Five Questions with MFA alum Danielle Cadena Deulen

Five Questions with MFA alum Danielle Cadena Deulen

Desire Museum, the third poetry collection from Danielle Cadena Deulen, MFA ’05, has recently been named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry—the latest of many awards she's earned  for her work as both a poet and a memoirist. Her first collection, Lovely Asunder, published in 2011, won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award, and Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us won the Barrow Street Book Contest. Additionally, The Riots won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the GLCA New Writers Award. Among other honors, Deulen has served as a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and she has been the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, an Oregon Literary Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize.

Deulen currently lives in Atlanta, where she is an assistant professor for the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State University. She is creator and co-host, with her husband, Max Stinson, Mason MFA ’05, for the literary podcast Lit from the Basement. Learn more at her website: danielledeulen.net.

Looking back over the years since your graduation from Mason in 2005 and your first collection in 2011, how has your poetry—or your approach to writing poetry—evolved from grad school to your newest poems. And what’s remained steadfastly similar over those years—style, subject matter, themes? 

I’ve always been interested in the power dynamics within personal relationships, which has been the driving focus of most of my poetry. My first poetry collection, Lovely Asunder, explored bright yet tragic feminine figures in Western myth—Eve, Lilith, Joan of Arc, Persephone—as well as the lives of unnamed contemporary women. My second poetry collection, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, is interested in the theories and philosophies of Western literature and how those ideological structures inform our personal experience—for example, how too much trust in authority might lead to climate crisis. As I’ve matured, my poems have matured with me. For example, motherhood was not yet an experience that I had when I began writing. Desire Museum is a somewhat backward-glancing book. In it, I consider my regrets of past romances. But I also write about various issues that arise from the experience of female-identified embodiment, including the ambiguities and dangers of sex and desire, the unseen labor of women, the anxieties of motherhood, the ramifications of interpersonal trauma as well as environmental degradation in women’s lives.

After Mason, you earned a PhD in creative writing with a focus on nonfiction from the University of Utah—and your 2011 memoir, The Riots, was published in the same year as Lovely Asunder. Where do you see connections between your work as a poet and your work as a memoirist, and on the other hand, what possibilities does each genre specifically open up to you as a writer? 

I tend to draw from autobiographical material when writing in poetry as well as creative nonfiction, so the connection there seems clear, and I work in both genres interchangeably. My second poetry collection, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, takes its title from an essay by Michel de Montaigne and many of the poems in the collection were first published as lyric essays. My memoir, The Riots, explores the attractions and dangers of intimacy—how poverty, race, gender, and disability construct social and psychological barriers even within close relationships. For example, in “Aperture,” I consider how I have advanced my autistic brother’s isolation from family and from the world. In “Theft” I begin to question a romantic story about conquistadors from the Latinx half of my family. What tends to lead me toward poetry is a musical or structural principal that begins to take over the work as I write it. What tends to lead me toward writing in prose is the realization that I have a lot more to say about the subject than what I initially believed in the first drafts. But sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I began writing what I think is a poem, then realize it needs to be an essay, or vice versa. I love the discovery that comes with the process of writing. It’s always a surprise. 

What specific professor or course at Mason has had the biggest impact on your career as a writer?  

It’s hard to pick just one course out of the many great courses I took at Mason. I think of a graduate program as being the best conversation of your life—over many years and with many people—and the quality of the conversation I was engaged in during my time at George Mason was excellent. However, I think my most “influential” class might have been Jennifer Atkinson’s Form and Theory of Poetry course my very first semester there because it set the tone for my time there. It was my introduction to graduate-level work, working in poetic form, as well as my introduction to Jennifer, who later became my thesis advisor, and after I graduated from the program and began working in the English Department, we became friends. In this course, I also met my cohort of peers, many of whom I remain friends with today. We’ve seen each other through many changes in our careers and relationships, and we still love to talk about literature.

You’re teaching now in the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State—and have been teaching creative writing in various capacities since your time at Mason. What are you seeing now in creative writing workshops that you didn’t see 20 years ago? And how does your teaching enhance your own creative work?

I’ve seen a lot of change over the past 20 years! In some ways, the central duties of my teaching has hardly changed: I am still helping students become more cognizant of their own creative processes, and helping them to find their voices. Students are still writing about love, pain, identity, and trying to make sense of familial and sociological structures through their work. Students still come into the classroom having been exposed to very little contemporary work, which is exciting because I get to introduce them to so much wonder. However, the biggest change I’ve seen is that students have a greater anxiety about their “professionalism” (even at the undergraduate level) and are more self-conscious about critique—both giving it and getting it. I see this as an influence of social media, where critiquing or being critiqued can have such dire consequences on the shape of a life.

In terms of how teaching enhances my own creative work: teaching has an amazing ability to educate me. You don’t know a text like you do when you teach it. Partly, this has to do with the various levels on which you must understand a work in order to teach it effectively. However, you never know what will be brought up in conversation, and my students often surprise me with the beautiful insights in their interpretations...insights that I get to bring with me into the classroom the next time I teach it. Likewise, watching students evolve their craft over many years, and helping them solve their interesting aesthetic or structural problems help me to see my own work more objectively, more clearly.

On a more personal note, you married one of your fellow MFA classmates! Tell us about having two creative writers living and working in the same household? 

Max, my husband, is a wonderfully hilarious, creative person, and I’ve been honored to make our podcast with him. Lit from the Basement was so fun for us! In each hour-long episode, he and I discus a poem—me as a poetry professor and him as a poetry-resistant smart-mouth. I can’t tell if he’s my worst or best student. We had to stop the podcast after Max got a full-time job, and we moved across the country from Oregon to Georgia. But I’m still quite proud of our 52 episodes which are still on the radio in Oregon, or you can find them at Litfromthebasement.com.

Despite Max’s resistance to poetry, I think you can hear in our exchange two intellectually and creatively compatible people who really like talking to one another. That’s been the heart of our relationship from the start.