I started writing “books” in the fourth grade while sequestered in Crawford Allen Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI. A severe asthmatic, I befriended other kids with ailments who became the basis for my characters. In one such “novel,” the girl with cancer has magical, witchy powers because of her chemo treatments and cast spells turning our foul tasting medicines into apple juice. In another, the boy with cystic fibrosis has a cape and, curing all our illnesses, leads us in an escape from the hospital. My one of a kind, self-published “books” were hand written on 3-hole lined paper, tied together with ribbons to form a spine, and decorated with my own cover art. The backs spouted fake blurbs with celebrities popular in 1971: This book changed my life! Mary Tyler Moore. Or Possibly the best book of the century. Mr. Rogers.
Fred Rogers was famous for saying, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” (I was delighted to see that Sarah Silverman also takes this to heart, repeating Rogers’ mantra often in her 2017 Hulu show “I Love You, America.”) In fourth grade I had no idea contemporary poets existed or that poetry was about “saying the unsayable,” a riff on Mr. Rogers’ motto. I have vivid memories of this time—breathing machines that left a salt rim on my lips; ham salad sandwiches (my least favorite meal) on green plastic institutional plates; and most poignant, a boy with leukemia to whom I liked to read. He was bald, in 6th grade, and the object and subject of my affection. One of my books (in which I tried to hide my identity) was about a marriage between two kids who met in a children’s hospital long ago and who, as adults, were miraculously healthy. In another one of the books I made, this boy is Sleeping Beauty and I, The Prince. Only I am able to wake him and cure him of the evil spell of his disease. When this boy died before I was released, my fate as a writer was sealed. I remember thinking that I could somehow write my way out of my despair and, for the rest of my life, I suppose I have been doing just that. I wrote about this boy on and off over the years. My first full-length book Smile! (1993) includes “A First-Love Poem” in which I imagine I can still rescue him.
I have little memory of writing poetry back in the hospital. I was sure I would be a novelist or a reporter or some other kind of prose writer. I had a sense that all poets were dead—that no one wrote poems anymore just as no one still made their own shoes. I had some notion of poetry, but if you had asked me back then (no one ever did) I would have answered that it was a quaint art no longer being practiced. In kindergarten, my grandmother had taken my sister and me for our first library cards. My sister, a year younger than I and by all accounts healthy, loved Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. I was a sucker for A Child’s Garden of Verses, which I repeatedly took out of the library. I had memorized Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane.” I remember looking up “counterpane” in the dictionary and was delighted to learn that it meant “bedspread.” Because the word was so antiquated and because I knew that Stevenson died in 1894, six years before my grandmother was born, “The Land of Counterpane” seemed like an artifact of days gone by. Still, how it spoke to me! Though Stevenson’s narrator played with soldiers rather than Colorforms or coloring books (my two favorite toys), this child was clearly like me—someone who, afflicted with illness, spends his time imagining he is a giant controlling the fate of the toy soldiers on his sheets and pillows which are transformed into hills, dales, and plains. I read Treasure Island a few years later, but it was Stevenson’s poem that haunted me.
Much of my junior high and high school life was about taking the “creative option” in lieu of papers or exams. I was decidedly a weird kid, always befriending the misfits because I was a misfit myself. In addition to my inhaler, I had a portable breathing machine and couldn’t tolerate smoke or animal dander, to which I had severe allergic reactions. This limited my ability to go to school dances—everyone still smoked back then in public places—and to the houses of friends who had pets. I could only fit into “chubette” size clothes from Sears. (Yes, the clothing line was really called that!) The Sears slogan was “Your chubby lass can be the belle of class,” but I assure you that was not the case. I smiled a lot as a survival tactic, hoping no one would beat me up. It was hard for me to outrun anyone, given my asthma. All this smiling landed me “best personality” in my high school yearbook, which stunned all of my friends and me, most of all. We had assumed no one but my friends knew I existed. I was the reader of the group and read widely, if not with any plan. My favorite books in no special order were the Catcher in the Rye, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), The Diary of Malcolm X, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I read Everything You Always Wanted to Know any time my parents were out. I knew exactly where it was in their bedroom drawer.
While we had no creative writing classes, per se, I became a writer of short films as my friend had a Super Eight camera. Our experiments ranged from social satire (Branches, a clueless white girl’s response to Roots) and what we thought were experimental mood pieces about our country’s consumption that involved close-ups of dripping fat under a hamburger on an outdoor grill. I remember making a gladiator Ken doll as a final project for Ancient History. He came with a foil shield and a neighbor’s toy fire truck refashioned as a chariot. My friend and I concocted an elaborate horse costume out of a cardboard, pillows, and a broom because we refused to dress as pilgrims or Indians for our school’s Thanksgiving festival. Budding pacifists, we had no desire to create the violence upon which our country was founded. We wore matching shoes (hoofs) and pants (our legs becoming the horse’s). We somehow managed to walk to school wearing our equine costume without getting run over by cars and buses. Like many young people, I kept a series of angst-ridden “secret” diaries with little padlocks on them. While so many of my experiences seem now to also lend themselves to poetry, I was not writing any poetry. Because I grew up in New England, in English classes we read Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Of course, they were dead, like Robert Louis Stevenson, which bolstered my erroneous notion that no one alive wrote poetry anymore.
I went to the University of Rhode Island, the big state school, voted “best party school” by Playboy in 1979, the year I was accepted. I was terrified of frat parties after I saw a flaming couch being thrown out of a frat house window. I had a dorm roommate who blared Cheap Trick cassettes. She was fond of singing “I Want You To Want Me” off key into her hairbrush while doing dance moves. Because of the noise and the smoke from her joints, I spent a lot of time in the bookstore and library. It was there that I found a Kathleen Spivack’s The Jane Poems, a series of very small poems under fifteen lines about an “every woman” named Jane. I had a poetry awakening, bringing me back to A Child’s Garden of Verses. It was then that I started going through the poetry section of the university library, teaching myself what I could. I fell in love with Dylan Thomas, especially the ending of “Fern Hill”—Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Just as I was learning that poems didn’t have to rhyme, that they were alive with the now, my sister was in a terrible car accident. I made it through just one year at University of Rhode Island and went home, where my sister was now the one in the hospital. It was only then that I started to have an understanding of what my parents had been through with me, driving to Providence every day for visits, rearranging their work schedules and so on. My sister was in a coma from which we were not sure she would return. She missed the end of her senior year of high school, where she was decidedly popular, slim, and an A student to boot. I remember the stitches all over her face, the dry shampoo the nurses used to try to get the blood out of her hair. My parents and I spoke to her because the doctor said that it was possible that on some level she could hear us. I wrote terrible poems that I recited to her, realizing I didn’t ever want to go back to University of Rhode Island. When she came out of her coma, my sister asked for ice cream. When the doctor asked questions, she could tell him her name and recite our home phone number. She didn’t know what year it was, though she said she’d just turned six. The experience was terrifying in just about every way, but slowly her memory came back and she aged herself back to seventeen.
I moved back in with my parents and sister, resuming my high school job at a shoe store next door to the city’s library. I’d go there on my lunch break to the poetry stacks. It was on one such break that I saw a flyer about a study abroad program in Wales. I knew that was where Dylan Thomas was from and made my application. I left in January of 1981 to study in Trinity College in Carmarthen, Wales. It was the first time I’d been on an airplane, the first time I had a passport, the first time I had traveler’s checks pinned in my bra. My uncle had given me $800 to cover the costs not met by my shoe store savings and financial aid. Once in Wales, I took a class with Raymond Garlick, a poet in his own right, who taught a class in Welsh Studies. He was an expert on Dylan Thomas and we visited Thomas’s grave at St. Martin’s. I remember reading more than writing, as I’d lost the confidence and ease with which my ten-year-old self composed narratives. But read I did. I could recite Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower “ by heart.
After I’d returned home, I transferred to Emerson College in Boston where there was an actual major in Creative Writing. In my first Emerson class, I felt like I was with my people, the misfits, the outliers, the weirdoes who, like me, were trying to figure it all out. I was especially excited to meet Bill Knott, whose work reminded me of Thomas’s in its unapologetic passion and strange juxtapositions. The first time I met Bill was at a poetry reading at a Boston bookstore. I got to the bookstore early and recognized Bill from his author’s photo though I’d yet to take a class with him. I approached to ask if he was Bill Knott and he said, “I am most definitely NOT Bill Knott” and walked away fidgeting. After the reading, I waited in line to get my book signed and said, “You ARE Bill Knott.” He proceeded to cross out whole poems in a purple pen and complained I’d bought his weakest book to date.
At Emerson, Knott’s office door was papered with rejection letters. His briefcase was a brown paper bag from a grocery store. He was an outlier in the best sense of the word—not part of any poetry school, not wanting to be part of any school. He was generous to a fault and when my first book came out, he bought twenty copies full price and passed them out to his students as gifts. He told his undergraduate student that we should be sending out our poems. And one of his assignments was to produce a rejection letter…or an acceptance…from a literary magazine by the end of the semester. Over the years we kept in touch and he’d often send chapbooks he’d made himself with a rubber band as a makeshift spine.
My other teachers included Denis Leary (yes, that one—but before he was a famous comedian) and Jack Gantos. Denis Leary gave us all free passes to the comedy clubs where he was perfecting his act. Then we’d meet to talk about his routine—where he got the laughs, where the audience seemed to lose him, how far he could go with any given topic. His material could be raunchy, mean, taboo. It was his students’ job to monitor the precise moments people laughed and the precise moments they started to groan or worse began to carry on private conversations and ignore Dennis Leary all together. Watching the makings of a comic and comic timing was fascinating to me. There were several poets in that class as well as students studying comedy and acting, and it was amazing to me how fluid the crossover of techniques was from one genre to the other, though it took me a few years to integrate what I’d learned.
Jack Gantos, best known for his children’s and young adult titles, taught a class in which we wrote a collaborative novel. It was an eye-opening experience. We all submitted outlines and by sheer luck, he picked mine. The novel was based on my high school friends, but each member of the class wrote a chapter then passed it on to the next person, picking up threads and themes made by the earlier writer. It was incredible that the novel turned out nothing like it would have if I’d written it myself—it was so much better! That is when I first began to understand the letting go of the factual “truth” in writing. The experience also planted a seed for my love of literary collaboration.
At Emerson, I had the pleasure of studying with Tom Lux. He was really good with line-by-line editing, word by word examination. Once I used the word “complain” in a poem, which he pointed out was whiny and dull.
“Gripe,” he said. “Gripe! Can’t you hear the difference?”
He taught me to edit by piling up the same vowel sounds. He was fascinating, and I loved him. In my senior year, he asked me what I was going to do with my life. I said, “I guess I’ll continue my waitressing at the Pru or maybe get a job at the bank.”
I had no career goals except to be a published poet, which I knew from Bill Knott was not a money making endeavor. Maybe I could be a substitute teacher. After I listed my listless job ideas, Tom told me I should apply to this thing called an MFA. “An MFwhat?”
I began the MFA at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall of 1985. In addition to studying with Lux, Michael Burkhard, Jean Valentine, and Jane Cooper, I was getting another education at the Nuyorican Poets Café with the likes of Bob Holman, Dangerous Diane, Paul Beaty, Hal Sirowitz, and Jennifer Blowdryer. Sarah Lawrence at that time questioned whether slam poetry was even poetry and the poets at the Nuyorican were, for the most part, horrified by academia and MFA programs. But I slid from one community to the other—there was so much to learn from both. I was learning craft at Sarah Lawrence, trying to tighten my rambling lines. I was learning how to put politics in my poems at the Nuyorican. Valentine and Cooper were my first female poetry mentors and the voices of the Nuyorican gave me the guts to put the issues I was always talking about with my friends in my poems.
It had been a lifelong dream of mine to live in New York City, and I finally did after one semester as a nanny in Bronxville. My first apartment was on 1st Avenue and 1st Street with a depressed but likeable roommate. The tenement was dark with no natural light. My bedroom window had a view of a brick wall from the building next door less than a foot away. A shower stall in the kitchen. Cockroaches in the sink. But I wasn’t discouraged—I was living in a space with the same floor plan as those described in William S. Burrough’s Junkie. Frank O’Hara quickly became my muse. I wrote a poem a day based on my walks to and from the subway. I volunteered in a soup kitchen for The Catholic Worker. I fell in and out of love with questionable characters—an alcoholic painter, a slam poet from Brooklyn, a coldhearted computer techie—each one breaking my heart but giving me material for my poems.
I went to the Guggenheim on the days it was free. Every Saturday I went to an early art house movie at Angelika’s or The Quad, paid for one ticket, then went from theater to theater and stayed until it was dark outside. New York City itself was like a movie. I made friends with a woman who was an extra in almost all of Woody Allen’s films. I made friends with a cast member of Saturday Night Live. My childhood friend from Woonsocket had also moved to New York where he worked for a talent agent. He took me to all kinds of premiers as his plus one. He even took me to a party at Eric Roberts’ apartment where my friend was trying to sign Julia Roberts also. Here is a prophesy of mine that flopped—“Julia will never be a star,” I said. “She seems really dull.” I met James Elroy before he became famous, around the time of his book third book Blood on the Moon. I palled around with playwright Suzanne Lori Parks before she won the Pulitzer.
After I moved to a slightly less awful tenement on Avenue B, Beaches was filmed on my street. Barbara Hershey drove a green van, Bette Midler in a bunny suit in the passenger seat. A white van crawled ahead of them with a boom mike sticking out the back. I danced at Area. I danced at the Limelight. I saw Annie Sprinkle at The Pyramid. I saw Sandra Bernhard on the street then at her one-woman show Without You, I’m Nothing at the Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue. I ate a lot of cheap Indian food on First Street. I ate hundreds of soy burgers at Dojo’s, one of the most inexpensive meals in the whole city. The reason I mention all this is because New York was an education of a different kind and all of it infused my poetry.
I worked low-level advertising jobs, as a receptionist in a fancy rug store in Soho, as a receptionist again in a health club for women. I worked as a tutor on the set of Kate & Allie. Jane Curtin always sent me for coffee never realizing I wasn’t her assistant. But I was so starstruck I’d walk out of the Ed Sullivan Theater (where the TV show was taped) and get her whatever she wanted. My student was Allison Smith, who played one of Curtin’s (Allie’s) kids. She had to have her hair cut less than a centimeter every week so that the show would have continuity. I helped her study for the SATs—I was impressed that she knew the definition of “flatiron” though I didn’t. Susan St. James (Kate) was pregnant my last year there and they hid her stomach in a bubble bath. There was one take of her where you could see she was actually pregnant that the directors used in a flashback. I taught composition as an adjunct at NYU, Baruch, LaGuardia College, and Rutgers. When I read at the final Sarah Lawrence student reading, I met my poet friend Maureen Seaton who was there to listen to someone else. We became fast friends and in a few years began our collaborative poems. She was the first poet with whom I took the plunge. Since then I have collaborated with others, including Sandy McIntosh, Amy Lemmon, and Julie Marie Wade.
I stayed in New York after my graduation, pretty much doing the same jobs I did when I was in grad school. My poetry friend Page Delano and I won our first poetry grants—a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship—in 1989. I remember Page bought a really nice coat and I bought a pink neon POET sign. This was in the days of affirmations and New Age rhetoric. Some part of me was making fun of that idea and another part was earnest—if I had a pink flashing POET sign, I must be a poet, right? One day when my window was open, I heard a man’s voice calling, “Hey poet!” I stuck my head out of the grimy window and below me on the sidewalk stood Jim Feast, a member of the Unbearables. He headed a posse of great poets who did a mimeographed magazine The National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side and invited me to bring copies of one of my poems to ABC No Rio where a group of us would collate them. It reminded me of the joy I had making books at the children’s hospital. But in this venture, a visual artist would design a front and back cover and then staple everything together. Each poet got a copy and then we sold the rest on consignment at St. Mark’s Bookstore.
I walked the Brooklyn Bridge under a full moon. I had my picture taken with Bill Murray at a party. I “slammed” at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. I “slammed” at CBGB’s. Soon I moved from Avenue B to 23rd Street, right across the street from the historic Chelsea Hotel, where my beloved Dylan Thomas spent some of his last days on earth. “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley was my slumlord and, because of some lucky loophole, I didn’t have to pay rent for a few months in 1989 when she was being convicted of tax evasion.
I celebrated my 30th birthday in Central Park. It was June of 1991. My friends and I tied some balloons to a tree. We sat on blankets with a pink frosted cake. I blew out the candles, probably wishing for fame as a poet. Bobby Rivers had just read one of my poems on VH1—I secretly hoped that alone would lead to immortality. But, of course, I still had a long way to go.
Copyright © 2018, Denise Duhamel
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 (Orhisis, 1997). She has also collaborated on book projects with Amy Lemmon, Sandy McIntosh, Maureen Seaton, and Julie Marie Wade. She is a professor in the MFA creative writing program at Florida International University.