By Denise Duhamel and Amy Lemmon
Featured Image: “The Seasons” by Alphonse Maria Mucha
As we wrote “Class Action,” our first poem together (alternating one line at a time, on email), Amy noticed we were writing in abba rhyme, which gave her the idea of writing tangentially about ABBA, the pop group. This lucky association led us to begin a series of poems with two constraints: the stanzas had to be written in abba rhyme, with a mandatory mention of ABBA, the singing group, in each. As we built up our confidence, we sometimes added a third constraint. In one poem, each line had to end in a long “o” sound; and in another, each line had to contain a palindrome, as ABBA is a palindrome. Although we stuck with the rhyme scheme (with allowances for occasional, or more-than-occasional, slant rhymes), we liberated ourselves from metrical restrictions. While Denise is comfortable in the prose poem and free verse, Amy tends to write almost unconsciously in a loose iambic pentameter or tetrameter. But we didn’t insist on uniformity of rhythm. This gave us the leeway to go with the flow, quoting lyrics or song titles, creating dialogue between characters, and injecting other bits of pop culture into the poems.
We wrote in the blended voices of our present selves, our younger selves,
teenage boys, and random strangers who seemed eerily familiar. Angst, marital woes, gender bending, and politics of the day all found their way into our poems; but because of the banter created by alternating lines, our verse could suddenly go into “reverse” and take us by surprise. We wrote these poems even when we were too overwhelmed to write our own solo poems. We wrote these poems as part of our friendship, each line an affirmation to ourselves and the other that we were committed to our project. Perhaps the best example of an “about-face” is when, during the composition of “Subway Blunder,” the two of us ended up in a not-so-subtle tug-of-war. Amy had thought of the title while, well, riding the subway and narrowly avoiding a blunder. She liked the assonance of the short “u” sound, and decided to create a scenario—a classic tourist-in-the-city story, taking the wrong train and ending up in a very wrong neighborhood—to illustrate the concept: “The man from Reno thought Times Square was Lex.” Denise, unaware of Amy’s desire to keep the poem “underground,” immediately sent him on a shopping trip: “And ended up in Bloomingdale’s rather than . . .” Amy continued, “Toys ‘R’ Us. The skinny kid with earbuds ran,” hoping to keep the confused soul from being overwhelmed by conspicuous consumption. Denise continued, “up the down escalators as the soundtrack from Shrek . . .” Amy wrote, “segued into Ghostface Killah. The kid’s elbow knocked,” picturing an underground commuters’ fracas. But Denise had another scene in mind: “over a tween mannequin decked out in Juicy Couture.”
Amy doggedly attempted to steer Our Hero back to the rails: “Europeans who scrambled back to the N train”—“gasping, he stumbled to the subway,” but Denise kept him store-bound, where he was “sprayed with a cologne called Explain.” Finally, by the end of the sixth stanza, he’s on East 96th Street, heading perhaps toward Spanish Harlem, but Denise has him only go uptown one block before turning around and “heading for the 92nd Street Y.” Eventually, the hapless westerner is treated to a poetry reading by Kurt Brown before finally hailing a cab, mercifully ending his adventures in public transportation:
The man from Reno thought Times Square was Lex
so he ended up in Bloomingdale’s rather than
Toys ‘R’ Us. The skinny kid with earbuds ran
up the down escalator as the soundtrack from Shrek
segued into Ghostface Killah. The kid’s elbow knocked
over a tween mannequin decked out in Juicy Couture
on Floor Eight. It fell on a squabbling couple, future
CEOs or rock stars. Bloomingdale’s was overstocked
with tourists, Europeans who scrambled back to the N train,
bags stuffed with falling dollar bargains. Voulez-vous . . .
take it now or leave it, sang the legginged ingénue,
spraying the man from Reno with a cologne called Explain.
Gasping, he stumbled to the subway, just missing
his favorite actress, Susan Sarandon, who went to shop
at Crate & Barrel. On the uptown 6 he missed his stop
at Hunter College as he stared at two straphangers kissing
each other’s elbows. They caught his eye. “Experiment,
mister,” said the girl with the azalea tat on her elbow cap
and the Celtic cross on her calf. Checking the map,
embarrassed, he slunk off at 96th St. to circumvent
another shopping hell. He walked uptown
one block then turned around, heading for the 92nd Street Y.
He’d heard they rented rooms. He asked a guy
who directed him instead to a poetry reading. Kurt Brown
read his imitations of Kim Addonizio and Charles Simic
as the man texted his wife back in Nevada:
U wont B-lv ths: POETRY! Yada yada yada . . .
though he had to admit this Brown guy was a good mimic.
OMG, she replied. Home tmrw, xoxo he texted back.
He unfolded the subway map in his lap—a tangle
of multi-colored lines, numbers, letters—and wangled
a cough. Outside: he flagged a taxi that screeched in its tracks.
Our push and pull, our cramming as much as we could into our allotted lines, was also evident in the poem “Weekly World News Model.” Denise’s friend, the poet Jesse Millner, was a “model” for the now defunct tabloid with the tagline “The World’s Only Reliable News.” Jesse was Photoshopped in front of a Ferris wheel and in a caption he was referred to as Wilbur, the world’s worst carnie. While this seemed like enough absurdity for its own poem, Amy pushed the idea further invoking such luminaries as David Caruso and Maria Callas, and the poem actually wound up with a strangely wonderful political turn at the end that neither one of us saw coming. The rhyme scheme in that poem was especially challenging and fun. When Denise opened a stanza with an “a” line ending with Jackie, Amy closed the stanza with her “a” as bibhitaki. Amy cast Jackie O as turning “ayur-vedic,” to which Denise came up with “manic.” It’s safe to say that while we both are risk-takers in our own poems, Amy and Denise probably wouldn’t have come up with these end words while writing alone.
We came together having both had some background in collaboration. Denise wrote a chapbook-length poem with Sandy McIntosh, three volumes with the poet Maureen Seaton, and edited (with Maureen and David Trinidad) Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry. Amy had been part of two collaborative sonnet crown projects instigated by poet-critic Kathrine Varnes. In both cases, seven poets (all women, none of them Denise) each wrote a sonnet using the last line of the previous sonnet as their first line. In one case, the process was so enjoyable that this particular group decided to make it a “triple,” going beyond the traditional seven poems to create twenty-one. Amy had the honor of “closing up” the crown—her last line was the very first line of the very first sonnet in the sequence. The seven poets entitled the results “What Lips,” in homage to Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Since completing the chapbook ABBA: The Poems, the two of us have co-written sestinas, list poems, and a poem made up of only questions. The combination of hard work, joy, and mystery keeps us going line by line.
Wouldn’t You Like to Know?
Why am I always the one who has to initiate?
Am I being too forward?
Are you even listening to me?
Do I sound like a total bitch?
You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?
What’s wrong with you?
What’s wrong with me?
Why is something always wrong?
Why is the arrow always so sharp?
What the hell does that have to do with anything?
What did I do to deserve this?
Where are you going?
What was I thinking?
Is that all you have to say for yourself?
What are you doing up at this hour?
Why did you break your promise?
How do you mend a broken heart?
When will I ever learn?
Why don’t you come when I call out your name?
Are you talking to me?
Did you just say what I think you said?
Are you accusing me of something?
What are you, paranoid?
Who are you to judge?
Haven’t we gone over this a thousand times already? Where did you put the remote?
Tell me the truth—do you feel trapped?
Is that my cell phone?
Are those my credit cards?
Did you change your PIN number?
Are you going to eat that?
Are you going to just stand there and watch?
Are we going to go there again?
Why don’t we ever go to the movies like we used to?
Do these pants make my ass look fat?
Is that the sound of ripping fabric?
Don’t you know you’re ripping my heart out?
Could it be I’m falling in love?
Was it maybe something you ate?
Where did you put the Alka-Seltzer?
Is it dark in here or is it me?
Why do you always wear your sunglasses indoors?
Why are you always so critical?
Did you refill your prescription for Xanax?
Is this your toothbrush or mine?
How can you be so consistently disgusting?
How can you be so sporadically cruel?
Can you get that?
Should we adopt?
What kind of parents would we be?
Why am I always the one to take out the garbage?
When is this ever gonna end?
Why can’t you just stay in the moment?
What’s wrong with looking towards the future?
Is that some sort of joke?
Should we finally take that hot air balloon ride?
Are you saying I’m full of hot air?
Would you mind losing the sock puppet?
Whatever happened to your sense of humor?
Don’t you have any common sense?
Did you light that incense?
Why can’t you just lighten up?
Did you hear the one about the penguin who walks into a bar?
Why do you always have to change the subject? Do you know how much I hate it when you dig your nails into my arm?
Can we stop this now?
Wouldn’t you like to know?
Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021). Her other titles include Scald; Blowout; Ka-Ching!; Two and Two; Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems; The Star-Spangled Banner; and Kinky. She is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.