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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
If we knew nothing at all about you, only knew Wolf
Lake, White Gown Blown Open, what would we know about you?
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.
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.
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.
When you pluck a poem from your bookshelf, whose poem and what poem do you pluck?
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.
What new works are underway?
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
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.
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?
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