Nothing Is One Thing: An Interview with Diane Seuss
Diane Seuss is the 2022 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent book of poetry, frank:sonnets. She is the author of several poetry collections: including It Blows You Hollow, Four-Legged Girl, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, winner of the Juniper Prize and Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, a finalist of the LA Times Book Prize Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Seuss is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow and the 2021 recipient of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her poetry has been published in The New Yorker, Best American Poetry 2014, and Court Green, to name but a few publications. She currently lives in Michigan.
When I spoke with Diane in March 2022, she had just returned home from taking care of her mother. We talked about the role of the caretaker, the many poetic forms of her upcoming book, trash and treasure, and rodents. Lots of rodents.
Kirby Chen Mages: In December, you gave a seminar at Antioch University’s MFA Residency titled “On Order and Disorder: In Writing and In Life,” and I noticed in a lot of interviews you’ve emphasized that there isn’t really a distinction between writing and living.
Diane Seuss: I have a Master of Social Work degree, and I was a therapist. I taught as an adjunct in creative writing while I was doing that, and I was raising a son—a lot of that time as a single parent. I realized that to not go crazy, I had to think of everything as “of a piece.” Parenting, writing, teaching, therapy were all part of one cloth, rather than separate activities. I still do a lot of writing in my head. I get up to pee in the night, and I’m thinking lines. I’m making the soup, and I’m thinking lines. Responsibility to the other is part of writing. You can’t separate it. And your writing’s really not for shit if you don’t participate in life and its pleasures and its hardships. My work has always emerged from my life. It’s not a separate gig.
KCM: What was your writing life like when you were a social worker?
DS: What’s kind of amazing is that through all of my life, no matter what the hell I was doing— and I did a lot of weird shit—I always managed to write. When I was a social worker, that was probably the hardest time, because I’d get home from a day of listening to the hardest stories. When you’re in a helping mode, you can’t cave in. I’d come home to a kid, and for some of that time a spouse, and the last thing I wanted to do was connect. I couldn’t write about my work. It was very difficult for me to feel in touch with my own interior life. That’s the reason I ultimately stopped doing it, as valuable as it was.
It was difficult to write as a social worker, but I think most of the poems in my first book, It Blows You Hollow, were written while I was a therapist, and at least some of Wolf Lake, which came ten years later, was written while I was a therapist. I had to have a very clear truncation between my therapy life and my poems. However, I think there’s a lot I learned and gleaned from listening to people and sitting with their suffering that I wouldn’t have learned any other way. And that’s part of poetry.
However, I think there’s a lot I learned and gleaned from listening to people and sitting with their suffering that I wouldn’t have learned any other way.
KCM: Was there a reason for the ten year period between your first and second book? I feel like that’s pretty common, especially with poetry.
DS: The reason for the ten years between the first and second book is that I went through divorce, and shit hit the fan. I was poor. My son was starting to go through troubles. But mostly, it was because I couldn’t get it published. I would send it out and send it out, fix it, make it better, send it out. This was the book that ended up winning the Juniper Prize, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open. It took years for that book to land. But when it finally did, a known writer happened upon it and urged Graywolf Press to look at my next manuscript, which they did not accept. The editor said to work on it for a year, and then come back. I was amazed when, a year later, he wrote me and asked to see it again. I did send a much-improved manuscript to him. I also sent it out to other presses and two expressed interest in a single week. I called my editor at Graywolf, and said I’d had an offer elsewhere. Lucky for me, the editorial staff met and made me an offer later that day. It’s the book that became Four-Legged Girl.
I work hard to publish a book every three years now. Graywolf doesn’t publish a book until at least three years after the one before, so I’ve stayed on that path. As one book is going through all the Hoo-ha of getting toward publication, I’m still generating new poems. I have a working class attitude toward it. At this point in my life, I don’t have a sense of endless time, and I want to get as much done as I can before I clunk over. My next book, which comes out in 2024 (the same year my credit card expires), is really a different book from frank:sonnets. It’s big, honkin’, longer poems, some of them pretty rhetorical. They are pandemic isolation-influenced. They weigh-in.
KCM: Can you talk about some of the themes that are going to be in the upcoming book?
DS: It’s me saying, “Okay, maybe at this point, I can take a bit of authority and talk about poetry itself,” which, apparently, you are not supposed to do. A lot of the poems are less autobiographical, in the frank:sonnets sense. They’re more interior, often with self-critique, but in a way that includes the reader in that process. There are poems with titles that are related to music, like, “Rhapsody,” “Folk Song,” “Cowpunk,” and “An Aria.” They’re often large scale, and looking at the lyric, how music itself—which is my stand-in for poetry—can and cannot frame experience. The thesis of the book is a question: What has poetry been, and what can it be now? And by now, I mean, with everything happening in the world—the pandemic, war, climate disaster, gun violence, tyranny, numerous kind of suffering. What can poetry be now? I think the whole book asks that question in one way or another.
KCM: Is it written in any traditional forms?
DS: No, that about killed me with frank. I was so reliant on the sonnet. It was like having a dog and then the dog dying. There are quite a few longer poems. I’ve decided on a ten line stanza, just to give me something to lean on. I have one longer poem called “Little Epic,” which refers to epic poetry. I actually do have a bunch of ballads, but they depart from the form in some extreme ways. I have one called “Villanelle.” It’s not a villanelle, but it kind of looks like one. It about reading a villanelle at a poetry reading and realizing that next to you on the floor you have somehow brought up your own bag of garbage.
KCM: I’m glad you brought up this bag of garbage in the villanelle, because I’ve actually noticed that trash, thrift stores, and the repurposing of objects appear a lot in your poetry.
DS: I hadn’t thought of that. That’s true. Junk. Trash and treasure. When I lived in New York, I lived one street over from St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, and there were thrift shops all up and down the street, with repurposed clothing. It was a time of wearing rags proudly and not this pressure to be beautiful, or a Kardashian, or have the eyebrows, or whatever the fuck it is now. There were so many ways in which it wasn’t free, but there was also a freedom. I feel that in my hometown, too. There are so many ways it is not free, and then there are just a couple of ways that there’s this renegade energy. Nothing is one thing.
In the new book, a lot of the poems end with me speaking to myself and using my own name. At the end of a very new poem called “The Other,” I write, “Whatever you think you are, Diane, think again.” Whatever goodness I assign myself, or badness, even, think again. Whatever the ballad is, think again. I also do that with fugues. I didn’t even know what a fugue was, but I researched enough about it to write some poems. The first one in the book is called “Little Fugue State.” The fugue state, in psychological terms, is a period of feeling lost – of losing one’s identity. Musically, fugues preceded musical compositions that are based on harmonies. With fugues, two or three things can be going on at the same time, like a contrapuntal poem. A simpler way to think of it is as these braided compositions. I have a few poems in the book that I call fugues, because they braid strange ponytails.
I feel the poems are always wiser than I am. And my imagination is stronger than my intellect.
KCM: Do you ever feel like you’re in a fugue state when you’re writing?
DS: Yes. The poem is addressing me. The poem is educating me. I feel the poems are always wiser than I am. And my imagination is stronger than my intellect. Or not separate from my intellect.
KCM: When you’re writing these poems that allude to musical forms, are you listening to anything?
DS: My son’s really into music and told me to listen to Glenn Gould’s fugues. There’s a video on YouTube where you can watch a visual representation of the fugue while it’s being played. I know very little about music, and so I had to enter these ideas as an innocent. It takes a lot for me to get it, but that really helped. I’m not a big classical music person. In fact, a good friend sings in choirs and for years I have told her that I don’t like “king music.” It always sounds like it’s for the bigwigs. But I decided, okay, here’s something that you’ve tended to straight-arm. What if you try connecting with it?
KCM: At the December residency you also talked about how order can help when you’re writing through a trauma as a means of creating an object to externalize the internal.
DS: It’s huge. It’s everything. If you’re going through an actual trauma or hard time, if you think about what really helps, it’s your friend saying, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go to the grocery store, and we’re going to make soup, and then you’re going to eat it. Then you’re going to take a pill and sleep.” It helps to have that voice that is very structured.
To make this decision to write longer poems that are free verse was pretty threatening. This has been such a hard time to write poems, for all of us, I think. And I don’t like redemptive poems. If the redemption comes just by chance, okay, but I don’t like poems that push toward or try for redemption. In one of my poems for this next book, I said, “There are too many poems about light.” There are so many poems—now that I’ve said it, if you haven’t noticed it, you’re going to start—that always end up with light. And it’s like, where did you learn that? That’s something I probably learned from therapy—doing it and having it. Don’t have false resolutions and false redemptions. Poems don’t have to resolve. They don’t have to save the situation.
In her book, When Things Fall Apart, the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön refers to the well-known phrase, “Abandon any hope for fruition.” Don’t impose upon yourself some narrative of healing or getting it right. I think that belief haunts a lot of my work. It certainly haunts my next book. Like, with drug addicts—I had to learn so fucking hard with my son that any residual fairytales that I was telling myself about how it would go, I had to drop. It was hurting him for me to hold onto them, even if I didn’t express them, and it was keeping me stuck. I try in my poems to be as honest as possible about where things are without a fake redemption narrative.
KCM: For some reason as you’re describing this, I’m thinking of your poem “Free Beer,”which was such a twisted fairytale.
DS: It’s so twisted. I still don’t quite know what that poem’s about, because I stuck together two separate narratives, really. The truth—that my family was poor, my dad was sick, and I didn’t have puppets. I went around the neighborhood and invited everybody to a puppet show, and I said there’ll be free beer. And my parents were like, “What the hell? We have no beer.” So, just that little weirdness. Then one of the mass shootings had happened, many mass shootings ago, and I wondered, could I sit with the bastard? In his prison cell, could I sit with him? I thought maybe I could. Not forgive him. Not like him. Not fix him. Just sit with him. For some reason that I have to trust, those things collided. I don’t know why. “Free beer, I said, but there is no beer.”
I mean, what a weird thing to do. In my mind it was all true. Maybe that’s the connection. When I asked, “Can I sit with the bastard?” I’m really asking, “Can I sit with myself? With the worst of me?” Can I stay with myself, not abandon myself? Even when I’m a piece of shit, which is often? I think that’s the connection. This kid who makes promises she can’t keep and then this murderer. They’re both me in a certain way, and can I stay with them? Even though there ain’t no beer?
KCM: What’s your relationship to mysticism?
DS: I believe in signs, and the dead speaking, and all that. You name it, I believe it. I don’t think I could write without the help of those realms. And I believe in animal totems, and animals that foretell. I think animals are prophets in a lot of ways. And it’s not always pretty, you know? Can I tell you about this experience? I’ve had many with animals, but this one was creepy.
I believe in signs, and the dead speaking, and all that.
Right before the pandemic, I was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis as a visiting professor in their MFA program. I was renting a house near the university, and I started having recurring dreams about mice crawling up my arm. They were white, and they would crawl up my arm and wake me with a start. One night, I had the dream, and I jumped and fell out of bed. I hadn’t fallen out of bed since I was a small child. I heard my spine crack and I thought I broke my back. I stayed on the floor for a while and decided to try to get up, and I could. I got back in bed and wondered if I’d broken my spine.
Two or three days later, I’m sitting there working, and I see something moving. And you know how it is—at first, it almost doesn’t register. Then I thought, did I see an animal or something? So I started watching, and I saw it again. And it wasn’t a mouse. It was a rat. I have a total phobia about rodents. I think it’s probably a past life thing. It was late at night, and I immediately called an emergency number for a 24-hour person who can do shit in the rental houses. He came and he said, “I think it crawled up from the basement.” He put a live trap down there. The next day he checked it, and it was in there. Within a day, the pandemic was announced.
Rodents are associated with the plague, which is why I think I have that phobia. I’m having mouse after mouse dream enough to break me, then this fucking rat comes into my space, then the pandemic. It really felt like a portent of doom or a warning. I had a similar thing this winter. A white mouse and a black mouse suddenly appeared in my house. The black mouse would climb onto the heating vent and sleep there. It was like, “This is cozy.” I tried a live trap, and they were too smart for it. I ended up killing them. I feel terrible about it. But I couldn’t deal. I couldn’t live with it. As soon as that happened, my mom lost almost every bit of her remaining hearing, and I was called into service to help her. So many things like that. I suppose it’s a favor to warn me, but what good does it do? Long story short, I’m a very mystical person, and I take those things seriously.
KCM: I wonder what this past life of yours was like?
DS: Probably shit, obviously. During the plague, I’m sure to see a rodent was like a death sentence. I don’t fear any other animal. I’m not afraid of bugs or spiders. I love spiders, actually. But there’s something about the rodent. To me they really are tricksters. They pull the rug out.
KCM: Well, I hope that those dreams stopped. I feel like our hour’s almost up!
DS: I know, and you’re like, she spent the whole time talking about mice. Oh my god. This rat. It was sizable. For weeks I was cleaning where it had been and wouldn’t walk around without shoes. I’m a freak.
KCM: I’m similar, I guess. I had a rodent infestation this summer and it definitely drove me crazy.
DS: Just that term makes me want to jump off a building. Isn’t it just awful?
KCM: It’s awful how they have to kill them. They’re dying in the walls and there’s this smell.
DS: Oh, god. We have come to a very dark place, my dear.
KCM: Ok, let’s change the subject. Are there any specific words, images, or themes that are currently lodged in your mind or that you’re dwelling on?
DS: Well, right now? Rodent infestation. [Laughter.] I return to the word that is my own name in this new book a lot. I see that person as separate from me. And then music itself. I think it’s so strange to go into a sequence of poems with an idea that you really don’t know much about, and so the process of writing is the process of self-educating. I actually have one poem that’s called “My Education,” and it’s about that. I have another one called “Modern Poetry,” which is about the first poetry class I ever took—its limitations and its possibilities, and how I felt. I really wasn’t old enough to get it developmentally, but it ended up taking this turn, which changed everything. That turn was that next I took a women’s literature class at the public university in town. There, I met all of the women that I wasn’t meeting in Modern Poetry, or if I met them, we weren’t having those conversations. One of our classmates, a really cool woman who drove to school on a motorcycle, was murdered by her ex-partner while she was at work, and then the class really needed to become about her., and domestic violence, and femicide. And so it was this movement from modern poetry, to women’s literature, to women’s reality.
My theory is, whatever your tendencies are, work against them a little. And then, once you do that, you’ll get new tendencies and then work against those. So basically, never be comfortable.
KCM: I can’t wait to read that.
DS: If you want to see poems that I’ve mentioned I can send you the manuscript if you want. It’s not done, so forgive my trespasses.
KCM: I don’t even know yet what it is to make a manuscript.
DS: Well, me neither. The first time I was asked, “Do you have a manuscript?” I didn’t know what that was. “Well, I have a bunch of poems in an old briefcase, along with tampons, and everything else you can imagine.” And so I had to fake it. I’ve had to do that most of my life, so you will, too. My theory is, whatever your tendencies are, work against them a little. And then, once you do that, you’ll get new tendencies and then work against those. So basically, never be comfortable. There’s always a rodent nipping at your heels.
Kirby Chen Mages is a writer and interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. They currently attend Antioch University’s Low-Residency MFA program, where they are pursuing a dual concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction while serving as Lead Editor in Translation for Antioch’s literary journal, Lunch Ticket. They are the recipient of the Elizabeth Kray Poetry Prize, and their poems have been published in Prolit.