By way of introduction to this month’s collaborative “Featured Selection,” first a brief introductory essay by the poets themselves, followed by the work itself, and some biographical material.
Maureen and Denise collaborated one poem at a time via email—Maureen from New Mexico, and Denise from Portugal. Both places were experiencing unusually high temps–and the poets were just trying to keep themselves hydrated. Maureen had the idea to send each other on a treasure hunt, and Denise was reading Sam Lypsite’s The Fun Parts. His line about the “poetry cycle” got her to put down her bamboo fan and kicked her into gear.
MS: Fortunately for me, Denise has often been our collaboration “starter.” When she dove headfirst this time, with Lypsite’s hilarious image of a stuck-up clown riding a “poem” cycle and the suggestion that I Google it, she pulled me right in and handed me the compass. I wasn’t sure how my idea of a treasure or scavenger hunt was going to actually work, but there it was: my first clue. So I followed it!
DD: When Maureen sent me back a poem that included a hint about a YouTube video of Diane Keaton on Ellen, I knew we were going somewhere! I was teaching in the Disquiet Festival in Lisbon and immersed in Pessoa’s many heteronyms—and though he isn’t mentioned by name in this cycle, his spirit infuses it. (Maureen loves him too!) Because of the time difference (Portugal is seven hours later than NM), I trudged in the heat between sessions to get to a spot with wireless internet so that I could answer while Maureen was still awake. Our poem became priority and shaped my days.
MS: It took us five oven-hot days to write “A Poem Cycle.” We moved in and out of sex, porn, the drowning of Miami, a deconsecrated church in Manhattan, and our beloved literary foremothers. My favorite of Denise’s clues, “Hotel de Dream,” took me to Jane Cooper’s poem, then Edmund White’s novel of Stephen Crane, then to notorious Cora Crane, who opened a “nightclub” in Jacksonville, Florida. Collaborating with Denise is one of life’s greatest pleasures because there are no taboos and no hidden agendas. The process is spontaneous and wonderfilled. This time she managed to bring up a new subject for both of us: grandmothers. My first thought was “yikes!” Then: “What the hell.” I went with that.
DD: Maureen and I have known each other for twenty-five years! So we have truly grown up/grown older in poetry together and have experimented with many voices and forms and gestures. That’s why I wanted to bring up our grandma-status—and I loved when Maureen’s final poem brings us back to a place of our youth (the Limelight) but keeps us in our aged bodies with our acquired wisdom (our “crowns.”) In the past, Maureen and I usually composed a few lines at a time, back and forth, or by collaging our prose “chunks.” Writing full poems in response to one another was a new kind of process—and one, I hope, we can try again. We didn’t give ourselves any limits in terms of length or syllable count, but our poems stayed pretty much the same size…the shortest nineteen lines and the longest twenty-seven. I love, too, that Maureen invokes The Poetry Wall at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine at the end of the “cycle.” The Muriel Rukeyser Poetry Wall is a place where all poems are accepted. It’s as though Maureen invited everyone in at end of the “cycle.”
MS: And thank you to Daniel Lawless for encouraging us to write these poems and for the experience his invitation sparked. Twenty-five years ago, even with ancient Japanese renga players to inspire us, even with the Beats and New York Schoolers behind and around us, our collaborative efforts were seen by many editors (and subsequently dismissed) as a low low branch of low art, maybe even deconsecrated art. Of course, Denise and I always thank David Trinidad and his host of co-authors, our collab forbears, at a time like this. Not sure if we would have thought of coaxing the impulse without David. Or maybe, back in those late fraught eighties, Denise and I would have bumped into each other on the IRT, somewhere between the West Bronx and the Lower East Side, and just started passing a notebook back and forth. Who knows? For now, we say: Grandmothers of America, write poems with your grandkids! And we look forward to our next poem cycle, with or without a stuck-up clown.
Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton
A Poem Cycle
“Like what some stuck-up clown would ride.”
It used to be every twenty-eight days
I’d shed a poem, which hurt
but empowered me too, I suppose—
all that blood and cramping
and ruining of sheets. I can understand
how other people saw me as a snob—
my poems, congealed and shimmering
red messes. I skipped
being a mom and went straight
to becoming a grandmother.
This is not a riddle exactly,
given the nature of extended families.
Maureen, if you Google “clown cycle,”
do you get the same results as I do?
One more thing…I fear I read this
on Wikipedia too late—
“& indicates a closer collaboration than and.”
Could it be that all these years
we have been misleadingly
signing our poems?
You mean we’ve been riding rigged cycles
and posing explicit riddles all along?
I admit I’m not crazy about grandmothers
having sex on screen, except
for Diane Keaton (with Keanu
Reeves). And clowns,
careening around on their miniature
bucking collapsible bikes, creep me out.
(That disturbing disconnect between
regular body & fake face.) (Who’s
the stuck-up clown now?)
Keaton laughs & cries better than anyone,
don’t you think? Recently
she “talked tantric” on Ellen.
(I hope you like your clue, Denise.)
It’s summer & all I want is strawberries.
After this poem I will cut out their hearts
& eat them where I can see mountains
unfold at such a strange and leisurely pace
they appear to be standing still.
I would marry Diane Keaton in a heartbeat!
In the heart of a strawberry, in the heart
of a big or small town. She could wear
her Annie Hall tie—and maybe I could too—
two femmy grooms. I have heard
of tantric sex and may even own a book
about it, but I have had very few
spiritual bedroom partners
so never have had the occasion
to give it a try. Once a woman told me
she could orgasm all alone
on the F train. Well, technically,
she was not alone, as the subway
was usually full when she came
by crossing her legs and rubbing
her thighs together. No one noticed
as she let out her small gasp.
This was years before “Make Love
Not Porn.” I dare you to look.
Or if you feel shy you could
just read about it. That’s what I did.
Regarding Ellen: Do you think
Diane Keaton was drunk?
Soaring. But on what? Wine, poetry,
or virtue? (Baudelaire) Not virtue,
I hope, although if you poured me a drink
for every transgression I flubbed I’d be
dumb as the economy. I wish I’d
I dated a twenty year old once
(in Cindy Gallup fashion), but he was too
gay and so was I. I’m no
entrepreneur, as you know, although
I videotaped us on his waterbed. (Not pretty.)
An orgasm is an inferior version
of what I feel when I have a mouth full
of snow. (Sigourney Weaver, Snow Cake)
I thought we could both use something cold today,
Denise. It’s 105 here; 106 there. Don’t
forget what old “Snowflake Bentley,” that first
great photographer of snow, discovered:
No two mouthfuls are alike.
When making a sex tape,
the frail, feathery flakes are the most difficult
to film. You must make the waterbed
very small and then slide it under
a microscope and wait for God.
But, Maureen, how could you have known this?
You—and he—so young. Snow melts
much faster these days, and if Jeff Goodell
is right, our beloved Florida is over. Kaput.
I read “Goodbye Miami,” twice, three times,
and then pushed it way down.
How to make amends? I mean to each other,
but also to the planet. I always thought
I would die alone, but now I think maybe
I will die with a bunch of other people,
in some sort of chaotic tragedy.
Snowflakes come undone, flood
like all the others. How does it feel
to be all alone like a complete unknown?
(This is one last hint, though I’m sure
you don’t need it.) The waterbed
sounds ominous now. Maybe that’s why
I made a sex tape, too.
I can totally see why you leapt
from snowflakes under a microscope
to a dead manatee floating in the same pool
Elvis once swam in. (It’s hard to imagine him
doing laps.) But now I can’t decide
what to send back to you. Mick Jagger
or Paul McCartney? Four Tops or
five Temptations? Rock & Roll or Doomsday?
I hate the word versus. I eschew
the word eschew. It’s true,
Miami’s fucked. And only one Temptation
has survived to see it go under. (One Top,
two Beatles, four Rolling Stones.)
I know how much you love the words
deco and vice. You love pink and Telemundo.
You love sea. I’ve spent the entire day
looking for a word to speed us across the bay
away from the ghosts and barnacles.
But where is the word? Where
is the poem?
You know the murmurs. They come from your own throat.
Leave it to you and Muriel R. to know
how to respond. I hesitated even sending
such bad news, afraid our poem would halt
in despair. But knowing you read what I did
then wrote a glorious stanza, makes me think
(falsely?) we’ll be OK. Let’s dance
the Apocalypse Calypso, The End Time Electric Slide!
I am worried not so much for us—
this comes back to cycles and our little
precious poet clown selves—
but for the new ones born this year.
Is that cliché? Does every grandma think that?
In Jane Cooper’s poem “Hotel de Dream,”
Muriel Rukeyser makes an appearance to say
“I’ll never put you in a nursing home…
I promise, Jane, I’ll never put you in a nursing home.”
Then Muriel died first and Jane
wound up in Pennswood Retirement Village.
This brings me to friendship and self-reliance.
Did you know you can build your own coffin
with lumber and screws and Elmer’s wood glue?
What would you use to make the handle?
The true poem is almost without signature,
said Cooper, so that’s settled,
and although it would be appealing—
before boogying with you as the surge rolls in—
to add sparkly handles to my casket kit
(from Home Depot, grown-up Kal-El to guide me),
I can’t stop envying “Cora Crane”
and her 1890’s Hotel de Dream in doomed Jacksonville—
how I’ve often thought that being a madam
is a fine way for a woman to support
her kids. And although nothing planet-saving
has been used in the manufacture of this poem,
look how Rukeyser, Cooper, and Crane
have come along to ride with us today.
What a bunch of clowns we are. Suppose
we could telephone the dead, Denise.
Would we still waste time with the living?
I’m jealous that you got to know Jane
while she was alive. It’s that good jealousy
we’ve talked about sometimes—when the heart
stays true and waits for the wonder.
Maureen, you would have made a great madam!
Or a dignified Empire widow or a socialite
in an Ophelie hat—even though you would have
been unnerved by all the press and paparazzi.
I would have stepped in front of you and barked,
“Leave her alone!…” Then, “Hey,
don’t you want a picture of me?”
I’m jealous of your “good jealousy,”
the way the limelight means nothing to you.
But maybe it’s more accurate to say
I’m “good jealous” of your “good jealousy”
and wish you would have met Jane too.
She was New York without any of the hype
whereas I loved all the star-sightings
and red velvet ropes. My favorite nightclub
in the Big Apple had its start in Hallandale
near the Panera where we meet to write,
but I didn’t know that as I spied Grace Jones
and Pia Zadora doing the Lambada.
I’ll give you these tips. I perfected my pop’n loc
in a deconsecrated church whose name
is in this stanza. It’s also the site
of a famous murder, a drug dealer named Angel.
How poetic for Angel to be killed
in a former holy place. But I would rather die
near the sea, after pushing
a stranded car out of the sand.
Grandmothers as a group feel a lot happier
than clowns. I needed to say that out loud, and this:
I’ve been waiting a long time for the word
deconsecrated—bless you!—to move my mind
again in unholy directions—or at least remind me
I don’t have to believe in the arch BS of bishops.
I loved the old Limelight, Denise, the surreality
of witch house music in an old Goth church (now
deconsecrated) lying along a NYC mile ladies
once strolled to buy secular lady stuff.
I wish we could go there, snap an arm’s length
photo of our wicked faces, then
dance deconsecrated while sporting our
seaweed-studded Atlantis crowns (or mitres).
This is a ritual moment, said Rukeyser, a moment of proof.
I first found her on a “Poetry Wall”
in a divinely humane cathedral on the Upper West Side.
I found you not long after—Lower and East, but still divine.
This is my final opportunity to leave you a hint,
my friend, a compass to hold in your hand and employ
when the next poem pedals wildly toward you.
Denise Duhamel is professor of English at Florida International University and the author of numerous poetry collections, including Blowout, Ka-Ching, Two and Two, and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems. Duhamel has written five chapbooks of poetry and coedited, with Maureen Seaton and David Trinidad, Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry. The recipient of numerous awards, including an NEA fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, including Penguin Academics: Contemporary American Poetry; Seriously Funny: Poems about Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else; and Word of Mouth: Poems Featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Duhamel is guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013.
Maureen Seaton is the author of fifteen poetry collections, both solo and collaborative. Her most recent is Fibonacci Batman, New and Selected Poems (1991–2011. Her work has received numerous awards, including the Iowa Poetry Prize, Lambda Literary Award, Society of Midland Authors Award, Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize, the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award, an NEA, and the Pushcart; and has appeared in Best American Poetry and in numerous literary journals. Her memoir,Sex Talks to Girls, also garnered a “Lammy.” She teaches poetry at the University of Miami.