Diane Seuss was born in Indiana and raised in Michigan. She earned a BA from Kalamazoo College and an MSW from Western Michigan University. 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). Her work has appeared in Poetry, the Georgia Review, Brevity, Able Muse, Valparaiso Poetry Review, andthe Missouri Review, as well as The Best American Poetry 2014. She was the MacLean Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of English at Colorado College in 2012, and she has taught at Kalamazoo College since 1988.
Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?
Diane Seuss: I was at the tail-end of the last romantic relationship in my life and staying at the far edge of the continent. All around me, beauty, but what is beauty? What had I been, and what was I now? And now. And now. Can a poem be built like me: short and thick? Can a memoir be told in 14-line increments? How do I remember? How do I remember remembering? Can I employ language with improvisational fleet-footedness like Frank O’Hara often did, within the sonnet form? Can I be both artful and honest? Can I pin some lasting vestige of myself, like a dead butterfly, onto the page?
LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?
DS: The first sonnet in frank: sonnets was the first poem I wrote for this collection. I was in Washington, at a residency on a spit of land between the Pacific and Willapa Bay. Clouds, wind currents, rain came in nightly from the ocean and swept across and through my cabin, when I kept the windows open, and the bay. I heard the rain on the tin roof as I lay in the bed built into the wall, and by morning, the sun had appeared, and the world was fresh and new again. I had a kinetic feeling, an awareness of cyclical motion. In Michigan, where I was raised and where I have lived most of my life, the seasons arrive like a houseguest whose initial charms fade quickly—and still they remain, sitting in your favorite chair, chewing loudly. What I’m saying is that the dynamism of the days and nights was new to me and impacted the language that I began to hear in my head.
Maybe that is a wan allegory for form and thought in frank: sonnets. Form is the cabin. (Anne Carson: “A sonnet is a rectangle upon the page.”) Thought—spontaneous, unpredictable, capricious—is the wind. (Terrance Hayes titled his third collection Wind in a Box.) There is actually a sonnet in frank that begins, “I was raised in a rectangle. Aluminum. There was a rectangular / toy box, red. Sometimes, I’d take out the toys and climb inside. / Rectangle within a rectangle. In my mind, I’d sing a song called / ‘My Tiny Childhood.’” The form held me. Facilitated my song. In frank, form was the great leveler. Whether I was addressing something as monolithic as death or as miniscule as milkweed, each was given that 14-line increment—no less and no more. Reliable as taxidermy.
Back to that first poem. I knew I wanted to write something resembling memoir, but I had no clue as to form. I drove, early on, to a place named Cape Disappointment, which seemed about right. I arrived, looked out to the iconic cliff with its lighthouse, and considered the drop into the sea. Instead of taking that hike and dive, I climbed into the back seat of the rental car and fell asleep. When I woke, I drove back the way I came, stopping to pee on the roadside. “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment,” I thought in my head, “but didn’t have the energy to get out of the car. Rental. Blue Ford Focus. I had to stop in a semi-public place to pee on the ground. Just squatted there on the roadside.” It was cool and strange to narrate in past tense something that had just happened. My thoughts were stalking, closely, my life. Then Frank O’Hara stepped in. “I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome / nose and penis and the New York School and Larry / Rivers.” That’s it. Don’t ask me why. There Frank was. Those lines contain the book’s DNA. They introduce Frank—a certain time and place, a certain improvisational relationship to poetry, a kind of lineage, but also the masculinist and classist era I grew up in, and my frankness about it, frankness itself. The Blue Ford Focus encased me, focused me, enough for my thoughts to fire up and begin to spill out. By the time I got back to my rectangle, the poem was written in my head. When I got it typed, I saw that it had naturally unfolded into 14 lines and that the last 2 lines worked pretty well as a couplet. What if—I thought. What if I write a memoir in sonnets. What if the memoir is less about what happened than how I remember what happened. About the nature of memory. About the nature of thinking about memory. I am not using question marks here because they were not really questions. They were statements of intent from my brain, tucked within the jewelry box of my skull.
LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?
DS: The minute “I” am boxed and lidded in the poem, that “I” is an artifact. My “I” in frank, which I think is pretty consistent throughout my books, is an aspect of self, flatter than the dimensional walking-around me, but certainly a chip off the ole block. That block, like all blocks, contains multitudes. In frank, there are poems in which I channel my mother. My son. Mikel, a soul mate. There is a sequence centered on the rural place I am from in which the “I” becomes “We” or even disappears entirely, becoming a witnessing presence. Maybe the Lyric “I” is something like what Emerson describes as “the over-soul,” a hovering spiritual presence that still contains the DNA of the personal. Or, as Olena Kalytiak Davis writes in “The Lyric ‘I’ Drives to Pick up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode,” parodying the whole thing, “‘I’ has fucked with the facts so ‘you’ think she’s robert lowell. (but whoever saw a girl like robert / lowell?) ‘i’ doesn’t care if ‘you,’ silent human auditor, present or absent, never heard of, could give a flying / fuck about, robert lowell.” My friend, brilliant poet and editor Jane Huffman, describes it as a pantheon. One aspect of self at a time steps forward, then steps back. I also think of Theodore Roethke, who was from my general neck of the woods, in his great poem “In a Dark Time:” “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” The italicized second “I,” to me, makes all the difference. Maybe the pantheon is the peacock tail. The “I” the very body of the peacock. Or the “silent human auditor...could give a flying fuck about robert lowell,” frank o’hara, or diane seuss, for that matter. Especially her.
LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?
DS: I don’t believe I ever do. I am writing the poem, not as a “letter to the world” but as a “moment’s monument,” as Dante writes, perhaps especially in frank. Even the poems that seem to tell stories are a moment’s monument to that telling. If there was an active recipient in my writing of this book, it was the form itself, the sonnet, a sort of envelope for the moment’s monument. Here, the sonnet says. Slip that utterance in here. I can take it.
LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?
DS: Remembering is always a risk. Remembering in increments without becoming redundant, while still constructing something that coheres—that seemed like a risk, or a challenge. Remembering in such a way that the speaker (assumed to be me, Diane Seuss) is honest about her weakness, stupidity, her many wrong turns, her lack of heroism, well, it’s not a risk to my reputation, as anyone who knows me knows that I have been weak, stupid, wrong, but it’s always a risk, I guess, to not look good, especially to oneself. Although the collection tells of times I was victimized, I did not want to construct myself as a victim. There is a risk in poetry circles of appearing to be retro-confessional, but I do my best not to worry about such things. My hope is that the telling I did will be emboldening to others. That it will have been of some use.
LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?
DS: One of the poems in the book that addresses the sonnet form begins, “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without. To have, as my mother says, a wish in one hand / and shit in another.” That probably sums up the link between frank’s ethics and its aesthetics. As was the case with my last book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, I like pulling in markers of “high art” and unmasking their intersections with “low culture.” The sonnet’s economy could be considered tight-assed, its lineage patriarchal. In frank, however,“Poverty, like a sonnet, is a good teacher...Do without the. Without and. Without hot / dogs in your baked beans. A sonnet is a mother. Every word / a silver dollar.” The economy of scarcity is badass. The lineage is maternal.
LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?
DS: Inferences of meter and rhyme in many of the sonnets were important to the process. I wanted these to be contemporary (i.e., not perfectly made according to the template) and to also stretch the limits of what a sonnet could be. Sometimes, they are close to 14-line prose blocks. Most of the time, they have vestiges of meter and rhyme. Often there is a volta. Usually there is a couplet with some sort of rhyme, whether end rhyme or internal. It all depends, for me, on how I hear the poem as it comes in. I tend to revise as I go, which makes the composition process intense. If I’m intentionally working with sound, especially rhyme sounds, I find that reaching toward to be exciting, especially when one of the wheels comes off and goes clunk. Sound begets meaning begets sound, which is just as biblical as it should be.
LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?
DS: The equal units of the sonnet form, strung together to compose something like a life, function in a way that, for me, flattens time and robs it of highs and lows. Of drama. In that way, it reminds me of abstract expressionism in painting, where there is no singular focal point. Although, as I’ve said, each sonnet is a moment’s monument, and a moment is a unit of time, the 120 or so sonnets strung together do not attempt a linear chronology. Our memories come scattershot, like stars, or they smear, they fwoom-out, Rothko-style. I see the collection like the editing of film back in the day, the physical, hands-on editing of film: “a sonnet is one frame in a long strip / of celluloid most of which will end up on the cutting- / room floor back when there were cutting-rooms as when / Kev who is long dead worked on Radar Angel editing /on the Steenbeck.” It’s strange how a piece of film can hold a moment that can be cut apart from other moments and spliced next to a moment that occurred 20 years before. And that this new chronology can somehow tell a life in a way that linearity cannot. Some parts of the book are outside of time, as with the “We” poems from the place where I was raised. I see those poems as the Original Myth, in a sense. It happened and it’s always happening. In the book’s last poem, there is another kind of lineage, via kissing: “I know a man who said / he kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed lips that kissed Whitman’s / lips who will say of me I kissed her who will say of me I kissed someone who kissed / her...” All those kisses, spliced together, extending into a future where I am long gone.
LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture?
DS: The book is primarily structured in the order of its writing, with some tweaks here and there. In a sense, it was the cleanest and most obvious architectural shape I’ve worked with in my books, like those old cartoons with long hallways and a million doors. In earlier collections I was more conscious of building a thesis, for want of a better term. This book unfolded like a deck of cards in the hands of a second-rate magician. In the manuscript’s first iteration, I made two big mistakes. I brought sections to it. Dumb, interruptive, counter to the whole operation. Second, I titled the sections, dumb, with lines from a poem in that section, dumb, in a spiral. Can you believe it? Luckily, my editor at Graywolf Press, Jeff Shotts, said something like, “I think we can get rid of the sections.” He didn’t even mention the spirals, which tells you about his capacity for tact.
LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?
DS: I read Roland Barthes, most fully his books A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments and A Mourning Diary. I wasn’t sure, at the time, why, but looking back, both encase theory in deeply personal history, and both are written in fragments that contribute to a precarious wholeness. I read, and remembered reading, Joyce’s Dubliners, and that book appears in several of the poems. I remembered reading Chekhov and Hopkins. I read Frank O’Hara, being careful not to overdo it. I listened to Amy Winehouse. Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which appears in a poem. I looked at Larry Rivers’ nude portraits of O’Hara. As a book about remembering, the most significant artwork of any kind came in the form of having read, having listened, have looked. The memory of reading became more important to me than the kind of reading that accompanies the present tense of the writing. Certain music almost breaks me. I must be careful of that listening. Watching films in the present didn’t seem important, but remembering the watching, and even more importantly, remembering filmmaking, a realm at whose margins I floated a bit when I lived in NYC in the 70s, was important. I remembered, too, how being snotted-on by a punk band in the front row at CBGB felt, starting my period and bleeding on the chair, running into Ginsberg on the Bowery and being looked through as if I were less-than-plexiglass. Snack foods? Ghosts don’t eat.
LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?
DS: I really loved writing this book. My relationship with the sonnet had become almost marital, and the divorce has not been pretty. Therefore, the one-two punch of post-frank blues and the pandemic, along with other various and sundry catastrophes, has made the next thing exceedingly difficult to imagine. I am cut off from the place I am writing from, due to the quarantine. My plans therefore keep metamorphosing. I am writing in opposition to frank, that is, I’m working in longer forms. I’m writing about my early experiences with literature, oddly enough. And I’m asking for ancient Roman poet Catullus’s help to write about child abuse in my hometown. I’m considering a hybrid book of poems and essays. Ideas are still spinning, but the next universe has not, so far, cohered. Pray for me.