What Can We Steal From Denise Duhamel’s “Sex with a Famous Poet”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Sex with a Famous Poet,” poem
Author: Denise Duhamel (Wow…here’s a video of her reading some of her poems!)
Date of Work: 1999
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was included in Ms. Duhamel’s 1999 collection The Star-Spangled Banner. The Academy of American Poets has included the poem on its web site. Why not read it right now?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Distance
Denise Duhamel is one of my favorite poets because she makes poetry fun. To be sure, Ms. Duhamel is a top-flight wordsmith and shares deep thoughts with her audience. I love sharing her work with others because I think that most readers (especially ones who don’t read much poetry) don’t feel there’s a wall in front of the poem. “Sex with a Famous Poet” is a particularly potent example of Ms. Duhamel simply having a conversation with her reader. The poem begins with the titular confession, one that definitely gets our attention. Who doesn’t love reading about sex, particularly illicit romance? Six and a half lines in, the reader learns that the sex was simply the narrator’s dream. Why not say so immediately?
a friend told me, write about a dream,
lose a reader and I didn’t want to lose you
Now that Ms. Duhamel has your attention, she tells you the famous poet is actually a jerk and that sexual dreams were a topic of conversation early in her relationship with her husband. Ms. Duhamel’s narrator redeems the “famous poet.” Perhaps he was having a bad day, maybe he was simply growing weary of his fame. The last three lines of the poem illuminate the narrator’s philosophy as to what makes a person decent:
I mean, this poet has to have some redeeming qualities, right?
For instance, he writes a mean iambic.
Otherwise, what was I doing in his arms.
Most writers are decent, right? A writer’s job is to spend countless hours offering a frank examination of their humanity and that of others, right? Only a good person would devote his or her life to the creation of art and beauty, right?
And look at that final line. “What was I doing?” That’s a question, right? Ms. Duhamel uses punctuation “incorrectly” in order to make you wonder. Instead of asking a question, she’s making a statement. Does the full stop mean that the narrator honestly believes that being a great writer is an excuse for bad behavior? Does the statement eliminate some of the excuses the narrator makes for dreaming of making love with another man? (It’s up to you; this is poetry!)
One of the other great tricks that Ms. Duhamel plays on the reader is to draw him or her very close. If a friend describes a dream to you, don’t you feel a very strong connection with them? Ms. Duhamel casts the reader in the role of a friend to pull them closer. The introductory dream isn’t a fake-out as much as it is a way to establish intimacy.
The same technique is employed quite often in TV and movies. Dreams offer a glimpse into the subconscious, but they are also often more fun than reality. In a dream, you can win the World Series and then get a call from Queen begging you to duet with Freddy Mercury and then go on a James Bond-style mission to save Kristen Bell from an evil media magnate. In reality, you get a coffee, read a little bit of a book and then count the hours until you go to sleep.
Ms. Duhamel is careful not to keep the writer in the alternate reality for too long. Like a dream, there are flashes of the sex with a famous poet, and then the rest of the poem is colored by the feelings evoked by the dream.
What Should We Steal?
- Grapple your reader to thy soul with hoops of steel…when appropriate. Think of your excitement when a friend calls you over and says, “Can you keep a secret?” In the right kind of work, this technique can be very powerful.
- Use punctuation incorrectly to create tension or to reinforce a point. Imagine you’re a parent in a supermarket with an unruly child. When you pull the kid’s hand out of the lobster tank, you might say, “Want to go for ice cream.” In that moment, you’re not asking the kid if they want a treat. You’re making a statement: I’m very angry and you’re in trouble when we get home.