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.
NT: For Frank Sinatra, right?
DS: Yeah, isn’t that awesome! I trust the serendipitous.
NT: This reminds me of O’Hara’s anti-manifesto “Personism” wherein he instructs, “You just go on your nerve.” He also contemplates the poet’s role by writing, “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not.” I think he’s pushing for instinctual writing and pushing against this notion of a poet as a sage. Do you think this sentiment connects to your poetry?
DS: Definitely. He strikes me as being self-confident, cocky. It takes confidence and vulnerability to go on nerve. I love how in that essay he says, “I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’” I’m iffy about getting on his bandwagon, though. To have that swagger requires certain conditions that give you space to possess it, and I know a lot of people don’t have that space. My own swagger comes out towards the end of frank, but it’s always mediated by the hostility of these spaces marginalized groups occupy that are violent and scary. There’s no such thing as “pure swagger” for me, as I’m aware of that dissonance.
NT: That notion on dissonance brings me to your line, “Rain, rain, fascism in America is loud,” and how O’Hara wrote indirectly about America in the ‘50s and ‘60s like in “Poem [Krushchev is coming on the right day!]” where politics is what happens in the background of life. How do you balance the personal and political?
DS: I don’t consider myself an overtly political poet. You know, I think about Emily Dickinson who is also a “nettler.” She wrote her fascicles during the Civil War. You hear very little mention it, but you can read her entire life’s work in terms of war. I wrote frank in the context of the Trump era and the hell we’ve been experiencing. Maybe like Frank, the lightness of spirit, improvisation, and swagger is my pushback against fascism. It’s weird that the “Rain, rain” line came at the end of this poem that has my great-grandma, the barbershop, the hair against my neck—the way politics comes into a life. There’s the sensation, memory, impending doom all part of the same surface; all in the sonnet’s live trap.
NT: O’Hara has said that critics are “the assassin / of [his] orchards.” You’ve said before that your poems are criticized as being “gushy-lush,” or rather, overstimulation of sensory language. Once I heard of your sonnets, I was intrigued by the balance between compression and opulence. As Robert Creeley has noted, “Form is never more an extension of content,” and so I’m wondering how a predetermined shape and economy of thought can reflect the speaker’s inner experience or psychology? Or how with all the sonnet’s trappings, you were still able to make it your own?
DS: After Four-Legged Girl and Peacocks, I felt the need for brevity, which intimidated me because I’m a poet where my primary strength is imagination. But I also believe that a way to grow as a writer is to rob yourself of your strengths. The sonnet is built for contemplation. Some of my sonnets can be read as fourteen-line flash nonfiction, others are music forward. I didn’t want all the elements in any one sonnet, but most have a volta, a gesture toward rhyme. Within that compressed block, a lot could be contemplated if you took out the connective tissue, the transitions, or finishing thoughts to associatively wander.
NT: You have these gorgeous lines: “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without….Poverty, like a sonnet, is a good teacher….A sonnet is a mother.” I’m wondering about the history of the form, and how traditionally it has been considered elitist—a form for a white, male, heteronormative society. How do you reclaim the sonnet and how does it speak to marginality?
DS: I like this idea of re-defining the sonnet in terms of a poverty class and matriarchy. A sonnet isn’t covered in barbed wire—it doesn’t belong to one gender, one class, one anything. Others before me have proven that from Gerald Stern to Terrance Hayes to Wanda Coleman, and others. Coleman’s book American Sonnets staked a claim in the sonnet for people who came after. What I hope to bring to the sonnet is the rural and working poor perspective.
NT: I’m wondering about the intersections between poetry, childbirth, and rebirth in the poem, “There is a force that breaks the body":
There is a force that breaks the body, inevitable,
the by-product is pain, unexceptional as a rain
gauge, which has become arcane, rhyme, likewise,
unless it’s assonant or internal injury, gloom, joy,
which is also a dish soap, but not the one that rids
seabirds of oil from wrecked tankers, that’s Dawn,
which should change its name to Dusk, irony being
the flip side of sentimentality here in the Iron Age,
ironing out the kinks in despair, turning it to hairdo
from hair, to do, vexing infinitive, much better to be
pain’s host, body of Christ as opposed to the Holy
Ghost, when I have been suffering at times I could
step away from it by embracing it, a blues thing,
a John Donne thing, divest by wrestling, then sing.
(Originally published in Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day)
This one is a beauty. While death is an important theme in frank, so is birth—the serpentine skin-shedding resurrections of the “many-chambered / selves” and the exoskeletons of the past. Can you speak about your thought process here?
DS: Yeah, this one has rhetorical energy. Thinking of sequence, it comes after the line, “Blank and mean / I crawled to the cold road pleading for help, humbled yet, queen?” There’s the idea that even though embodiment breaks you, it’s preferable to being a ghost. The final couplet brings together the blues and John Donne in a way to elevate what is marginalized. You know, John Donne’s poem that wrestles with God? It’s like get down in the mud, be embodied, be in the suffering, then you get to sing.
NT: It’s kind of similar to “A Step Away from Them” where O’Hara is torn between the desire to go on consuming a single moment’s ephemerality or does he linger a moment to meditate on grief? There’s an analogous tension in your line, “step away from it by embracing it.”
DS: A poem, by nature, steps away. “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment” is past tense even though it’s just happened. It’s not happening. I love that I could write something with rhetorical content that looks at the body versus the mind and soul. There’s definitely an uplift, a rising. To end on “sing,” it says: this is lyric poetry. Even after you’ve been broken in the poem before.
O’Hara died in a tragic accident on Fire Island in 1966. My dad died in 64. O’Hara is buried in Long Island near the lover figure of frank and Four-Legged Girl who was an addict. Actually, I did a whole sequence of poems addressed to O’Hara, but my editor felt it was important, and I agree, for it not to be overloaded with O’Hara. It’s not an homage. Frank needs to be on the far edge of the book. In the poems addressed to him, I really take him on—his friendship with a rapist. For example, in “The famous poets came for us” poem, I’m able to take on the systemic aspect of the literary world without making it too personal. There’s a lot of these intersections that come through fully in frank’s final poem “I hope when it happens” with the linage of kissing.
NT: Yes, it’s important to state that O’Hara isn’t the central male figure—there’s your father, Dylan, Mikel, Kev, and the famous poets. I love the meld of humor and anxiety in the last poem as it plays out this six-degrees-of-separation scenario with kisses while considering interconnectedness and loss.
DS: I found the lineage of touch as funny, but also plaintive with the penultimate couplet, “who will say of me I kissed her?” It brings in gender, the poetry world, the whole erasure thing. We have these names—Whitman, Ginsberg, Keats, O’Hara—but these women writers, or painters in Peacocks, or the muses all remain anonymous. I realized that I’m asking to be remembered. Can we rise into American memory, this body of literature? Like Sharon Olds’ poem “The Language of the Brag,” says, “I am putting my proud American boast / right here with the others.”
NATALIE TOMBASCO serves as the Interviews Editor of the Southeast Review. Her work can be found in Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, Poet Lore, VIDA Review, among others. She has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology for 2020 and has a chapbook forthcoming with CutBank in 2021 titled Collective Inventions.