Diane Seuss: Matriarchy of Memory
An interview with Tara Labovich
Diane Seuss is the author of three poetry collections. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open is the winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and Four-Legged Girl was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Her most recent book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, published in May 2018, has been called “a marvelous, complex, attractive, frightening book” by the New York Times Book Review. She has been published widely, in publications such as The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry. Diane is also a professor and has taught at schools such as Kalamazoo, Colorado College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern Maine.
TL: As means of introduction: If you were to give yourself a title, what would it be?
DS: This is very difficult. When my son was three, he titled me ‘Little Lovable.’ I’m neither little nor lovable, so I like the tension that creates between title and subject.
TL: Form has always been a guiding force for you; how did the form of Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks evolve? How does form guide the book in its final state? What about in the process of writing?
DS: Poetry is form. Form, the line, compression, and music are what distinguishes poems from prose. Even if we’re writing in defiance of traditional, regularized form, it is the hub of the wheel, the spine of the body of the poem. This book, more than any of my others, developed in a complex dance between mysterious content (still life painting, which led me to “women’s work” and the rural, which led me to art as both paradise and gated community) and a range of forms — poem as outline, a couple of sequences of what Ginsberg called the American Sentence (a 17-syllable sentence, his variation on the haiku), a poem called “Sentences” — which is composed of 7 6-lined stanzas, all without enjambment — a sequence of Walmart Parking Lot prose poems, and a sequence of “sonnets” from still life paintings — all 14-lines, unrhymed, each line an American Sentence. If I step back and look at the book as a whole, it can be seen as a single poem with many parts — each poem in the collection a step along the way, like movements in a symphony. (I don’t see the book as symphonic, by the way. That’s just the best way I know how to explain what I mean.) It is bookended, for instance, with two poems that work as allegories, and between those bookends, forms are born and transmogrify into other forms. The process of writing is what calls-in the next formal approach and the next iteration of the content. Instead of numbered or titled sections, I use fragments of the Rembrandt painting that titles the book, as visual representations of a shift into something next, something new. The painting is finally whole just before we reach the final poem. I liked that sense of visual fragmentation that coalesces, even for a moment, into a recognizable whole. I didn’t come to the project knowing what it would look like or what I would discover along the way. The entire process was heavenly and intuitive and felt like a product of forces outside of me.
TL: You’ve mentioned that the guiding question of Still Life is the choice between the artistic world of Eden and your family and community. Can you speak about how poetry answered this question for you? Furthermore, how is it that poetry can be a means to sort through these kinds of incredibly life-altering understandings?
DS: I think the binary itself — art/Eden vs. nature/community — is a territory I’ve occupied my whole life without realizing it. Poetry helped me conceptualize that space and therefore bring it to consciousness. The moment we bring something to consciousness, we begin, maybe, to let it go, or at least complicate it. I think a poem can have a thesis; a book of poems can have a thesis, and that thesis can be tested, enacted, argued, disproven, and shaken in the process of the book’s writing (and reading). That is, poems aren’t primarily an emotional unloading — though they do unload — any more than they are primarily theoretical, or musical, or anything else. Like us, they are many things, and each of us moves through the spectrum of what a poem or a collection can be in our own way. The final poem in Peacocks, the last sentence in that poem, answered the question that arose from the book’s process for me. Matriarchy of memory wins out over patriarchy of art world. The hope is that those realms will continue to infiltrate each other, politically, culturally, spiritually.
TL: Your approach to writing, mentoring, and teaching has been very intuitive, very instinctual. For example, you mentioned that the idea for Still Life came from “the space behind your eyelids.” Where does this trust in the intuitive come from, and how does it guide your writing?
DS: It’s hard for me to remember a time that my primary mode was not intuition. I think that’s probably our natural state as children. My dad was ill from the time I was a toddler and died when I was seven. I spent a lot of time sitting next to him, sharing silence, intuiting his feelings and situation. School for me was never enjoyable, as the kind of education I received was largely counter-intuitive. I found it physically and emotionally unbearable. When I became a teacher, I vowed to be the teacher I wish I’d had when I was young. I was lucky to be found by Conrad Hilberry when I was a teenager. Without overdoing it, he simply saw me. He didn’t just accept my weirdness; he enjoyed it. I received from him an invaluable gift: unconditional positive regard. I want to offer that to others, and when I can’t, I consider it a result of my own human weakness. My mother allowed for my way of being without being overwrought about it. She had her own fish to fry — which modeled for me, especially as I was becoming an adult, having my own fish to fry. I guess I’m answering your question in a roundabout way. I think intuition is our birthright. For whatever reason, those adults nearby helped me to keep it from being chased underground.
TL: Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to mistake-making, failure, and blocks in your creative process?
DS: Beauty is in the flaws, don’t you think? If I told you the narrative of my life, you would hear more about screw-ups, stupid moves, gaffes, than successes, and they are, by and large, my aesthetic. What we call “blocks,” writer’s block, can be met with formal challenges. If I feel stuck, I turn to form. But often stuckness is simply a signal that we need to rest. We’re not built to make poems or paintings endlessly. We need silence, stillness, space; I do, anyway. The fallow times are as important to me as the times when work is really flowing. The “I” in my poems is unheroic. If she has any power at all, it is in her ability to be honest about her absurdity. Improvisation implies we are open to mistakes. Probably the most earth-shattering discoveries in all fields were the result of happy accidents. Failure is the mother of humility.
TL: What comes next for you? How has the work of this project set the stage or even bled into your next endeavor?
DS: Well, my current project is a huge departure from Peacocks. It’s a memoir of sorts, but a memoir in sonnets — all the poems are 14 lines. Some have rhyme. Some establish a meter. There isn’t the same kind of theoretical frame as in Peacocks. The frame is what I call “my life,” but mostly memory and how I remember what I remember. The sonnets are various — some have no “I,” rather speaking in “we.” Some function more like very-brief chunks of prose memoir. I guess the link with Peacocks is my continued work with the sonnet and the exploration, broadly, of how to tell one’s story, and what even constitutes one’s story. New York School poet Frank O’Hara — who died young, hit by a jeep on Fire Island in 1967 — appears in poem one and in the last poem and in a section in the manuscript’s belly. Frank is a presence in the book’s improvisations and is also a kind of foil for the speaker in the collection. Right now, in fact, the book is called Frank. My shortest title and longest book.
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl
is available from Graywolf Press.