“The danger of memory is going / to it for respite,” Diane Seuss writes in her poem “Weeds,” from the Review’s June 23, 2022, issue. This bracing advice is characteristic of a poet who often favors, in collections from It Blows You Hollow (1998) to this year’s Pulitzer Prize–winning frank: sonnets, a present tense and sensorial description.
Seuss taught creative writing for many years at Kalamazoo College, in Michigan, where she grew up and still lives. This week, I e-mailed her to ask about learning and teaching poetry and the difference between “respite” and “rest.”
Daniel Drake: You’ve talked before about how Conrad Hilberry’s mentorship and appreciation helped inspire you to take poetry seriously as a vocation, but what inspired you to type those first poems? When did you start writing, and what do you think was the experience or feeling you hoped to convey?
Diane Seuss: Certainly those early poems would have stayed hidden in my secondhand briefcase without Con Hilberry, but yes, there was something pressing to be said that seemed part of me from the time I was a small child. I was a very early reader, and the only kid in first grade who could come up with a poem for the Mother’s Day card assignment. Looking back, I realize it was in hymn meter. I wrote garish short stories in middle school but turned to poetry in high school. Poems came in tandem with typing class. I learned to type quickly, and then language seemed to flow down my arms and into my hands, unimpeded by my awful handwriting. I had no model, as Lucille Clifton writes in “won’t you celebrate with me.” The poems were raw, often unpunctuated; the left margin was as scraggly as the right. Many were about my father, who had died when I was seven. Others were really snarky about conformity and conventionality. They were intense. They worried adults.
Who were some of the first poets you felt you really understood?
I like your emphasis on understanding, as opposed to exposure. The title poem of my next book is about the first poetry course I took in college, called Modern Poetry, in which we studied William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Sylvia Plath. I don’t think I was developmentally prepared for any of them, though Roethke’s landscapes made sense to me, as he was likewise from rural Michigan, and Plath’s oppositions—her kinetic aggression up against her deathly stillness—were within my wheelhouse. I loved “Daddy,” but I didn’t understand until much later that she was not talking so much about her father as the Fathers. Williams was more complicated than I’d hoped. Even the wheelbarrow. Stevens just blew my mind. My favorite thing about him was his insight in “Sunday Morning” that a deathless paradise is impossible. “Is there no change of death in paradise? / Does ripe fruit never fall?” I knew plums well enough to understand that without death, there is no juice. Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”—“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so”—were some of the first poems that I was able to think and feel my way through without assistance. Both felt true. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” put me over the top. That coolness I knew, or at least I knew it enough to follow it.
As a midwesterner myself, I am interested in your sense of Indiana and Michigan as settings. In poems like “Curl,” “backyard,” “Song in my heart,” “Toad,” or even “Weeds,” there is somehow a flat, marshy, industrial place lurking just off the page. How conscious are you of both states—and the postindustrial Midwest more generally—as you are writing? And what do you hope to convey about the place?
Nice to know I’m speaking to a fellow midwesterner. I can relax. I was raised in Michigan, about an inch from the Indiana state line, but we all understood that Indiana was a whole other reality. I was born in Indiana, but that’s because my parents lived in a place without a hospital. They drove the twenty miles to Michigan City, Indiana, stopping on the way for coffee and cigarettes.
Yes, we occupied the marshy, amphibian-rich, river-floating-with-human-sewage land where a silo loomed bigger than the gods. Some odd factories thrived for a while—at the mushroom factory, shrooms grew on mountains of manure, and many of the women in town worked in a factory that made dress patterns—but there was a sense that things were teetering, and then they shut down, and lo and behold, box stores landed in parking lots like UFOs, and small businesses were run out of town. Fast food replaced the B & L, a cool little bar with a metal cow on the roof, where my mom bought me my first legal drink, a lime vodka Collins. My poems are grounded in that crumbling osmotic space between wilderness and failure. The very scent of it activates my imagination.
“Weeds” put me in mind of one of my favorite poems, James Schuyler’s “Arches,” which is also structured by a series of internal repetitions, and I think ends similarly on a note of surprising grace (for Schuyler, standing instead of resting). Were you thinking of any other poems in particular when you wrote “Weeds”? Or of something else entirely?
I appreciate the comparison to Schuyler, who is a wonderful poet. Rereading “Arches” now, I see something I love, which is a kind of self-revision taking place in front of the reader. I love when I witness others rewriting themselves this way. It is a marker of vulnerability, even though the speaker is somehow cordoned off. Poets are so often cordoned off. It may be a necessary position.
“Weeds” is one of my newer poems that talks to itself. The speaker is in an advisory role. They’re nearly wise—but hopefully not too wise. It is the oversoul speaking to the undercarriage, the walking-around self. This is a structure, a tendency, that emerged in my work as a result of the conditions of quarantine. I am alone-alone. Dogless-alone. You either counsel yourself or go mad. It’s almost contrapuntal, almost two-headed, but not quite.
I’m curious about the difference between “respite,” which the reader is warned of in the first stanza of “Weeds,” and “rest,” which takes on a kind of nobility at the end. Is there a difference you are getting at here?
“Respite” is a word I don’t love. It sounds a little religious, like doing a few days in a monastery or a sanitarium. It suggests, to me, hiding out. “Don’t hide in memory,” which is probably a good definition of nostalgia. Remember, I’m talking to myself. I’m saying, “Watch out, Diane.” As one of my professors once told me, “You’re in danger of turning into an artifact.” Memory can be instructive, but not a dwelling, the poem says. “Or if you must dwell: / The sweet smell of weeds then. / The sweet smell of weeds now. / An endurance. A standoff. A rest.” So my wiser self says, don’t dwell in memory, but if you must, dwell for a moment in the senses. The smell of weeds then, and now. Weeds endure. A standoff, I guess, between the enticement of the past and the present, such as it is. “A rest” may be a rest, as in music. The absence of sound. Temporary but crucial to the song.
Have you found that being on both sides of the mentor/mentee relationship has changed how you write?
Oh, certainly. One marvelous thing about Con, my mentor from when I was sixteen until he died in 2017, is that he shared power without making a big deal about sharing power. He asked me to look at his poems and respected my ideas from very early on. We became colleagues, in a sense, and it offered me the experience of having a reasonable amount of authority, rare for a young woman in the early 1970s. Establishing parity was one of his many gifts. The last time I saw him, when he was very ill with cancer and had some pretty profound memory loss, I told him I was writing sonnets for the book that would become frank: sonnets. He said, “Well, good. But they’d better have meter and rhyme!” That was probably the only moment in our long relationship that he actually told me what to do. As a teacher and mentor, I’ve emulated Con as much as possible, though I’m probably a less gentle, more dig-my-hands-in-the-mud kind of mentor than he was. I hold other writers in positive regard no matter their age or level of experience, but I also have a sense of where they can be, what they can create, and I hold them, and myself, to that vision. I see it this way: We’re all in this together. We’re writing. What ludicrous and difficult work it is. Let me offer you my hand.
Who are some poets or writers you’ve been reading and enjoying lately?
I’m on a real Keats kick, though I have been for some time. I am moved by his singular loyalty to the craft, even when he was falling apart at the seams. “Negative capability” is my favorite song. I’ve been reading Lucasta Miller’s book Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph. Such a brilliant mash-up of biography and criticism. I love Julie Carr and Lisa Olstein’s very new epistolary collaboration, Climate; Gabe Montesanti’s roller derby memoir, Brace for Impact; and Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil.
Contemporary poetry–wise, I’ve been reading books that are either very new or forthcoming and that have knocked my socks off. Some of the exciting work that has challenged me: Virginia Konchan’s forthcoming Bel Canto, Jameka Williams’s American Sex Tape, C. Russell Price’s oh, you thought this was a date?!: Apocalypse Poems, Bethany Schultz Hurst’s Blueprint and Ruin, Courtney Faye Taylor’s Concentrate, Melissa Studdard’s Dear Selection Committee, Suzanne Frischkorn’s Fixed Star, Jennifer Franklin’s If Some God Shakes Your House, Laura Minor’s Flowers as Mind Control, Heathen Derr-Smith’s Outskirts, Trevor Ketner’s The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, Nathan McClain’s Previously Owned, James Allen Hall’s Romantic Comedy, and Michael Chang’s Almanac of Useless Talents. And that’s only a small sample of the fabulous books I’ve read over the last couple of years. I like the oldies too. The ones who eluded me in Modern Poetry and who may well not approve of me. Sometimes I feel them drawing close, and I’m grateful.