An Interview with Diane Seuss
Photo: Gabrielle Montesanti
Diane Seuss is the author of the poetry collections Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (2018); Four-Legged Girl (2015), finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (2010), winner of the 2009 Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (1998). She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets curates a cinematic landscape “like cels on a filmstrip” of a female epic that moves restlessly through memory and middle America. She spars with the ghost of Frank O’Hara while embracing her own guilelessness, timestamping, and intimate “you.” O’Hara’s jujubes and papaya juice become Seuss’s megachurches and quaaludes. It was a Friday in February when we discussed her latest collection (released with Graywolf Press on March 2021), the sonnet’s cage, and the female poet’s drive from Cape Disappointment to remembrance.
- Natalie Tombasco
Natalie Tombasco: This latest collection is a “baroque pleasure,” especially in how carefully sequenced the poems are. It feels almost surreal or like being cast under a Seussian spell. Can you begin by describing the journey of writing these poems?
Diane Seuss: After Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, a lot of people suggested that I write a memoir. I thought about it because I had a weird life, but I just couldn’t hear it in prose. The story goes back to this residency in Washington state. I rented a car so I could wander, and I drove to a place called Cape Disappointment.
NT: Haha—is that a real place?
DS: It’s a real place, honey. And so, it happened like the opening poem. I looked out at the iconic lighthouse, the cliff. I thought about walking far down, just low enough to where it might be a good place to jump. Not that I would’ve, but that’s where my mind was. Instead, the whole effort seemed like too much, so I took a nap in the car. Then that line came, “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment,” and I realized while driving, God, I’m narrating as it’s happening. Then the next, “I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome / nose and penis.” Frank kind of walked in. I wasn’t thinking of him in particular.
By the time I was back at my cabin, it was pretty much written in my head. I didn’t know it was a sonnet until it was on paper. Fourteen lines and the final couplet, “But how do I explain / this restless search for beauty or relief?” It became the DNA of the collection: it brought in Frank, it narrated a life, it leaped a lot. What makes O’Hara’s work so cool is its improvisational energy, its kinetic nature—you feel like you’re walking with him in New York.
He left a small town in Grafton, Massachusetts, moved to Manhattan, and experienced it as a great liberation being a gay man in the 50s. My own move to NY from smaller places was not so comfortable. In all my books, I’ve carried muses or guides—Four-Legged Girl it was Lorca, for Peacocks it was painters (Rothko, Rembrandt, etc.) and the male gaze. So, here was Frank; a sort of nettlesome figure of interest who wasn’t exactly there to cheer me on.
NT: Those similarities and differences between you two in NY are interesting.
DS: Being in NY as a young poet in the 70s, it was still a masculinist enterprise. I would meet people like Ginsberg or Burroughs, and they looked through me. I was not worthy to be peed on as I write in, “Yes, I saw them all, saw them, met some.” Another connection with Frank was when I met one of his best friends, a famous poet, who was looking for someone to type up his rough drafts in exchange for a course of his at Columbia. The job ended up being really dangerous and icky. I can’t say Frank was my angel and guiding light. I loved his propulsion and flâneur character, but at times, he represented an era in poetry that was effacing of women and people of color. He’s complicated, but I’m interested in complicated figures.
After Cape Disappointment, I said, okay, I’m writing a memoir in sonnets. They’ll have an improvisation quality, not roaming around physically like Frank’s work, but roaming mentally, imaginatively, and through memory. When sequencing the poems, I began with the West coast by the ocean with these larger contemplations of being up against the edge of myself, then I followed the thread through what I’m imagining as a spectrum or a prism with different planes of light.
NT: You’ve spoken to what I admire about O’Hara, too—his agility, abrupt tonal shifts, contradictory feelings, disjunctive images, slippery “selves” or roleplaying. Something I was thinking about was out of all the postwar poets, why Frank? I love what you said about him not being a Virgil figure, but rather, a companion.
DS: Yes, companion. I often spar with male artists. I think it’s because I grew up in a matriarchy with my grandmother, mother, and sister. I’m like a womanly woman, but my psychological balance tends to be identified as male. There’s also frankness, being frank. I like that doubleness. Amy Winehouse’s first album was titled Frank.