When and how did you first start to take yourself seriously as a writer? What enabled you to make this shift, and what marked the change?
The moment that comes to me—or series of moments—is when I first met the person who would become my mentor, Conrad Hilberry. I was in high school. I’d been writing poems during typing class for quite a while but showed them only to my best friend. My guidance counselor knew I wrote, and passed on information about a contest in Michigan, my home state. I sent in a poem—my only copy, typed on a sheet of paper from my mom’s memo pad—and Con was the judge. I didn’t realize it was really a contest for adult writers. I believe I was fifteen. He gave me an honorable mention, which floored me, and came to my rural high school to find me. “Do you have any more of these?” he asked. I ran home and brought back my father’s old briefcase filled with what I called poems. They didn’t even have a left margin but trailed down the page like lost dogs. We ended up giving a reading together at my high school, and it didn’t stop there. He sent me letters, and books. He invited me to the college where he taught. He helped me get a scholarship to go there, and I was able to study with him. There is much more to our story, but the important part is that he saw me, he read me, and he called me a writer, despite the fact (or because of it) that I was unschooled, poor, and didn’t know about left margins. There was much in the writing landscape in the 1970s to let a young woman know that she was—well—nothing. To have a person to treat me otherwise made all the difference. Without his presence I would have been an absence.
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and Girl, nominated for a 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award and an L.A. Times Book Prize, is your fourth collection of poetry. What did you discover, or what changed for you as a poet, in writing this book?
I experience every book I write as a step in my own evolution as a human being. This book opened up, I think, to larger and more theoretical ideas than I had consciously worked with before. I looked at visual art, yes, but I also researched it, and read art theory, and the theory of “the gaze” (considering the power issues involved in who is looked at and who does the looking). Each “movement” in the book took me into deeper waters, both emotionally and intellectually. I began to consider the rural, the place where I am from, and its relationship to “high art.” I thought about the ways in which the realm of art is often a classist experience. I pondered who has access to art—looking at it and making it. I thought a great deal about the women artists who came before us, and often struggled to make art without the kind of support I got from my mentor. The opening and closing poems in Peacocks were less intimate, more allegorical and epic, than anything I’d written. The final poem delivered a vision to me with an ending that was absolutely unexpected and emotionally forceful. “I wanted my mother,” the poem ends, “and this is why I left paradise.” The entire book directed me to that moment—that if art is paradise, and if paradise isn’t for everyone, including my mother, my sister, my son, my people, and if I have to choose—I will choose the motherland. The writing of this book felt like an act of grace. I felt held up by all those artists and writers who came before me. I received their guidance. It was a beautiful process.
How do you find your way into a new poem?
For me, poems inevitably begin with a line or an image that I can’t shake. I carry it around with me for a while, tinker with it internally, until I feel ready (or have the luxury) to sit down and write. Let me add that I tend to not live from poem to poem, or via inspiration alone, as a writer, but to work on sets of poems, sequences that address something that interests me, with certain kinds of formal commonalities from poem to poem. To work on a sequence is to go a step deeper with each poem; the poem that came before leads directly into the next, so I never feel lost or out on a limb. Poems and projects live in my gut. They inevitably arise from a gut feeling that I have come to trust. From there, it’s working out the problem that the poem poses, solving its formal and musical and structural and thematic equations through a period of intense concentration.
What do you find is most challenging or most exhilarating for you as a poet consciously crossing and combining the rural and the urban, and/or the world of family, work, and community and the world of art?
What a great question! I would teeter, in my response, in the direction of exhilaration—because I feel very fortunate to have these conundrums at my disposal, and to have lived them for my entire life. My belief is that our life story is our aesthetic, our imaginative DNA. Whatever made us, our landscapes, our family tensions and topography, our schooling, our pleasures and tragedies, all provide us with our absolutely distinctive approach to our art. So having been raised rural, largely by a single mother after my father’s long illness, having left that place to go to college, and then moving to New York and falling in love with a drug addict with everything that entailed and implied, and finally leaving to save my life, and returning to the Midwest, and marrying and having a son, and my ex-husband leaving us out of the blue, and my son, too, becoming an addict, and my enduring relationship with my mother and my sister, and teaching in “the academy” but on its farthest margin, and falling on black ice and shattering my leg and ankle and becoming familiar, for a lifetime, with pain—well, all of that is not just who I am, but offers up the particular DNA that shapes my poems. There is no one else like me, and if I’m true to that, no poems quite like mine. And there is no one else like you, either, nor like your poems or stories or novels or essays. The challenge is to stay true to that. The exhilaration is how our own stories are endlessly generative.
How do you respond to the ongoing debate about whether creative writing can be taught? What do you feel you can offer students as a mentor that they would have difficulty learning by themselves?
I have never met a person who, given the right circumstances, cannot write a helluva poem. The crucial phrase there is “given the right circumstances.” Creativity cannot be taught, but a teacher can provide a setting in which it can emerge and thrive. Likewise, teachers can create settings that are obstructive and damaging to creativity’s development. Mentors can offer that—an atmosphere of richness and acceptance and positive challenge. Second, we can teach the nuts and bolts of our discipline—craft, with all of its nuances and iterations. And one can teach craft in a way that isn’t repressive but is instead exciting and even explosive. This is the stuff that teachers can provide, not so much as the usual provision of information, but in a more holy or ritual sense, passing on the lore of writing, the enchantment, the wisdom, that arises from the past. Writers can be self-taught. In most ways, I believe I am. But a good teacher can save a writer so much time in introducing them to the craft wisdom that is hard to access alone. Finally, and most importantly, a teacher can do what Conrad did for me. To see. To value. To hold that evolving writer in unconditional positive regard.
What do you enjoy most about mentoring MFA students and why?
I love working with people who’ve lived a little (or a lot!), who have experience to bring to the table. I love writers who are committed to writing and to reading, who don’t have to be convinced of its value. There is so much work to do; it’s a luxury to do it in a spirit of mutual value. Finally, I love the intensity and focus of a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a writer. What could be better than that? Each student has so much to teach me.
What are you working on at the present moment?
I am revising my forthcoming collection, Frank: Sonnets. It is a kind of memoir in the form of contemporary sonnets. None are Shakespearean. All are fourteen lines, each contains a volta, or turn, and most contain some degree of rhyme and/or meter. These aren’t exclusively about what happened in my life. They are equally interested in the nature of memory itself—why and how we remember. I’m really excited about these poems, and I’m not finished with the sonnet, not by a longshot!! I have an idea for my next project, but I’m superstitious—I think it’s best not to talk about it yet.
For more information about Diane Seuss, visit her faculty bio.