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“I am not conscious of being a feminist when I write, or about being angry,” observes poet Denise Duhamel. “Being able to express this anger and let it out has helped me. If I wasn’t a writer, maybe I’d kill someone.”
Though Duhamel’s work is often confrontational, the local poet is soft-spoken and reserved in person. The childhood picture on the cover of her latest collection, Smile!, is an apt choice; she is quiet-voiced, hesitant, girlish.
A feminist who has chosen to write about women, the author finds no scarcity of subject matter in American culture. In Smile!, there are poems about anorexia and teen-age sex, about stalkers and rape, and about overweight women. “If anything, society is going backwards as far as female sexuality,” she declares. “Before, you didn’t have so much pressure to be a sex goddess.” Duhamel’s “Why on a Bad Day I Can Relate to the Manatee,” is a tender tribute to the endangered animal that also expresses the pain experienced by many large women: She knows Rodney Dangerfield would write jokes about her if she were more popular…she swims toward danger over and over, scars from motor boats on her back reminders of her slow stupidness.
In keeping with her interest in gender stereotyping, Duhamel has been working on a series of poems based on Inuit Eskimo tales. The stories, she finds, often reveal the culture’s perceptions of female sexuality. “The women are really strong,” she says. “The most desirable woman is really big and can kill a seal with her bare hands.” Many of the Inuit tales are nightmarish and graphically sexual, Duhamel explains, adding that she finds it hard to believe they were told to children. Her collection of Inuit-inspired works, The Woman With Two Vaginas, has been accepted for publication by Anchorage’s Salmon Run Publishers.
Duhamel has also found success where women’s studies meet kitsch. The poet has received considerable recognition for her powerful Barbie poems. And she seems to have started a trend: Within a year of the appearance of Duhamel’s Barbie-filled It’s My Body collection, Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole’s Mondo Barbie anthology—which contains works byDuhamel as well as those by poets of both sexes and all gender orientations—was published. Duhamel says Barbie is “like nature poems….She’s so pervasive, and it’s getting worse.
“I think Barbie’s going to be like trees—a subject everybody writes about.”
Because Duhamel writes graphically and often startlingly about the difficulties of being female in this society, she sometimes has run-ins with people—especially men—who find her work offensive. This she philosophically regards as “the consequence of being outspoken.”
One typically incendiary poem is titled “The Future of Vaginas and Penises,” and concerns scientific predictions about the evolution of the human anatomy. When Duhamel read this poem at a recent American Academy of Poets event, another speaker confronted her afterward, saying, “How dare you? All you women want is big dicks!” Complains Duhamel: “Men can say “her nipple’ or whatever they want to, but as soon as you mention “penis’ some men think, “How dare you talk about that?’ It does happen every once in a while that I get some really vile responses to my writing.”
The provocative poet grew up in Woonsocket, R.I., a small French-Canadian mill town. Diagnosed with pneumonia at birth, Duhamel was chronically ill for years afterward—she spent the entire sixth grade in bed. In short, she says, “I learned angst really young.”
Nevertheless, Duhamel believes that her atypical childhood benefited her. She spent a lot of time alone, she recalls, reading and writing. In Smile!, there is a wrenching poem titled “Asthma” that expresses the oppressiveness of being a child in poor health. Instead of holding hairy pets/I watch fish through a tank. My eyelids and theirs/on the lookout, and thin as soapsuds….
Duhamel didn’t plan to marry. “Just being heterosexual—you know, having a mate—is a big leap for me as a feminist,” she remarks apologetically. “It’s like sleeping with the enemy. I was resistant to the whole process.” But 15 months into her marriage to fellow poet Nick Carbo, the pair still seem like newlyweds. Asked if it is difficult to combine writing with marriage, she says it took a lot of negotiating at first, but because her and Carbo’s writing habits are so different, they are able to stay out of each other’s way.
Though half of that demographic rarity, a two-poet household, Duhamel admits that she once aspired to the relatively down-to-earth profession of social work. Accordingly, the artist’s role in society is not one she has left unexamined. “If it does help others, that’s great, that’s the social worker part of me. I think that being a writer is one of the most important things you can do. Poetry does help to console, but it doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t do that work that I admire in other people—like getting out there and making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the homeless.”