Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Denise Duhamel and Dustin Brookshire's Corrective to Steven Schroeder's Somewhat Tongue-In-Cheek, Somewhat Cynical Assessment of PoBiz

Po-Biz is what keeps me writing. Before I read any of the poems in a literary magazine (and I subscribe to at least a dozen), I turn to the contributors’ notes and see who won a big prize. Always I read their work first. I like being told who’s important, who doesn’t? Isn’t that one of the wonders of AWP: you gawk at the people who matter. And for those of us who don't, there’s fun in being invisible.

About a century ago, my partner and I were Breadloaf waiters. In all seriousness, it was one of the best community experiences I’ve ever had. There were only two things that were disappointing: people were not snobby (I’m a masochist), and there weren’t enough sluts.

I tried to make a bargain with my fellowship-facilitator. In exchange for my individual conference, I wanted a lapdance for my partner.

He didn't tell me how much of a genius I was or give my partner a cheap thrill. He screwed us over.

(I’ve been tacky enough on this blog; for once, at least for the time being, I’ll let his name go.)

(But if you buy one of Reb Livingston’s books from No Tell Motel press, and send me a proof of purchase, I’ll give you the name and tell you a second Breadloaf much wanted secret: the name of who I almost got to sleep with.)

Anyway, almost everybody at Breadloaf was nice and I liked most everybody. Which sort of sucks. A critic always secretly wants something negative to say.


Sometimes Dustin Brookshire’s poems can be cloying and way too earnest. When I read one, I occasionally want to say, “Don’t be so transparently vulnerable. Or if you choose to be that way, never get a boyfriend. They’ll steal all your money and you’ll be left with nothing.”

But I want to focus on a poem of his that’s just the opposite. It's the kind of attitude and topic I want his poetry to be headed for.

Aggressively, the poem deals with The World of Po-Biz. Instead of whining about its nepotism and ruthlessness, he creates a first-person narrator who unashamedly revels in its pleasures. And there's no moral to the story! The poem is called “Drunk Dialing with Denise Duhamel.”

Full Disclosure: Denise Duhamel choose my Blind Date with Cavafy as the winner of the Marsh Hawk Poetry Book Contest. I am still so happy she choose my book. It is one of, if not the, highlight in my publishing career.

Loving Denise as much as I do (see—we’re on a first name basis), I can say that I don’t know if anyone is more of a contemporary iconic figure in the poetry world than her. She is everywhere: poems, contest judge, websites, etc. And people don’t get sick of her (unlike, say, Virgil Suarez-which they should. Virgil, if you're out there, writing a second draft is not a bad thing.)

In all sincerity, I love Denise. But she reminds me of my grandmother, there's no point in giving her a gift. No matter how expensive. She's already got the fucking thing.

It’s weird when I meet other poets, the same conversation always takes place:

(at a bar after a reading filled with six other poets)

Me: I’m shy. Would you mind if I stood next to you? I want to look virile and accessible. Just like my poetry.

Other Poet: You write poetry?

Me: (hoping to look virile and accessible) I have a book. Won a contest.

Other Poet: Who judged?

Me: Denise Duhamel.

Other Poet: Weird. I won a contest.

Me: Who judged?

Other Poet: Denise Duhamel. (then gestures to two other poets) They won contests, too. Both judged by Denise Duhamel.

Me: Interesting. (points to a man with nice pecs). How about him?

Other Poet: He won a contest. Denise wasn't the judge.

Me: Who was it?

Other Poet: Somebody else.

Me: So who was it?

Other Poet: That's all there is. Denise Duhamel and somebody else.

Denise Duhamel is the Kevin Bacon of the literary world. There’s no escaping her. Even in your dreams. As Brookshire’s bold poem-as-dream begins:

Over dinner, Paul says, I have to ask you something,
I sigh, expect, Are you still attracted to me?
Instead, Why were you saying, ‘Denise stop.
You’re killing me,’ in your sleep last night?

It came quickly like the lyrics of a song.

Denise had a reading at Outwrite Books.
She was in rare form, a real Queen Colleen.

Later in the poem, ‘one of her fans bought us a round of shots.” All the gay men in the club, obviously, fetishize Denise; it doesn’t surprise me that the narrator doesn’t name the fan; they’re all the same: hungry for this wonderful, talented, unpretentious woman’s attention.

Tellingly, other than his lover Paul (who disappears after the first stanza), the only names mentioned are other poets: David Trinidad (why doesn’t he win more awards than say someone as pedantic as Carl Phillips?), Maxine Kumin (she’s like Richard Wilbur—no matter how much you try to kill their reputations, they always come back to life; and BTW is she dead yet?), and Thomas Lux (when was the last time he had a book out, or one that didn’t repeat the same line break tricks that he used up in his millennium-ago debut).

What makes this narrator special is that he is unapologetic about his connection to these big names (even if vicariously) and, best of all, he's having lots of fun, an underrated commodity:

Before I realized the song had changed,
I looked over to see one hand snapping,
One hand on her cell, and
Kumin, Kumin, Kumin, Kumin, Maxine Kumin.
You come and go. You come and go.

The ending is too perfect, a satire of everyone’s desire to be “in” and at the same time a sincere glorification of the vastly underrated pleasures of that oh-so! scary PoBiz:

I wanted to grab the phone,
but my laughter wouldn’t stop.
I asked the taxi driver to pull over.
I felt margarita starting to rise.
I begged, Denise stop! You’re killing me.
But she was already singing,
You’ve got Thomas Lux eyes.

Only in this PoBiz world, would it be a compliment to dream that Denise says that you have Thom Lux eyes. Or that your worst nightmare comes true: it's Judgment Day and William Logan is making the call.


  1. This is my new favorite poem, not least because now I have Kim Carnes' Bette Davis Eyes stuck in my head.

  2. Awww.... thanks, Nik.

    I've always taken from your blog that you are a Denise Duhamel fan. You do praise her for a moment in this post, but you toss her under the bus. She's too fab for that.

    Btw-- “Don’t be so transparently vulnerable. Or if you choose to be that way, never get a boyfriend. They’ll steal all your money and you’ll be left with nothing.” -- this cracked me up. While I don't agree with your comment, I sort of like that you are honest enough to say what you think about my writing.

  3. Hi Dustin,

    How did I ever throw her under the bus? If anything, I felt like I was too excessive in my love of her.

  4. For me, I think it rests with the Me & Other Poet scenario.

  5. Dustin,

    She does judge many, many, many contests. Don't deny it.