“I didn’t know that what I was writing were poems,” Diane Seuss tells me of her first literary forays. “I believe my ignorance was fortunate. It ushered in invention.” That invention still plays out in her work today, poetry almost hallucinatory with its vivid imagery and surprising language, written with a ferocity reminiscent of Plath. By turns sublime and crushing, her poems wander from dirty basements to the halls of fine museums.
In her teaching, she aims to encourage this same sideways, innovative approach to writing. “Wildness enters the classroom when we get out of its way… I am mother to many weeds, weird birds, three-legged rabbits, squirrels with missing tails.”
That’s not to say her poems are unformed. They dance with form, turning it on its side and tearing it apart to create something new—as with the American sentences and sonnets with seventeen-syllable lines in her latest book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. “I love what I call ‘freaking form,’ she tells me. “Like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary.”
And the literary establishment approves. Her 2015 collection Four-Legged Girl was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and Poetry, as well as right here at The Rumpus.
Diane took the time to speak with me via email about her aesthetic, her writing process, and poetry’s connection to the mystical.
The Rumpus: What first brought you to poetry?
Diane Seuss: Poetry really came to me. Maybe that sounds too mystical, but what’s wrong with mysticism? I remember hearing poems in what I now know is iambic pentameter in my head in those minutes between sleeping and waking when I was a small child. I didn’t know what that language was, but I found it comforting and physically pleasurable. In elementary school I was by no means a shining star, but when asked to write a verse for the inside of a Mothers’ Day card, the rhyme and meter was effortless to me.
Poetry really arrived after my dad died when I was seven. It was no longer an instinct; it had become a necessity. It rose up to meet my need. That isn’t to say I began writing poems at seven, but that I had begun to see and hear and think like a poet. Even at the funeral, my noticing had become charged. The ant on the rose. The sharp corners of the flag folded into a triangle. The sound of the wind flapping the sides of the tent over his coffin. The creak of the mechanism that lowered him into the ground. This noticing wasn’t garish, really, but held a kind of objectivity.
I didn’t start writing actual poems until I was in early high school. Luckily, girls were required to take typing class (ah, the luck of our subordination…) and typing became the key to getting the lines I’d begun to hear in my head onto the page. It allowed me to begin to see the poem as having a presence on the page. As my own body came into uncomfortable blooming, so did the body of the poem.
Back then, in my rural high school, there was no “creative writing.” Poetry was an unknown entity. I didn’t really know that what I was writing were poems. I believe my ignorance was fortunate. It ushered in invention. There was no one to imitate, no pressure to conform to a standard.
Rumpus: I envy you your early ignorance! It’s so important to hold on to that childlike, playful quality when writing. I was reading the jump rope song-poem from your book Four-Legged Girl and felt some of that. How do you cultivate it now that you’re more formally trained?
Seuss: Well, even my formal training was informal. I chose not to get an MFA. Instead I got a graduate degree in social work, and I was a clinician for a number of years. I did take creative writing courses in undergraduate school with the man who had become my mentor, poet Conrad Hilberry. He found me, sent me books, got me a scholarship to go to college. He was a wonderful teacher, but not intensely directive. “Here it is,” you know. “Take from it what you wish.” Through him I was introduced to Williams, Roethke, Hopkins, Stevens, and most importantly, Plath. I also took a women’s literature course across town, at Western Michigan University. I didn’t know there was such a thing as women’s literature. There, I encountered Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Djuna Barnes, Margaret Atwood. My eyes opened, then; I’d found “colleagues,” role models, goddesses.
Most of my education in poetry has been self-teaching. Therefore what I know is like an inland lake—shallow in places, unexpectedly deep in others. Teaching in both undergraduate and MFA programs has extended my education. I learn what I need to teach. I’m a hodgepodge.
There are limitations in that scenario, but it has allowed me to maintain some of my early ignorance. At times, my ignorance has begotten innovation, playfulness, improvisation—an aesthetic that is all mine.
Rumpus: How would you describe your aesthetic?
Seuss: My aesthetic—not in the least prescriptive for anyone but me—seems to be one of opposing energies. I’m interested in the rural, but I approach it via degrees of formal experimentation. I think of my work as punk-rural, in that my it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank. I love what I call “freaking form”—learning traditional forms so that they can be usurped, upended, repurposed, like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I’m sort of an anti-intellectual intellectual, a geek about the literature and visual art of the past but I like to bring it down, downtown, here where I live, with the earthworms and gravediggers.
Rumpus: That sounds about right. I love the way you describe things—it’s like reading one of your poems! So how did you get from an MSW to teaching creative writing?
Seuss: It was a circuitous route, certainly. From TA-ing for my mentor in undergraduate school, I had the audacity to offer creative writing courses to women in the community. Teaching felt utterly natural to me; plopping myself in a circle and helping to build energy and wildness just seemed right. I got an MSW because I secretaried for a social work program in NYC when I lived there and got interested in the stuff I was typing. It seemed like a “good career move,” as they say, and it was, in that I got a lot of experience with pain and suffering, and came up against my own limits time and time again.
I was still doing that work when I was asked to fill in for someone at the college in town—a creative writing course. When it went well, they asked me again. I was also teaching undergraduate and graduate social work practice courses at the university down the hill. So by then a private therapy practice, adjuncting creative writing and social work courses, and raising a son. When my husband left us, dragging his belongings in garbage bags through the snow, I decided I’d better settle on one career. By then the creative writing program at the college was flourishing. I had strong ideas about how a BA in English with a creative writing emphasis might be designed, and I asked (begged) to get an actual salary to have a chance to do it. I was sort of grandfathered (grandmothered) in, as they say. I’d begun to publish, and was publishing increasingly successfully, so that helped. Over my academic career they never knew quite what to do with me as I didn’t have the “right” degree. That made for a sometimes nettlesome relationship between academia and me. I sort of located myself on the margins and hoped the center would move a few inches in my direction.
Rumpus: How do you build wildness in the classroom?
Seuss: Like my backyard, wildness in the classroom enters when we get out of its way. I don’t garden. I don’t plan. I allow, you know? I am mother to many weeds, weird birds, three-legged rabbits, squirrels with missing tails—those sorts of things.
I think wildness is the student’s natural state; it’s certainly mine. I walk a fine line between being very structured in my teaching process—time-aware, clear plan of action, clear classroom values and community standards, and as fully myself as I can be. From there, anything goes, as long as no one’s cruel (in any of cruelty’s dimensions).
In terms of process, I like to do in-class writing, randomness exercises, surrealist games, that sort of thing, and then deep intellectual/spiritual work in our reading and writing, but all with a certain lightness of spirit. We swear and laugh a lot. We improvise. Things are deep, wide, and ridiculous.
Rumpus: Tell me more about the deep intellectual/spiritual work. For me, writing poetry has a mystical, spiritual element that gets poo-poo’d by certain schools of poets. You seem to have found a way to keep that alive in your own writing, though—and you still win accolades, like being a finalist for the Pulitzer.
Seuss: I am guided by instinct, the unconscious, and help from the dead in my poems, which Kevin Young, in his essay “Deadism,” describes as “a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts.” For this reason, I’ve always thought my poems are wiser than I am. I don’t know how we can read poetry, or teach it, or write it, without a finger on the pulse of the mystical as well as bringing our intellectual heft to the party. To talk about a writer’s poem in workshop, or a collection of poems, is at best a full-body act. We encounter the body of a poem with our bodies before we even read the words. At best, a workshop can be a circle of human beings who each brings their subjectivity, memories, blind spots, fears, ghosts, dreams, ideas, insights, and imaginations to the room. We build a collective, a zone, and from that zone, poetry becomes possible.
Rumpus: What does your writing practice look like today? Do you write at the same time every day, or do you have other rituals or disciplines?
Seuss: No rituals, no disciplines, no timelines. When I am working on a project I am all in—each poem begets the next. I may write several in a day, or be up to my boobies in research. Then I have fallow periods where my energy is less focused. All the while, I am dealing with the details of everyday life, as we all must do. Rather than seeing those responsibilities as a distraction, I view them as a grounding force. I do rely, these days, on a framed project or intention. I like that way of working because I can go deeper, follow an idea and all of its antecedents.
Rumpus: Yes, I just recently discovered how helpful it can be to write poems with a series or project in mind. Not every poem will be a keeper, but it can keep the momentum going for generating new work, and it helps me prioritize my revisions. Tell me more about the research you do as you’re writing.
Seuss: Like many writers, it is clear that I need a broader image palette than what I see and experience in daily life. Memory is a rich source of imagery, but even when drawing from memory, I want to know what flower, what weird bird. I want to know the backstory of things I hear about or remember—like Houdini Jr., a guy who apparently performed in my hometown, or a Flipper impersonator in a tank in the K-Mart parking lot back in the 1960s. For Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, I dreamed my way into research. I woke from a dream with the words “Still Life” in my head, in the dark space behind my eyes. I went to the computer to figure out why, and was led on a merry chase. That brought me to Rembrandt’s painting, whose title became the title poem of my book. It sent me to an incredible collection of essays, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, by Norman Bryson. His work opened me to really nuanced ideas about stillness, the female-centeredness of still life subject matter, the rural, and early female painters of still life. My imagination had to rise to the challenge of this information. The connections with my hometown, my rural upbringing, grew exponentially. So research isn’t a cold, dry process, a have-to. It provides poets with more opportunities for the image and deeper intellectual and spiritual resonance.
Rumpus: So would you say that your research process is like jumping across lily pads? You follow tangents and associations until you’ve collected what you need?
Seuss: Yes—lily pads and tangents. I learned that early when my mom went to college after my dad died. On her way to class, she’d drop me off at a huge university library with a mosaic of Jesus on its face and I’d spend hours there, figuring out the card catalog and finding books and articles based on my interests and my instincts. It was a kind of heaven, and an alternative to both grief and the distortions of trying to turn myself into a “girl.” The experience also taught me how to be alone with books, which is pretty much my life now, between teaching gigs and car washes and all.
So when my mind latches onto something of interest, or something that could be important to what I’m thinking about, I follow it fluidly and intuitively. Now and then that leads me to the stacks, and the very book that will change the direction of my poems and life. That’s how I came upon Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting by Norman Bryson. That book absolutely spun me, and is responsible for what became my most recent collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. A library is a privilege and a luxury.
Rumpus: Sometimes it seems like finding the time and space for creative work is a privilege and a luxury, too. What would you say to a poet who is struggling to find that balance between everyday obligations and time for creative play?
Seuss: For me, the thing is to not see everyday obligations as separate from creativity. Life is all of a piece. So yes, we need solitude, and yes, we need space in our minds for fluid curiosity, but those can’t exist separate from what we must engage in as human beings. There’s depth in doing dishes. There’s solace in laundry. The more intense engagements—caring for our family members, especially if they’re suffering, engaging in our larger society, which is suffering—sometimes require all of us. All of our intuition and creativity. In those times, poetry steps back to make space. Maybe it will return, if allowed. Maybe not. There’s no easy answer to the complex interaction between self and other, self and world. A poetry without that conundrum is ultimately less interesting to me than the poetry that emerges from the struggle.
Rumpus: You say “Maybe it will return if allowed. Maybe not.” So you’ve never been worried during a dry spell that you might never write poetry again?
Seuss: I’ve never been too worried about periods of silence. I think it’s essential to go fallow for a while. Live. Take in the world through the eyes if you can see, through whatever senses are left to you. Poems inevitably return, at least they have thus far.
I guess I figure if I stop, the world will go on. There are more poets than pigeons these days. I’ve known poets who aged gracefully into silence. I’d like to keep writing as long as I can because it feels good; it’s always been who I am. I don’t know how it will go down, if I’ll write myself into the grave or someday or other find I’m out of words. Maybe I’ll turn into a poem, and writing more will seem redundant.
Photograph of Diane Seuss by Gabe Montesanti.