Born in Michigan City, Indiana and raised in Edwardsburg and Niles, Michigan, Diane Seuss is a Midwestern poet I urge you to read, if you haven’t already.
According to her biography from the website for Kalamazoo College (where she taught for many years), Seuss’s people are: “old school barbers, small town morticians, telephone operators, nurses, teachers, one-eyed pool players, and furniture salespeople (specializing in the swivel rocker).” Luckily for us, Seuss’s writing is directly influenced by both the people and places with which she is familiar.
Seuss attended Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University, where she received her MSW. She is the author of the poetry collections Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (2018); Four-Legged Girl (2015), finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (2010), winner of the 2009 Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (1998).
Her work is irreverent, spooky, transcendent, and incredibly inventive. She’s also an amazing reader, and I encourage you to see her if you can. I just came across this video of her reading at Rutgers, which I love–she’s been working on a new book composed of autobiographical sonnets that are amazing, and she reads several of these in the aforementioned video; she also reads one of my favorite poems in her new book, “Eden: An Outline,” which is a phenomenally creative and boundary breaking poem.
Anyhow, I had the opportunity to interview Diane, and she very graciously answered all of my questions, going far beyond simple answers:
NS: I first became acquainted with your work when I saw you read in South Bend. At that time, Karen Kovacik was Poet Laureate of Indiana and she had a ‘Borderlands’ reading, where poets from the borders of Indiana and Michigan read their work. Out of all the readers there, your poems and presence struck me most. I believe there was an overall theme to the reading about ‘borders,’ though I can’t exactly recall what poems you read. I certainly see some thematic representation of borders in your latest book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl--the book is contained within the border or frame of a painting, which we enter in the first poem, “I Have Lived My Whole Life In a Painting Called Paradise” and which we exit with the last poem, “I Climbed Out of the Painting Called Paradise.” Could you talk a little about the importance of the frame or border that many of the characters in this book cross or are contained by?
DS: I love it that we were first in the same room at a “Borderlands” reading, since we were both raised near that hazy demarcation of the state line between Michigan and Indiana. That line is probably one reason that borders and transgressing them became so important to my work. Within a few blocks of the house where I grew up were businesses all named State Line Something-or-Other—State Line Supermarket, State Line Dairy (where my sister scooped ice cream), and the State Line trailer park, where I watched trailers tip over during the Palm Sunday tornado. I experienced so many disquieting borders—between towns and the natural world, the river and the land, women and men, normals and weirdos, the living and the dead. We lived on the border of a village cemetery, a bog, and a horse pasture. A railroad track ran so close to our house that the bed would shake when the trains came through. I knew a woman who saw ghosts dancing on telephone wires. So the whole landscape was crosshatched with borders and visions of borders, and they branded me early and well.
You are so right about the frame of my new collection, which is bookended by the two poems you mention. The border between the paradise of art and the world where most of us live is the thematic hot spot in this book. I became interested in a painting by Rembrandt, Girl in a Picture Frame, which is a beautiful portrait of a young girl in a russet dress wearing a big black hat. Around the portrait Rembrandt has painted a false black frame which one could easily mistake for the painting’s real frame, and he’s painted her fingers resting on the frame, and subtly reaching over it. That image—of the painting’s subject testing the world outside the painting for herself, entrapped by the painting, perhaps, and contemplating climbing out of it—became central to my thinking about art in the book. Not just visual art, but writing, too, and not just writing, but the whole odd relationship between subject and object, the one-who-gazes and the gazed-upon. The first poem, “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” is a kind of interpenetration of my real lived experience and landscape and the realm of the imagination, of myth, of art-making. The book’s last poem imagines an escape from art, a journey from the solitude of writing to the land of my people. Both poems shocked me, especially the last one, which resolved in a way I never expected. The first poem is a rush of visual description, while the second is an allegory. Taken together, they offer a “key” to the rest of the book, like a key to a map.
NS: Speaking of borders, you have a long poem which bisects your new book, “Stateline Pastoral,” which I read as a sort of ode to the people of the region along the Indiana/Michigan state line where you grew up. Reading this poem and experiencing your elevation of that place to a source of high art was very transformative to me in thinking about this area that I also come from. When did you realize that your writing was going in this direction, and did it surprise you? Writers often talk about discovering something in their writing process. Was there something that you discovered about your roots and/or your perception of art in relation to your place of origin?
DS: Such a good question. I’m so glad to hear how you experienced that poem; it’s accurate to the way I conceived of it. I’d read an essay—one of those essays on the death of poetry that come out every few years—in which the author stated that contemporary poets no longer use the “we” in our poems. As I thought that through, I considered all the reasons that poets have resorted to the singular perspective, especially the fact that “we” has been traditionally exclusionary to anyone unlike the poem’s author/speaker. Who’s “we”—you know? —and how dare one speak as a “we” with any confidence in its accuracy? Who does “we” include, and who does it exclude? Despite all of that, I decided to try it out, but to locate my “we” with the people I was raised among—the rural working poor—a “we” I imagined the author of the essay on the death of poetry would not have considered himself part of, nor would he wish to be. (“Who are these people?” a writer friend asked about another poem in the collection. “My people, “I replied. “Such as we are.”) Rather than use the typical diction that we associate with “hick culture,” I was drawn to an elevated diction—akin to the idealism through which a pastoral painting interprets a real landscape. So there is an odd clash in this longer poem between the content of the lives being represented and the language of the “we”—the word “pudendum” is used instead of “pussy,” for instance. It is at once high art and low culture, and for me that set off a spark. I suppose it represents the margin I’ve always occupied. A strange and lively place indeed.
NS: Going back to one of my favorite poems in your new book, “I Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” you tell us in the notes that lines in that poem reference Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, William Carlos William’s poem of the same title, and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying.” I couldn’t find the Williams poem (on the interwebs), and I was particularly curious about it. What is the Williams poem about, and can you tell us a little about the genesis of your own poem and how you ended up incorporating all of those influences?
DS: God you’re good. Here is the Williams poem:
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
As you can imagine, I didn’t arrive at the poem’s beginning with Williams and Bruegel and Gilbert in hand. Rather, I stumbled upon them in the process of writing. I find my stumblings are more interesting than my intentions most of the time. There is more to say about Bruegel than I can get into here, but most crucially, his landscapes were a visual depiction of what this poem was attempting, that is, a landscape with many elements without a singular focal point, and which includes a representation of the falling Icarus, who occupies a very small part of the broad canvas. The myth is part of the landscape—but so is the ship, the plow, the shepherd, and the horse. As Williams writes: “a splash quite unnoticed/this was/Icarus drowning,” which seems like the way of things. Jack Gilbert’s great poem “Failing and Flying” also references Icarus, this time as a metaphor for a failed marriage. His poem ends: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,/but just coming to the end of his triumph,” which seems like a very sane way to think about the end of something grand. Mostly I wanted to invite Bruegel, Williams, and Gilbert to the party, to pay a bit of an homage to their influence, and to thank them, and so many other painters and writers, for holding me up through the writing of this poem, and all the others. We bring everything to the task, everything we’ve seen, read, studied, rejected, tasted, smelled, observed, and tossed aside. I like a poem that can include that energy.
NS: Speaking of the origins of things, I was very interested to read that part of your inspiration for this book came after waking from a dream with an image of the words “still life” in your third eye. Has anything like this ever happened to you before? I come from a line of women who have prophetic dreams, so this sort of thing fascinates me…
DS: This dream was extraordinary, yes. It is in keeping with my whole experience of writing this collection, in which I felt led to the task and supported in the work. My main struggle was to give in to the guidance of others, whoever they may have been. The words “still life” hung there in the dark behind my eyes. I was freaked out enough that I started to do some research on early still life painting, and that is where I encountered Rembrandt’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, which became the title poem. I was teaching Allen Ginsberg’s form the American Sentence at the time—a formal revision he made to the 5/7/5 syllable haiku. In the American Sentence, Ginsberg suggested no line breaks—just a single 17 syllable sentence. He felt this form was more suited to writing in English, allowed for feeling rather than simply counting. I decided to try a sequence of sonnets composed of American Sentences—each line of the 14 lines in the sonnet is 17 syllables. This three-tiered challenge—limiting myself to 14 lines, writing in syllabic verse, framing the sonnet by a particular still life painting—was stimulating to my imagination. Also, to think in the unit of the sentence—the workaday sentence—seemed right for this collection and moved its way into other poems (such as the one called “Sentences,” which is composed of 42 un-enjambed sentences—7 stanzas of 6 lines each.) This is the kind of madness one resorts to, seeking formal restraint as a path toward compression and artfulness. In poetry, oddly enough, freedom is one of the least freeing things there is. So yes, I have had dreams, and yes, when they’re that blunt, I follow them, and I also follow the lead of my elders, like Ginsberg and Rembrandt and all the rest. One can’t really do this work alone.
NS: You have also spoken of your time spent at Hedgebrook, a residency for women writers, and how being in that particular environment was especially fertile for you. However, you also dealt with feeling shame that you were able to experience this luxury of having time away from any responsibilities and just focusing on writing while being taken care of. Do you have any advice for other writers (asking for a friend, ahem) about how to deal with shame and feeling not worthy when receiving reward for your writing?
Another really insightful question. I think I would say to that ahem, friend, that one should feel all of her clumsy, uncomfortable feelings around issues of privilege and luxury and receiving nurturing and respect—and examine those feelings in the writing itself. My discomforting comfort at Hedgebrook engaged me in the thinking that became the emotional and intellectual heart of this book, that is, that art is an Eden but also a gated community, that my class would always be at odds with my affinity for art, that this is a confusing thing, and a painful thing, and a very dynamic presence in a poem. Immerse yourself in what is in your path, no matter its complexity. Don’t try to rehabilitate a conundrum. Live it. That is the most difficult and comforting thing about writing poems, I think.
NS: Moving on to Walmart, a place I automatically feel a little shame when I walk into. . . I absolutely love your Walmart sequence of poems, where you describe a Walmart parking lot through the lenses of five famous visual artists. What was the genesis of this poem, and what was the process of writing it like? Did you visit the Walmart and take notes or anything like that? I am thinking of CA Conrad’s Walmart rituals, where they sleep in Walmart parking lots and also go into the store to write. Are you familiar with this project of CA’s?
DS: I am aware of CAConrad and really interested in what they are up to in their Walmart project, as well as their other poems. I didn’t do anything as experiential as that, aside from going to the Walmart that now occupies a big corner near where I was raised. I was staying with my mom after she broke her ankle and needed to go there a few times to pick up some things for her. There were the folks dragging through the aisles with their oxygen tanks, and others dragging their hungers, the hopes and dreams we’ve been told can be met by a box store. I was up against all my Walmart feelings and judgments of course, and then I just started to think of it as a dynamic space, the parking lot as a canvas that could be interpreted and imagined in a number of ways, like anything else, the despairing capitalist version of the tabula rasa. When I turned to writing the poem/s, I made use of artists with whom I thought the general reader would be familiar, and I let my feelings and judgments sneak in, even as I worked to interpret the space according to a certain aesthetic vision.
NS: I love how, in the Mark Rothko version of your Walmart parking lot poem, you write about taking the South Shore train to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and how the speaker then comes home and remembers the art as a dream, yet the speaker is also already seeing their home landscape as if it was a Rothko painting. I relate to this poem intensely because I had an experience similar to this after taking the South Shore to the Art Institute as a young adult. In fact, it got me interested in art and in making my own paintings, and is probably a big reason why The Indianapolis Review includes art, even though I don’t actually know that much about art and am not trained. What has your relationship been like with visual art before you started researching for this book? Do you ever create your own?
DS: I think we’re the same person. I swear. Which is why you get it so acutely.
I am a terrible painter. I can draw cartoons and quick caricatures. That’s it. I can’t sew, knit, crochet, needlepoint. I can cook. I can’t garden, so I’ve told myself I prefer weeds. You know?
I have always loved visual art, from the Illustrated Bible that someone gave me when I was a kid, with a really cool drawing of the flood, complete with drowning people, to the Good Housekeeping Guide to Motherhood with a drawing of what to do about inverted nipples, to drawings of the dish running away with the spoon in children’s books, to the fine art I glimpsed in the World Book encyclopedia at school. When I finally got to college I became an art history minor, and when I moved to NYC I spent as much time as possible in Soho galleries and the Museum of Modern Art and the Met—all of it. I got sick in the Monet Water Lilies Room at MOMA, a combo of art and morning sickness.
In the Rothko section of “Walmart Parking Lot” I wrote from the kingdom of memory (where I generally live), thinking back to taking the ole South Shore to Chicago with my friend Mikel when I was in high school, all so we could go to the Art Institute and ogle the paintings. That crossing of the boundary between home—where he lived behind the fruit stand and I lived down the road from the Fulkerson (Fuckerson) Park Baptist Church—and the city, the palatial art museum, the priceless art objects—the excitement and the strangeness of that—feeds that section and the whole poem, I hope. To come to art “innocent” is a lucky thing. You always retain that awe, even after you’ve learned some things. Yes, art was a dream, but we wore Rothko glasses for the rest of our days.
NS: This is a question that (I think) I’ve stolen from Kaveh Akbar’s Divedapper interviews, but is there a question that you wish people would ask you about this book? About art or writing? About anything? If so, what is it, and what would your answer be?
DS: How about this:
There are many self-portrait poems in the book. Three are centered on dead rock stars—Janis Joplin, Freddie Mercury, and Amy Winehouse— “Self-Portrait under Janis’s Shoe When She Sang ‘Ball and Chain’ at Monterrey Pop, 1967,” “Self-Portrait with Freddie M (Invention of Thunder),” and “Self-Portrait with Amy (Creation Myth).” How do you see those in connection with a book otherwise focused on fine art?
The self-portraiture in the book is one way of taking back the power of the gaze. In this sequence I relocate the rock star so that they inhabit some portion of my own world. I imagine living with my son beneath Janis’s shoe at her mind-blowing performance of “Ball and Chain.” It tells the story of his addiction via Joplin, who died from an overdose. I locate Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS, in my hometown. Our stories and bodies penetrate each other. Amy Winehouse, another who died from addiction, becomes my aborted child: “That abortion I had in the late 70s grew up to be Amy Winehouse.” This poem tells about my high school rebellions, the years I lived in NYC, and the coming of AIDS, all through the Winehouse sieve. This trinity of figures allows me to explore the issues of my life and time via a wobbly intersection between the famous and the nobody, glitter and road dust. In a sense, each of them functions in the way the Walmart parking lot does, as a space for interpretation. Like Plath in another self-portrait, and Dickinson in still another, I am grateful for the archetypes they rose into and the art they made.