Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, was published in 2015 by Graywolf Press and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (2010) won the Juniper Prize and was published in 2010. Her fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in May 2018. Seuss was raised in rural southwest Michigan.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book came, in many ways, out of the blue. I’d always written poems, really since childhood; it was simply part of my life that seemed as natural as washing the dishes. I didn’t see my capacity to make poems as some special talent given to me by the gods, nor something I came to through school. I was in my mid-30s, with a thriving therapy practice, teaching creative writing now and then, raising my son, when I was approached by the founder of New Issues Press, Herbert Scott, asking me to put together a manuscript. I did, and he accepted it. The publishing landscape was shaped so differently then. There were MFA programs, but fewer. Dare I say that poetry was somewhat less of a product? This is pre-internet, before the time in which things don’t exist unless they appear on a screen. I was pleased by the book—called It Blows You Hollow—and excited by the way in which it made me feel like a “real writer.” Within about a month of its publication, however, my husband left our family. The unexpectedness of the divorce was traumatic for my son and for me. My responsibilities to the book, to getting it out there, getting myself out there, took a hit. The joy of publication got lost in the shuffle.
Those early poems were largely unstudied. In that sense, they’re “innocent” of the literary world. On the other hand, their crafting is clumsy compared to what is expected now of poems. Since that book, I gave my life over to poetry, became a professor of creative writing, and taught myself everything I could about craft through the reading I did in order to teach. My poems hopefully show that book-learning, but also, I believe they’ve retained their individuality, the nuances of where and who I’m from. They are not the poems of an MFA-trained poet, but a lifelong apprentice.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I never have thought in plots, though I do have a narrative bent in my poems. I have written brief nonfiction, much of which has appeared in Brevity, a magazine I love, but my instinctive proclivities have always been in the direction of the poem, the broken line, poetry’s openness to improvisational moves, and to the lyric “I.” I love the lyric “I” in all its guises. I love what it has the capacity to hold and who it has the space to represent. For me the poem and the lyric gesture were a push-back on invisibility—not just my own, but the invisibility of my people, who I would describe as the rural, Midwestern, working poor.
I also must give a shout out to the good old typewriter, and to typing class in high school. Being able to type fast, to use a tool that offered a shortcut from my imagination to the page, really encouraged me as a poet. Seeing poems in type, knowing I could do a carriage return when I felt like it, to therefore physically feel the line break, was exhilarating. I immediately starting writing with fluidity, to enjamb, to fragment, even though I had no idea what a line break was. I had really read very little about what poems were supposed to be. I don’t think I even called what I wrote “poems.” They were just things I stuck in my dead father’s briefcase. My high school was in the middle of a cow pasture. I just knew I liked how it felt to lay words down on the page.
It was at this time that I met the person who would become my mentor, poet Conrad Hilberry. He was a poet-in-the-schools who would visit rural high schools. He saw promise rather than freakishness in my ramblings, and began to send me books—Diane Wakoski, Alden Nowlan, a Canadian poet. He ultimately helped me get into a good college, where I studied with him, TA’d for him, and worked with him on his own poems. When he retired, I became the poetry professor where he’d taught me—quite a circle. Without that encouragement I never would have known to call a poem a poem. What was extraordinarily lucky was that he taught me about what poems could be, what form could be, without shutting down my own instincts.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My process has evolved over time. My new book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, began as a very distinct project whose core ideas transmogrified over time. Before that, my work was less project-oriented, though books did take on a particular shape as I wrote during a specific life phase. The poems of Four-Legged Girl, for instance, emerged out of a time in which I was looking back at the years I spent in punk era New York City with my drug addict boyfriend, living in the East Village (pre-gentrification, thank God). I was reconsidering desire in those poems, and the book developed into a kind of treatise on desire, and desirelessness, and a new kind of desire that rose out of those ashes. Writing has always come fast to me; I tend to work on poems or ideas in my head for a time, and then fully immerse myself in generating poems in a concentrated period of time. Then comes a window of opportunity in which I feel I can revise within a period of time in which the emotional sphere of the work is intact, before it wafts away. For the most part, my first drafts contain the improvisational magic of the poem. I don’t want to revise it into submission. But I do work on focusing the language and on how the poem is inhabiting space on the page. Now that I’m working on sonnets, much of my revision energy goes toward compression and enhancing the instinctive music.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
As I said, I lived a bit from poem to poem in my first three books, shaping them into a manuscript once I’d generated a lot of work. My next book began with a very clear inspiration—I woke from a dream with the words “still life” in my head. That led me to research and exploration, and as I wrote the poems around still life painting, other issues were sprung like bear traps—the gaze, and who owns it, art as a kind of gated paradise, and the collision between art and the rural, which is the landscape and people that made me. The manuscript I’m working on now came while I was participating in a residency in Washington. In this case, the inspiration was formal—the sonnet—and sonnets composed with improvisational energy. Knowing that I’m working over time on a larger notion, structure, or idea is helpful to me. The project accompanies me everywhere I go, companion-like. I’m not sure one can live an entire writing life on inspiration alone.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy reading a great deal. There is an obvious energy exchange that can happen in that live environment that one doesn’t experience by being read on the page. I seem gregarious, but I’m shy, and growing shyer by the day, which you wouldn’t know if you came to one of my readings—so readings are a challenge for me. One feels very seen, which is a double-edged blessing, you know? I don’t experience readings as part of my creative process, in that I don’t write for performance; the reading is its own art, and for me, a separate dimension from writing.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Poems are mysterious creatures, composed of whatever constitutes the person writing in a particular moment, from the warm mug in your hand to the sound of traffic outside the window to your memory of peaches to the distortions of Trump to Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake recipe. So yes, theory is part of it, insofar as I am reading and thinking about stuff at a given time. I think about the theory of the gaze and other dimensions of film and art theory, Barthes’ work, especially Camera Lucida and how he complicates the fluid significance of photographs. The holistic nature of desire—a phrase stolen from a philosopher friend of mine. Theories of the marginal, the queer. The performance of self. This is just a twist of what interests me, what I turn to in order to approach the real questions that my work raises for me. I’m not sure that I’m trying to answer questions so much as explore them. I do think poems can be said to present a thesis, and that it won’t kill us to think in terms of our poem’s thesis, how it is represented and argued by the poem. But I don’t see these explorations as purely intellectual, or trivial in terms of their impact on real life. I don’t think I believe an individual poem can save a life, but the writing of it, and perhaps the reading of it, can rescue the moment, though not in a sentimental way. The questions my work raises? What if desire is less interpersonal than we think it is…How does one call home her projections…Can “high art” become less alienating to the everyday…What is beauty, and how can it be rescued from capitalism and trauma…Who are my people…Where are my dead…What good is love if it ends…What is Paradise, and what are the costs of Paradise…Where’s my miniature pony…
In terms of how I view the current questions being raised in poems: How does a writer follow their own trajectory, which requires solitude and interiority, in a time in which no moment goes unphotographed and unshared? How can a writer experiment with form and content in ways that reflect the poem’s deepest need rather than the crowdsourced agreement about what experimentation looks like? If I make claims about my life am I confessing? Can I write on behalf of and still follow my own guttural painful absurd path? How do I exist in this publishing landscape without overvaluing or devaluing my work? Can one write work that is uncontaminated by careerism and branding, and still be read, and still survive financially? Is narrative dead because I say it is or because they say it is?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
So many writers, as a woman said to me once on the subway. So. Many. Writers. All of us playing one role or another, some of us in diminutive communities, others with an explosive impact on nations and the globe. Writers fix toilets, walk the dog, change the diapers, like the rest of humanity—or if they don’t, they’d better learn. The teachers of writing, if they’re dedicated and rigorous and real, make an impact that reverberates through generations. The poems or novels or essays themselves—well, they keep the soul alive. They respond to and rattle the political realm. They nurture the imagination. Now more than ever, we need art—not only self-expression (the easy part) but self-discipline and precision and ambition (for the work) and vision and wildness—art that wants to go far, and goes far. But we don’t need writers more than we need nurses, 3rd grade teachers, bartenders, road workers, activists, office managers, custodians, cashiers, cowpokes.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor is essential. That work requires a level of intellectual empathy I find astonishing. What can be better than having an expert turn their attention to your work with the sole purpose of making it better? I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to work with the best—Jeff Shotts at Graywolf Press. I trust his judgment and rely on his honesty. To be seen and reckoned with from the outside looking in, well, that is a gift.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Well, from my mentor: “People are more important than poems.” I know it’s true, but sometimes I struggle against it. And an old saying: “Leave it lay where Jesus flang it.”
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Most of my life has been determined by necessity. I’ve been a single parent, a teacher with students who relied on me to show up and work hard on their behalf, and before that, a clinical social worker. Like most writers, I haven’t had the luxury of a routine, but I do have a discipline. That is, I’m always thinking about what I’m working on, and reading or looking at other art to help me in my writing. I walk around with lines in my head almost all the time—most of my head space is taken up in possible lines that may or may not make it to the page. Poems are pretty much my life now. Everything else has been winnowed away. Though time in the real world—road trips, even short ones—are important to the remembering that I am doing in my current project. But I’m like every other jackass in the world. First thing I do in the morning is drink coffee and check in on the political tyranny via the news. I get about halfway through The Price is Right and then I walk the dog. This is new for me, time and space. I just stopped regular work for the first time since I was 15. I’m still negotiating with the idea of space and time, and still problem solving how to keep it together financially.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I drive to the place I was raised, that’s enough to keep me going for months. It’s really a road trip into the past that never becomes less harrowing. And then there are the images that place provides. It’s overflowing with images—though people not from there would likely just see a Taco Bell, a graveyard, and a couple of abandoned factories. The ghosts there, for me, are as tall as silos. If I can’t get there physically, I can make the journey imaginatively. It’s always enough.
I also turn to form. If you’re facing “writer’s block,” which I don’t believe in, write a sestina, write a villanelle, write a sonnet.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The town where I was raised was composed of a mélange of scents: smoke from the burn barrels, tar laid down on roads to fill pot holes, frozen pizza burning in the oven, manure from the Green Giant mushroom factory…lilacs.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above. One must open the portholes and let the world in. The natural world is the most important to me. It’s the motherlode, the source of the imagination. I saw a guy say on social media, in response to a poem, that he “hates nature.” Now that is the pathway to hell, as far as I’m concerned. There is very little left that can offer us rescue. A tree—well a tree is the sublime. There’s a dying redbud in my backyard on which I hang a bird feeder and some wind chimes that is the hub of my spiritual life. Visual art, in terms of things that are human-made, probably offers me the most richness, probably because it’s usually made without words, beyond words. The way painters position themselves in relation to what they are gazing at gives me thought, gives me pause. Music is another mechanism of memory for me. Sometimes I just can’t listen—the feelings are too much. I love Dickinson’s love of botany, her dogged collection of pressed and labeled wild plants, that archival urge, which to me circles directly back to the urge to make poems.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Plath has been important. Keats. Faulkner. Baldwin. Roland Barthes. Gloria Anzaldúa. Whitman. Langston Hughes. Williams. Lucille Clifton. Chekhov, Joyce. Toni Morrison. Virginia Woolf. An art historian—Norman Bryson. Dickinson has been crucial in life and in art. In terms of contemporary writers, there are too many to name, and if I try I’ll likely snub someone important. I’ll just say Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fiction is important to me, as are D.A. Powell’s poems.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to go to Iceland. I’d like to feel unproblematically embodied. I’d like to experience not worrying about money. That would be cool.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I could sing I’d be a singer. I’d have loved to be in a band. I did some acting in my life. I could have gone in that direction. If I had a couple of other lives to spare, I’d like to spend one being a naturalist and another being an investigative journalist.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Well, I did all kinds of something elses. As I said, I was a psychotherapist for many years. I taught both clinical social work and creative writing. Earlier in life I was a nanny, a bartender, worked in a punk clothing store, secretaried, wrote romance novels and cheesy porn. I identify as a writer because it’s the one through-line in my life that stuck, and it is a frame for all of the something elses in my life.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Oh man. “Great” is such a problematic notion. I tend to read and watch classic/vintage stuff these days. I’ve been reading both Chekhov and Joyce, specifically their short stories, and I’m compelled by what I can only describe as the presence of absence in their work. In terms of poetry, the last great book—well, I recently read an incredible poetry manuscript in order to write a blurb for it. It’s called View from True North, written by Sara Henning, one of two winners of the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award. Its extraordinary crafting is in counterpoint to the rawness of the trauma it describes. A fresh, honest, artfully-made collection. Evie Shockley’s book the new black is great in such unexpected ways. Her spin on form is extraordinary. Film: I see very few new movies. It’s the one area in my life in which I’m a snob. I like films that are not simply narratives, and I really loathe films built around spectacle. What I love are films that are another dimension of visual art, are at least as aware of the visual element as the storytelling. I love Hitchcock. Love classic horror films and noir. I can’t get enough of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a voyeuristic film about voyeurism. The Birds is underrated. I love the Swedish silent film The Phantom Carriage, and the silent The Passion of Joan of Arc starring Renee Falconetti. See? Snob.
19 - What are you currently working on?
My current project is a big one. It’s a kind of memoir in unrhymed (usually) sonnets. Taken together, they will compose a sort of incremental story of moments in my life as I experienced them, but also, the poems look at the nature of memory itself, how it operates, memory’s entrapments as well as its liberations. The poems try to get at the improvisational nature of thought. I have well over a hundred and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.