Interview With Poet Denise Duhamel

(Note to prompt-hungry poets: This is not a prompt; please don’t mistakenly post your poems for prompts into the comments of this blog post.)

Okay, so I know everyone’s busy with writing poems for the April PAD Challenge and reading everyone else’s poems, but I’ve got a great interview with a great poet burning a hole in my pocket. So, I’m gonna go ahead and post it here.

I remember first reading Denise Duhamel’s Queen for a Day (University of Pittsburgh Press) while flying from one place to another. I can’t remember which trip now, but maybe that’s because while I was in the plane (both ways), I was sucked into Duhamel’s poems. Anyway, I recently learned about her most recent collection Ka-Ching! (also University of Pittsburgh Press) and used that as an excuse to interview her.

There are many great poems in Ka-Ching!, but one of my favorites is this sestina:

Delta Flight 659
          –to Sean Penn

I’m writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I’m a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can’t x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live–his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war’s impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra

of doubt. So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up?
He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh cafe. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you’d penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle toward your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menancing penguins.

But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won’t stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no scripts or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.

I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:

Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child’s first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.


What are you currently up to?


I am teaching, giving a lot of readings, and writing at least 5 minutes a day. That was my resolution for 2008.  I thought I can always find five minutes, right?  Even if it’s in the morning before coffee or before I fall asleep.


Sean Penn won another Best Actor Oscar recently for his role in Milk. As someone who’s written a sestina for Penn, what is your favorite Sean Penn role?


My favorite Sean Penn role is actually Brad Whitewood, Jr. in the movie At Close Range.  Penn plays Christopher Walker’s son.


It seems that I see your name all over the place when reading online literary journals. Do prefer publication in online or print? Does the medium even matter?


I’m open to online magazines as well as print magazines.  I am a fetishist when it comes to paper, so I like holding literary journals in my hands, but I also am excited by the idea of having work up online.  More people see it that way and, even though the work is on a flickering screen, it somehow seems more permanent.


How do you handle the process of submitting your work?


I have some magazines that I really love and send to often.  So I send to those places as well as new start up magazines.  I am all about supporting the smallest of mags as that is where my poems were first published when no one else wanted them.


How do you go about putting your collections together?


My friend Stephanie Strickland reads though stacks of poems and helps me find the most accomplished ones and then we start looking for themes.  She helped me enormously with Ka-Ching!


In Ka-Ching!, you use form a lot–from sestinas to prose poems in the shape of money. How important do you feel forms are to a developing (or even established) poet? Also, do you think they serve a purpose for the reader?


I resisted traditional form for a long time—I had a sonnet in my first book and then it was free verse and prose poems pretty much until Two and Two.  I started feeling comfortable with form because of my collaborations with Maureen Seaton who is a master/mistress of the sonnet.  When I wrote forms with her, I finally “got” how they were very freeing and fun.  I think it’s important for me to challenge myself and change and not get too comfortable in my poetry. 


In Ka-Ching!, you include many confessional poems that involve yourself, your husband (the poet Nick Carbo), and others. In your confessional poems, do you draw a line between reality and fiction? And if so, how do you determine where to make that line fuzzy?


I don’t really draw the line so much.  I love poetry because it is about memory and the way I remember things change and forms of poetry force me to change the story and my way of remembering.


Who (or what) are have you been reading recently?


Ed Falco’s In the Park of Culture (short fictions), Bust (magazine subscription), NOR #5 (literary magazine), 5 a.m. #28 (literary magazine), and Mary Jane Ryals’ The Moving Waters (poetry.) 


If you could pass on only one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?


Read everything!  Be open to everything.  Trust your process. 




To find out more about Duhamel and Ka-Ching!, try visiting the University of Pittsburgh Press website at

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21 thoughts on “Interview With Poet Denise Duhamel

  1. janflora

    I enjoyed this interview and love the poem too. I like the way she used "pen" words instead of repeating words like traditional sestinas. The form can be so fun! And I agree with her that trying traditional forms can be "freeing and fun". I have been trying to add more structure to my own. Do you think any of the PAD prompts will be for specific forms so we can practice new-to-us styles?

  2. Barbara Smith

    Brilliant interview, Robert. I’ve been reading a lot about Denise Duhamel lately and I’ve admired that sestina already – I like the way that she makes form look so versatile, not form governing her. I hope to be getting Ka-ching very, very soon!

  3. Jill

    You have such a natural way with your interviews! This was great! I hope it’s ok if I also plug Denise’s Sean Penn poem a little… Over at the blog "poem"

    we discussed that poem all last month. Everyone had some very insightful things to say! This week we are trying to write a collaborative sestina! Please come and join us (help us!)

  4. Robby Lynne Strozier

    Cherry Blossoms

    Pussy footing around
    Wringing out hair
    patting on makeup
    Hands in hands
    Waiting their debut
    Strutting on stage
    Their one act show
    Cherry Blossoms

  5. RJ Clarken

    As a poet who writes (primarily) in poetic form, I really loved the words, "forms of poetry force me to change the story and my way of remembering." I also really liked the idea of being a fetishist when it comes to paper. Brilliant!

  6. David Blaine

    Tammy Brewer, how nice of you to share that story about Robert with us. It almost read like a poem itself! It’s nice to see some couples share their love for poetry like that.

  7. Pris Campbell

    Great interview. Thanks for sharing her. I esp love this statement….I love poetry because it is about memory and the way I remember things change and forms of poetry force me to change the story and my way of remembering.

  8. SusanB

    Hi Robert, So enjoyed the interview with Denise. The sestina, which was unknown territory to me before last April, comes to life in her Penn story. It cracked me and taught me so much just reading it. Denise is a terrific writer.
    Now that we have THOUSANDS of poems to choose from on the PAD, I’m certainly getting my fill. Thanks for your work. It’s great stuff. I like Tammy’s wifely reminders too, about knowing where you were going…see how she saved that little piece of memory for you. Sweet about reading her to sleep bi-coastally. Married to a prof. who travels extensively and we thank God everyday for Internet.
    I love you and your work. Thank you so much for your sharing.

  9. Linda Robertson

    April PAD Challenge
    Linda Robertson
    © April 2, 2009


    I know you’re watching me.

    I feel your stare, open and burning, watching as I pass by.

    I know you’re there,
    waiting for me,
    longing for me to hold you,
    knowing I yearn for you.

    The desire between us has lasted for so many years –
    so many I can hardly remember,
    yet I know that just by opening the door,
    I can have you once again.

    I know you’re watching me.

    I feel you there.

    A moment more will fulfill the ache
    that has bewitched me
    since we were last together.

    O, my beloved Pepsi!

    Just let me finish making my dinner,
    and we will once again be together.

  10. Raymond Alberts

    April 2 2009 The Outsider

    Hello, I’m the outsider.
    Just checking in,
    On your dream world of love.
    I wish I were in.

    You fell,oh so sudden
    A way, excessively fast
    Your world sense reality,
    Surely can’t last

    You say you love him,
    I fear what’s inside.
    Please check out all warnings,
    However, it may hurt your pride.

    How does he treat you?
    Where does he go?
    While your longing and waiting,
    Does his love ever show?

    I’ve sent you this message,
    However, we’re so far apart
    I’m your haven of rescue
    When he breaks your sweetheart.

  11. Padgett Posey

    My favorite from Ka-Ching! is a tie between "Repeat" and "Stupid Vanilla"!

    So great to see this interview tonight; every time I come across an article about this year being Barbie’s 5oth anniversary, I think of Denise Duhamel and Kinky. 😀

  12. Racquel Charlemagne


    Is that you?
    Dipped in a black body spectrum ,
    Revered in the daylight by many in different forms,
    Which color will your emotions display?
    Orange or Yellow?
    So close, yet at a distance,
    Taking pictures in photosynethesis,
    Snapshots of life,
    Sustainer of all life,
    The wheel,
    Radiant chariot,
    The driving force,
    Everyday you aten to us,
    Having taught the ancients and elder ancestors to form the duality,
    The masculine and feminine synergie,
    Wisdom down to the very core,
    Wise from a youth,
    Solar man,
    The unconquerable one,
    The Sun.

    Racquel Charlemagne

  13. Crystalee

    Denise Duhamel was one of the people who first got me hooked on poetry, back when I read Kinky in college! She’s such a delightful breath of fresh air. I will definitely have to pick up Ka-Ching! one of these days. I think it will help renew my interest in poetry.

  14. shann palmer

    Yay!! Denise is the best!!! I had the great pleasure of being in her workshop at the West Virginia Writer’s Workshop last summer. (If you don’t know about it, google it and see- it’s the neatest group of people wou’ll ever find, plus guest leaders like Denise)

    Anyway- she is an excellent teacher in addition to being a poet, she made some very astute observations (the best kind) that have helped me home my work in new ways.


  15. Shirley Alexander

    Thanks for posting this, Robert.
    It’s a great interview, and I am always interested in finding good poets to read. I agree with her last statement. Reading poetry is one of the best things writers can do to make our own poetry better. We inspire one another.

  16. Tammy Brewer

    Hey you. You were on your way to LA for the BEA Conference and I remember you calling me from the hotel to read me some poems from that book. And now we’re married and that book is on our bedside table and I read poems from it whenever I can and it reminds me of that night when you were on the other side of the country reading poems to me until I fell asleep.

  17. Vince Gotera

    Hi, Robert. Hello, Denise.

    What a wonderful interview, Robert. Your interviews are always excellent.

    Denise, I always appreciate the humor in your work. That’s a great form, the mock sestina. I like how it feels like a sestina but then makes fun of the whole sestina enterprise and tradition. Brava.

  18. Mel Braun

    I confess that Denise’s work is new to me, but I really enjoyed her mock-tina to Sean Penn. Thanks for the education, and the interview. Which was also educational and entertaining. And a diversion from writing my day 2 prompt. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Duhamel’s work.

  19. Phyllis Rauch

    Being myself

    In German it’s so easy to be private, to
    hold the others at arm’s length, or more.
    If I never let mself say Du to you,
    my sacred space remains inviolate
    In Spanish I touch others on the arm. .
    We hug, kiss each other’s cheek or lips.
    My casa is their casa, and also visa versa
    A friend once said, "I first become my
    true self in speaking another language.."
    She was right. Through a longish life
    I’ve yet to find out who I must be
    when I have to speak in English,
    my so-called mother tongue.


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