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Writeliving Interview: Diane Seuss

Diane Suess Photo

After a small hiatus, Writeliving is back with an interview from fellow Michigander and powerhouse writer Diane Seuss. Four-Legged Girl was my favorite poetry book of 2015 and I was blown away by her lush, hypnotic, mythic poemscapes. I highly recommend Diane’s work and am thrilled to be able to share insights from her writing life.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I could reel off a list of writers who have taught me a great deal (Dickinson, Clifton, D.A. Powell, etc.) but probably most accurately there are two significant influences—my mentor, poet Conrad (Con) Hilberry, and my mom. When we first met, externally at least, Con was everything I was not—quiet, private, gentle, formal in his aesthetic proclivities. He was the son of a college president and raised in suburban Detroit. In the psychological (and perhaps conventional) sense, he functioned as the father I didn’t have: he was someone and something to walk toward. He was supportive and encouraging: he saw me, and he accepted me and cheered me on for all of the ways in which I was a writer who seemed to be very different from him. He defied the cliché of the leering older male poet in the era in which I grew up. He was respectful, boundaried, sane. He did all of the right things—gave me books, helped me go to college, urged me to send out work—but more importantly he was the right thing. My mother influences my work in so many ways. I could, and probably will, write a book on the subject. Like Con, she defied all of the stereotypes about women and mothers in a time in which such defiance was not the norm. She also was and is a divine storyteller. She preserves the history of her time and place—the rural Midwest, born in 1929—via narrative. Both Con and my mother had a profound impact on my poems’ sounds, purposes, and values.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I can’t separate my creative process from my process of tending to the conditions of my life. One could say I haven’t had the luxury to solely focus on my own poems, but I’m pretty sure that luxury would not have served me. Most of my poems come to me as I do what I do in my life—making soup, watering the tomatoes, interacting with students, sitting in the ER with my son, talking to my mom on the phone, walking the dog. I live with the poem’s entry point for a while—walk around with it. By the time I can turn to the page it has gained a body. Maybe a single eye. Too many limbs. Sometimes that germ of an idea requires research, which I often do in tandem with writing. Although many think of poetry as an art primarily of emotion, I don’t experience it that way. Maybe the closest I can come to describing the process is an image, that of a many-layered cake. Feeling is one layer, sure, but also intellect, meditative thinking, instinct, something like a checking-in with history, and consulting that part of the writer that has always been, and is unchangeable. All of that at once in one big bite.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

I don’t think these are things one can be overly-conscious about, or conscientious about. My recommendations are simple and probably nothing new: read everything, and not just contemporary poetry. Write often. Live in such a way that your life is a reflection of your art, and vice versa. Experiment with form, both traditional and invented. Remember where you are from—the landscape and people that vexed you and held you up. Write whatever is in front of you, whatever is next. Don’t obey the zeitgeist. When in doubt, take a road trip. You will generally only discover your subject matter and voice (whatever voice is) in looking back at what you have already made.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

Teaching has kept me current, not just in staying up-to-date in my reading, but observing what is important to 18-22-year-olds, from eyebrow shaping to revolutions in identity. Teaching is a kind of performance. It makes one very aware of oneself and the way one performs oneself. That has certainly made its way into my work. At its best, the classroom became a place in which the group of us had a couple of good hours every few days to consider really difficult poems and to develop, together, a kind of thesis about them and how they were made. Those conversations compelled me, and made their way into how I think about my own work. Ultimately, teaching taught me the nuances of each individual and each individual poem.

What are you currently working on?

My next book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, comes out next May, and is complete aside from acting on editorial suggestions I’ll receive from my press. I’m currently working on a book-length sequence of unrhymed sonnets that, strung together, will make a kind of memoir, but less a memoir of events than of how my mind works and remembers in a given moment.

How has growing up and living in the Midwest affected your writing?

I can’t imagine how my poems would sound without the Midwest, its cadences and idioms, Michigan in particular, Niles and Edwardsburg, more particularly, nor can I conceive of my image palette without the rural Midwestern landscape—not just its “scenery” but its details. Along with my poems’ sounds and images, their point of view is profoundly Midwestern. They activate personality/performance to deflect suffering, for instance. They make space for and value oddity. I will add that I see no shame in enacting a regional perspective. Faulkner did it, and raised it to archetype. Frank O’Hara did it. Every contemporary poet came from somewhere. A coastal, urban somewhere and accompanying point of view is no more valid, contains no more provocative urgency, than Yoknapatawpha County.

What relationship do you feel your poetry has to prose?

Well, the boundary between the two has certainly grown less clear. Some would say my work leans toward the discursive and the narrative, which is probably true. When I write prose, I am more committed to the development of ideas than I am in poems, in which I allow for the associative mind to take over. Poems allow for the inexplicable image to dominate. I love that. Poems lead me; I lead prose. Maybe that is the central difference in my experience of writing the two. Still, anything I say about how the two modes operate only holds for me, and I am always ready for my own experience of writing to not hold.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Always. In poetry, Bruce Lack’s brilliant collection Service, on his experience as a Marine during two tours of duty in Fallujah, Anne Cecelia Holmes’ The Jitters, which is the best depiction of how the self and the mind operate in a profoundly disorienting time that I’ve read, and Aaron Smith’s Primer—honest, brutal, erotic, human. I’ve also had the chance to read a thus-far unpublished manuscript by Courtney Faye Taylor. All I can say it—get ready, world. I also love to read nonfiction. I’m currently reading an arcane dictionary of superstitions that has me geeked, and I’m re-reading The Grapes of Wrath.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Most lives are a sort of string of pearls of adversity, adversity represented by the pearls, not the string. My pearls are many—losing my dad at an early age, contending with loved ones’ addictions, divorce, single-parenthood, poverty, major physical injury. I would say that the writing is what held me up, rather than me maintaining it. It was writing that kept me alive and intact. Writing—form itself—is profoundly grounding. A writer can direct her gaze anywhere, sometimes toward adversity, sometimes not. It’s all content—from a shattered body to the song of a spring peeper. Poetry equalizes. To form something out of the chaos of experience is salvation.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I can fix a toilet with a paperclip.

About the Author

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, published in 2015 by Graywolf Press, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open won the Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. Her poetry has been published in a broad range of literary magazines, including American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Iowa Review, New England Review, and The New Yorker. Seuss’s fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in May 2018.

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