Denise Duhamel is a feminist poet known for her work including Blowout, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Here, poet and writer Julie Marie Wade interviews Duhamel about her new book of poetry, Scald.
Your new book Scald is arranged as a triptych, with each panel of poems dedicated to one of three significant, and also necessarily controversial, feminist figures of the twentieth century — Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012), Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), and Mary Daly (1928-2010). Please tell us how the idea for Scald began to take hold? Did you conceive of the project as homage, elegy, herstory lesson, primer for a “fourth wave,” all of the above, or something else altogether?
To be honest, I had all the poems written first and wanted to arrange my work in such a way as to say something “big” since my last book Blowout was so personal. It was only in looking at the whole manuscript, I realized how all the poems could be dedicated to one of these three women. Well, to be honest, I didn’t see it. My friend Stephanie Strickland did. She was instrumental in helping me shape the book. I envision Scald as reclamation of the important contributions these women made to feminism. I am wrestling with these foremothers and visionaries as I try to understand our cultural moment. While there are many amazing feminist foremothers to choose from, the big three that cast their presence over the poems in Scald are the ones who formed my own feminist awakening when I was younger.
There are a number of long, show-stopping poems that punctuate this collection, and one of them, “Maybe Your East Village Was Better than Mine: A Braided Poem,” contemplates feminism explicitly: “You had feminism and we had feminism, / but we can’t say our feminism was better than theirs, can we?” Rather than saying a particular ideology can save us, or a particular incarnation of an ideology can save us, this poem reckons with progress and regress and their simultaneity with what I would call an earned wisdom and also an earned skepticism. There seem to be no “good old days” exactly, and yet, the present isn’t “the best of all possible worlds” either.
“Maybe Your East Village Was Better than Mine: A Braided Poem” incorporates feminisms from different generations. I never thought I’d live to be old enough to have a friend (you!) who was born the year I graduated high school. Whenever I find myself saying “well, back in the ‘80s…” followed by a story of how things were “better,” I remember moving to NYC in the ‘80s and older poets saying, “well, back in the ‘60s…” I don’t want my young friends to think things were better then or that they’ve missed anything. Having said that, there are these waves of cultural regression and backlash that sometimes make the past seem better. (Example — I had a union job in high school as a supermarket cashier…there are very few union jobs now.) I do think poetry is a way of going back and forward in time — and reclaiming important moments from the past — to remind ourselves of what we know but may have forgotten.
Given how long you’ve been writing, are there poems from your own past that boomerang back to you in the present, poems from earlier projects that feel especially relevant or even prescient in light of where you and we, the culture at large, have ended up today?
I have a poem in Smile!, “Fear on 11th Street and Avenue A, New York City,” that I must have written in 1986 or 1987. It is about a little brown girl I saw dancing alone on a playground. I project all this hope onto her, and the poem ends, “Please, little girl, grow up to be pope or president.” At the time, no one thought we would ever have a woman president or a president of color. Or a pope who would say gay Christians should not be marginalized.
How well I know and love that poem! Many of us entered your canon via Smile! through the image of that little girl, zooming in on her as an embodied hope for the future. In Scald, intriguingly, the final word of the book is “hope.” This word appears in several poems throughout the collection, and in “The Things that Never Come Back.” You cite Dickinson on the subject, the gone-forever nature of “childhood — some forms of Hope — the dead.” If some forms of Hope never come back, then of course some forms of hope must also return. Which inclines me to ask: What are you hopeful for, as a person alive in this cultural moment, as a feminist, and as a poet?
Though I am most worried about our planet, violence, and poverty, it is undeniable that social structures in America are finally becoming more inclusive. When I first started writing poetry seriously, I never thought I’d live to see the legalization of gay marriage. Back then, I was still bummed out that the ERA wouldn’t pass. When I went to high school, my gay friends were completely closeted, though that didn’t stop them from being bullied. (And there was no social awareness that bullying was uncool.) When I was a teenager, I worked as a church volunteer (thus my love of Mary Daly, also raised Catholic) in a home for “retarded” kids. That is what they were called back then. These children were hidden, shunned, sometimes an embarrassment to their families. Thankfully, now that is not the case. In terms of sexual harassment — there wasn’t even a word for it when I was in college! As a women or girl, you were a target of your bosses or professors without really even a language to fight back. So there is much to be hopeful about as we go forward, but it won’t mean anything if our planet is kaput.
There is certainly a heightened eco-awareness throughout Scald that readers are going to recognize, and a number of poems that do explicit, urgent, ecofeminist work, particularly in the section dedicated to Mary Daly, who some readers will remember as the author of the feminist classic, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. About Gyn/Ecoloy, a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review wrote, “In this deeply original, provocative book, outrage, hilarity, grief, profanity, lyricism and moral daring join in bursting the accustomed bounds even of feminist discourse.” The exact same statement could be applied to Scald, I think. There are so many original and provocative moments here, including “Pilgrims” where you write, “I had a fever, now the planet has a fever.”
Was there a poem where, when you finished writing it, you felt you had grown in your lyric scope and/or your moral daring in the process of bringing it to fruition?
The poem that surprised me the most in terms of moral daring is “Canna.” In 1997, I published Kinky, a series of poems through the lens of Barbie dolls. I was interested in class, race, societal beauty norms, including plastic surgery (Barbie is plastic after all…) What I am about to say goes back to the “good old days” vs. the present. While so much has arguably gotten better for women, I was horrified to recently learn that there is a vaginal rejuvenation procedure called “the Barbie.” In 1997, women may have hated their weight, their breast size, their hair texture, their noses, but I don’t remember anyone dissatisfied with their labia or vagina. So I took this phenomenon on in “Canna.” Talk about “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Simone de Beauvoir would be horrified, too, by this procedure. I am sure of it.
One of my favorite lines in all of Scald comes from your sequence of poems, “Rated R”: “I have often found that by employing wiggles, patience, and silence, a close-enough word will come along.” Maybe this is the place to ask at last how you arrived at Scald for the title of this collection?
The word “scald” appears several times in the book, always connected to something powerful and feminine. In “Bikini Kill Villanelle,” the Riot Grrrls’ sound is characterized as “pink/punk scalding fury.” And in “Rated R,” I introduce an anecdote from Susan Faludi’s Terror Dream in which she makes the case that, on 9/11, female fight attendants may have taken down the terrorists on United 93 by dousing them with scalding water from their coffee pots. And in the prose poem “Scalding Cauldron” I reference Skalds, poets of the Viking Age who wrote of poems honoring their heroes. I see myself as a modern day Skald writing poems to honor Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, and all the present-day feminists who are trying to make this world a better place.
About the poet: Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orchises, 1997). She and Maureen Seaton co-authored CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). Duhamel is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.
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