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Local Star Poet Burns in Scald: Denise Duhamel Addresses Women’s Issues From Her Own POV

Read the article as published in miamiartzine.com

“If you wannabe my lover / you gotta get with my friends / Make it last forever, friendship never ends” –the immortal words of the Spice Girls in their tribute to girlfriends “Wannabe.”

These girl-power preaching, British mama-jammas weren’t the only liberated girl group in the era of awesomeness that was the 1990s, but they did become household names unlike the others.

“Whatever happened to those Riot Grrrls /happened to us, too. Revolution swirled /with sugar in blenders. / We devoured / the stuff, sweetened by the mainstream Spice Girls,” writes the blonde, flowing-haired feminist poet and FIU professor Denise Duhamel in “Bikini Kill Villanele,” from her latest book of poetry entitled “Scald.”

Duhamel is both spicy and riotous, stirring up a brew of controversy with spunk in the newest addition to her long list of award-winning books. At times naughty, at times nice, the intelligent, funny and entertaining poet writes about subjects ranging from the aforementioned 1990s grrl power bands to test-tube babies.

The idea of having babies in test tubes was conjured up by Shulamith Firesone, aka Shulie, a  1970s radical feminist known for describing childbirth as “(expletive) a pumpkin.” Denise dedicates the first section of the book to her by naming it “For Shulie.”She titles the other two sections, “For Andrea” and “For Wickedary Mary,” aka Andrew Dworkin and Wickedary Mary, two other radical feminists of Duhamel’s time.
Sex, nature, birth, pregnancy, feminism, religion evolution, womanhood, and girl bands are unifying topics in poems such as “How Deep It Goes,” “Darwinian Pantoum,” “The Immortal Jellyfish” “Bikini Kill Villanelle,” and “Fornicating.”

On a recent Sunday at Books and Books in Coral Gables, Duhamel read a few poems from the book at her book release event. Here is our interview:

Monica Torres: What made you decide to tribute your book to these three legendary radical feminists?

Denise Duhamel: All of these three women died over the past ten years and I thought of how so many younger feminists might not remember them or know who they are. And yet, it seemed to me, all three were so relevant now.

MT: Why do you think they are relevant today?

DD: Yes, of course. Shulamith Firestone believed in science and how it might eventually free women from their biology. She felt that women were burdened by pregnancy and childrearing and thought things like test tube babies could free women from those burdens. A radical, she believed in abolishing the nuclear family and instead relying on communities in which childrearing could be shared more broadly. Although science hasn’t gotten women there yet–and many women would argue they wouldn’t want that option even if it existed–some women are using methods such as in vitro, for example, so that they can have children later in life. Andrea Dworkin believe that pornography was an affront to women. Pornography has gotten increasingly violent towards women over the years. In Whitney Cumming’s HBO comedy special she muses on online pornography saying that there is never a scenario in which a man is having sex with a woman and saying “You get that promotion!” Instead, it usually has to do with some kind of degradation. Mary Daly wrote of the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church, which has been exposed lately with priests’ molestation of children and the subsequent coverups.

MT: Were the poems inspired by the women or did the poems come first and inspire the tribute?

DD: The poems came first, but all three women were part of my feminist education and I believe they were on my mind because I read about their deaths, one after the other. Only three of the poems directly name them, but I think they provided inspiration and their thinking infiltrates the poetry.

MT: What kind of relationship did you have to these women and their works? Was it very personal?

DD: I started to read all three women in college at Sarah Lawerence I so wish I could have had the chance to meet them and speak to them. I did get a chance to see Andrea Dworkin speak at Judith’s Room, a New York City bookstore which has since closed. Andrea was fierce and unapologetic and a great speaker.

MT: What made you decide to use so many poetic forms like villanelles? (a nineteen-line poem with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both repeated at the close of the concluding quatrain) and pantoums (a Malay verse form, imitated in French and English, consisting of quotations with an abab rhyme scheme linked by repeated lines.)

DD: Villanelles and pantoums, I think, fit my subject matter as many times I was trying to think issues through and all the repetition forced me to revisit big ideas. Cultural regression, for example, really fits the pantoum as “one step forward, two steps back” mimics the form.

MT: Do you see yourself as a SKALD (a poet honoring heroic deeds)?

DD: YES! I do believe I am embracing the role of a skald. My heroes are heroines!

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