Ivy Alvarez Interviews Denise Duhamel

23 March 2005

The first time I met Nick Carbó and Denise Duhamel was, by chance, in a setting appropriately domestic: the laundrette. I left them to their spin cycle and drip dry, but not before arranging to interview them (separately) in their temporary digs at Trinity College, Dublin.

Denise Duhamel is a past winner of an National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and has been anthologized widely, including four volumes of The Best American Poetry (2000, 1998, 1994, and 1993). She was educated at Emerson College (BFA) and Sarah Lawrence College (MFA). Duhamel teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood, Florida, with her husband, Nick Carbó

Ivy: I remember interviewing Michele Roberts once, and she happened to look down and said, 'Shouldn't your tape recorder be running?' It was off.

Denise: Oh, no!

But that'll be the reason why I'll keep checking to see if it's still recording us. When did you start writing poetry?

Good question. I started writing poetry when I was about 10. And I didn't know it was poetry at the time. I had a very limited education in poetry as a child, but I was always reading novels and things like that.

I had a pretty debilitating disease as a child. I was asthmatic, so I was in the hospital a lot. So I was there, with my books, with my crayons, with my pens and paper.

Around 10, I started writing novels, or what I thought were novels. I would paste them together, draw the covers – I literally made them. And as time went on, I started writing little vignettes. Not so much poems, exactly, although later, when I looked back, they were poems. They weren't good poems, obviously, but they were little, small, free verse poems.

So I would say around 10. And when I was in college, I probably really stuck to poetry and stayed. But before that, I thought I wanted to be a prose writer.

What prompted you to persevere with writing poetry?

Well, it was actually Kathleen Spivack; she is a contemporary poet, still alive. She is living in Paris. She was the first contemporary poet I ever read. I had no idea that poets were even alive.

You know how you were saying about the dead white male thing [*when I read at Trinity College, I told the class that I grew up thinking, from studies at school, that all poets were dead white males] and then I thought, Well, I'd never read a live poet, so people used to write poetry in the old days, whenever that was, and then now they don't, obviously. Now, all I see around me are novels, or short stories, or articles. So they don't any more. And I really have it in my head, up until maybe when I was sophomore in college, and I just found her book in a bargain bin, actually, and it was called The Jane Poems (Doubleday, 1973), and it was like 79c or something, and this was in 1979, and I bought it. And it blew me away. It has a persona, named Jane, all the way through, actually has an abortion, and then talks about how she feels, about her abortion, blablabla … I think it spans maybe a year's time, and the poems are tiny, maybe eight or ten lines each, free verse. And that's when I thought: wait, I've been writing these my whole life. Crappy ones, but I've been writing them. I had that impulse but I didn't have any models.

After that, I just remember asking my English teacher, ‘Are there any books, do you think, where people are alive?' I mean, literally, basic questions about anthologies … And then shortly after, I fell in love with Dylan Thomas's poetry and went to Wales, and studied there. Even though he was already dead, his voice sounded contemporary enough to me that I could grasp on, sort of like with you and Sylvia Plath. Even though she was dead when you first read her, probably, it was enough to hold on to. And after that, I sort of ran with it.

And did you get a lot of encouragement with your writing?

No! No, actually. Oddly enough – [laughs] No, that's not true. I grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, which is a really small town in Rhode Island, so I came from a working class background. So when the time came for me to go to college, even though I was a good high school student, I was just farmed out to the big university, because it was really cheap, and everyone went there, you know.

So they didn't have any creative writing there at all, but I did have that one teacher who basically, when I started asking about poetry, she said, ‘You're at the wrong school completely.' It was at a big state school, where the major was engineering?it was not so strong in the liberal arts. I transferred to Emerson College, which was in Boston, and there was a writing program there. And then I actually did start to get encouragement.

I didn't win prizes. I wasn't the star student, by any stretch of the imagination, but I just kept going. Something in me just made me want to go. And then after that I went to graduate school for an MFA in writing. It took me a really long time. And then after I graduated in '87 – I mean, my first book wasn't published until '93. It was a long, slow road, but somehow I just really loved it, even though I wasn't getting a lot of external like, ‘you go, girl!', I just went anyway. [laughs]

So what would you say is an enemy to the writing poetry, or to poetry itself?

I think our society is set up as so anti-poetry. Corporations, having to make a living – Having to make a living is really the hardest – I mean, that's really anti-poetry, or the enemy of poetry.

I don't think all poets feel this way, but I really think if I never worked another day in my life, teaching or in a bookstore, or whatever, I'd be so happy. [laughs] And I actually have these retirement fantasies, now that I'm getting older, I just think, okay, I'm 43; in 20 years, I'll retire. Who knows, I probably can't retire because the economy is so bad, but I just think I would spend my days, writing, just writing. If it were not poetry, I would interview people, or review books, or write essays.

So I just think that day-to-day, having-to-make-a-living … Although, even as I'm saying that, I think, well, sometimes poetry comes of that. Obviously you have to go out into the world to get experiences to write about. But on the other hand – [laughs] – you can get that without working a drudgery-job. Because I think one of the big enemies is just having to work, which I know sounds really awful but it's true.

The culture at large, perhaps: the movies, TV culture. Fast culture, pop culture? Even though I write a lot about pop culture in my own work, I feel like it is sort of anti-poetry. It reduces things to a commodity, where poetry does not.

I mean, the joy of writing poetry and the freedom of writing poetry is that no one wants it, so that you can write whatever you want. You know, Coke or Pfizer is not going to say, well, we have to censor that part. The joy is you can do anything you want because so few people are “listening”. And then that is also the inherent sadness of poetry, that you have tiny audiences and are marginalised. But I think there's a freedom to writing poetry that's really great, that it's not a commodity.

I mean if we could make a million dollars from a poetry book, imagine the horror – I mean, it would, like, be the worst poets would win? [laughs]

It's really arbitrary what we decide to value. I mean, what if we did value thought and creativity, you know what I mean? We would be in a mansion right now. [laughs]

Superstars! You two could be the David and Victoria Beckham of poetry.


So, what does the word domestic conjure up for you?

It's a soft, lovely word. I think of domestic bliss – you know, Nick and I have been married twelve years, which is incredible for any marriage, but a marriage of two poets, which is obviously a really difficult way to live. So I think there's that comfort that comes from being in a domestic relationship, and day-to-day living, having someone to share your life with, and everything?

But then there's also the domestic horror of housework. I think I'm just anti-work. It's funny because I grew up in a working-class home, where it was like, you know, very important to work and that's what you're based on, and it didn't matter if you were getting paid two cents an hour, you did your job really well and you took pride in how you did your job. I mean, I still have all that, but I think I've displaced all my working-class values onto my poetry, rather than onto the real world – it's very strange.

Do you find that working together, side-by-side, in the same space, that you've developed this way of coping where you can shut off from the domestic to your writing side?

Yes, that's a very good question. Nick and I travel a lot, so to get – we have separate writing spaces in the house. I mean, we don't have a large place, but Nick's writing room is half of our bedroom, and then I have another little office on the side, so we actually do have separate places to go, but I find just the phone, the mail, ratatata – I get distracted very easily. Maybe Nick less so, but I really need complete quiet, and the whole works. So usually during the summer, we try to do a residency, like MacDowell or Yaddo in the States, or we've been to Civitella Ranieri in Italy. We usually try really hard to get away from our routine, and then, when we go, we're given separate places to write. And being in separate buildings, I mean it's really a treat.

And then also, everything's taken care of, you don't have to worry about who's going to cook dinner because, oh, guess what – Dinner's cooked for you. Really, it's such a gift to the writer because you realise how much of your day is spent [thinking], ‘uh oh, what are we going to cook for dinner, we're going to have to go to the store to get it, someone has to cook it, and I'll do the dishes, blablabla … ' It just eats up your whole day, and for some poets, I think that feeds their writing. I know writers say that ‘oh, just chopping, the rhythm of chopping' feeds into their work, but for me, it does not. [laughs] It just aggravates me!

Just to mention my experience of that, when I got this grant to go to the Blue Mountains in Australia, it was for four days, but I paid for an extra two or three days after it had finished, and it was such bliss! You just don't have to worry about food or anything. It was just about concentrating on your work, and I was in an environment where other people who were writing, and I was just there to create, and I just felt so valued.

I know, I know! I totally agree! I remember the first time going to my first residency, and just curling up on the bed and sobbing, like someone was going to let me write. [laughs] And I was getting all superstitious. Like, ‘uh-oh, the phone's going to ring, and there's going to be an emergency at home, and I'm going to have to leave – ' Like it took me so long to just even accept it.

But now I just embrace it. I mean, I don't take it for granted, because I know how hard they are to get in to, but I just try so hard to get to do something like that, because I think it really sustains the writing.

You are in one of those situations where your partner is also writing poetry, so what do you do to make sure your domestic environment is also conducive to writing poetry? Do you have separate writing spaces?

We just have a certain signals, I think, where I would know – I mean, right now, I know Nick [who's staring intently at his laptop screen] is not writing a poem. I can tell by the look on his face at the computer. There is a look – I mean, you've probably never seen it on yourself, but you just feel it, on your face. Your face kinda goes blank. It looks like a different face almost. So if I see that face, for example, I would never interrupt. And Nick does the same with me. Because we're both writers we know not to enter that space. And when I think we also have each other to show our work to (I mean, not that we really critique each other's work so much as to say, ‘where should I send this?' or ‘do you think this is finished?'), having that harmony works really well.

Unfortunately, you both have high-pressure jobs, so it's not as though we do do a lot of writing at home. As I'm saying this, I realise that a lot of our writing is taking place over the summer.

However, I've done that where I'm working on a big collage poem and I don't care if I'm teaching and I just let everything slide and I'm just working on the poem, and Nick will just completely leave me alone. Or like, say, I'm working and he'll just put food down so that I don't have to get up and think about it. And vice-versa: I'll do that to Nick. So, we try to support each other that way, as much as we can.

So do you think you have a common domestic enemy, like washing mould?

Oh, yeah like mould and mildew. I think housework is our common domestic enemy – neither of us wants to do it! We're against the dust: ‘oh, please don't form!' [laughs] It can just wreck the domestic bliss, where you have to start thinking about that. Obviously, we're adults and we do have to do it, but still, you know, chores.

I don't think we have any big, outside enemy coming towards us, not that I can think of off-hand. Just the stuff that wears you down… My mom used to say, she can handle the crisis, a big family crisis, she would step in, but then you know, we'd leave something in the sink, and she'd go wild! The little things that just kinda get to you – it's funny.

Do you have an ideal reader? Are you each other's ideal reader?

That's a really good question. I don't know. I think I've always pictured my reader as female. I don't know why. I think because that first pivotal book that I'd read, The Jane Poems by Kathleen Spivack, was written by a woman and it was very woman-centric, looking at the body and abortion… about relationships with a man, who would've been the father of the aborted child. I've always thought in terms of a woman, actually, as the ideal reader, although, of course, I welcome readers from anywhere. [laughs]

I feel that my voice is trying to speak to another woman. But of course Nick is an ideal reader because he values my work, and so he'll help me in whatever way he can, and I'm the same way with his work. I think sometimes if you have a reader who already likes what you're doing and accepts what you're doing, they're much more able to help than someone who's not crazy about your work anyway, and they try and steer you in a different direction – whereas I just want Nick to be more Nick, to get as much Nick as he can be. I think he's the same for me: he's really encouraging. If he wrote short poems and I wrote long poems, he wouldn't say, oh, shorten this. He would just go with whatever.

Do you find that you want to please this ideal reader? Entertain them? Or just share?

I do value humour in poetry. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I really enjoy a poem that will play with something, or have a joke in the middle, or word play. I do enjoy that. But I think the idea of sharing – the more personal I get, the more universal it becomes, which is a paradox. Completely. It doesn't make any sense. I feel like the more I tell these really off-the-wall secrets, that's when people go, ‘yeah, I've had that, too'. But when I try to be lofty, I just get: ‘huh?' So I just say, ‘I do this', and they go, ‘I do that, too'. You think you're the only person in the world who does it, and I think that connection is really incredible.

And I think that the other thing I like to do is value or talk about – and this comes from reading Sharon Olds and loving her, and also Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton – is to tackle the taboo. Because I think that, even though poetry is about language, I also think subject matter can really infuse the poem. So I'm very interested in that. Writing what hasn't been written about, or that's been alluded to, and just saying it, which is harder than it looks, I find. It takes a lot to build up the courage, or to even know what you want to say, oddly enough.

I think there is that difficulty of articulating what you yourself find difficult to articulate.

That's true!

I mean, you might have your own taboos? Or, I don't know whether you'd agree with this, but there might be somebody else who can't articulate what they're thinking.

I totally agree. It happens more often in poetry than in prose, although it does happen in prose, where I read someone and go, ‘That's exactly it!', but I wasn't able to say it. But when they say, I was able to recognise it completely as formed, as what I'd already thought but couldn't put into words.

What do you think of your partner's talent? How would you, or would you, compare your own talent to theirs – It's a tricky subject, literary couples – Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

It's awful because the tendency is to go, one's better than the other, and what I think is interesting for Nick and me – and that is why I think I'm not Nick's ideal reader, nor is he mine. I believe that we have audiences that overlap, certainly. But I think Nick's main audience might be the Asian-American community. I mean, bigger than that, certainly. But I think the people who really plug in to Nick's work are from the Asian diaspora. Or maybe people of colour? He seems to attract a lot of readers from other places, and also Caucasian – middle America. I think he's found this really strong base of people.

I feel my base would be with women, so while yeah, again there are people who overlap, they're not … where I feel like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had the same exact audience, so that then it was easy to say, ‘They're doing similar things,' which they weren't. They're kinda lumped together because they were lumped together. [laughs] They're both trying to deal with confessional poetry. You're drawing these false comparisons.

I think this is how we've maintained harmony, too. I don't feel any competition with Nick, funnily enough, whereas I do actually feel poetry is fairly competitive, and I do think, ‘oh, I didn't get in this magazine, but X did', or whatever. Or ‘I didn't get this grant, but Y did'. But for Nick and I, there's a few magazines that publish both of us, but by and large, we're published by separate magazines. It's very interesting how that happens. Maybe if Nick were married to someone who was writing to the same audience, or if I was married to someone who was writing to the same audience? do you know what I mean? It's interesting.

Ted Hughes's star shot so high from the very beginning, whereas Plath's fame didn't really happen till after she died. And it's only after years have passed that people begin to ask the question of ‘where does the current of influence run between them?' People say that ‘oh, Ted influenced Sylvia, of course' because he was famous first, but everybody seems to discount the idea that Sylvia could have influenced Ted.

Absolutely. Absolutely. Because he was reading all her work, whether it was published or not, it doesn't matter, you know. He was her reader. Very interesting.

I think it's a typical male-female role, too – although it's kinda creepy and awful. But we're aware enough to try and avoid that.

Do you share themes or subject matter, or is your work totally separate from each other?

That's interesting because I would say we were both political poets. And our politics are really similar – we're pretty much on the same page. And yet, the poems – again, since mine are mostly centered on women … Though Nick has a few poems centered on women as well.

Read part 2 of this interview, with Nick Carbó.

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Ivy Alvarez

About Ivy Alvarez

Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (2006), and Disturbance (Seren, 2013), which was written with the support of Literature Wales and the Australia Council for the Arts. Her poems feature in anthologies, journals and new media in many countries and online, with several translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. She is the recipient of several awards, prizes and residencies. Born in Manila and raised in Hobart, she has lived in Cardiff, Wales since 2004.


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