haunts. The childhood recollections of Ferlinghetti, di Prima, Hirschman and other Beats sounded awfully similar to the kind of chatter I would hear at family reunions.
Moreover, having made the San Franciso Bay area my home at several stages in my life, my connection to the left-coast cats is palpable. The railroad yards and supermarkets and fog-swept ocean vistas and narrow canyons of the west coast are no hypotheticals to me, no mere backdrops or exoticisms to the Beat sensibility.
And perhaps most importantly, I would have to explain that beginning in the late 1990s and til about 2005, I was deeply engaged in exploring local history in Huntington and Northport, LI, first as a journalist and later as curator of a local museum. These are locations which figure into the trajectory of Kerouac in particular, but also more peripherally to Ginsberg, Cassady, and Orlovsky. Heck, if this isn't apocrypha, my own big sister was one of those local kids throwing rocks at Jack's Gilbert Street window trying to entice him out for a night of carousing.
All told, I suppose I have doubled down on my affiliation with the Beats to the extent that Lowell Celebrates Kerouac at one point declared me a 'Next Generation Beat' and the annual Beat Festival in Connecticut has me as a 'lifetime beat laureate'.
But the key moment in all this, I'd have to say, occurred in July 2001, when I pulled together the four-city marathon reading of Kerouac's Big Sur -- yes, Orlando was one of those four locations, along with NY, SF and Lowell. It was an amazing congregation, 20 hours of more or less simultaneous reading, and it happened with the help and involvement of Carolyn Cassady and the incredibly warm and discursive Beat ambassador David Amram. That one event effectively launched me into a celebration of the Beat tradition which has continued to this day.
My connection went from being a like-minded poet with certain aesthetic interests that intersected with the Beats, into becoming recognized as a full-blown Beat celebrant. In the past twenty years, and continuing right up to the present, I've traveled and interacted (and more recently zoomed) in Beat circles nationally and internationally -- from Lowell to Orlando, and from Bixby Canyon and San Francisco to Woodstock NY and Paris, France -- cementing my relationship with the writers and the legacy of the Beat era.
SoFloPoJo: You mention Long Island, which brings me to Long Island Quarterly. Tell us about how LIQ came about and when?
GW: I founded LIQ in 1988, a year of major transition for me. Until then I had spent 20 years as a peripatetic world-traveling adult with a somewhat random work history which enabled that existence, and sustained my passion for poetry and cross-cultural experience.
I say somewhat, though by way of background, I suppose it's important to understand that along the way I had woven into being a highly specific underlying approach to how I conducted my business. A fabric not founded on my lit and oral interpretation studies at Syracuse with WD Snodgrass and the like, but around an undergraduate core of anthropology, social psychology, organizational theory (Syracuse) and the Tao Te Ching, followed by formal graduate study in community organizational change (School of Public Health, UNC-Chapel Hill).
Throw into that mix a couple of years of Peace Corps, an admittedly quixotic foray into military medical service, and a motherlode of hippy wanderer epiphanies and misadventures.
If that sounds to you as more like lily-padding than deliberate reinvention, you're not far off. There were triumphs and ruinous disasters along the way. But whether by intuition or design, twenty years as 'that George' laid the groundwork for what happened next.
Which was this. For one reason or another in 1988 I put an end to all that, returned to New York, unpacked my rucksack, and 'came out' fully as a poet and writer. A part of that meant finding work as a writer (my relationship with The Long-Islander and other journalistic 'plug-ins' dates to that year). A part of that meant getting my poetry out there (the first of my chapbooks came out in the UK in '86 and US in '88). And a third part of that meant applying my organizational skills, training and orientation in the service of 'growing' poetry communities, geographically and by interest area.
Like I say, 1988 was the beginning of all that, and for a good decade, my work was primarily regional, the Long Island region. Walt's Corner, the Poetry Barn reading series, radio shows at local college stations, branching out from my base in Huntington/Northport to appearances and affiliations from the Hamptons (Canio's in Sag Harbor and the self- consciously nfamous Westhampton Writers) to the NYC border (SUNY Stony Brook, Long Beach, LIU Post, etc).
And Long Island Quarterly.
There were a few other collectives, reading series organizers, and small press poetry operations across the region at the time, some of them in their latter stages of existence, others which were chugging along effectively enough, producing a few chapbooks, an occasional anthology, or even a yearly journal. The field was far from saturated, though, and little of it as intently regionally-focused as I saw was an important niche in the local literary ecology. A quarterly lit-pub by and for the region's poets could serve a number of purposes, among them cohesiveness and sense of community identity.
So it was that, in 1988, after an unproductive conversation with one of the extant poetry collectives on the scene, that I decided to create Long Island Quarterly. I was blessed from the git-go to have the design help of my wife Peggy, a talented commercial artist; and two very fine co-editors, Patti Tana from western Nassau and R.B. Weber from the Hamptons to the east, Both of them provided the heft and authority of their positions in higher education; their very fine reputations as poets and cooperative spirits was a bonus. I then canvased the poets in the region, formed a list of 125 or so people (for the life of me it's a mystery how I developed that list). Fact is, I pre-sold a first year's worth of LIQs to nearly all of them, and that was the seed money and the Tao that got the publication off the ground.
That was, of course, in the pre-electronic days of hard copy, offset printing and licking untold numbers of envelopes and postage stamps. But I was young, the writers of Long Island were willing, and the incipient community of writers was all for it. It's a testament to Lao Tzu and the community organizing teachings of Guy Stuart at UNC-Chapel Hill that LIQ is still going strong -- albeit once a year and as part of Poetrybay.com, thirty-something years on, with Patti Tana still co-editing along with Suffolk County's Ed Luhrs.
SoFloPoJo: Speaking of Poetrybay, what made you start that up, as opposed to just bringing LIQ to the Internet? I assume it was a chance to broaden the scope? To publish poets not necessarily from just Long Island? To go global?
GW: To me that question is less chicken and egg than it is cart before the horse.
Let's just say that the scope broadened first, on its own and organically, and by the end of the 90s, I was in a position to create a product based on that scope.
Essentially I had graduated from being a regional poet to one whose relationships and reach was -- yes, national, and even to some extent international.
There were several sources from which that reach grew. My connection to the Hamptons scene, for example, and figures like Allen Planz, Budd Schulberg, David Ignatow, and the great and beautiful arts impresario Canio Pavone. All part of it.
At a different level was my affiliation with the Paris Cafe crowd in Huntington, led by Steve Borthwick and some others, which brought prominent slam and performance poets like Regie Cabico, Bob Holman and Emily XYZ into the scene.
But most fundamentally, it was as a reporter for the Long-Islander that my scope broadened.
Through the 1990s I was still doing the yeoman work of a local reporter, writing a dozen or more articles a week, pulling all-nighters at contentious town board hearings, racing to the scene of housefires and exploding oil rigs, attending retirement dinners and political rallies, and standing on the sidelines of high school football fields in the mud, ice, sleet and fierce cursing. Heck, I used to get up at 4 am every Thursday and drive a truckload of bundled papers to local post offices, drive to 34 outlets that carried the paper -- all bleary-eyed morning, stationery stores, delis, etc. By 11 a.m. I was covered head to foot in newsprint like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, pockets bulging with quarters as I rolled into the weekly editorial meeting.
But increasingly I was seen as the 'arts guy,' covering local musical concerts, theatrical shows and art openings. Some of them quite grassroots and modest, others bringing in talent of national scope. Performing artists of some national fame have always circulated through certain Long Island jazz clubs and concert halls, and a number of the region's museums have long mounted shows that rival any of the best one might find in Manhattan or any major metropolitan area of the country.
NYC venues too, I was in Manhattan a lot. That was often our turf as a parcel of the greater NYC scene. I was backstage or in limos with some excellent people. Patti Lupone, for example. Mose Allison, who had a home base of operations down the road in Smithtown. Grant Hart. Levon Helm.
I suppose I could name-drop excellent folks I connected with all day. All day I could do it, it would be dizzying. Some very cool people I have gotten to know beyond the basic 'interview and run' thing -- Richard Thompson. Peter Max. Larry Rivers. Eric Andersen. Vivenne della Chiesa. Aldo Tambellini. Stanley Twardowicz. Wavy Gravy. Boris Lurie. Donovan.
That goes for poets, who showed up as guest speakers at LIU, Hofstra, Stony Brook, SUNY Farmingdale, and other university series; or at 'poetry on the vine' summer readings on the North Fork, or at one or another of the au courant Hamptons venues.
Of great moment in this respect were the relationships that grew out of my annual interview with the Poet in Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, with which the newspaper had a 'special relationship,' seeing as how Walt founded our paper, hitched up his wagon every week in 1838 and delivered it in all weather across what are now Huntington and Babylon townships.
Poets? Bly. Kunitz. Yevtushenko. Olds. Stafford. Rich. Wakoski. Kinnell. Bill Heyen. Samuel Manashe. Marge Piercy. Paul Muldoon. Allen Ginsberg. Hayden Carruth. Virgil Suarez. CK Williams. Michael Benedikt. Philip Appleman. Cornelius Eady. Ray Patterson. Marvin Bell.
Like I say. Dizzying.
Everything I attended became fodder for an arts and entertainment article in the local paper. And due to some unnatural talent I have (and cannot catch in a bottle) for exercising sympatico and developing rapport and confidence as an interviewer, it also became an opportunity for me to strike up relationships of good will and further intent, sometimes of quite long duration, with many great American poets and performers on the circuit during the 90s.
How does all this pertain to Poetrybay? Only to say that by the year 2000, just at the dawn of the era when the age of internet lit-pubs was taking off, I was primed at the pump with connections and relationships with which to launch.
It was never my approach to chase the world's poets and broaden the scope of Poetrybay. That would have been putting the cart before the horse. My world as a poet had grown in significant ways from its local base into a national thing, all I did was respond, creating a product that could give an outlet for that.
The result speaks for itself. Poetrybay enters its third decade as a highly respected publication, one of a handful of on-line literary publications collected by Stanford University for distribution through its international 'shadow' linkage, the LOCKSS system. It's something I'm very proud of, and it speaks to the solid marketing strategy that went into its initial design and continues as its central strategy in 2022.
SoFloPoJo: You've edited an anthology, NYC From the Inside. Tell us about how that came about, and who's in it. (Check out a review of NYC From the Inside by SoFloPoJo's Senior Editor, Judy Ireland)
GW: To talk about NYC FROM THE INSIDE, we need to fast forward through a lot -- twenty years expanding the boundaries of my expressive art and my work in support of communities of poets beyond my initial geographic perimeters. This was something facilitated in no small measure by the rapidly expanding networking possibilities of the worldwide web and social media platforms (yes I was a MySpace poet, swapping poems with Scott Wannberg and Puma Perl), plus an ability to juggle the time and monetary expenses of traveling by air and rail.
But more importantly, it was consistent with my belief in the 'little d' democratic principle that innovation and human accomplishment is best achieved through a 'bottom up' approach, rather than through some authoritarian, elitist 'top down' approach. Think barefoot doctors, bottom-up regeneration. All this based again in Taoism and principles learned at Chapel Hill sitting at the foot of South-African community organizing guru Guy Stuart. Well-known principles of empowerment, community competence, active participation, and 'starting where the people are.'
Or, as Lao Tzu put it, 'when the Taoist leader is done with his work, the people say they did it themselves.'
I should name several places around the country where I developed some long-lasting and productive relationships, sometimes with enduring results. Oklahoma comes to mind, immediately -- through an initial visit to OK Laureate Carol Hamilton and other poets in Oklahoma City, but my engagement evolved into becoming co-founders of the Woody Guthrie Poets, and their annual appearance at the Guthrie Festival in Okemah.
In your neck of the woods, Florida, you will recall my visit with the Hannah Kahn Foundation, but also I had enriching exchanges with a Key West writers group and with the Kerouac House in Orlando.
But the spread has been wide, follow the ripples in the pond.
Nationally, I visited with a terrific bunch in 'Deep' Cleveland several times, to celebrate Kenneth Patchen, da levy, Dan Thompson and other regional poetry luminaries. Al Ortolani introduced me into the Kansas City scene, centered at Prospero's books. In the Southwest, communities of writers in Taos and Albuqurque. In Texas, Dallas, and the San Antonio/LRGV vortex. On the west coast, poetry groups from Humboldt county in the north to Central Coast and Beyond Baroque in Venice Beach, not to mention Monterey, Santa Cruz, and the SF Bay area. Closer to home, poetry groups in Kingston, Beacon, and especially Woodstock took me upriver on numerous exchanges.
And internationally, my engagement with poetry communities in several locations in the UK (Bolton, Suffolk, Cumbria, Cornwall) have been strong. So too, for starters. groups of poets in Italy, Greece and the Balkan states.
In all these situations, I felt it was my role to avoid being a mere 'helicopter poet,' dropping in to lay down my thing and move on. I was there to listen, to share, and to do my small part as circumstances presented themselves to hopes that I might help the community of writers grow.
That's a long way around, I suppose, but it leads me to my engagement in New York City, and to your question about the anthology NYC FROM THE INSIDE.
To be honest, my first foray into New York City was with a group of activists recruiting the toughest local kids to take on a 'community graffiti' project in some neighborhood or other in NYC. Not only was this effort empowering, but it led to some wonderful mural-making... murals that nobody would ever dare deface. But when it comes to poetry, it was through the auspices of people like David Amram, Bob Holman, Maureen Holm, Jane Ormerod, Kat Georges/Peter Carlaftes, and a few key others, that I made the jump across the river from Long Island -- where I had since become writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthpace (2011-22 and counting) and into Manhattan. Donald Lev. Alexei Dayan. Jackie Sheeler. Brant Lyon. Some of them still moving and shaking, a lot of cats lost to us now but so important back in the day. It was these people who first welcomed me to the performance scene and small presses in lower Manhattan. First as a reader, later as host of regular events at the Bowery Poetry Club, Cornelia Street Cafe, Jujomukti Lounge, the Parkside Lounge. But also, as co-editor at Great Weather for Media, with its exceptional team of editors pulling together cutting edge poetry and prose annually.
It has long been said that NYC is a city of villages, and that goes for poetry too. There are islands of poetry community across Manhattan and into the boroughs, discrete in many respects but often with intersections. University poets. 92nd St Y poets. Slam poets. Nuyorican poets. Cave Canem poets. Hobo poets and language poets and LGBQT poets and Brooklyn poets. Poetry Project poets and fifth generation New York School poets. Punk poets Shock poets Fluxus Poets. Poets so in-your-face I don't think I want to say anything more about it.
I would hate to have to do a Venn diagram for all the different pockets and groups of poets in New York City, anyhow by the time I got one done, things will have changed.
As you might expect, over the years there are some circles I have traveled in more than others, but in my own way and by disposition, not to mention in my capacity wearing any number of hats, I have become engaged with individuals and elements in most of them.
All this, once again by way of background, to explain that when Diane Frank and Bluelight Press came out with Fog And Light, a very nice 'love letter to San Francisco' in early 2021 I was graciously invited to chip in a poem. Me being me, I additionally suggested the idea of doing something similar for New York City.
Diane gave me the nod, passed the baton for the project on to me, and 12 painstaking gestational months later, the book's been delivered into the world.
It's a thing of some scope and heft, I truly believe a landmark in poetry for NYC in our times -- 179 poets, 360 pps. Famous poets. Pulitzer Prize winning poets. Stage-shaking poets, stage-shy poets, unknown poets and poets whose names are as close to being household names in America as a poet get. In sum, worthy testament to the covert power of a great city's poets to define the terms and temper of its times.
NYC THROUGH THE INSIDE -- I encourage your readers to score a copy for themselves, they'll see what I mean.
20 Questions with Denise Duhamel
Photo by Denise Duhamel of a church van announcing the apocalypse,
taken during the pandemic. Margaritaville was closed due to Covid.
David Trinidad: What is your first memory?
Denise Duhamel: Trying to get my sister (who is one
year and four days younger than I am) out of her crib.
She was standing up, holding on to the bars, like a jailed
toddler. I, a toddler myself, thought I could squeeze her
through. My guess is I was two and she was one.
David: Can you describe your childhood landscape?
Denise: I was born weighing eight pounds with lungs
full of fluid. I was put in an incubator with a row of
mostly preemies. My dad liked to tell this story. As
relatives lined up to scan the row of at-risk infants,
they gasped when they saw me—as I was at least double
the size of the others. I guess that beginning colored
my childhood. I was always sticking out one way or
another. I was never going to easily blend in.
I had severe asthma so there were lots of doctors and hospitals. But there was
also hilarity—my Grammy and Aunt Shirley were both great joke tellers. My
mom and dad too. My dad was a baker and my mom was a nurse. They both
wore white to work.
David: The centerpiece of your new book, Second Story, is a terza rima epic, “Terza Irma,”
about your experiences during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Not only do you follow the
rhyme scheme to a tee, but each line, as far as I can tell, is nine syllables. What was it like
to sustain such a strict form?
Denise: It was so helpful to have Dante as my guide, though my hell was of a watery (not
a fiery) kind. I’d kept a notebook during the evacuation, the destruction, and the
long cleanup. When I went back to the notebook, I was sure I would find kernels
of prose poems. Instead I found terror-filled rants and blathering—not much
really that sounded like poetry except a few good images and the dates I could
use as time stamps. I’m glad now that I wrote down the dates as these helped
me reconstruct each day. The poem (26 pages!) took a year to complete. I had
never worked so strictly before, but I loved the painstaking line-making. It was
slow and hard. I got into the music of the poem. It was a lot like rebuilding after
David: Second Story also includes some beautiful elegies to your father. Are you able to write
about loss as soon as it happens, or do you need time before you can address it in your
Denise: Thank you, David! It took me a few years to be able to write about the loss of my
father, though I did write a collaborative eulogy with my niece for his funeral.
We used Joe Brainard (and yours!) “I remember….” poems as our guide. My
niece and I alternated lines, hers from a granddaughter’s point of view and mine
from a daughter’s.
My mother passed this summer and I couldn’t write a eulogy— my niece did it
on her own this time. But I have been writing poems about my mom nonstop
ever since. I’m not sure why I responded differently—maybe because my dad
died suddenly and my mom’s illness and death was much more drawn out.
When I divorced (the other great loss) I wrote about it as it was happening—as a
way to get through it.
David: In a similar vein, is there anything that’s so personal or painful you’ve never been
able to write about it?
Denise: So far, I have been able to write about pretty much everything. Sometimes
when I feel scared to put something down on paper, I write “I’m afraid to write this
but…” then I can write what I need to. I can always shred the pages or save
them for later when I feel ready to dive in. There are finished poems I have
chosen not to send out for publication, but they are very few.
David: I recently read these lines in John Wieners’ poem “The Cut”: “Why is it a major poet
seems impossible / to write about, while the ingratiating success yields / odes of dazzling
elegy & national award.” Do you think there’s any truth to this sentiment?
Denise: In an interview, John Wieners confessed, “I try to write the most embarrassing
thing I can think of.” My confession is that I am pretty embarrassed that I care so
much about success and awards. It’s humiliating and undignified. My “higher
self “ cares only about the poems—mine and the poems of others that have
meant so much to me. But, if I let it, my id runs wild screaming “Why not me?”
Or “Why not my friend X instead of this guy named Y?” So yes, I do think there
is truth in these lines of “The Cut.”
David: How has the pandemic affected your writing?
Denise: It slowed me down at first. I was simply in survival mode. My mom went into a
nursing home in Rhode Island in late December 2019. (I know—what bad
timing!) I had promised I’d fly in from Florida to visit her once a month. Then
everything shut down and she couldn’t have visitors. Her nursing home was
devastated by Covid with many deaths—my sister and I would get a terrifying
weekly update of the cases. I still have pretty bad asthma so I was also scared to
get the virus. It wasn’t until Tupelo Press invited me to write a portfolio for Four
Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic that I sprang into (writing) action. I was grateful
for the “prompt” as I wrote well beyond those twenty pages.
David: I’m sorry these questions have been so serious. What gives you pleasure or joy?
Denise: Poetry is serious business! Or seriously fun business. I love walking and try to
take a 90-minute walk every day. I have no expectations for my walk, only the
walking. And I absolutely love dancing! I wish there were more
intergenerational places to dance. One of the reasons I love to go weddings is to
hit the dance floor.
David: What was the last dream you remembered?
Denise: I came out of the supermarket and saw my car being towed. As I started to run
towards the tow truck, the shopping cart pulled me along, helping me to run
faster. Then I was in the shopping cart, driving it, as though it was my car.
David: You seem utterly free to be yourself in your poems. Was this difficult to achieve?
Denise: It was at first, but not now. I remember one of the first short stories I wrote as an
undergrad was about a girl who had a beloved horse. It made no sense. My
teacher asked, “What do you know about horses?” Of course, I knew nothing. I
grew up in a working class family, in a dying mill town. Plus I was allergic to
horses! The teacher said I should write about something I know so I wrote about
my experiences as a fourth-grader in a children’s hospital. I was able to take that
advice and hold it close when I started writing my poems.
David: You also seem to have no problem voicing your political opinions in your work.
What is the value in writing overtly political poems, and does it matter if they might
not have lasting power?
Denise: I think it’s important (for me at least) to have politics in my poems--the personal
is political as Adrienne Rich said. But even beyond that, I want my poems to
demonstrate I was alive at a certain time and I didn’t have my head in the sand.
Other poets get their time and politics in too, some more obliquely than others. I
guess I want my readers to know that I also engaged with the larger world. As to
“lasting power,” who knows? My colleague and friend Campbell McGrath
points out that even the most famous poets are best known for two or three
poems tops. It kind of takes the pressure off when I think of it that way.
David: Which book have you read the most times?
Denise: The Catcher in the Rye. I reread it every summer for at least a decade.
David: Which movie have you seen the most times?
Denise: The Wizard of Oz.
David: You frequently work in poetic form. What makes you decide that a poem needs to be a
sestina, a pantoum, a villanelle, or some other form?
Denise: I think of traditional forms as a way of building a poem. If I need help with the
scaffolding, if I’m not following a free-write or automatic writing session to a
satisfying conclusion, these forms are invaluable. This sounds kind of witchy,
but I’ll say it anyway—when I am not sure what I am supposed to “say” next, a
formal structure is like a planchette on a Ouija board helping me discover the
David: In the past you’ve expressed your appreciation for Edward Field. Can you talk a little
about his poems and what they’ve meant to you?
Denise: Variety Photoplays is one of my favorite books! I read it first, before Stand Up,
Friend, With Me. Edward Field is one of the funniest poets ever and also one of
the most devastating in terms of truth-telling. His use of pop culture is never
flimsy and always tender. I was lucky enough to meet him when I lived in New
York City. I was teaching composition and telling him what a horrible time I was
having with students who were writing five paragraph essays about their
favorite seasons. Not only was I correcting grammar, but I was falling asleep
because of the deadening subject matter. He suggested I have them write
“Things I Could Never Tell My Mother” and at least I’d be reading something
interesting. It was a brilliant idea! I wrote a poem of my own poem with that
title and had my students write essays with that title. It was the first time I
understood what a prompt was. When I went to graduate school, we didn’t use
them. I was hooked.
David: Which poets do you turn to most often—for enjoyment, solace, inspiration?
Denise: You! (Don’t blush.) Ai, Jan Beatty, Terrance Hayes, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds,
Maureen Seaton, Tim Seibles, and Patricia Smith. There are many others, too, of
course. I’m afraid if I make the list any longer, I’ll leave more and more people
David: Can you describe your most unpleasant encounter with another poet?
Denise: Yes. I was sexually harassed as a grad student. He was a famous poet. Very
scary. Very yucky.
David: Which of your poems is your favorite, and why?
Denise: I think it may be “Playa Naturista.” The poem originally appeared in The Star-
Spangled Banner and was reprinted in Queen for a Day. I pick this poem because
so many of my earlier poems are about what used to be called “body issues.”
“Playa Naturista” is about body acceptance and the glory of the body. This poem
was some kind of turning point for me.
David: Can you tell me something you’ve never told anyone else?
Denise: I once ate half a sleeve of Pillsbury raw sugar cookie dough when housesitting
for a friend. Then I walked the streets trying to replace it. For some reason
(maybe it was near Christmas?) there was no sugar cookie dough to be found! I
finally just bought another flavor (chocolate chip) and put it back in her fridge.
I was in my twenties and so was she. She never noticed. Or if she
noticed, she was too polite to say anything.
David: Is there anything you wish I would ask you?
Denise: No, David. This has been fantastic—and I have probably already revealed too
Denise Duhamel’s latest book is Second Story (University of Pittsburgh Press,
2021). She lives in Hollywood, Florida.
David Trinidad’s latest book is Coteries and Gossip: Naropa Diary, June 13-20, 2010
(The Lettered Streets Press, 2019). He lives in Chicago, Illinois.