2022 Contest: Interview with Poetry Judge Diane Seuss
Diane Seuss is the author of five books of poetry. Her most recent collection is frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press 2021), winner of the PEN/Voelcker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and a finalist the 2022 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Claremont Graduate University. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, (Graywolf Press 2018) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press 2015) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her sixth collection, Modern Poetry, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2024. Seuss is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. She received the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021. Seuss was raised by a single mother in rural Michigan, which she continues to call home.
Interview by Katie DeLay
Katie DeLay: Congratulations on your recent, and so well-deserved, Pulitzer Prize for frank: sonnets! I am thrilled to see this master work receive the accolades and attention it deserves and to personally join in the chorus of praise. I frequently reflect on a reading with Jorie Graham (via Zoom, during early pandemic), where she said to write what you need to get to your next phase of life. Reading frank: sonnets for the first time, and returning to them again and again, did this for me. In writing these sonnets, was this sentiment a factor in writing this collection–did you feel you needed to write these sonnets? What compelled you to write this collection, at this phase in your writing life?
Diane Seuss: Thank you so much for your congratulations, and for your generous comments about frank: sonnets. It’s been an incredible experience to witness how many readers have connected with the book, despite differences in age, situation, geography, and experience. I love Jorie Graham’s statement about writing as a process for getting to the next phase of life. I really do experience my life in chapters, at least when looking back, and as I wrote frank, I could see my various selves, strung together, as I think I say in one poem, like a chain of paper dolls. My books, too, do feel like they provide a focused energy for breaking the seal on the next incarnation. Each sonnet in frank memorialized and exposed a moment in time. Each sonnet takes up the same amount of space, 14 lines, no matter the largeness or smallness of the event or feeling that the poem entertains. I was at the point in my years on planet Earth that it seemed like it might be a challenge to write a memoir. I couldn’t hear what that would sound like in prose—the sort of “this happened, and then that happened” approach—but when the first sonnet came to me—wrote itself, really—as a sort of nearly present tense narration of a moment of thought and feeling—and when Frank O’Hara walked into that poem, with his seemingly spontaneous, kinetic diction and approach—it occurred to me that I could remember, and remember remembering, in 14-line increments, approached with Frank-like improvisational energy. Ultimately, the desire to tell, a bit Ishmael-like, coupled with the curiosity about the potential of the contemporary sonnet, is what compelled me into and through frank: sonnets.
KD: As you can tell, Black Warrior Review is quite the fan of your work, having published your poem “Oh four-legged girl, it’s either you or the ossuary” as a finalist of our poetry contest in issue 39.1. It feels quite serendipitous that you should be the contest judge, exactly 10 years later. How do you conceptualize your life lived in parallel to your writing? How do you see the two influence and inform one another?
DS: I’ve been an admirer of BWR for years, and was happy that the title poem of my third book, Four-Legged Girl,was a finalist for the contest and was published in the magazine. In response to your question, I don’t think I live so I can write. That is, I don’t make choices or construct experiences so that I can write about them. I live my life the way I always have, which is at least as messy as everyone else’s lives. The poem comes in remembering and contemplating, what Wordsworth described as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’m not sure I’m often tranquil, but I can be very focused. My writing is a private act, and it requires a degree of privacy and solitude—at least my writing does. It seems true that writing has always been part of the texture of my life, in the way that cooking is, or brushing my hair, or carrying laundry up from the basement. Like all activity, it’s both holy and profane. And as I’ve evolved as a human being, there is less and less separation between living and writing.
KD: External to writing, what creative acts (or non-creative acts) inform your ability to write? What hobbies or art forms are you excited about right now?
DS: Taking drives feeds my work. Looking; taking the world in through the senses. It doesn’t have to be “beauty” in the conventional sense. Just allowing myself to experience a depth of connection with things, which has been especially difficult in the last few years. Music—certain music that draws up feelings and associations from the past—immediately activates my poem-mind. Sometimes to listen to music is almost more than I can stand. Well, one must listen and stand it anyway, and write from that edge. Visual art has always been important to me. I am moved by artists of the distant past who were attempting, despite or because of their life circumstances, to create, to venerate a moment. I don’t need art or writing that reflects my values or my personality. One of the novels that slays me is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. There is no moral center to the novel. No “good” protagonist. The central character is selfish, debauched, and deluded. But the sentences! The language itself is the novel’s hero. I feel connected on a deeply human level to distant makers. Not because they’re ideal human beings, but because they were terribly flawed, as am I, and still they created something lasting.
KD: What is the latest piece of writing that moved you?
DS: So many things move me, it’s hard to choose. Jane Huffman, poet and founding editor of Guesthouse, is writing a sequence of poems in a contemporary haibun form that is extraordinary. Her artfulness is sublime. My mom’s grocery list, which is so much more humble than mine.
KD: Finally, what piece of advice do you carry into your work today?
DS: I’m not sure it’s advice, but it guides me, from Gregory Orr’s book of essays Poetry as Survival: “But in the act of making a poem at least two crucial things have taken place that are different from ordinary life. First, we have shifted the crisis to a bearable distance from us: removed it to the symbolic but vivid world of language. Secondly, we have actively made and shaped this model of our situation rather than passively endured it as lived experience.”
And also, from Warren Zevon: “Enjoy every sandwich.”