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Feature Poet: Diane Seuss


An Interview with Kalamazoo College


Writer-in-Residence, Diane Seuss


Diane Seuss is Writer-in-Residence at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan



Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press, 1999)



Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework (University of Iowa Press, 2005), Are You Experienced? Baby Boom Poets at Midlife (University of Iowa Press, 2003), September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond (Etruscan Press, 2002), New Poems from the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry (Wayne State University Press, 2000), Boomer Girls: Poems by Women of the Baby Boomer Generation (University of Iowa Press, 1999), A Loving Testimony: Remembering Loved Ones Lost to AIDS (The Crossing Press, 1995)



Alaska Quarterly Review, Artful Dodge, Blackbird, Brevity, Cimarron Review, Cumberland Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Indiana Review, New Orleans Review, North American Review, Passages North, Poemeleon, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Primavera, Rattle, Tamaqua, The Georgia Review, Third Coast



2009 Juniper Prize for Poetry




The Smoking Poet: Welcome to the smoky pages of our online literary cigar lounge, Di. Do you ever light up a cigar? Perhaps have a favorite?


Diane Seuss:  Cough, cough…Well, I hate to piss on your rainbow, Smoking Poet, but I have asthma, so I am officially off smokes of any kind.  I would certainly not be opposed to just sitting around with an unlit one in my mouth.  I don’t drink alcohol either, and I even avoid Nyquil.  I have a very new poem called “Romance is for the young and stupid.”  Draw your own conclusions about my love life.  So I’m off the sauce—all the sauce—except Tobasco and poetry.


TSP: I (editor-in-chief Zinta speaking here) have had the memorable experience, many times over, of being in the room when you read your poetry. It is a memorable experience for several reasons. One reason: one usually sees such crowds for sports events, not poetry (sigh). But when you read, there are never enough chairs in the room. There is never enough standing room. People line the walls like sardines up on tails. And then there is the silence. Pin drop. The room is not filled with bodies as much as it becomes a room full of ears. Then you get to the last line. Never fails. The ears turn into mouths, and there is the sound of one great oooooooooooooooooh. So my question is this: how much of a good poem is what is ink on page, and how much is presentation, connection with reader and audience? (You have mastered both, so I ask.)


Di:  Well, I appreciate your description of my readings, which I’ve not really done in awhile.  I think I used to be much more performative, much more interested in self-construction, which is always more visually and aurally interesting, I suppose, than a private, self-effacing presence.  I do think there are poems that work better out loud than on the page.  Spoken word poems can be exhilarating in performance and one-dimensional on the page.  Likewise, there are poems that rely on the authority of the type itself, and the physical relationship between the words, the white space on the page, and the reader.  I often tell my students that poems are bodies; we visually take them in and feel them in our guts even before we read the words.  William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” is pretty unglorious out loud.  I’ve heard a recording of Williams reading it.  His voice sounds like the Sherriff on Deputy Dawg, and he reads the poem without emphasis or opinion; it’s over before you know it.  Now, on the page, that poem is endlessly compelling.  Near-rhymes, stanzas that are visually constructed to look like wheelbarrows, the splitting of compound words into their constituent parts:  wheel from barrow, rain from water.  I think as my work has matured it may have become less entertaining at a poetry reading and more interesting on the page.  As I have aged I have also become shy.  I think that is because I am less of an icon than I used to be, more of a human woman.  When a person sees me at a reading now, they’re seeing me without the smoke and mirrors of persona. 


TSP: Why poetry? Why not home construction or landscaping or engineering? Although I suppose you could argue that poetry is all of these vocations, too…


Di:  I can’t pound a nail straight.  Any garden I attempt quickly turns into Vietnam, circa 1968.  I can add, but subtraction is beyond me.  I am a good, intuitive cook, and I think I’m a pretty competent teacher, but aside from that, poetry is the thing that always has been with me, and always came easy.  I remember being in a half-asleep state when I was a kid, hearing what I now know was iambic pentameter spin through my half-dreams.  Poetry has been with me since I was in first grade, and became woven securely into my identity when I was in high school.  I saw the world as metaphor from the time I was very young.  I remember my father’s funeral, when I was seven, and how I absorbed it as a series of powerful images—black casket like a keyless piano, minister playing the trumpet, unfolded rose with darkness at the heart, horses with their shaggy winter coats just over the cemetery fence.  Poetry has been the great leveler in my life.  No matter the loss, no matter the gain, no matter the fire, no matter the ice, it was with me.  Gregory Orr writes about poetry as a potent ally in surviving trauma.  He describes the poem as the final stage in responding to trauma in language—from rant, to journal, to poem.  The poem is the most aestheticized and therefore the most removed and therefore, oddly, the most healing.  The trauma becomes secondary to the “object” of the poem—it’s “out there” rather than “in here.”  I think this is how poetry has always functioned for me.  It allows my witnessing consciousness to reign. 


TSP: Talk to us about your teaching. You are a writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College, a liberal arts college in Michigan, known for its global outreach and unique study abroad programs. Tell us what and how you teach, how your students respond.


Di: Ahhh…that’s a big question.  I designed a developmental approach to teaching creative writing in my teaching practice.  Introduction to Creative Writing is multi-genred.  The focus is less upon the subtle craft points of a given genre and more upon loosening up, having fun with language, experiencing the imagination as it rises to the occasion when faced with the limitations of time or form or subject, remembering our intuitive connection to language, the connection that is often severed by the time people reach young adulthood.  The next stage, after finding one’s voice, is cruel but crucial—the student gives the voice away, hunkers under the influence of practiced poets.  In that course, we begin with Whitman—the wide-lined yawper—and Dickinson—the tempest in a teapot—and then read and apprentice ourselves to one contemporary poet a week.  To walk in the shoes of poets as different from each other as Laura Kasischke and Bob Hicok, D.A. Powell and Lucille Clifton, is frustrating, difficult and very, very fruitful practice for a budding poet.  The final stage—Advanced Poetry—is about helping the students to develop habits that will allow them to be writers for life.  They build their own ten-week project.  They work independently in peer workshops.  They read work that feeds them, both poetry and essays on poetics.  To sum up, my teaching begins with a funky combo of freedom and profoundly limiting assignments, moves into apprenticeship and the opportunity to broaden one’s repertoire and word palette, and ends with individuation.  It usually works.


TSP: And you also teach adults, that is, non-students? Different? Same?


Di:  I have taught adults as beginning writers, and followed a process similar to the one I just described, though probably a less intensive one.  For the last several years I’ve worked only with accomplished, practiced adult poets in a “master class” workshop I run in the summers.  This is very different than the work I do with undergraduates.  My goal with adult writers is to challenge their habits, their groove.  I nettle and needle them with annoying reading and assignments that ask them to move in ways that are uncomfortable and maddening.  The purpose of this torment is very similar to the purpose of rolfing.  Dig deep into the fascia to realign the body.  Rolfing and the summer workshop hurt.  Not for the faint of heart.  Didn’t Bob Dylan write something about s/he who isn’t busy being born is busy dying?


TSP: Can’t resist… can art be taught? In this case, we are talking literary art. There is a skill set involved, but do you believe there is a poet submerged inside all of us that can be drawn out… or are poets born with pens in hand?


Di:  I am from the Conrad Hilberry (my mentor) school in this regard.  I believe that most people are capable of poetry, and that, given the right circumstances, nearly everyone can create something grand on the page.  Not everyone has the dedication that becoming a powerhouse requires.  But I have never worked with a student, in all my years of teaching, who didn’t end up with something rather breathtaking.  I don’t really believe in the select few who come to earth having been sprinkled with literary fairy dust, but, as I said, I did experience the world as writers do from the time I was very young.  I remember making up stories in my head about the decals on my crib before I could talk.  So the stories were like animations—puppy chasing butterfly—without words.  I guess I’m contradicting myself.  All of us have poetry in us.  Not all of us have the opportunity to access it.  Some of us have a real proclivity toward the literary arts, and where that comes from is a mystery. 


TSP: You have a new collection of poetry coming out next year, your second. Please tell us about Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open. About that intriguing title, about the inspiration or muse behind it, about how you had publishers clamoring for it…


Di:  Thanks for asking, Zinta.  The original title of the manuscript was The River Purrs and Burns.  When it won the Juniper, James Tate, the judge, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, made only one suggestion, and that was to choose Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open as the title.  It’s the title of the last poem in the collection, a “big” poem which contains many of the book’s core issues.  I’d actually considered that title, especially because “blown” links to the title of my first book (It Blows You Hollow).  The idea of being blown open/blown away/blown hollow is very appealing to me, obviously.  It is kinetic; it suggests the erotic and also the notion of being acted upon, opened, hollowed out, by a force of nature or of God. 


Wolf Lake’s poems move from an opening section that grounds the reader in place and point of view, summed up in the opening poem, “Jesus wept and so did Rowena Lee,” a little hymn to grievers in the little southwest lower Michigan village where I spent my younger years.  It ends with a poem, “Grammar lesson,” an alternative primer by a surrealist southwest Michigan grammarian.   If the first section describes a mytho-biographical coming of age, the second glorifies in a transgressive solo act.  The third section describes liminal, obsessive romance, ending in a statement of selfhood, “I’m glorious in my destruction like an atomic bomb,” that reclaims and resanctifies Beauty.  Section four’s erotic charge emerges from the lake’s edge, the innards of flowers.  The final section is a new version of the solo act.  It emerges from a very adult, very female suffering—and song.  I hope that whets your appetite.  It’s funny, often.  And there are brides all over the place.


TSP: You also recently received the 2009 Juniper Prize for Poetry, judged by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet James Tate. Can you tell us more about this award? The story around the awards, too. I understand you received two book deals at once, with a third coming up the driveway.


Di:  The Juniper Prize was established in 1975 by the University of Massachusetts Press in Amherst.  It is given every other year to poets who have yet to publish a book; the remaining years it is presented to those who have published at least one book of poems.  Previous winners include Laura Kasischke, Mark Halliday, and Lynda Hull. Lucille Clifton won for one of my favorite books of poems, Two Headed Woman.  I found out I’d won the Juniper Prize and another major book prize within days of each other.  The first award shocked the hell out of me; the second blew me hollow.  Since both were publication deals, I had to choose.  We all should be so lucky to encounter such a conundrum, but it really was a difficult choice.  I drew on the wisdom of some more experienced fellow poets.  In the midst of all this, I was also asked to be a finalist for another major book prize, but I withdrew my name for obvious reasons.  After ten years of writing, teaching, divorcing, single parenting, chopping broccoli, patching the roof and sending out my book manuscript, suddenly all the flowers bloomed at once.  I would encourage all those who are working away at poems and putting together manuscripts, being named bridesmaids but never the bride:   keep improving the manuscript, replacing moldy poems with new and better ones.  Read what’s out there.  Send to magazines.  Study hard.  Wear underpants.  It just might happen for you.


TSP: It’s been a decade since your first collection. Poetry requires marinating… I’m curious about your process. How a good poem comes to you, how you befriend it, coax it onto the page. If it comes whole, or does it come broken, and you build it piece by piece. When you know—it is done. Is it ever done?


Di:  I have a strange process, and it’s probably not particularly instructive, but here goes.  Most of my poems begin with an image I can’t shake or an intriguing line or phrase.  The line might just pop into my head, or may come to me in the voice of a stranger or a friend.  I live with the line a bit, if only because I rarely have the luxury of sitting down to work on a poem immediately when an idea comes.  I try not to over think it, and I never talk about an unwritten idea.  Never fails to squash it in its tracks.  When I get to sit down and work, I write directly onto the computer.  I write fast and furious, within a particularly charged window of opportunity where I do my best composing and editing.  I need to get it right within a day or two, or I lose my connection with it.  It’s best if I enter the poem only with the image or line, without forethought, without plans for a destination.  No itinerary—a full out road trip.  I’m a firm believer that the poem is smarter than I am.  My best bet it to follow its lead.  When I’m surprised, I usually have something that compels me.  I am not a writer who labors over a single poem for years.  Didn’t Grace Paley say “Art is too long, and life is too short.” or something to that effect?


TSP: Describe your muse.


Di:  Hmmm.  Frida Kahlo is a muse.  I have a limp and a right leg full of metal (long story).  Frida had tremendous pain throughout her life, but she managed to paint, and to make images that were mythic by being absolutely, audaciously personal.  When she was in a full body cast, she adjusted a mirror over her bed and used it to watch herself paint the cast itself with images.  And she was a sexy cook.  My mother and sister are muses.  My mother is a solo act.  She’s hilariously funny, sarcastic and compassionate.  I plunder her history and attitude to write my poems.  My sister is a Hospice nurse.  Her work makes poetry look like a stroll in the park.  She is fragile, even broken in many ways, and yet she has the fierce strength of a thousand armored warriors.  Both are love incarnate.  My son is a muse.  He’s one of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever met, and he’s also gone through the hell of addiction and is walking the blessing of recovery.  My dog is my muse.  To quote an old joke describing the dog’s philosophy:  “If you can’t eat it or screw it, piss on it.”


TSP: Many writers talk about their writing as therapy. Would you agree? Do you use writing this way? Is a life not only well lived, but also lived with risk and the occasional deep pot hole in the road inform your work? And the roles in your life—woman, mother, teacher, friend, lover, and surely many others—contribute and how?


Di:  Well, my therapy is therapy.  Having access to a loyal mode of self-expression is therapeutic, but I don’t think poetry’s primary purpose—for me, anyway—is to serve as therapy.  Poetry has much in common with the best therapeutic journeys.  It often must transcend downward to move outward, for instance.  But for me it’s largely an aesthetic process.  The emotion and experience at the poem’s core finally take a back seat to “getting it right” on the level of form, music, diction, voice.  A poem is a made thing.  It’s this making that, for me, elevates the experience of writing poems above all other experiences.  Oddly, it’s the making, not the expressing, that is the most healing to me.


TSP: If we knew nothing at all about you, only knew Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, what would we know about you?


Di: That’s a great question.  A scary question.  I want to say you’d know more about me by knowing the book than you’d know by knowing me.  On the other hand, poems are self-constructions, veils.  Pay no attention to the bitch behind the curtain.


TSP: I seem to recall black ravens flapping wings around your office at Kalamazoo College. Tell us, Di, about you and the birds. The importance and relevance of symbols to your work. Of nature, of other life forms.


Di: Gosh, every question gets more interesting and more difficult to answer succinctly.  I am a bird person.  Crows strike me as soul mates—they strut, they cackle, they shine.  They’re witchy, aren’t they?  And their shit is purple after they eat mulberries.  There are birds all over Wolf Lake.  The last poem is called “The mewlings and snippings of baby birds.”  It began with the nest of baby grackles that ended up in my kitchen vent.  When they’d shriek, the fan would act like a stereo speaker and fill the kitchen with their hunger.  Another poem in the same section is called “Even in hell there are songbirds.”  And in the title poem there are “birds like silver crucifixes/ children wear at their first communion.”  One section is called “paper heron (painted blue).”  I’m fascinated with the intersection of fragility and song in birds.  The natural world is the theological landscape of all of my work.  But I wouldn’t say the natural in my poems is “pretty” or benevolent.  For instance, in “Spring’s confessional poem,” there are “eggs among the nests woven from chemotherapy hair.”  My symbolic landscape is liminal.  It’s the great in-between.  And that landscape is populated with birds, brides, lilacs, trillium, the Blues, snakes, Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, t.v., absinthe, Jesus, window peeking, suicidal moons, occupied Paris, my father, mushroom clouds, glowworms, wedding gowns and shrouds.  Not necessarily in that order.


TSP: When you pluck a poem from your bookshelf, whose poem and what poem do you pluck?


Di: Ooh.  Depends on my mood.  I often need Emily Dickinson’s impudent syntax.  Raymond Carver’s poems remind me of how narrative and feeling, cleanly unfurled, is the bottom line.  And then I am titillated by the fragmentation and snark of poems by D.A. Powell and Matthea Harvey.  Sometimes I want all the fragments to be brought together and made luminous by the poems of Mark Doty.  And then Williams comes along with his wheel barrow and rain water and reminds me of the thing itself. There are zillions of inventive, exhilarating contemporary poets.  Worth binging on.  And, well, how about Plath?  She’s so underestimated.  “Viciousness in the kitchen.! The potatoes hiss.”  Hot damn.

Diane Seuss

TSP: What new works are underway?


Di: That’s an exciting question.  I have a third to a half of a new manuscript, and, with luck, I’ll have a sabbatical year to labor over it next year.  The tentative title:  Is the girl in the blossomhouse gone?  The poems are less florid than those in Wolf Lake, so far.  There’s a sonnet series on the link between drag (as in drag queens) and the sonnet form.  It is less horny and post-divorce, so far, more midlife, elemental, bitch on wheels.  Many of the new poems are forthcoming in magazines I admire. I used to obsess on meeting a lover at a rest stop between here and Chicago.  Now I think about luxurious days and nights hooking up with the Duende.  Do you know that the euphemism for absinthe, in French, is la fée verte—the green fairy?  I didn’t until I looked it up for a poem.  I want to get pleasantly wasted on my own version of absinthe—dark, syrupy language.  Just me and my green fairy.  Smoking a pretend cigar.


TSP: Thank you, Di, for spending time in our smoky space. We hope to print a review of your new poetry collection when it becomes available. Where can our readers learn more about you and where might they buy your books?


Di: My first book is on Amazon and can certainly be ordered at any bookstore.  Wolf Lake will be out in April 2010 and, again, the  Amazon will bring it to your door.  I’ll be giving readings to support the book, including a celebratory reading and signing sometime in May at Kalamazoo College.

To read Di’s poetry on The Smoking Poet, visit The Poetry of Diane Seuss.


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