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Form and Function: An Interview with Poets Peter Meinke and Denise Duhamel

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by Dr. Gregory Byrd

 

Poets Peter Meinke and Denise Duhamel will be reading their work at St. Petersburg College on Thursday February 7, at 12:30 on the Clearwater campus and at 5:30 on the St. Petersburg-Gibbs Campus.

Dr. Peter Meinke is a respected fixture in Florida, national, and international poetry.  He began teaching poetry writing and literature at the fledgling Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) in 1966 and published his first full-length book, The Night Train and the Golden Bird with the acclaimed Pitt Press in 1977.  Meinke has published seven books of poetry with Pitt, the most recent, The Contracted World, in 2006.  He has also published two books of fiction, The Piano Tuner (which won the Flannery O’Connor Award) and Unheard Music, as well as a book on writing poetry, The Shape of Poetry, and a critical volume on poet Howard Nemerov.  Among his many awards and accomplishments are a Fulbright Fellowship to Poland and two National Endowment for the Arts grants.  He is currently retired and is Poet Laureate of St. Petersburg, where he lives with his wife, the artist Jeanne Clark Meinke. He is on the board of directors of Tampa’s YellowJacket Press which has named a yearly prize after him.

Denise Duhamel was born in Rhode Island but is a longterm Florida resident and teaches creative writing at Florida International University in Miami.  Her most recent books (of more than a dozen volumes) are Ka-ching! (2009, Pitt Press) and Two and Two (2005).  She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and is the editor for Best American Poetry 2013.

One familiar with contemporary poetry might not expect these two poets to appear on the same bill, much less have a lot in common artistically.  Meinke has been mentioned as a member of the New Formalist movement in the 1980’s, and logically so.  He is one of the most respected practitioners of formal poetry in the last thirty years, showing the easy ability to write sonnets, villanelles and even pantoums which seem more like insightful social criticism, love poems, or irreverent rants than some stuffy old poem in an even older form.  In The Contracted World, he dedicates the opening pages to what he calls “left wing sonnets and right wing sonnets,” some of which are older poems and some completely new.  His pantoum (a complex Malaysian form), “Atomic Pantoum” has been widely anthologized.  Meinke has even written a monorhyme sonnet, a love poem: “In Gentler Times.”  Duhamel, almost two generations younger than Meinke, writes poems often in free verse, in short and punchy single stanzas such as “Buddhist Barbie” or in longer, more conversational poems such as “Bottom,” about alcoholism and attempted rape.

The differences between these two poets, however, belie some deeper similarities that emerged in an email interview with the both of them in early February 2013.

Both Meinke and Duhamel allow a broad latitude when it comes to what is a suitable subject for a poem.  While Meinke returns to the azaleas outside his house as topics, he’s just as likely to write about the disgusting caterpillars which plague us every year, wars, politics, old teachers, family, or Disney World.  Duhamel often chooses things that are right in front of our noses, often seemingly unpoetic topics like Barbie dolls, sex, and cultural word variations.  “I am open to anything,” she says.  “I think any aspect of being alive can be brought into a poem.”  Meinke especially values travel to inspire poetry—perhaps a longterm side-effect of his Fulbright fellowship—and says that “travel benefits everyone, and poets in particular.  You not only have stimulating experiences—bad or good, they’re still stimulating—but your own country looks different when seen from afar.”  Meinke found his year of living in Neuchatel, Switzerland especially useful for his writing: “I seemed to find my voice then, and went through a decade of being, for me, very prolific, starting with a chapbook, Lines from  Neuchatel” (which was just reprinted by University of Tampa Press).

Far from being a distinguishing characteristic between the two poets, their use of form is, rather surprisingly, a point of similarity.  “I enjoy using form as a way to explore the possibilities of language and its utter familiarity and strangeness when it is repeated in new contexts,” Duhamel says.  She makes explicit use of formal structures in poems like “Lawless Pantoum” and “Delta Flight 659.”  “I am interested in using traditional forms as there is much to be gained by their containers, but I don’t consider myself a New Formalist.  Maybe I’m more of a Reform School poet,” she says.

It is worth noting that the ages of these two poets mean that their educational experience is very different.  Duhamel studied writing at two of the best writing workshops in the nation, earning her BFA from Emerson College and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.  Her experience is that of organized programs in which established writers lead workshops of students in focused study and critique of their own work and of the craft of poetry and fiction.  These workshops only began with the advent of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1940’s.  Because of this, Meinke says he “never took a workshop and ‘taught myself’ to write by copying the formal writers I admired in school—John Donne, Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, etc.”  It’s easy to see how an approach to learning to write like this would lead him to say “I still like writing form best, though I suppose my work’s about half free verse and half formal.  I tend to follow where the first lines that pop up want to go.”

When many of us imagine how a poet creates a poem, the image is usually that of the poet in a lonely room, perhaps a garret on the third floor of the house, surrounded by books and scribbling (with a quill pen) on a piece of paper on a little desk, perhaps lighted with a candle, and maybe with an annoying raven calling from the window.  Even those who update this image imagine the poet writing in solitude.  Denise Duhamel, however, has embraced the collaborative approach in many of her poems.  “Mainly, collaboration is a way to give the poem its say without the ego of one voice dominating it.  The process isn’t for everyone, but it can be a lot of fun,” she says.  For Meinke, collaborating is often very close to home.  Many of his books are illustrated by his wife, Jeanne.  The Quaker-spare line drawings grace not only his books’ covers but also accompany individual poems in some of his collections, as well as in his Creative Loafing columns, The Poet’s Notebook.

At the end of all the discussion of topics and structure, though, many people voice the same concern about poetry in general: I just don’t get it.  It’s too complicated.  I can never get the hidden meaning.  Those who attend the readings on Thursday will likely have a very different experience.  Duhamel writes that she enjoys “accessible poems and have a democratic look when it comes to poetry . . .That does not mean that I think poetry should be ‘easy.’  The poem should be dense and powerful, and layered with meaning and sound.”  Meinke’s work as St. Petersburg Poet Laureate gives an insight into his feelings about the accessibility of poetry.  “I do like the idea of getting more poetry out to the public . . . I’ve led a workshop for the homeless at St. Anthony’s shelter, read in a lot of libraries, some schools.”  Overall, Meinke sees poetry as something that can make a significant change in individuals and in the world: “Our country would be better off—more emphatic, less eager to bonk other countries on the head, more inclusive—if poetry were a more popular occupation.”

Poems and biographies can be found online for Denise Duhamel at poets.org, poetryfoundation.org, as well as many other places on the web.  Peter Meinke’s webpage is petermeinke.com.

 

Dr. Gregory Byrd is Professor of English and Humanities at St. Petersburg College.  He is the author of two poetry chapbooks, taught poetry writing in Albania during a Fulbright Fellowship, and has written about contemporary American poetry in Mississippi Quarterly and the Facts on File Guide to Twentieth Century American Poetry.

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