“Whatever white-knuckling means I just did it.” Sadie Dupuis likes to begin her poems this way—abruptly, as if trying to catch herself off guard. She writes from the moments when we reveal ourselves to ourselves: “knowing there’s a blizzard, driving anyway. // And laughing out my teeth grindings.”
Dupuis’s second collection of poetry, Cry Perfume (Black Ocean, 2022), combines the gut-punch lyricism and humor we got to know in Mouthguard (Gramma, 2018) with a new grief-steeped sensibility from the far edge of endurance. Written over four years while Dupuis was on the road touring with Speedy Ortiz and Sad13, losing friends and fellow artists to overdoses and exhaustion, and organizing in the music industry and nightlife culture, Cry Perfume distills private moments from the shared intensity of a community of artists mourning and making meaning. But it’s not all bottled tears: Cry Perfume is a bold, gossipy, prismatic look at care in five acts, “bursting,” as Wendy Xu writes, “with a hallowed strangeness.”
In October, I joined Dupuis and tourmate Michael DeForge for their stop in Western Massachusetts, where we read at an arcade and chatted about their new books, artistic friendships, and organizing in the arts. Sadie and I picked the conversation back up last month on Zoom, where we talked about color, performance, social media, ritual, friends, pop music, timelessness, intelligibility, and more.
Rachelle Toarmino: Last time we spoke was at The Quarters in Hadley, Massachusetts, when you were touring for the release of Cry Perfume. One of the things you told me was that you were looking forward to performing the poems out loud for an audience for the first time, as that wasn’t an experience you’d had while writing and editing them. You compared this to your experience of the poems in Mouthguard, your first book, which you’d performed on more of an ongoing basis, as they were written. So, now that the tour is over—what was that experience like? Did anything come out of it that made you see the poems or book in a new light?
Sadie Dupuis: Because I hadn’t read any of the poems out loud to an audience—except to myself, which is never the same thing—I didn’t go in knowing what the bangers are—“This one always makes someone laugh,” “This one makes people feel awful,” whatever. So I had friends or the host or other readers pick a number, and I’d read whichever poem corresponded with that page. I even used a Bingo ball system at one point, but it turned out to be too cumbersome. But then people kept picking the same numbers, which I thought was weird—seventy-four kept coming up, for instance—so I’d just read whatever was on the next page until I’d gone through the whole book. It forced me to hear and experience every poem in my own voice at least once. I was surprised because by the end of the tour I didn’t really have an allegiance to certain poems as crowd-pleasers, but I loved never once reading the same ten poems in a row. It was a fun way to get to know the book, seeing the different ways poems could register depending on what comes before or after them.
I really like the idea of randomizing the sets, especially because—and correct me if I’m wrong—in the book you grouped the poems according to themes and subjects.
It was exactly that. I noticed some similar ideas coming up across the book, so when I was originally organizing it into its five sections, I printed out every poem and scribbled what I thought the themes were and chose to arrange them that way. I tried to give equal weight to each section. I’d gotten some helpful criticism from Dorothea Lasky, who encouraged me to try sectioning it. I’d sent her an earlier version of the manuscript where I had front-loaded all my fun, quippy poems—the poems I was most excited about—but then those poems became the openings to each of the sections. So by doing it in five sections I was like, “Oh, I get a cold opening five times.”
I’m always curious to learn who’s friends with whom. On tour, I talked to you and tourmate Michael [DeForge] about your artistic friendship—sending each other prompts during the day, holding each other accountable to finish work. Mouthguard was written in an MFA program, with that kind of format of community built in. But who lives in the background of Cry Perfume? Who’s in your current community of artists, and in what ways have you all rubbed off on each other? How have you sustained that post-MFA?
My MFA experience was weird because I did one semester of it very earnestly acclimating to Western Mass, but then I started touring a lot so wasn’t in as close-knit quarters as some of my cohort. But I do remain friends with many of the people I’d met that first semester. Wendy Xu has been an important friend and influence to me as a writer. I sent her the first draft of Cry Perfume, and she sent me this five-minute voice message of every thought—I don’t think I’ve ever gotten something like that before. Mark Leidner was another good friend from the program, although he was doing fiction. I was always really in love with his work and how he’d share it—going to comedy nights and reading his poems as if he were doing a standup routine. Also Ted Powers, who was always incorporating some interesting prop into his reading. I remember him pulling poems to read from a fishbowl once. I love that kind of randomness and theatricality. And then there’s Caroline Crew, who has also stayed a really close friend. She’s another I sent the manuscript to. Post-MFA, I’ve met a lot of people online. Another credit to Mark Leidner for teaching me how to use Twitter. I’d been on it since 2009 because I was a music critic, but if I go back and look at my earliest tweets, it’ll be like, “I love having a #bagel on Sunday.”
Oh no. . . Do you want this to be off the record?
[Laughs.] You gotta try and fail for a little bit. And now when I think about it, learning to use that creative voice—it didn’t inform my sense of humor, but it allowed me to lead with it, which has informed my other modes of writing in a way it hadn’t prior to being friends with Mark and getting online in that capacity. A lot of my friendships are from Twitter.
I go back and forth lately with social media. I miss the earlier days of Twitter, when it felt more creative and new. I’m still grateful for it—I relate to what you’re saying about humor because I do think it taught me to practice writing in my own voice in a very low-stakes and ordinary/routine way. But Twitter especially is in such a weird place right now. What’s your current relationship with social media like?
I feel like I’m not good at it anymore. It became too bleak.
Yeah. I used to think in tweets, but lately I don’t.
Gion Davis organized this Bernadette Mayer marathon writing group last month on Midwinter Day. Were you there? The idea was that everyone writes all day and tries to write a book, and I did wind up writing like 12,000 words, which is way more poetry than I’d ever written in a day before. Anyway, one of the rules was you could pull from notes, and I had been thinking about the likelihood that Twitter will disappear. I have so many drafts—thousands, probably. So I used them all, and it was really fun to see where I could go from these little starts of a thought or joke and try to meld them together into something more.
That’s how so many of my poems start—taking existing lines and rearranging them over and over.
I do that too, but it was a new experience just using tweet drafts. For whatever reason, writing a line in the notes app and writing it in a notebook feel different—those voices don’t hang out together too often.
The voice on Twitter is so public-facing, whereas the notebook voice is so private, so self-serious and sentimental and dramatic. So did you end up getting a book out of it?
I did. I think it’s theoretically book-length, but maybe it’s a littler book.
Does it feel discrete?
I think so, but I also think it would be hard for me to do something for just one day and be like, “That’s perfect!” With all respect to Bernadette, who could do whatever. I think it’d be a fun exercise to do a few more like that, where I keep a poet and their intention and work in mind, and write all day, and see if maybe I can get a few more things to cull from.
When you say keep her intention and work in mind, were you trying to channel her? Or just borrowing her process?
It was more borrowing her process. I’m not good at imitating someone else’s voice, as fun as that sounds, but I think that borrowing circumstances can unlock different things in your own voice, so I like to do things like that—physical or thematic constraints.
What other processes or approaches are you curious to try out?
I’m interested in doing a novel in verse. Melissa Lozada-Oliva is a good friend who I met years ago in the Boston music scene, and I really like her new book, Dreaming of You, which is a novel in verse. I’m a big fan of Anne Carson’s writing, especially her books that play with form in that way. I also love CAConrad, although I can’t point to anything of mine that comes close to resembling their work, but I love the visual elements and the way their somatic rituals take you out of your reading space and into the act of creating.
I actually thought of CA a few times when I was reading your book. I notice that a lot of your poems are of a similar brevity—you’ve got a lot of one-pagers. And I think of CA as someone who has really mastered that sort of acute, declarative form. Is there something that draws you to the shorter form? How have you arrived at this particular duration?
My poems start out so much longer, and my editing process often halves the poem, if not more. A lot of these poems start at four or five pages and then end up maybe twelve lines. When I first started writing poetry, I was really interested in the visual component—sort of how CA’s poems look. And I’ve strayed from that in these poems—there’s not much indentation or making much use of the space. But I still like thinking of poems visually, where a page can house a poem. I’m inspired by the kinds of spreads in art or photo books, where there’s usually one piece per one or two pages.
I get that. It’s like wanting readers to be able to take in the physical form all at once, or like wanting there to be a complete first impression of the shape of the poem instead of having it revealed slowly over the course of multiple pages.
Yeah, which is part of why it was fun to do that exercise last month. My usual impulse is to go short and cut down. I never really add during the editing process. My first pass is about getting out the longest thing, every idea I can think of, and then trying to honor what’s there rather than gluing things in. I don’t want the poem to feel like an exquisite corpse.
Another thing I was thinking about related to CA—and because I read your interview with Autostraddle and learned that your fascination with scent comes from this post-surgery relationship with your nasal pathways. . . I really appreciated what you said about scent being so tied to memory, and because Cry Perfume is a book about grief, you leaned into that concept to tie it all together. So I wondered whether you might have used any scent-related, CA-style rituals to unlock or release any of the material for these poems. . .
Oh, that’s interesting. I came to the concept during the editing stage, so scent-related rituals weren’t involved in generating this material, but I have relied on rituals in other projects. There’s an album I was working on last year, and every day in December of 2021 I would dress fully in whatever color I saw first upon waking up. I think it’s gone now, but there was this MoMA feature on their website where you could pick a color and look through things in their collection that were primarily in those shades. So I’d just be trying to seep in a single color for each day, and I let that inform the songwriting process. What kind of tempo is, you know, chartreuse? What kind of key changes, or time signature, or textures? It was a really fun way to make myself work. I tried to produce a song every day for the month, and now that the album’s finished, I love knowing, like, “That’s the mauve ballad.” Of course, around that same time, I was turning in the final edit of this book and had sectioned it by color, and I’d also just painted this house these crazy colors, so maybe that process did come out in Cry Perfume.
You also told Autostraddle that many of your section titles came from either slightly modified or wholly mistranslated names of perfumes. Can you talk a little bit about that mistranslating process?
I’d found out that all these punk and experimental music guys I know are really into perfume blogs, so when I landed on the idea of incorporating scent more explicitly into the book, I asked them to send me some links. I spent a couple weeks reading about all these perfumes with interesting histories and came up with five section titles. So for example, I would be reading the history of Nombre Noir, which doesn’t mean black number, but that was how I felt I could use it for the book.
Sort of like playing around with false cognates, or the associative qualities of words in foreign languages? That reminds me of something you’ve said about how your background in music informs more of an interest in the sounds and textures of words, not always necessarily tied to their intended or conventional meanings. What are some words or phrases you find yourself drawn to again and again?
Well, during some round of edits on this book—I think pretty early on, when I had all the poems in a document—I was using websites like random.org to list all the words alphabetically, or count which words I used the most. And barring pronouns and articles, I decided that if I’d used a word more than a couple times I’d look for a replacement. I do the same thing with lyrics—many songwriters use repetition, but I don’t tend to. I prefer to hit that meaning using different textures and colors. I’m sure there are things that I say all the time, but by the time I get to the editing process, I’m working very hard to kill those repetitions.
I do love those moments where you play with repetition in the space of the same line or moment—“dead by death,” “opened my eyes open.”
Yeah, that’s me having some fun. If I’m going to hammer something home, I’ll work with different forms of the same stem.
I’m also a fan of the moments in your poems where you take a line, phrase, or image that lives in the popular cultural consciousness—whether it’s a line from an Alanis Morissette song or a revision of the movie title I Know What You Did Last Summer or even just an emoji—and turn it inside out. I’m curious about this because advice I’ve been told, and that I also love to ignore, is to shy away from those kinds of moments because they date poems. What is your attitude toward the idea of timelessness?
I think time is important! [Laughs.] I love to read poems or listen to songs or look at the title of a painting and then realize that it’s for or about or after someone else. I love gossip in poems, and I love to see friendship performed in pieces of art, so I don’t know how to create things like that without those kinds of references. I like to be in conversation with the things that are speaking to me, even if that’s an Ariana Grande song that I listened to five hundred times that year. I see the merits of writing outside of the context of time and culture, but I’m so entrenched in time and culture, and I love to read a poem and remember, “I wrote this in this place, so it must have been this month of this year, and this friend must have texted me.” I love those little secret codes, not only to myself, but to my friends.
Totally. It all becomes the material. And I really appreciate the connection to gossip—this sort of wink at the reader who’s going to get the reference.
Like everybody else, I went through a big Eve Babitz phase. I love her writing, and I would say it is a big influence on my poetry. What always cracks me up about her books that are characterized as short stories or novels is that they’re just these undisguised tellings of her own social life, with people’s true names. So it is gossipy, but she’s telling her own gossip, and I think I’m often using poetry in that capacity.
What about your relationship to pop? How would you characterize your attitude toward mass culture?
I love pop music, and television—I especially like “bad” media. I don’t view them as guilty pleasures. I’m just not always drawn to the “highest” “artform.” But I also like things that are a little harder to access. I put things into my own music that push away from pop—I like noisy and harsh and confusing things—and I like reading poetry where I don’t understand a single sentence of it, and I’m just enjoying the combination of words and the feeling of words in that kind of abstraction. But then I can be very happy to watch a TV show where nothing is left to mystery, like Emily in Paris, and it’s just pure golden ratios. Which isn’t to say pop can’t be weird—I forget, you’re around the same age as me, right?
You’re 34, right? I’m 32.
So you grew up with, like, Missy Elliot and Timbaland production on the radio. Some of that stuff is really weird. So all of this isn’t to say that I don’t think pop can’t be brain-scratching.
What do you love about pop music or elements of pop? And how do you see that coming out in your poems, if it ever does?
Pop can make use of really vibrant strokes and textures, whether that’s in the lyrics or in the production, but it can also take you down strange and winding melodies. Pop music especially can incorporate a lot of different textures with boldness. It can use convention to bring stranger sounds and ideas to a listener. You can’t be conventional on both fronts. You have to have a weird melody if you’re going to do normie production. And maybe that’s how I approach other forms of art, too.
I’ve read a couple reviews of Cry Perfume in which critics seem to read your poems through the lens of knowing you first as a musician—suggesting that the poems are extensions of your songwriting, essentially. How do you react to this idea?
I can’t envision these poems as songs, because they’re not constructed in my lyric mode—songwriting lyrics, I mean. I’ve certainly heard people sing poems and think it’s an incredible exercise. I once interviewed Mike Hadreas from Perfume Genius, who had sung poems on his first two or three records—initially he’d intended to sing a poem on every record—and I thought it was so cool. As a composer I might have a fun time setting one of, for instance, your poems to music and figuring out a way to make the words and music coincide. But it’s not something that I could do for Cry Perfume. For me, my lyrics are just a different form.
Do you find it limiting when people engage with your poems in this way?
It’s a mixed bag. When we were on the book tour, and other times too, people have told me that mine is the first poetry book they’ve ever bought. And I feel lucky in some regard—or excited and honored—that someone would check out poetry because they like my music. I’m realistic about the fact that a lot of people don’t read poetry books, so it’s very meaningful that someone will take a chance on a new form for me. But then once in a while I come across a review where someone says something like, “I really wanted to like this but it made me feel stupid.” And I don’t ever want to make anyone feel stupid! So maybe I’m not the ideal first poet for someone new to the genre to check out. My poems aren’t the most accessible, and I think I write for the kind of reader I am—someone who’s fine with not understanding something on the first read, or ever. But I do think it might also come down to the way poetry is taught to most people—like, every poem needs an analysis. If you can look at a Rothko and find pleasure in that, I think poetry can be a similar experience for you. It’s not necessary to come out with an answer. I always think of when “The Rite of Spring,” the Stravinsky ballet, debuted—people rioted. They couldn’t deal with hearing a new time signature. When you hear a kind of music in which your brain doesn’t know how to find the patterns, it actually activates endorphins and rage.
Wow—what do you think your response would be if you learned that someone rioted after reading your poems?
I think that to say “This made me feel stupid” is kind of rioting against yourself. There’s space for negative reactions in poetry, but hopefully not for readers against themselves. It makes me feel bad, but also. . . I hope they find another poet to love! I have more allegiance to poetry than to you liking mine.
That’s it. I used to worry about accessibility more in terms of like, I want anyone to be able to find something in my poems. And in a sense I still do. But increasingly I notice how standards of accessibility only get imposed on certain kinds of people—to make legible, or explain, or, you know, dumb down. And I’m just not into it.
Yeah, I think of that Clark Coolidge book, A Book Beginning What and Ending Away. It’s this long poem and it’s just these words—that’s the experience of it, taking in this archive of different words. And it was maddening to read, and also really exciting because I hadn’t read a book quite like that before. I think, even if you are having negative or frustrated or superior or overwhelmed feelings, you’re gonna glean something from finishing a book, even if it’s just knowing exactly why you hated it so as not to incorporate that into your own work.
I sort of love that one adage that’s like, the previous book poses the questions that the next book will try to respond to. In what ways do you see your two books in conversation with one another? Where did Mouthguard leave off that Cry Perfume picked up?
When I wrote Mouthguard, I was really shy about being seen as a musician—I didn’t want these things to touch. Even as a critic, I would publish under my legal name instead of Sadie because I didn’t want people to be able to google my writing and find my music. And especially in the MFA, I was self-conscious about being the musician in the program, given the legacy of David Berman having gone there. I didn’t want to step anywhere near that. So despite music being such a huge part of my social and artistic lives, there’s almost no music in Mouthguard. I didn’t want to write about it. So I think there’s been a reconciliation of subject matter. By the time I was editing Cry Perfume, music had been my full time job for eight years—I’m part of a union and other activist groups surrounding music labor—and until the pandemic touring was how I made money ten months of the year. It would have been impossible not to incorporate larger themes of work and labor into my writing.
So why the turn toward that?
I think, like many people who make their living off art, I had a self-consciousness about it. I was nervous to write anything that could be perceived as complaining about this “dream job.” A lot of Cry Perfume is informed by the experience of living with chronic pain and yet still sleeping on people’s floors, because that’s the budget. In the past, I wouldn’t have wanted to incorporate music into poetry in a revelatory way. I’m not, you know, going to write a pleasant ode. I just don’t think that’s a voice I’m good at hitting. And I felt self-conscious saying, “Many aspects of this job are exhausting.” So having a better understanding of art and labor—of being an arts worker as a form of labor, of harm reduction and how those principles are or aren’t employed across live music—has helped me approach some of the things I wanted to reckon with.
Rachelle Toarmino is a poet, publisher, and teacher from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the author of the poetry collection That Ex and the chapbooks Comeback, Feel Royal, and Personal & Generic. Her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Bennington Review, Electric Literature, ITERANT, Literary Hub, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, The Slowdown, and elsewhere. She is also the founding editor in chief of Peach Mag and an editorial advisor to Foundlings Press. She lives between Buffalo and Western Massachusetts, where she is an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst.
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