A Poet on Her Poems

Harvard Review talks with Denise Duhamel

I think one of the qualities that I enjoy about your writing, particularly in this poem, is its immediacy. You’re able to capture the texture of the real world yet somehow transform it. What do you do to move the material beyond the mundane and into that place of artifice and art?

Well, a lot of this was taken from journal entries that I wrote as I was trying to figure things that were transpiring in my life. I started to realize that when anyone goes through anything traumatic they have a network of friends and family who are there to say, “It’s going to be okay.” And then there is also this larger group, almost strangers, that influences you much more than you realize.

This idea of going through a very private situation, the break-up of a marriage, and having it be on Facebook was one of my worst nightmares. So, okay, my worst nightmare happened, and then there was also this other public place, the beauty salon. The speaker goes in thinking she’s going to be judged, that these people are talking about her. But then, it turns out that someone else has actually died.

I guess “If You Really Want To” is a kind of “get over yourself” poem. True, the speaker is going through her own worst nightmare, but people around her are also going through their own worst nightmares. And it becomes this sort of advice or folk wisdom that comes down through the generations—from the Facebook entry of the young student to the eighty-year-old woman at the hair salon and everyone in between—each one is engaged in her own suffering and her suffering is not the only suffering.

How did this poem begin? You said it was a number of journal entries and lifted conversations. How did it begin and how did you go about structuring the poem?

I wrote it out in prose, actually, in the beginning. I had these lists. I had the little old ladies at my condo, what they were whispering, all this stuff I would write down. It wasn’t in this order, but I had it in a little journal. And then I went to the hairdresser and I wrote down some of what happened there, and then I was also keeping notes about the whole Facebook thing. For me, the poem is trying to talk about something without talking about it. I guess it’s trying to be confessional without being completely confessional.

I’m curious about the confessional aspect because I do feel that that’s part of the charm of the poem, the fact that one wonders if it’s true, if it’s fictionalized. Is there a pressure in your mind to be true to the facts?

Well, I think to a certain extent there’s a pressure to be true to the facts, but there’s also a bigger pressure to be true to the truth of the situation. You know that idea, “The Lie That Tells The Truth,” which is the title of an amazing book by my friend John Dufresne. Each one of these little old ladies at the condo whispering could have been a poem in itself. I guess I was trying to work with dialogue and getting things smaller technically. I know these lines are really long, but I’m actually, at the same time, trying to show restraint. I mean the ending of the poem to be hopeful. When the husband asks for his glasses and contacts, the speaker takes this as a sign that he wants to live and needs his glasses to “see,” that he won’t wind up like the woman who commits suicide at the condo.

You mentioned dialogue in this particular poem. Was there a draft with no dialogue? And what do you feel the dialogue lends to the poem?

Yes, there was a draft with no dialogue. But when I heard the old women talking, and one of them said, “I told her, honey, get your medicines checked,” it really spoke to me. That could have been indirect dialogue—“and the old woman told her friend to have her medicines checked”—but something about the word “honey” just broke my heart.

In your other poem, “Tina and the Bruised Hearts,” I think you do a fantastic job of taking something as mundane as a visit to the bank and transforming it into art. Where does the impulse to capture that moment begin? When did you know this would be a poem?

Again, I took a lot of this from my journal. I remember telling this story to my friends or my mother and saying, “Can you believe I had a meltdown in the middle of the bank and they did what I asked?” It was sort of like, “Okay, legally ma’am we can’t do that. Okay we’re going to do it.” It was a girls’ group. It was like women taking care of women, or not even, but people taking care of people. It was like a blues song in this strange way.

No, I think you’re right when you say women taking care of women. There is this kind of gender identification that happens, particularly when the speaker asks, “Has a man ever done you wrong?” I mean that’s so many blues songs.

Right, and then suddenly it’s public—your tragedy is like everyone’s tragedy. There is the public face of what we have to say in a professional situation, to a bank teller, and what she has to say back to her customers. Then we go in one of those little rooms and it’s not a public space anymore. Still, it’s strangers helping the speaker.

Is the dialogue true to what was spoken?

I don’t think I was quite as clever as the poem is. I did try and appeal to the bank tellers on a more personal level with something like, “Have you ever gone through this?” But I don’t think I was quite as articulate as the speaker sounds in the poem.

Well, thank you, Denise, it has been a pleasure.

Published on February 8, 2012