Monday, June 22, 2009

On Denise Duhamel's Wonderful Instruction on How to Make Class Not Only An Issue of Subject Matter, but also a Formal One

I once wrote that some of Denise Duhamel’s poems could be labeled Light Verse. I don't want anyone to think that I saw Duhamel primarily a practitioner of that genre. There would be nothing wrong if she was, but I don’t see her as that. For a poet as prolific and wonderfully comic as Duhamel, I can’t imagine her not experimenting with such a genre. I offered an analysis of one poem “Please Don’t Sit Like a Frog, Sit Like a Queen.” Which I feel shared the characteristics of Light Verse. There are others. But I do ultimately see her as a poet who uses humor as a vehicle to discuss larger political and personal issues.

This post has as a three-fold purpose:

1.) to identify Duhamel as a poet of discursive lyricism (my label)

2.)to discuss Duhamel’s class politics as an attempt to continue the conversation from my last post

3.) to show Duhamel as a poet who uses humor as a vehicle to talk about larger issues rather that simply to entertain. Not that entertainment is undesirable, or missing in Duhamel’s work.


Why choose Duhamel to talk about class over a queer male poet?

Duhamel is more of a gay male poet than most gay male poets

And more supportive of the gay male community than its actual members.

At least two established queer male poet has told me that they feel self-conscious about choosing another gay writer for a book contest winner. One in fact told me that he felt an obligation to deliberately overlook a gay poet because he had just chosen one for another competition. It was the best of the finalists, but he was afraid he’d look like he was advancing an agenda.

As politically active as almost any other popular poet, she doesn't seem to stoop in thinking about such fears. Think about all the gay lives she’s changed (including my own) through her evaluations. Think about all the various aesthetics she’s embraced.

Is there anything more queer than creating so many overlapping dialogues in a poetry community wrecked by predictable factions?


In a good number of her poems, Duhamel deals with class, and I would argue, not simply as subject matter, but perhaps even more crucially as a formal issue.

In a recent on-line interview between Nin Andrews and Denise Duhamel, we see Duhamel describe her childhood as such:

I grew up in Woonsocket, RI during the 60s and 70s. It was a dying mill town at that time. Very working class. There wasn’t a bookstore, but there was a library, which I really loved.

And then even more specifically:

My father was a baker—he finished 8th grade, but then had to quit school to work to help support the family. My mother was a nurse—she was the Valedictorian of her high school class and got a scholarship to college. The guidance counselor told her she had two choices—nurse or schoolteacher. This was 1954. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled about me becoming a writer. They saw my chance to go to college as a chance to make more money than they did, not as a chance for artistic freedom. Still, they accepted my decision. I think my father was proud of me—he died in November of 2008. My mother is too. I think they both wished I’d written less about sex.

I think it would be hard to not justifiably conflate the narrator of the poem “Lucky Me” with Denise Duhamel herself. Even if one disagrees with me on this point, I would defend myself by saying the sheer imaginative breadth of the poem makes one want to believe that the “I” is autobiographical. To the poem’s credit, you want to completely enter the world of Duhamel that you don’t mind transgressing such dogma of literary analysis.

Her most recent and exciting book of poems Ka-Ching boasts the presence of this poem. (Even though I am a huge fan of this collection, my favorite still remains The Star-Spangled Banner.)


Is there anything more annoying than at a public event someone asking: “What do you do?” The phony curiosity is in some ways a dare: Tell me how you justify your existence. Tell me something that will make you respectable in my eyes. Tell me you’re worth of my conversation.

Having been a child of poor parents, I always want to say: I sit on my ass all day long. Which is true. Sitting on your ass all day long is an underrated activity.

In a startling unique way in terms of subject matter and form. Duhamel answers the question: “What do you do?”


Without much or any context, the poem at first seems to absent mindedly jump from its title to its first lines:

For awhile I hated myself for not making it into prose-with movie rights
and screen credits and meetings with stars and walk-on parts.
Maybe, my friend Michael says, I simply wasn’t hungry enough.
But I was famished.
(I’d written two novels for adults and one for teens,
none of which were published with covers, artwork on the front
and blurbs on the back. They never were put on bookshelves
in libraries or stores, never assigned a price or barcode,
never marked down or remaindered. I never signed a copy
or had someone to come up to me and say, Hey I’m in the middle
of your novel-not bad. The titled were Precious Blood, That Song
You know the One about Love, and A Girl’s Best Friend.
Each took me several years to finish. And there was a screenplay
called Headlines, a comedy about a weather girl in New York
and her crazy brother who wants to become famous, but he has no real talent
and is not a murderer or a winning pie-eating contest
so he’s pretty much screwed.

Who can resist Denise’s shamelessness in revealing every comically self-absorbed detail of her struggle with “work?”

But even more importantly, Denise imparts the information with so little pause. The ostensible lack of enjambment defies the conventional tidiness of mainstream, middle-class poetics. Denise will not shut up. She refuses to let shame or self-consciousness stop her from telling a story.

This isn’t in any way to imply that Duhamel doesn’t use the line in more subtle ways.

Yes: I would argue that Denise is strategic in her recklessness. (For my own self-justification, I hope she would attribute such a quality at least in part to her lower-to-middle class background). Her exacting formal choices are considerably underplayed. It always annoys that me that discursive poets are always seen as employing less technical skill. Just look at the line break of the final two lines as well as the artful colloquialisms of this excerpt.

I also don’t like that discursive poetry is seen as less than the lyric or for that even less than more restrained narrative. I’d like to coin the term discursive lyricism. You could put Duhamel happily in this category. Other members of this clan: David Kirby, Steve Orlen, Jason Bredle, Clay Matthew, Josh Bell...)

Through describing every contour of her search for career, she refuses a more measured middle-class response. Since you asked, she seems to be saying, I’ll tell you.

And I'll continue telling. She doesn't show. She tells and tells and then tells so more. Good riddance to the needless creative writing mantra: Show. Don't tell. People from less privileged upbringings don't have time to frame or show. They need to skip the formalities and find out what will keep them going.

This refusal to shut up contributes to the narrative’s richness. If we believe God is in the details, we can ultimately subscribe to polytheism with every fact Duhamel provides:

..I also wrote a few episodes of She TV, a vehicle
for my friend who was a stand-up comic and wanted to be a VJ on Vh1,
but they told her that she didn’t have big enough boobs. She used to joke,
Just tell me who to blow to get this job and I’ll do it...a line I tried to use, too,
but by then I was mostly writing poetry, and the joke fell flat,
the joke teller-me-more pathetic because she was just trying
to get published in tiny literary magazines with print runs of 200
rather than make hundreds of thousands of dollars. I also wrote
a few skits for Wake Up, Jerusalem for another friend who was also trying
to break into comedy or acting. But I didn’t understand enough about Jewish
culture, so my punchlines were a bit off. I was typecast
in real life as the kooky best friend to women who would later go on to play
the kooky best friend in movies...

What’s not visible here but remarkable is that these lines are contained in a 73-line parenthetical expression. Within that parenthetical expression, Denise brackets four lines. Tangent within tangent. What can be scarier to the middle-class than a refusal to offer empty, clear-cut answers? Another disposable soundbite?

Middle-class culture wants you to offer just enough of yourself so that they don't really have to get to know you. That’s where the inherent generosity of Duhamel’s poems emerge. She’s too present. Which is a miraculous thing.

This isn’t at the same time any attempt to romanticize someone from a more humble class background. (I cringe even using the word humble, but what can I do?) The parenthetical expressions, the brackets, the refusal to employ expected enjambment all contribute to the expression of anything but an all-too-familiar middle-to-upper mindful voice, overdetermined to arrange their material in “sensitive ways.”

You could even claim that the parenthetical expression is Denise’s way of teasing herself. She knows she’s blabbering (and we’re happy that she does). She makes a vain effort to use the punctuation as a source of containment. But she knows better, and cheerfully, so do we. The parenthetical marks encourage her to continue even more determinedly, making her discursiveness an unstoppable force.

Discursive lyricism is often cited as privileging the sentence over the line. This is incorrect and annoying. Nothing is more unkind than when a critic says of a poem, “This is prose chopped up into lines.” How dare they! It implies that poets such as Duhamel don’t know the basic unit of poetry. Perhaps a poem can be something else: one uninterrupted line, a hysterical endless breath coming from a voice that won’t stop being heard. In a poetry community that prizes fake modesty, dull reserve Duhamel may be just what we need.

The look of the poem also fights middle-class etiquette. The poem essentially is three pages long, the lines stretch from one side of the page to the other. No stanza breaks. The layout says, Here you go. Here’s a lot of stuff. The columns look like slabs of food from a cheap all-you-can-eat buffets my family used to visit.

Don’t say I’m not giving you anything, Duhamel says with her poem.

This offering of self is one of the most important attributes of discursive lyricism.

When it comes to poetry, less is not necessarily more.

More can be more. And a lot more can be a lot more. Ask Alan Greenspan.


Happy endings are underrated. Here's the closure to Duhamel's poem:

...I remember eating
one particularly delicious lunch at my Bank of America temp desk
soda crackers and seedless grapes
I'd lifted the night before at an event to promote Stepping Out,
a movie starring Liza Minelli. Michael called to say he had two free tickets
to Tracey Ullman's one woman show The Big Love. I'll be there, I said.
But I can't chat right now. It wasn't that my boss wasn't around.
I didn't want to talk because I knew Liza would never read
my revised Pickles script and I didn't want any false hope.
I didn't want to talk because I was happy,
scribbling "Lucky Me," a new poem, on a crumpled Stepping Out party napkin
I'd fished out of the bottom of my Goodwill purse.

Who wouldn't hope that the Goodwill purse, once a sign of being down and out, a meager but sincere attempt at fashion, has now transformed into a classy vintage article, yet another sign, along with her poems, that Duhamel is leading the pack?


  1. "Why choose Duhamel to talk about class over a queer male poet?

    Duhamel is more of a gay male poet than most gay male poets

    And more supportive of the gay male community than its actual members."

    Ha! Yes. I agree.

    I always think of a poem like "eggroll" when I consider her relationship both to class and to social critique--particularly the moment when, while she's literally starving, a thin woman at the gym tells her which fruits have the least amount of calories. Denise doesn't explain why that's asinine. She doesn't have to.

  2. You write: I once wrote that some of Denise Duhamel’s poems could be labeled Light Verse. In an interview with Duhamel, gay poet/blogger Dustin Brookshire misrepresented my comment. He made it seem as if I thought Duhamel was primarily a practitioner of Light Verse.

    Here is my question to Denise: Recently, Steve Fellner (poet and critic) wrote an entry in his blog, Pansy Poetics, analyzing some of your poetry. His blog entry led to a series of great comments from his readers and a discussion on Light Verse in your work. The comments have led me to ask this: What role do you think Light Verse plays in contemporary poetry? (Click here for Steve's post on Denise's work.)

    This question is in my blog as well as posted on the Denise Fan Page. It doesn't state you labeled Denise anything. It DOES state your comments led to a discussion. How did I misrepresent your comment(s)?

    For the record, I only referenced your site and used it for a Denise FB question because I enjoyed your post. (I typically enjoy what I read in your blog.) The comments on your blog made me think to ask Denise about what she thought about Light Verse in contemporary poetry, and I thought by making the question part of the monthly FB fan question series that I might expose your blog to people who have yet to discover it.

    I like to promote other poets and bloggers. I like to start/promote poetic discussions. There was no intent to mispresent you. Sorry you feel that way. I'm simply not that kind of person.

  3. Dustin,

    I made a mistake. It's summer. It's gin and tonic season. Forgive me; I'm a jerk.

    Promote me. I need it. Unlike you, I'm lucky if I get a half dozen hits a day.