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10 Questions for Diane Seuss


“Not just what I feel but what I know
And how I know it, my unscholarliness,
My rawness, all rise out of the cobbled
Landscape I was born to.
Those of you raised similarly,
I want to say: this is not
a detriment and it is not a benefit…”
from “My Education,” Volume 63, Issue 2 (Summer 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Even before I could speak, I was “writing.” I remember being pre-verbal but making up stories about the dog and cat decals on the crib headboard. One of the first actual poems I remember writing was early in high school. It was about traveling on a steamboat, and my imagined father (my own father was dead) was the captain. I’m pretty sure my mind had been infiltrated by Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” about the skipper of a schooner who lashes his daughter to the mast to protect her during a hurricane. She drowns anyway, and is discovered with “salt tears in her eyes” by a fisherman. I never forgot that image.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Keats is at the forefront for me right now—not stylistically, but in terms of the willingness to sit with “negative capability,” and to ask big questions of life and death and poetry. “I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,” he writes in “Ode to a Nightingale.” That’s quite an admission. I aim to be that honest, and that intimate. What other professions have you worked in? I’ll get chronological here: Babysitter, children’s librarian, cocktail waitress, fudge shop worker, typist, nanny, vintage clothing seller, fetish shop worker, secretary, administrative assistant, writer of romance novels, social worker in a domestic assault shelter, crisis worker, therapist, college professor. And single mother.

What inspired you to write this piece?
My poems in this issue of The Massachusetts Review, "My Education," "Simile," and "Villanelle," are all from my forthcoming book, Modern Poetry. I turned to these new poems with a simple question: What can poetry be now? To approach that question, I found myself looking back, at my own education, and lack thereof, in poetry. I also push back on conventions of figurative language, like the simile. And, in “Villanelle,” the intersection and clash between Poetry World and the ethos of my rural, working class upbringing. I am giving myself the dictum to write past the poem’s obvious ending into the quicksand of unexplored territory.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Place is pretty much everything in my work. Towns, cities, but also land and everything that occupies it. Two very small towns are the birthplace of my poetry. We lived next door to a cemetery, so that was my playground. I hung out in my grandfather’s barber shop, so got an earful of the world of men. New York City, where I moved after college, is significant as well. NYC at a particular time—late 1970s, East Village. Post-Beat, Post-New York School, Punk, every breed of addiction in every corner of my life.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Silence tends to be my best writing music, but when I do listen to music, what moves me into language and ideas I want to pursue in poems tends to be music that engages me in a long-buried feeling. Tom Petty, “Refugee.” Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together.” The Clash, “London Calling.” Blondie, “Heart of Glass.” Peaches and Herb, “Reunited.” Joni Mitchell, the whole Blue album. Queen, “Somebody to Love.” Billie Holiday, “My Man.” Patti Smith, “Gloria.” Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black.” John Coltrane’s version of “Lush Life.” Music that brings back the ghosts.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Nah. I just get down to it.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I usually send it to my son. He can sniff out the bullshit from 600 miles away. A former student and editor of Guesthouse, Jane Huffman. My editor at Graywolf Press, Jeff Shotts. My mom.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d basically be Janis Joplin, but not dead.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph, by Lucasta Miller, Gabe Montesanti’s roller derby memoir, Brace for Impact, and many incredible forthcoming books of contemporary American poetry, as I write blurbs for them. I’d like to list all of their names, but I’m afraid I’d accidentally miss someone. I do want to mention Nathan McClain’s Previously Owned, forthcoming in September of 2022. Nathan is poetry editor for The Massachusetts Review, and the book is incredible.

DIANE SEUSS is the author of five books of poetry. Her most recent collection is frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press), the winner of the PEN/Voelcker Prise and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2022 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Seuss was a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. She received the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021. She was raised by a single mother in rural Michigan, which she continues to call home.


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