In 1997, when I first caught up with Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton to discuss their then-newly released collaborative manuscript, Exquisite Politics, Maureen was living in Chicago and teaching poetry there, and Denise was living and writing in New York City. Then Maureen went to Ragdale and Denise went to Spain, and neither one had a telephone. This time I want to discuss their latest collaborative effort, Oyl, a collection of poems about the cartoon character Olive Oyl. Frankly, I am nervous. Maureen is in Chicago–now Artist-in-Residence at Columbia College–and unreachable by phone, while Denise is teaching at The University of Pittsburgh, and I have no idea how to find her. I resort to e-mailing both of them, and in a day, like magic, all questions are answered. Now I know their secret.
Duhamel and Seaton understand the drawbacks of long-distance communication better than most. The two met in the summer of 1987, when Denise was housesitting for a friend in Tarrytown, New York. In 1990 they began to share poems and collaborate on others, what Maureen refers to as “stroking each other artistically.” Since then, they’ve never lived in the same city at the same time, though they’ve corresponded by fax, e-mail, phone, and letter. There are also the occasional visits (lately it happens every June).
At first they wrote for their own enjoyment, then they began to submit to magazines. Calling attention to their work has been a challenge; one publisher called the act of two poets writing together “oxymoronic.” Duhamel and Seaton began to think there might not be an audience for their collaborative work until encouragement finally came from a few literary magazines (Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Indiana Review, among them).
Exploring Foreign Territory
Is collaboration foreign to poetry? If the answer is yes, then there are exceptions, of course. The New York School is one of them. John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch worked together on joint projects. Ashbery wrote A Nest of Ninnies with James Schuyler. Frank O’Hara, who collaborated with painter Larry Rivers, among others, wrote with others, simply because he preferred a social act to a solitary one. W. H. Auden collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood. Today David Shapiro even writes with his young son. But writing poetry and prose is regarded primarily as a solitary act. And it is surprisingly foreign territory for women to collaborate on poetry. The pioneering collaborative efforts of Olga Broumas (with Jane Miller and, more recently, with T. Begley) have inspired the work of Duhamel and Seaton. Broumas’ subject matter, that of feminist kinship and sexuality, resonates in much of Duhamel and Seaton’s individual work. In their first collaborative book, Exquisite Politics (Tia Chucha Press, 1997), issues of feminist kinship interact with those of sexual identification to form images of societal and spiritual abandonment. In Oyl (Pearl Editions, 2000), their latest manuscript, there are similar issues of sexual identification, isolation, abandonment and fulfillment–a continuation of the first book, but this time there is a strong feminist role model in Olive Oyl.
Duhamel and Seaton are no strangers to the topic of gender, especially that of womanhood. Its complexities reach into their work farther back than they’d like to admit. Denise is the author of five books of poetry and numerous chapbooks. Her most recent book is The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois Press, 1999, winner of the Crab Orchard Award in Poetry). Before that came Kinky (Orchises Press, 1997), a collection of poems about Barbie. In Kinky, as in each of her books (Girl Soldier, Garden Street Press, 1996, The Woman With Two Vaginas, Salmon Run Press, 1995, and Smile!, Warm Spring Press, 1993), Duhamel confronts the barriers placed on women in America (male oppression, stifled sexuality, preoccupation with physical beauty) armed with her greatest weapon, her sense of humor. With poem titles ranging from “How To Rid Yourself Of The Jealousy You Feel About Your Lover’s Best Friend Who Is The Same Sex As You Are,” to “As If Lovers, By Virtue Of What They Are Called, Are More Attractive Than Husbands Or Wives Or How,” Duhamel creates her own complexities. In “A First-Love Poem,” she writes, “He’s Sleeping Beauty and I am the Prince,” calling the reader’s attention to role reversal, to things not being what they seem. Men give birth; soldiers wear lipstick; Barbie is bisexual. The characters in Duhamel’s poems don’t just struggle with gender, they toss it on its head.
In her third book of poems, Furious Cooking (winner of the Iowa Prize for Poetry and the 1996 Lambda Award), Maureen Seaton sets ablaze the myth of women’s domestic roles and responsibilities in male/female relationships. She calls the book risky. Some may call it refreshing. In the title poem she writes, “It’s the kind of cooking where before you begin/you dump the old beef stew down the toilet…” On a personal level, Seaton has experienced that kind of spiritual upheaval. Ten years ago she became a controversial subject when she left the heterosexual world. Since then she has received an NEA fellowship and an Illinois Arts Council grant, as well as having written three prize-winning books of poetry: Fear of Subways (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1991), The Sea Among the Cupboards (New Rivers, 1992), and the aforementioned Furious Cooking (University of Iowa Press, 1996). Seaton’s fourth book of poems, Little Ice Age, is forthcoming (Invisible Cities Press, 2000).
Sometimes, Seaton admits, her work is interpreted as angry. But there is more to it than anger; Seaton’s passionate energy is electrifying. One reason for this? She deals with some passionate issues–feminism, agnosticism, homosexuality. Seaton approaches her audience like an investigator on the trail of the truth. She searches for reasons, “There we are, week after week, filling the pews/handing men the reins. What do we expect?” By confronting the intimacies and complexities of women’s relationships and exploring gender stereotypes, Seaton seeks to discover truths that are as much a surprise to her as they are to her readers.
When the two poets merge, the result is inspired and often explosive. Exquisite Politics explores bisexuality and homosexuality with a brassy defiance. A third voice emerges throughout the book, one that cannot be attributed solely to either poet. Denise and Maureen define this third voice or “created voice” in the introduction as “a voice that is at the same time both of us and neither of us, the mysterious voice that sings between us.” An earth mother speaks, flamboyant and formidable. The poets agree, the first book is a wild child. “This voice of ours feels restless, goofy, shrill–basically unbecoming to a woman,” Maureen says. “It was easier for us to be unbecoming together.”
In Oyl, the second manuscript, the poets’ voice is more formal, more defined. “As wild as our first child is, this second seems almost dignified,” Seaton explains. The poets followed formal techniques in Oyl, along with some interesting twists, such as incorporating “exquisite corpse,” the surrealistic parlor game played by André Breton and the French visual artists of the 1930s and 1940s (as well as by the New York School poets in the 1950s and 1960s), with the formal aspects of a sestina or a villanelle.
In this case, exquisite corpse is played when each writer writes two lines on paper, then folds the paper so that the other writer only sees the second line. The result is a surprise. Duhamel and Seaton grew so familiar with the game that they imposed mandatory rhyme schemes and limits, thus adding an element of skill to the already existing element of surprise. Duhamel claims that the result of combining exquisite corpse and a formal technique helps them to be “less didactic” in Oyl than they were in Exquisite Politics. “When playing exquisite corpse, anything can happen and any agenda must be given up,” says Duhamel. In Oyl, the poets also chose to borrow from the ideas of the OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), a Paris-based assembly of writers and mathematicians formed in 1960 whose goal is to discover what use mathematical structures might have in writing. Seaton describes the process:
Strict prescriptions/restrictions are created and fulfilled. N+7 is a better-known example in which the writer looks up all the nouns of a piece in the dictionary, counts down seven nouns, then fills in the new words. We decided on N+12 because there are, in existence, twelve cartoon episodes in which Olive ate spinach. We gave each poem twelve lines. The idea of writing a poem in OuLiPo style came up early in the manuscript. It was the “O” that attracted us.
There are a number of “N+12” poems in Oyl, including “Popeye’s Fix-It Shop,” where “Olive kicks the greasy toolbox aside,/stomps over carburetors and spark plugs/and pokes her men into teary submission.” Olive Oyl becomes the embodiment of feminism. Unlike Barbie (who Duhamel wrote an entire book about), Olive Oyl never changes her clothes. She is a role model that is at once clumsy and powerful, awkward and beautiful.
A cento, or patchwork poem, is a collage of existing lines of poetry. Duhamel and Seaton employ centos in order to collaborate with each other as well as with the included poets. As in Exquisite Politics, a third or “created voice” emerges within the formal poems found in Oyl, and this voice seems to sing. In “Olive Oyl Cento,” a compilation of voices from Norton’s Postmodern Anthology, Duhamel and Seaton collected phrases that they admired, pooled them, and played exquisite corpse on e-mail. Seaton describes the end result, a melding of those voices, as “a small anthology of its own, and, in a way, homage to the quoted poets.”
Sharing The Muse
Have Duhamel and Seaton ever written with anyone else? A few years ago Duhamel worked with the visual artist Susan Shatter on a series of paintings Susan had already completed. They didn’t write and paint in the same room, nor did they provide each other with inspiration or input during the process. Although it was very different from the collaborative method used with Seaton, it still brought Duhamel creative fulfillment. The poems were “unlike any other poems I’ve ever written–either by myself or with Maureen.” Duhamel describes the poems as short, lyric poems (a form she seldom, if ever, uses), poems that would have never come to fruition had they been done solo. “That, I think, is the power of collaboration–not knowing where another person’s work is going to take your own, but being willing to go for the ride anyway.”
“I’ve worked in a kind of ‘spiritual’ collaboration with my lover and partner,” Seaton says. “We shared space, vision–it was wonderful, empowering.” Seaton wrote the poems that eventually would become Fear of Subways, while her partner, an artist and wood sculptor, created a body of work around the themes of race and gender. The two fed off of each other’s energy. Seaton believes her second book would not have developed without her partner’s influence. Though Seaton has done “spiritual” collaboration, as well as some collaborative work with her students, she has come to the realization that “Denise and [she] have something extraordinarily rare.”
The process of writing with a partner requires the shared intimacy and trust of any good relationship. “Sometimes I think women are well-suited to the intimacy it demands,” Seaton says. She also surmises that most writers would rather work alone for one specific reason: Why bend for a human when the muse is already kicking our butts? Duhamel attributes her ability to work with Seaton to the basic feminist “ethic of balance,” a woman’s innate ability to sense another woman’s needs. “It’s vital that collaborators have the right partners, partners they can trust,” she says, “Partners who are respectful of the process agreed upon by the two writers before they begin.”
Collaboration is “not for every writer, nor should it be,” Seaton says. “There is no moral, social, or spiritual imperative to collaborate with another poet,” she explains, although she encourages other writers to try it and come to their own conclusions. Perhaps those who do will delight in both Oyl and Exquisite Politics and want to read more collaborative endeavors.
This leads to another question about the process of collaboration. How were rules established? How did they know when to stop writing the poem? Ground rules and parameters were crucial. “It was easy to decide beforehand that the poem would have 36 lines (or 18 couplets), or that it would be a 14-line sonnet,” Seaton explains, “Or that we’d both free-write for five minutes, ten minutes, whatever.” Seaton says the length of a particular poem was predetermined, then revised if it went too long or too short. Closure was a “felt thing,” as it is in a writer’s individual work. When cutting and pasting their work together, the poets discovered there were often pieces of poem scattered across the cutting room floor. They also worked in forms, exploring sonnets, sestinas and prose poems. Duhamel found the sonnet to be the most liberating to work on with Seaton because Duhamel is reluctant to explore the form on her own. She refers to the voice in the Exquisite Politics sonnets as “wild, irreverent, and even a little mean-spirited,” a voice both writers are unaccustomed to hearing in their own work.
Only once in each manuscript do the poets choose to reveal their individual identities. In “Baby Democrats,” a stanzaic prose poem in Exquisite Politics, the author places her initials at the beginning of each stanza. The writers chose to do it this way to avoid confusion. “It dated and polarized us quickly,” Seaton explains, “We thought the book might benefit from a small opening in the curtain to reveal the puppeteers, so to speak.” “Baby Democrats” not only reveals the age difference between the “puppeteers” (fourteen years), but also provides the reader an opportunity to hear two very distinct voices. Reminiscing about the political and social events that took place during their respective childhoods, Duhamel and Seaton cover topics such as Kennedy’s assassination and Watergate. In “Interview with a Comic Strip Diva,” included in Oyl, Duhamel and Seaton reveal their identities by posing questions to Olive Oyl. They wrote “a bunch of questions and a bunch of answers” (in Olive’s voice) that didn’t have anything to do with each other,” Duhamel says. They questioned each other and tried to fit the answers, cutting and pasting as necessary. The outcome is an amusing mixture of voices.
The Thing about Politics
“Politics comes along when you least expect it” is the first line of “Exquisite Independent.” In modern America, sex and gender are political. These are the “exquisite politics” confronted and explored in both Exquisite Politics and Oyl. Was this intentional, writing books about politics in such a politically conscious time? “I don’t think we were originally conscious of the politics of the poems,” says Seaton, “But that’s the thing about politics. It’s everywhere.” Someone debating with someone, someone winning, someone losing, someone throwing his weight around, someone pushing back. Politics are on the playground and in the pulpit. And everybody knows that politics can be controversial; Duhamel will attest to that. After The Woman With Two Vaginas won the Salmon Run Poetry Prize, it was censored by the Canadian government, condemned for being “something other than art.”
“Litany of the Fathers,” a poem modeled after the Roman Catholic litany prayer, is included in Exquisite Politics, although the authors entertained the notion of leaving it out. “I spent three months thinking about it,” Seaton writes, “Finally, Denise and I…decided to include it.” Seaton explains that the poem might be criticized for its “obvious lack of subtlety and therefore, to certain critics of poetry, its lack of artistic merit.” The poem is a mantra, an incantation that summons members of the male species to account for their actions (or lack thereof). “Hear us,” the poets chant, “Pay us back.” The poem focuses on man’s disregard for women and children, as well as for himself. Critics might find fault with the poem’s seemingly ferocious attack on men, but the writers are willing to stand behind their work. “Writing it was no problem,” Seaton explains, “We wrote it because it felt appropriate to put the litany into the world.” Questioning the appropriateness of certain poems prior to publication is an important issue for Duhamel and Seaton. It is clear they don’t censor themselves, but approach their work by questioning how it will affect the feelings of others. Duhamel says she thought long and hard about whether or not a potentially offensive poem should be included in the book, and even contemplated editing or removing it. “Certainly Coleridge wouldn’t approve of it for its see-through, white-hot anger,” Seaton explains, “But that’s OK…sometimes you just get tired of biting your own tongue.”
“What Are Homosexuals For?” is a prose poem in Exquisite Politics. It is an essay of sorts, inspired by the questions raised in a chapter of Andrew Sullivan’s book, Virtually Normal. Sullivan attempts to justify the function of homosexuals in a society for which the primary purpose is to procreate. In an attempt to answer the question, Duhamel and Seaton began to free-write, copying down every aspect of the topic that occurred to them. This exercise led to cutting and pasting pieces into a discovered whole, welcoming “any resulting conflicts and confusion.” The third voice is not conjured in this poem, but the narrator does provide an interesting, albeit humorous, dichotomy. Stereotypical notions about homosexuals go side by side with analytical definitions of “butches” and “femmes.” “What Are Homosexuals For?” has powerful statements to make about the latter part of the twentieth century, as in the end of stanza six: “I know what homosexuals in the nineties were for–those sadly dutiful worker ants employed as pall bearers.”
In “The Origin of Olive Oyl” (included in Oyl), Duhamel and Seaton redefine the creation of Popeye. Though the reader might find the idea scandalous, the poem makes it difficult to resist. They write, “Olive, it is said, created him when she slipped/on a slimy spinach leaf and landed on a pipe.” The poem also explores Olive Oyl’s sexuality in lines like “Orzo, Ooze, Oulipo–/as though the whole world were one big O!” Certainly the “O” or orgasm is used frequently in the poem. There is even a footnote at the end of this line, a reference to Frank O’Hara’s favorite form of punctuation, the exclamation point.
Neither Oyl nor Exquisite Politics is entirely political gender-based poems. Characters experience love and loss, anger and release, disappointment and liberation. There are those who lose the battle against obesity, abusive parents, witches, drag queens and same-sex marriages. There are butches and femmes, princesses and communists. Among all the mischief and chaos that transpires, there are, thankfully, no happy endings.
What message do they hope to get across to their readers through their collaborative efforts? “I hope (the books) will give them a sense of their oddly singular yet connected place in an odd, enormous universe,” Seaton says, “And a new look at the feminine.” Duhamel hopes the books give readers a good laugh, and an openmindedness they might not have had before.
“It seems to me that if poets want to retain any of their dwindling readership, poetry had better start becoming a little more entertaining,” Duhamel says. Certainly Duhamel and Seaton have seen to that in both Oyl and Exquisite Politics, which encourage readers to laugh at society’s icons, at what we deem important and heroic. Duhamel believes today’s readers have a shorter attention span than readers of yesteryear due to the onslaught of electronic media. “I have hope for poetry for that very reason, its brevity and beauty,” she explains.
“I like new definitions and bigger umbrellas,” Seaton writes in a recent fax. There seems to be plenty of space under the ever-broadening creative “umbrella” to include serious collaborative efforts like Oyl and Exquisite Politics. Hemingway once said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” Duhamel and Seaton are the first to admit that distance can be painful and, at the same time, crucial to the creative process, yet they continue to face the obstacles of everyday life to till fallow ground.
Although it was difficult in the beginning, they have received much admiration for their collaborative work. David Lehman, author of The last avant-garde: the making of the New York School of Poets, describes the two poets as “having so much fun with the language it rubs off on the reader.” He writes, “They’re funny and they’re smart and they’re fast.” In the alliterative poem “The Origin of Olive Oyl,” the poets write, “Only Olive owned ostentatious orgasms;/the puerile position of pomp belonged to Popeye.” Here Lehman sees the allusion to John Ashbery’s famous Popeye sestina. “So clearly they know their legacy, where they’re coming from,” he writes, “And they’re proving how much vitality there is in collaboration as an avant-garde ideal and a New York School tradition.”
If one wasn’t familiar with the determination of both Duhamel and Seaton, one might wonder if is this the end of their collaborative efforts. They assure me, the answer is no. The next challenge? To complete a collaborative novel, which they have already started to write. Long-distance, of course.