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"You erase / everything written before you": An Interview Between Scarlett Peterson and Danielle Cadena Deulen

  Danielle Cadena Deulen is a writer, professor, and podcaster. Originally from the Northwest, she now lives in Atlanta where she teaches for the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State University. Her most recent poetry collection, Desire Museum, is out now from BOA Editions. Her previous collections include Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, winner of the Barrow Street Book Contest and Lovely Asunder, which won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award. Her memoir, The Riots, won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the GLCA New Writers Award. She has been the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Her poems and essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize XLVIPloughshares, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and She is the host of "Lit from the Basement,” a literary podcast and radio show.
We're thrilled to bring you this interview between Scarlett Peterson and Danielle Cadena Deulen, author of the collection, Desire Museum, out now from BOA! But before we get into this thoughtful exchange concerning Danielle's new book, we have a review of the work by Matt Smearing, one of BOA's fabulous fall interns. Of the collection, Matt wrote the following: 
Danielle Cadena Deulen’s latest book does a wonder at confronting the woes of society from even before the beginning, with her very title. Desire Museum is a title that begins the work Deulen does in the fight for women’s rights, using metaphorical language to symbolize the way that to be a woman is to be a museum of desire. Whether it is past, present, future, whether it is unwanted or unreciprocated, whether it is the desire to be free from expectations and stringent roles, to be a woman is to be full of desire. In Deulen’s book I see the realization, at least in part, of those desires. The collection breaks free of expectations and defies one category because of the intersectional nature of it. She tackles with rhythm, imagery, and beautiful lyricism all the issues facing society. She paints with a broad brush about womanhood; her poem “Self-doubt as Trapeze,” confronts the unsteady nature of being a woman, how they are always teetering on the edge, the possibility of failure or judgement always there. Deulen says “…If I reach too far, too short, if I don’t stretch / my toe just so, or my glitter tights snag…” She uses the unsteady position of a trapeze artist to symbolize the plight of women and their ever-constant delicate balancing act. On top of that, she also confronts the issues of so-called “illegal” immigration and how it affects children with her poem—my personal favorite from the collection— “The Uncertainty Principle,” which tackles the issue of children who attempt to emigrate and are unjustly detained or simply lost. She uses particle physics, specifically Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, to compare the position of a child to the position of a particle—lost unless being observed. Also in this collection are poems attacking climate change, nuclear proliferation, the pitfalls of love and affection, and about motherhood. Truly a multivalent collection, this is an absolute BOA must-read.
Scarlett Peterson: Museums are institutions with very clear-cut rules and restrictions. To encounter most exhibits, the museum-goer must remain at a safe distance from the works on display and can never, really, come into close contact with them. How does your collection speak to this imposed distance? 

Danielle Cadena Deulen: I’m going to give a two-part, probably contradictory answer to this question. First: the distance in these poems aren’t as much in space as time. Many of these poems face backward in an anxious interpretation of the speaker’s past choices—their buried ambitions, lost loves, and personal failures. To clearly see one’s life in what is otherwise the continuous chaos of living, one needs temporal distance, and to write about it, one needs authorial distance. There is also aesthetic distance between the subjects I’m writing about and my artistic interpretations of them. The poems often address trauma (both personal and political), but a straightforward discussion of trauma itself risks falling linguistically flat. The difficult situations addressed in the poems are, hopefully, made more approachable, more interesting via lyricism, meta-cognition, fragmentation, the novelty of nonce forms, and the subversion of received forms. Second: the question supposes a more traditional museum space, but some of my most memorable experiences of visual art have been in interactive exhibits. I spent five years in Santa Fe, NM, where many alternative gallery and museum spaces exist, but in one of the half-titular poems in the book (“Museum”) I also directly name an interactive installation I encountered with a friend in the MOMA PS1 in Long Island City, NY. One of the things I admire about such exhibits is the way they blur the line between propriety and intimacy. I think I’m hoping the “audience” for this work will feel invited into the aestheticized, yet intimate space of my own memories. 

SP: You address non-monogamy in your proem, then address bisexuality in many poems across the collection. How does desire work with and against stereotypes of marginalized sexualities and groups?

DCD: When it comes to bisexuality and/or sexual fluidity I think there are many people “hiding in plain sight”—which is obviously problematic for a clear recognition of everyone who belongs to the LGBTQ+ community. There is strength in numbers, and without that visibility, we lose so much in understanding and potential advocacy. We also disallow any potential rupture of hegemonic stereotypes of queer people and relationships. Although many of my previously published poems have been about queer desire, because they were alongside “straight” poems, all were read from a heteronormative perspective—and while I appreciate subtlety in language and flexibility in interpretation, I’ve become tired of always being read in a certain way. I’m bisexual and draw from that experience in my work. So, in this collection, I’ve given readers clearer directions: there are love poems to men (such as “Invoice”), love poems to women (such as the “Lost Sapphics” series), as well as a couple of poems that touch on the idea of non-monogamy (“Desire” and “Two Loves, Both Ending Badly”). I also place these poems of desire alongside poems that focus on sociopolitical violence, motherhood, the unseen labor of women, anxiety about climate change, and elegiac poems, in order to highlight the way in which a singular self is manifold and mutable. Throughout the book, desire is both a subject in itself and a metaphor for transformation and discovery. Queer desire, I think, especially has the potential for radical cognitive transformation, since its existence at all disproves so much of the reigning paradigm. In this case, the beloved might be a partner as well as a guide into a new way of thinking. As I write at the end of “Postscript”: “What I knew as true / no longer corresponds. You erase / everything written before you.”

SP: Your “Remix” poems present the reader with three things: original lines, italicized passages from the poet you’ve cited, and empty brackets. Can you speak to these empty brackets and what their presence, as well as the absence of anything within them, represents?

DCD: In my “Remixes,” a (female embodied) speaker places her voice alongside the voices of canonical poets as a way of thinking through moments of personal crisis. Certain poems have always been touchstones for me and by using them here I hope to illuminate how historical voices speak through us as well as how our own voices evolve their work retrospectively. These poems are an attempt to dramatize the mind of a single speaker in the act of thinking—the closed, empty brackets meant to indicate the spaces in thought that can’t be articulated—the silence of associative leaps. 

SP: Duality and interpretation are at the heart of this collection. Many of your poems can be read differently (“Two Loves, Both Ending Badly,” “We Grow Apart,” “Texas Sestina,”). How does this multiplicity of readings represent the many selves of the speaker, or the many versions of a person that must exist in the world?  

DCD: The stereoscopic poems in the manuscript were especially enjoyable to create. The rhetorical strategy of trying to get a poem to (more or less) read coherently in multiple directions is so challenging, I feel like it thwarts all other considerations of form and technique…But to answer your question, I think what you imply by your question is exactly right: a poem that might be read in various ways is easily a metaphor for the many versions of a person that must exist in the world. Changing the direction in which you read the poem or the situation in which you encounter the person will produce a very different impression of that poem or person. Yet, all of the words are already there, already in a readable shape. It all depends on your approach, and how you are invited (or not invited) to experience it.

Two of the poems you mention had specific challenges in their composition. In “Two Loves, Both Ending Badly,” I wanted to convey the narrative of two relationship arcs simultaneously—one with a man and one with a woman—with a bisexual, non-monogamous woman who is the point of commonality between them. Eventually, she is too overwhelmed by the toxicities in both relationships to continue either (as the title implies). “Texas Sestina” has a singular narrative, but because its climactic moment involves a linguistic, cultural and political border (the drowning of the addressed beloved in the Rio Grande) the trick was to write in a received form in English that attempts to break out of itself via translation into Spanish. The translation forms its own poem—a quieter version of the story in the sestina—in my attempt to show the painful, intimate choices of those immigrating to America and the potentially violent erasure they face. The Cadenas immigrated from Mexico to America via Texas—two generations ago, but when I consider the current border crisis, I think of the history of my family, which is the history of so many families in America, and the human cost of these political policies, which aren’t experienced as political at all, but personal: the loss of loved ones, the divisions of families. For this poem, I hoped to create a persona that speaks from the heart of this truth. 

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