Life of a Poet: Diane Seuss

>>Laura Green: Thank you
all so much for coming. I appreciate you
being here tonight. How many of you [inaudible]
visit for the time here
at Hill Center? You first timers? Okay, good, good. We like to see the newcomers
as well as the returning faces, so want to thank you
again for coming. We appreciate it. So just a reminder,
I’m going to ask you to silence your cell phone. I’ll do the same once
I’m done with my notes. Good, good, [inaudible]. Another reminder is that East
City Books will be selling some of Diane Seuss’, two
of Diane Seuss’ books over in this gallery over here,
and she’ll be signing after the, after the program, so get your,
get your wallets ready for that.>>Diane Seuss: [Laughs] Yeah!>>Laura Green: Exactly. [Laughter] And I will put
it on over to Anne Holmes, the Digital Content Manager at
the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. [ Applause ] [ Laughter ]>>Anne Holmes: It’s like
a college reunion in here. Thank you, Laura. So I’m Anne Homes, Digital
Programs Manager at the Poetry and Literature Center. Thanks to Dianna,
Charlotte, and the rest of the Hill Center staff for
hosting The Life of a Poet, and thanks as well to
the Washington Post for their support,
and to Ron Charles for nurturing the series. Before I introduce
tonight’s guest, let me just tell you a
little bit about the Poetry and Literature Center at
the Library of Congress. The Center is home to the Poet
Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Tracy K. Smith is finishing
up her tenure this month, and around this time next month, we’ll be announcing the 23rd
Poet Laureate, so stay tuned. The Poetry and Literature Center
also hosts an annual literary event series with
programs such as this one, just up the street
at the Library. If you want to find out
more about the Center and our programs, check us
out online at LOC.Gov/Poetry. We’d also like to know what you
think about tonight’s program, and to that end, we’ve handed
out surveys that you’ll find on or near your seat, so after
the event, please fill out and just leave on your seat,
or you can hand it to me. Okay, now let’s turn
to tonight’s guest. Diane Seuss. Start with a little biography.>>Diane Seuss: Uh-oh. [Laughter]>>Anne Holmes: Hopefully
no surprises in here. Diane Seuss was born in
Michigan City, Indiana, and raised in Edwardsburg
and Niles, Michigan. She studied at Kalamazoo College
and Western Michigan University where she received a master’s
degree in social work. She is the author of
four poetry collections. Her most recent collection, Still Life with Two Dead
Peacocks and a Girl, was released in 2018 by Graywolf
Press, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics’
Circle Award in Poetry, and the Los Angeles
Times Prize in Poetry. Four-Legged Girl, published in
2015 by Graywolf was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown
Open won the Juniper Prize, and was published
by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. A fifth collection, Frank:
Sonnets is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2021. For almost 30 years, she
was Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College where she
received the Florence J Lucas Fellowship for both
teaching and scholarship. She also served as the MacLean
Distinguished Visiting Professor in the English Department
at Colorado College in 2012. Diane Seuss lives
in rural Michigan. My voice is shaking. I apologize [laughter].>>Diane Seuss: You’re
so moved by– .>>Anne Homes: I am! [Laughter] So it’s an
absolute honor for me to introduce Diane Seuss
tonight as a lover of her work, and also as one of
her former students. I met Diane as a painfully
shy undergraduate student at Kalamazoo College, and
she was the first person to really instill in
me that poetry matters, that poets matter, and I’m
positive that I’m not alone when I say that she
is and continues to be the most fiercely generous and supportive teacher
I’ve known. I see other classmates in this
room which is pretty incredible! Hi! [Laughter] Diane’s poems,
too, are fiercely generous. They operate with
remarkable empathy and an extended invitation
to all the gore and gold of memory and desire. They invoke Dickinson’s
“I’m Nobody, Who are You?” by yelling, “Hey, come here!” to the nobodies, the
freaks, the overlooked. In her poems, nothing
goes unnoticed, and nothing is dispensable. “Having noticed it,
why not say it?” says the speaker in a poem
from Four-Legged Girls titled “I’m Moved by Her,
that Big-Nippled Girl.” [Laughter] In her
most recent book, Still Life with Two Dead
Peacocks and a Girl, Seuss’s poems regard and
question the stillness of still life paintings,
and punctures them to show us the underbelly
of everything. What’s beyond human control,
where the idealized halts and the gut-punch of reality
lives, in the grotesque, sublime, irreverent,
and ecstatic, all of it. Her poems leave us part dizzy
and [inaudible], part desirous and glowing, standing
in a Walmart parking lot which is just as beautiful
and complicated as anything. Please help me welcome
Diane Seuss. [ Applause ]>>Diane Seuss: Thank you, Anne. [ Applause ] Hi!>>Ron Charles: That was lovely!>>Diane Seuss: Yeah! I’m all like, ting!>>Ron Charles: Thank
you all for coming.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: I’m
so glad you’re here! Thank you so much
for making the trip.>>Diane Seuss: Thank you, yeah,
it was a harrowing journey.>>Ron Charles: I’m
sorry about that.>>Diane Seuss: To get anywhere from Michigan is kind
of harrowing, yeah.>>Ron Charles: Our sound okay? Everybody hear us alright? Okay.>>Diane Seuss: Are you on?>>Ron Charles: Am I on? Okay. In one of your
poems, you write, “There are no symbols in hell. We cannot rub even
two words together, not enough to [inaudible]
a spark. Not enough to light
a fire in a thimble, and this is the hell of it.”>>Diane Seuss: I
forgot about that.>>Ron Charles: I want you
to read that poem for us.>>Diane Seuss: Oh, okay.>>Ron Charles: And I’ll be
listening for those lines.>>Diane Seuss: Alright. So this is called Even in
Hell There Are Songbirds. Not just calling,
but full trills. Music rising like
swells on a windy ocean. Each bird a chip off of some
brilliantly-colored abstraction. Beaks gold as trumpets
reflecting yellow blossoms. In hell, birds are free, but they are not
symbolic of freedom. There are no symbols in hell. The moon flowers open
and close their mouths but have nothing to say. The bees sting the
poppies’ heart and carry away its black pollen,
and we in our uniforms sit in our lawn chairs and watch. We take it all in. We let it pound us like
breakers into the side of a tethered wooden boat. We receive beauty as a nail
receives the hammer blow. And we remember our losses, and
the gains we thought were gains but were really losses. But we cannot rub even
two words together. Not enough to let loose a spark. Not enough to light
a fire in a thimble, and this is the hell of it. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: That
description of hell, a place where there
are no symbols, words cannot spark
a fire suggest by implication what
language can do. Tell us about that. What is the great blessing
of language, of poetic words?>>Diane Seuss: That’s a
really, really strong question. For me, it’s been the difference
between living and dying. And I don’t mean just a physical
death, but a spiritual death because from very early on, and
I think this is true of a lot of people who write, language
was what gave me a way to make some sort of order out
of the chaos of experience. And I had early lost– my
father died when I was seven. He was sick from the time I
can remember, and to be able to language that event,
even just as I sort of, in my own head, talking
to myself, before I could even write
really, was the difference between sort of falling
into the hole with him, and finding a way to move forth. Just from very early on,
reading other people’s words. I read very young. I was really bad at math
though, so it’s all cool.>>Ron Charles: Aren’t we all?>>Diane Seuss: It
was my one talent. I read at age three,
and I was one of those who read automatically. Nobody had to teach me. And to read other
people’s words made me feel like okay, I’m not the only one. I’m not the only weirdo. Even reading Dick
and Jane, you know, as un-Dick and un-Jane as I was. Ha, ha. It still, you know they
were still children, and it, it felt, books felt like a home. So yeah, in that poem, I
forgot about that, that, that hell really meant and
means to me the inability to language experience. And– .>>Ron Charles: When
you use the word, “language” as a verb,
what do you mean?>>Diane Seuss: I mean bring
language to find the words for. Gregory Orr, a great poet. If you’ve not read him, do,
both his poems and essays. He has an essay about he, he talks about that the first
stage after trauma is rant. And the second stage is journal,
and the third stage is poetry, the most removed from, from
the sort of guttural rawness. And therefore, it, it’s
almost an artifact, like the Grecian urn. And there, and you can
hold it and look at it. It’s out here. It’s not roiling around in
here, so I think for me, poetry as a made thing,
is something to make out of experience and be able
to hold apart from myself. Just, I find that thrilling,
and I find that healing, that my experiences– . You know, my dad is
somebody, for instance, who no one would
really remember. He had, he had some students. He, he quit high school, went into the service
during World War II, got a GED, and became a teacher. But then he got sick, and so
he couldn’t really finish, but I like the idea that I can
memorialize him in language. That the stories my
mother knows and tells from the little village
where she grew up, that I can make those last at
least as long as books last, hopefully a while longer. So am I running at the mouth?>>Ron Charles: Not at all. That’s so much preferable
to saying, “Yes.”>>Diane Seuss: Yes, there’s
salvation in language. Next? [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: Why
it’s violence? That’s so much an image. Same subject here.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah. Do you want me to read it?>>Ron Charles: I do, please.>>Diane Seuss: This is– .>>Ron Charles: I know. The Library does
that to your books.>>Diane Seuss: Cool! [Laughter] “White Violet”. Not so much an image
of tenderness, as an image of a
memory of tenderness. I am ashamed to look,
I am ashamed to look at it this closely, but
can’t stop fingering its five sticky petals. Nebulous as water on the
brink of becoming steam. Thin as a solo lingering
for three days, threatening to reignite
into flesh. Or a ghost climbing the
body’s bone ladder in order to abdicate the body’s terms. This flower might as well be
a girl named Violet with dew on her upper lip, who elopes
through her bedroom window, leaving only her thing,
yellow-white chemise behind. Its petals are that fragile. They lack commitment
to the material world, their molecules ascending
any minute now, evaporative, like a pretty infant bound
and determined to fly back into the hands of nothingness. Or a shepherd dispassionate
about the lambs, always looking off into
the lavender beyond. The only way to know
tenderness is to dismantle it. That’s the essential
problem, how we must get out the jeweler’s loupe
and start dissecting, prying open the mauve sac at the
base of the flower like a fox in the henhouse, looking
for green ovaries spilling over with eggs, or
Hawthorne’s Aylmer, prying away at Georgiana’s
birthmark. I bring the torn flower to
my mouth to confirm the myth of its honey, only to find
it tastes gamey, green, like a hand that’s held
too long to copper coins. This close, its scent is not
sweet but sour-I crush it to awaken its perfumes-
acidic, unripe, puerile, stinging, tined. I remember a poet
reading translations of Paul Valéry when I was young. I wore a white, gauzy dress
with laces at the bodice, and the poet stood in a pool
of heroic white-gold light with his shirt half
unbuttoned, [laughter]. His silver hair curling
over his ears. ‘Perfume is what the
flowers throw away, he read, quoting Valéry. Later he tried to pry me
open, but I ran home barefoot through the rain
under a foggy membrane of moon-that ventricular
patch sewed between the chambers
of night and day. That wispy peephole in the
screen between supplicant and priest in the
confessional booth, that rice-paper privacy
screen, painted with a profusion of white violets, in
the black bordello.>>Ron Charles: That’s
a beautiful poem. Tremendously complex.>>Diane Seuss: It is! Now I’m stymied.>>Ron Charles: It’s,
one of the things it’s about is the way language
connotes and suggests and represents much more
than experience itself.>>Diane Seuss: It’s
just a violet.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: But the language
pushes us far beyond that, and all those different examples
where you’re tearing things up and looking [inaudible].>>Diane Seuss: Yes. When you were kids, did you
used to tear open flowers?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Diane Seuss: It’s
really a cruel thing to do [laughter],
but we must do it! And that’s what language can do. It is the, the dissection
to all. It does tear away the petals. It destroys the very
thing it loves.>>Ron Charles: But it
allows us to see, understand, and comprehend and experience.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, and
it, that’s where, you know, Williams wrote, or
somebody else– was it Stevens and then
Williams copied it, no ideas but in things?>>Ron Charles: There
are people who know.>>Diane Seuss: No idea, yea. So “no ideas but in things.” And I think there’s
a truth to that. The thing itself in
that poem is the violet, and I love the thing
itself, the concrete, the head of the nail, right? But what the thing itself
allows, it’s not just ideas, but it’s also a kind of
playground for the imagination, and the imagination,
well, in my work, it’s maybe the most
important thing.>>Ron Charles: Yes. You have several poems
about writing poems.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Including a very
funny one, a little too long for us to read, called
The Crooked Goose. I recommend it.>>Diane Seuss: Oh, god. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: It’s
quite witty, and other times you just drop
little self-critical asides in, like you say, “Like God. That’s a terrible
simile for me to use.” “Like God, with his
mirror, I use it.”>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, so it’s,
it’s both self-denigrating but also makes me God. [Laughter] Just, you know– .>>Ron Charles: “All
trees are trees. Death to modifiers,” you say.>>Diane Seuss: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Yeah,
the way you write a poem, and you’re commenting
on the poem, and the act of writing
the poem in the same poem.>>Diane Seuss: And that, you
know, because that’s my world. A thing that worries
me right now about real contemporary
work is that people kind of, maybe because of social media
or all kinds of forces– they’re sort of following
each other rather than their own quirky boloney. You know? And I think
the boloney is very rich. My world, let’s call it
braunschweiger, you know? [Laughter] My, I
like my work best when I’m really being myself, when I’m not imitating
anybody else. As free as I can
be from imitation.>>Ron Charles: Well,
let’s talk about beauty, which is a big subject
in your poems.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah!>>Ron Charles: An anti-beauty.>>Diane Seuss: Yes!>>Ron Charles: One
of your poems, one of your recent
poems says that art “is as useless as tits on a boar.”>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: That should
have gotten a bigger laugh.>>Diane Seuss: Well.>>Ron Charles: As
tits on a boar.>>Diane Seuss: So that, that
statement came from my mother, and from her father in the
small town where she was raised, maybe you’ve heard this, they
would say, “Oh, you know John. He’s useless as tits on a boar.” [Laughter] So a boar
is a male pig, right? And somehow, in that poem, which
is about all kinds of things around art and who has access
to it, it ended with “art, useless as tits on a boar.” Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Many of your
poems offer explicit critiques of traditional beauty.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Pretty
aggressive critiques. I would like you to read a
poem called, “I’m Glorious in my Destruction
like an Atomic Bomb.”>>Diane Seuss: Oh boy, okay. [Laughter] I’ll do it. I wore my skull pants
just for this moment. Alright. I’m Glorious in my Destruction–
Like an Atomic Bomb. It’s beautiful, like one of
those balletic car accidents. Dead girl’s indigo bunting face, father’s teeth, scattered
seed money. Lithe column of smoke
rising from the ruin. Or not so lithe. My big body cinched
by a tight dress. Funnel clouds spilling cleavage. My cousin picked me up at the
Amtrak station in Kalamazoo, coming in from New York City. He’d not seen me since
before breast buds. I’d just hennaed my hair. I mean, it was an oil refinery
explosion, and he said, “You’re more ravaged
than I expected,” and that was nearly
30 years ago. [Laughter] So what
the hell am I now? I’d already been shot in the
head and struck by lightning, but most of it, abortions,
Kevin’s heroin overdose, Mikel’s AIDS, 48 hours of labor,
divorce, poverty, roof collapse, assault, red bud trees sliced
in half, legs snapped off at the high-water
mark came later. I was 21, and he
called me “ravaged.” Even then my mouth opened like a
bullet hole in a picture window. I was talking to a
guy the other day, a guy like a mountain whose
warm side I could lean against, maybe sleep for an afternoon. A mountain not meant
for climbing. And he said, “Beauty is what
has not yet been touched, the unsullied landscape
of the body.” And later another
guy said of my poems, “I’m frankly more interested
in her than her poetry.” And I folded up like an ironing
board, I mean he’s right. I’m fucking fascinating. I’m a tangled, sullied
wilderness, scarified with highways. My father was a Navy
boy, dreaming of home when that big golden
beehive teased up over Hiroshima beautifully,
and he soon died of it, but first there was that kamikaze pilot’s
ravishing boy-girl face, plowing toward him as a beautiful black horse
once galloped from way across the pasture and brush, its velvet against
his bare chest. And the smell of manure on the
new lawn in the early morning on the cusp of his dying,
when it was just him and the rising zero of the sun. Him and the tragedy of
his dismantled life. The sun and the moss roses in
their garish refugee clothes, bare-knuckling it
beneath the trees. This is why I can’t
be your lover. You want me beautiful,
and I am only beautiful if you thought the bombing
of Baghdad was beautiful. Or my father’s face just
before they shut down his eyes, whatever he was looking at, would you then call
that beautiful? Ouch.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. It seems to me you’re doing
at least two things there. One, rejecting traditional
standards of beauty, but then suggesting a
different kind of beauty, a whole different
standard of beauty, different definition of beauty. In one of your poems entitled,
“Beauty is Over,” you end by– .>>Diane Seuss: That’s
pretty blunt.>>Ron Charles: Yeah, you end
by referencing, “My titanium leg and screws, my stretch marks
and wide Cesarean scar, my overt and covert baldness, my bad
shoes, my bad ankles, my bad, bad, bad, bad poetry.”>>Diane Seuss: Yep. It sounds different
when you say it. [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: It
doesn’t sound as good. This literary rejection
of beauty in the poems seems connected
to a feminist argument? Rejecting patriarchal
standards of beauty?>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
it’s so damaging. I think Toni Morrison
said in an interview that Western beauty standards
are the most damaging thing on the planet. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Can you
flesh that out for us?>>Diane Seuss: Well, I
think for women, certainly, but for men as well, and
for transgender people, and you know every being,
human being on the planet, the expectation that one, that
one’s beauty is somehow attached to capitalism and control
and whiteness and– . You know, it’s, I don’t know
for you guys, but for me it, it really took up most of
my imagination and spirit until I was, you know, in
my late twenties, trying on, trying to be beautiful.>>Ron Charles: It’s an
impossible and moving standard.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, it is. It’s, you’re not
supposed to reach it because then you won’t
buy, you know, crap. And I remember, you know, my mom
is very, to me, very beautiful, but she was very androgynous,
and I remember being at a store or something as a kid,
and some body said, “She doesn’t shave her armpits!” And this is when no, every
woman shaved her armpits, and I was so offended. You know, don’t talk
about my mother’s body. And I feel that same offense now
for myself and for all of you, that I mean, what, what we do
to ourselves to, to be loved, to be loved, is just
so horrific.>>Ron Charles: Brutal.>>Diane Seuss: Brutal. And I, I don’t want
that kind of beauty.>>Ron Charles: Which
brings us to Sylvia Plath.>>Diane Seuss: Oh. [Laughter] Oh my.>>Ron Charles: Self-portrait
with Sylvia Plath’s Braid.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Listen to this.>>Diane Seuss: So Sylvia
Plath’s Braid is in a library at Indiana University,
and people go to see it. I know, road trip! [ Laughter ] Some women make a
pilgrimage to visit it in the Indiana library
charged to keep it safe. I didn’t drive to it; I dreamed
it, the thick braid roped over my hands, heavier
than lead. My own hair was long for years. Then I became obsessed
with chopping it off, and I did, clear up to my ears. If hair is beauty, then
I am no longer beautiful. Sylvia was beautiful,
wasn’t she? And like all of us, didn’t she
wield her beauty like a weapon? And then she married,
and laid it down, and when she was
betrayed and took it up again it was a
word-weapon, a poem-sword. In the dream I fasten her braid
to my own hair, at my nape. I walk outside with it,
through the world of men, swinging it behind
me like a tail.>>Ron Charles: That’s great.>>Diane Seuss: Thank you.>>Ron Charles: I love
the swagger of that poem. The way you take
Sylvia Plath’s power and use it again in the world.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, and
that’s my love for her.>>Ron Charles: Killed her,
but it’s not going to kill you.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
well I hope not. So far, so good. I don’t have, well I
won’t say that, yeah. No, I, I think, you
know, I often think about if Sylvia had sisters
like a lot of the people here in the room, she probably
could have made it.>>Ron Charles: Or if we
were just more attentive to each other’s mental health.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, she
went through so much.>>Ron Charles: It
was a different age.>>Diane Seuss: It was a
different age, and there wasn’t, there weren’t meds, you know? There weren’t the kind
of meds she needed. But I think she’s brilliant
and she’s a model in many ways for me, so I love attaching her. That was from a dream. I did have the dream that
I attached her braid to, to my own hair and
swung it around.>>Ron Charles: Yeah, a tail. There’s a persistent, strenuous
resistance in your poetry to sentimentality,
and schmaltzy-ness? Schmaltch? Schmaltzy romance?>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: You have a very
caustic, witty line in here. “Why the poets lined up behind
Desire I will never understand. See how I run through the
Rolodex of metaphors in my head, trying to nail its
array of suffocations?” [Laughter]>>Diane Seuss: Well,
that is bitchy. [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: In another
poem, you write, “Yes, I snapped desire over my
knee, and arsoned it.” Arsoned it.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
that’s in Four-Legged Girl, and I think a lot of that book
is really about finding my way out of that maze
of, of beautiful, and finding another way to
construct desire that isn’t about being desired
or desiring another. But desiring something
constructed in my own image, and that for me is poetry.>>Ron Charles: It wasn’t
love, but love’s template.>>Diane Seuss: Oh,
you’re always surprising. The face of dawn, secreted
beneath a gold mask. Purple-furred dusk lifted its
leg and marked the oily streets. Skyscrapers scraped the
sky until it beaded blood. Silver light seeped through
the needle marks punched in heaven’s sheath. We walked to Chinatown,
always after dark. Chinatown, but China, but
China’s wriggling offspring. So-called lovers fed off of it. Chopsticks deep into
a whole red snapper. Chinese style, the menu
read, though not Chinese. On the bowery, poets
taking notes. Not so much poets as what
passed for poets in those days. [Laughter] Bums warmed
their hands over garbage ignited
in burn barrels. The colors of poets and
bums and lovers blazed, a tapestry of a mirage. Let’s not turn it into an epic. Maybe a fairytale derived from
an epic-derived myth, not love, but love’s archetype,
like the love that goes on in the afterlife, a state
of being devoid of verbs. He was naked beneath
an unbelted green robe. A party, hallucination, beauties
bent over other beauties, gazing into them
like coke mirrors. He wasn’t hung, but
precise like a drill bit. Soup, sex, and man
holes gave off steam, cloudlike, but not clouds. Foggy shapes painted on a
backdrop, inert as a reliquary. Inert as the idea of God,
or God’s idea of God. Being fractured like
a bridge or a bone, releasing the marrow of plot. I was the heroine
fleeing heroin. I left him frozen in the
moment before euphoria strikes the heart. I visit him sometimes, like
one visits a favorite painting in a vast museum.>>Ron Charles: That
is an unromantic poem.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
it’s all [inaudible] too.>>Ron Charles: Explain
that to us.>>Diane Seuss: So
there’s no line breaks. The, the sentence ends, you
know, at the end of the line. And so there’s this
kind of no-nonsense. I’m not going to mess with
line breaks and be all curvy. I’m going to just you
know make an inventory.>>Ron Charles: Right. As sometimes shockingly
frank, sexually frank as your poetry is, I think
class is the real taboo that you violate.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: That you force
us to think about class in a way that we don’t like
to think about it, that we’re not comfortable
thinking about. I think it’s more striking than even the most sexually
frank poems that you write. Tell us about your own
economic background.>>Diane Seuss: Well
I thought he was going to say something
about my sex life. I was like no! No!>>Ron Charles: No. Well, we all want
to talk about that. It’s economics, it’s money we
don’t want to talk about, right? That’s what makes us
uncomfortable: money.>>Diane Seuss: Well, I’m
from working-class people in rural Michigan, and
people who worked really hard for not very much, and who
were proud of that, you know? And my mom, after you
know, my dad died, she was a single mother. She wasn’t allowed to go to
college when she was graduated from high school, so she went
to college after he died. And we were penniless, always.>>Ron Charles: So no one was
working during those years.>>Diane Seuss: No, no.>>Ron Charles: That’s tough!>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, we
lived on his Social Security which wasn’t very much because
he didn’t work very long. So we got, you know,
the donations, government cheese, as they say. But I didn’t really notice
it too much because the, the wealth was in what
was outside the door. The, the bog, the milkweed
pods, and the richness of place.>>Ron Charles: Nature.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
nature was the wealth. And there wasn’t so much to
want or buy then, you know?>>Ron Charles: Marketing
wasn’t as sophisticated, and, and invasive as it is now.>>Diane Seuss: No, and
you know even beauty, you know there was one
kind of tennis shoe, right? Some of you remember those days.>>Audience Member: You
had a choice of color.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
right, red, white, or you know black maybe. Yeah, there was what? A couple kinds of shampoo. You weren’t trying to
like gear the shampoo to your certain kind
of hair quality! And so I didn’t much notice. My mom did a good job
of hiding her worries. She hid a lot, I think,
just to keep us going. At my dad’s funeral, she
said, “Here’s a hankie.” She gave one to my
sister and one to me, “but try not to use it.” And I didn’t. Neither did my mother. Neither did my sister. Everybody else did, though. But we, we kept it in. And I don’t blame her for that. I understand what– I think
she was hanging on by a thread. Our tears would have killed her. So you do what you must.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. “I went downtown
and I went down.”>>Diane Seuss: [Laughter]
“On the We Buy Gold guy.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. Read that for me?>>Diane Seuss: Okay.>>Ron Charles: Little
raw for this crowd, but I think they can handle it.>>Diane Seuss: You
can handle it. I got my eye on your guys. I went downtown and went
down on the We Buy Gold guy. I have a thing for debauched
hucksters in ape costumes. Before that I loved the girl who holds the sign outside
Little Caesar’s advertising the 2 for 1 pizza deal. Tragic life and long tresses. She was ghostly, the way she
beckoned to oncoming traffic. Then, the birthday clown. Nothing worse than
jamming a rubber nose over your nose for a paycheck. Myself, I’ve been a fetish
shop cashier, a fudge worker in Vacationland, played
Spidora in the haunted house, my head sticking out
of the poison gland of a tarantula suit. Wrote dime store romances. Was paid a dollar, once,
for a pornographic haiku. [Laughter] My first
payment as a poet. [Laughter] Waxed the big slide,
Windexed the jukebox glass, supervised the shooting gallery. Toilet worker at
the sugar factory, which once involved scooping
a wedding ring out of the loo. The best was cleaning
splooge off the walls in the peep show gallery and
laundering Trixie’s thong. Some of us claw our way to the
bottom, transcend downward. There at the hub of
the drain, we swirl. [Laughter] Thank you. Thank you.>>Ron Charles: That
is some bad jobs!>>Diane Seuss: I know! What a [inaudible], and I
didn’t mention all of them. That’s only some of them, yeah.>>Ron Charles: In the preface to Lyrical Ballads
Wordsworth wrote, “The principle object
proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and
situations from common life. And to relate or describe
them throughout as far as was possible, in a selection
of language really used by men and women whereby ordinary
things should be presented to the mind in an
unusual aspect.” It seems to me you are in
great sympathy with that.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, I am.>>Ron Charles: In his effort
to scrape away what he thought of as artificial poetic
language, and subjects, and instead to describe
ordinary things and ordinary people would
produce extraordinary poems.>>Diane Seuss: In extraordinary
ways, or and not by lying about them, but just by
seeing them really clearly, seeing them for what they are. You know, even, you know, I
lived in New York for a while, and I was the, the
sort of rural person in this urban landscape,
lost, really. No horizon? What the hell? And even there, I saw
things specifically and with particularity. I still saw like a rural person. Including junkies
who, you know, are, had been a big part of my life.>>Ron Charles: Several of your
poems mention that heartache.>>Diane Seuss: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Death, tragedy.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah. In my next book I, I talk a
little more about my own son who became a drug addict.>>Ron Charles: I
didn’t know that. That’s not in the poems.>>Diane Seuss: Not yet,
but, but it will be.>>Ron Charles: It’s tough.>>Diane Seuss: It is.>>Ron Charles: At
least he’s still alive.>>Diane Seuss: He’s
alive and he’s clean, but he struggled a lot,
and it’s been, you know, it almost killed both of us. So we must, I mean, to, to go
there, I go with his permission. But it’s the hardest work I’ve
done because you know you don’t, once, you really don’t
want to think about it. But if I’m in keeping
with my spiritual belief as a poet, I need to go there. And I see great nobility
in his struggle. So I want, I want–
there’s a whole– I have a whole bunch of
sonnets in my next book that are spoken by him. And they’re pretty much verbatim from conversations
we’ve had, yeah. So I want to give him the
stage as much as I can.>>Ron Charles: It’s
a kind of love to see ordinary people’s
real struggles.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, yes. Yeah. You know, that’s what I
liked about Still Life Painting, which is in my most recent book. That, you know, what
is still life? It’s bowls, it’s peaches,
it’s women’s spaces, often. It was often used for practice
for painters, you know? But the big subjects
were history and God. Well, I like bowls. Yeah, and I like the lives of
people who, who are like bowls.>>Ron Charles: Who have
been forgotten, overlooked?>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, yeah.>>Ron Charles: Let’s stand
up, and then sit back down. Sounds okay? Okay, that’s it. Not an intermission,
just stand up. Resettle yourselves. Death and grief are
prominent themes in your work. Toward the end of your
latest collection you say, “All my life I’ve
been writing of it. But not from it, directly. A bare lightbulb at its profile, so I may outline its
silhouette on tracing paper.” Sometimes you treat death
and grief in very suggestive, symbolic ways with the
amazing opening of The Toad. The grief, when I
finally contacted it, decades later was black, tarry, hot like the yarrow-edged
side roads we walked barefoot in the summer. Sometimes we’ve come upon a
toad, flattened by a car tire, pressed into the softened
pitch, its arms spread out a little like Jesus. As it was now part of
the surface of the road, part of the road’s story. That’s a metaphor of grief
that is so perfect and bizarre. And instantly recognizable. We’ve all seen that toad
pressed into the part of the road like that.>>Diane Seuss: Wasn’t
it freakish to see things like that when you were a kid? I mean, I think if
you draw on that, you’re all poets, you know? Just don’t forget those things.>>Ron Charles: That’s what
poetry does is it teaches us to see.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, yeah.>>Ron Charles: I wonder if
you’d read a poem called, “The Mewlings and the
Snippings of Baby Birds”? This poem, listen to
the way this poem slips from life to death.>>Diane Seuss: I’ve heard
them somehow, like the sound of stitches being
removed from an incision. The sound of hope and
the sound of suffering, the same music played
on the same instrument. Though one in the early
morning and one at dusk. One when the blossoms
are bunched on tree limbs like gathered silk along a seam. And the other, late in the
day, after a hard rain, when the blossoms lay on
the sidewalks like stars as the nearsighted see them. Yawning, tinged with pink,
like single-celled animals on microscope slides
in high school biology. We were young. We loved death. Even those of us who pretended
to have a moral problem with slicing into fetal pigs and chose the alternative
terrarium assignment, we loved being near it. The slicing and the giggling, the music of scalpels releasing
the dark air inside the body. We thought spring was about
love and the end of school. We thought we were about
to be released from prison. That feeling, the last day of
school, and walking off the bus into the arms of
sunlight and birdsong. And maybe we are released,
though now it’s soul from body. The long slice of the
shears, to liberate the silk from the belt it’s tethered to. Then off to the seamstress
with pins in her mouth, and off to the wedding chapel,
and off to the maker of shrouds. Same lady, same quick
needle made of silver light.>>Ron Charles: It’s
such a slick move from the wedding
dress to the shroud. Spooky. Emily Dickinson, realizing where the
horse’s heads are pointed.>>Diane Seuss: I, I got married
once, and when I was in my sort of wedding dress– it was
actually a swimsuit cover.>>Ron Charles: What?>>Diane Seuss: A thing
you wear over a swimsuit? You know, it cost ten bucks. And I, I looked in the
mirror, and I was, you know, poufing my hair like you do. And I looked in my eyes,
and I knew it was a mistake. I knew it was a mistake,
and it was a big one, but it felt like
it was too late. I know.>>Ron Charles: But you
got your son out of it?>>Diane Seuss: I did.>>Ron Charles: Well then
it was not a mistake.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, I guess. [Laughter] I mean, no! I mean he is [inaudible]. But I wouldn’t have had — .>>Ron Charles: Let’s
cut that from the video. [Laughter]>>Diane Seuss: I mean
I wouldn’t have had to do the legal thing, but yeah. No he was the good part.>>Ron Charles: Sometimes
you treat the sense of grief and sadness with surprising wit.>>Diane Seuss: Somebody has to! [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: You know where this is going,
eventually though?>>Diane Seuss: Uh-huh.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. I’m Full of Sadness.>>Diane Seuss: Oh. I’m full of sadness. As full as a refrigerator
on payday. My nights are packed
with dreams, jam-packed as a husband
leaving suitcase. And did I leave him,
or dream I left him? I dream of a red room
and wake to a blue room. In the blue room, a man
is offering me a $30,000 diamond ring. His bare ankles poke out
of the ends of his pants. “Wear some socks,” I say, looking down at my
own bare ankles. Like a small tree strung
with too many windchimes, my false hope drags [inaudible]
music through the neighborhood, a neighborhood on the decline. My house, teetering
on an incline. I am bursting with femaleness, like a decapitated saint whose
throat spews light the color of straw. I know I’m female. In the nursery, they put
a sad bow in my hair. I gathered evidence of my
girlhood like a recluse, obsessed with berry-picking. Look at my apron, stained
purple, my empty tin bucket, my purple lips, purple
shits, like the shits of a bear in late spring. Sadness overruns me. I’m bee balm, a swarm at
my center, pollen heavy on the wires of their back legs
like gold-velvet pantaloons. I’m the Xerox boy, tackling
the biggest copy job in the history of copy jobs. Reproducing original sadness,
toner cartridge running low. When asked at the ticket office
what I am, I can only answer, “I’m what is speaking
this, or its homonym, or its sobbing antonym.”>>Ron Charles: I
love the way the wit of that poem pushes
against its sorrow.>>Diane Seuss: We must, right?>>Ron Charles: Some of the
poems embrace the sorry.>>Diane Seuss: Uh-oh. [ Laughter ] Uh-oh!>>Ron Charles: Yeah. Yeah, that’s next. [Laughter] In other poems,
you are very specific about the central source
of grief in your life. Would you read a poem
called “Crucifixions?”>>Diane Seuss: Oh, wow. Oldie. My first book. I was 40, my first book. I’m older than I seem. [Laughter] Crucifixions. There are many crucifixions. Some are quiet, graceful,
filigreed. I watched my father
die for six years. False hope, morphine,
desperate experimentations with a blue extract from
the periwinkle plant. I was seven years old, watching
him from the dark hallway as he looked at himself
in the bathroom mirror. His fading looks, ears
poking out from the skull, painting his tongue where
he’s accidentally bit it. And later, when he
was on the telephone, I watched him use his free
hand to catch the spinal fluid that dripped out of the
unhealing incision on his back with a paper napkin
covered in swans.>>Ron Charles: So what can
you tell us about how the loss of your father affected you
and your family at that time?>>Diane Seuss: Well. He was, yeah.>>Ron Charles: That was 30
years later you wrote that poem. That still feels like yesterday.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah,
it, for the family, it, we had to improvise
from there on out. We were no longer what
you were supposed to be. And widow women where I was from and back then were
kind of suspect. They were seen as
sort of powerful and dangerous to
the social order. I know, weird, right? So it was sort of
that weird widow woman and her two daughters. We were always, my parents were
always kind of playful people. They were, they were in love. They never got past that part, and he was very beautiful
and very kind. And I, we were very
connected in a non-verbal way. The last time I saw him,
kids weren’t allowed in hospital rooms
until the very end. Isn’t that healthy? And so we were brought up there. My sister was four years
older, and she was very angry, and she just sat in a chair
and wouldn’t look at him. But he beckoned, and I use that
word “beckon” a lot in poems. He beckoned, and I went and
I sat on the edge of the bed. And I felt, I mean, this lump
in my throat that was bigger than the Hindenburg,
but I knew not to cry. And really that moment is
you know from that center, everything else has
swirled and spun. I mean, I remember
being at his funeral and looking really closely
at a rose somebody handed me, and a little ant
crawling across it, as if it were an
answer, you know? To see and to remember
concretely what was happening around me. It was all mysterious. I didn’t understand
what was death, right? Who knows that at seven? But I knew there was
an absence, but again, I knew there was also a
presence of all the things in the world and also my mother. You know, she was
somewhere to go. That’s a different journey
than a path to a father. So really, my, we
still meet at his grave and have picnics on it. I mean, he’s very much a
part of the family still. And you know, he’s still
very present in his absence, and that’s what poems can
trace in a way that nothing, I think nothing else can.>>Ron Charles: You know
that poem is powerful because of the precision of the
language, your observations.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, and to be
a child witness, and to be able to be precise about it. And even, you know it’s in four-line stanzas,
and I like that. Again it’s that Gregory
Orr thing. There’s this madeness of the
clarity of observation even from a child’s devastation. And that is something poems can
do that locks in something that, that helps you survive. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Thank you. I know it’s not easy to
read things like that. I appreciate you
being willing to. I want you to read a poem
from your, your latest book that combines well,
Still Life with Turkey. It’s the painting and the
grief all woven together in a very beautiful
and complex way.>>Diane Seuss: So yeah, there
is a painting called “Still Life with Turkey Hanged,”
and the editor wanted me to take “hanged” out. Isn’t that funny? To me “hanged” is part of it. I mean, it’s crucifixion, right? But it’s a beautiful
painting of a dead animal, and I think it’s very linked to
what you just asked me to read. The turkey is strung
up by one pronged foot. The cord binding it just below
the stiff trinity of toes, each with its cold, bent claw. My eyes are in love with
it as they are in love with all dead things that
cannot escape being looked at. It is there to be seen
if I want to see it, as my father was there,
in his black casket, and could not elude our gaze. I was a child, so they asked
if I wanted to see him. “Do you want to see him?” someone asked. Was it my mother? Grandmother? Some poor woman was
stuck with the job. “He doesn’t look like
himself,” whoever it was added. “They did something
strange with his mouth.” As I write this, a large moth
flutters against the window. It presses its fat
thorax to the glass. “No,” I said, “I don’t
want to see him.” I don’t recall if I secretly
wanted them to open the box for me, but thought that no
was the correct response, or if I believed I should want
to see him, but was too afraid of what they’d done
with his mouth. I think I assumed that my seeing
him would make things worse for my mother, and
she was all I had. Now I can’t get enough of
seeing, as if I’m paying a sort of penance for not seeing then. And so this turkey hanged,
its small raw-looking head, which reminds me of the first
fully-naked man I ever saw when I was a candy striper
at a sort of nursing home. He was a war veteran,
young, burbling crazily. His face and body red
as something scalded. I didn’t want to
see, and yet I saw. But the turkey, I’m
in love with it. Its saggy neck folds, the
rippling, variegated feathers, the crook of its unbound
foot, and the glorious wings, archangelic, spread, as if it
could take flight but down, downward into the earth.>>Ron Charles: The completion
of aesthetics and grief in that poem, it’s
so fascination. It could be read several times. The way you want to see
but you don’t want to see. The way death fascinates
us and repels us.>>Diane Seuss: Yeah, and
how, when I got to this book, I see each collection as a step. I don’t want to write the
same shit over and over. And each collection is
a step, and in this one, that step was the glorious
salvation of seeing, even seeing that, you know?>>Ron Charles: Right. When you read your books
in a row, as I did today.>>Diane Seuss: Lord.>>Ron Charles: [Laughter]
No– .>>Diane Seuss: Poor dude, we’ll
get you a drink after this.>>Ron Charles: No! It was wonderful to see
them build on one another, how they speak to one another. How they echo one another. Particularly those two poems
from the first and the last.>>Diane Seuss: You
know, I never thought of that, so thank you.>>Ron Charles: God is very
prominent in your first book. He shows up explicitly in
several of the first poems, like the whole first
section, actually. He fades away in
the later poems. Does that reflect your
own faith experience? It would be a different
kind of faith now than you did as a child?>>Diane Seuss: As a child,
I tried to get saved over and over and over again. I was saved like at
least seven times.>>Ron Charles: It
wouldn’t stick?>>Diane Seuss: I
wouldn’t stick, baby! Yeah, and I would, I would
wander the village and go to churches and try out
their version of salvation. So I think I was doing a
very serious thing then. So I never, I, I don’t think
I ever really believed in God, in that way, in that Christian
way, but I did have a, I did have my own
personal Jesus. I did have a thing for Jesus,
and the connection between Jesus and my father, I think,
the crucifixion thing, and the story of suffering. But now I just think that those
metaphors kind of faded away. They just broke away
from the spaceship, and now I’m exploring
other things, like art. Which is really for, in this
book, art really is a kind of religion, although
it’s not one I’m critical, I’m critical of it, too.>>Ron Charles: But it
provides transcendence, clearly.>>Diane Seuss: Yes, yes.>>Ron Charles: You say
in one poem, “I want, I want a direct God
hit, no shrapnel.” Makes God sound like
an assassin there. In another poem called “This
Year,” you describe God as a bear in the spring,
“when god comes lumbering out of the woods,
nose to the air. He looks sleek. He pays us no mind. He’s eaten hardly this winter,
the black coat well oiled. He heads straight for the
roadside to set his claws into the red ripples– .”>>Diane Seuss: Nipples.>>Ron Charles: “Nipples
of thimbleberries.”>>Diane Seuss: Uh-huh, yeah. Yeah, I think my, my early God
was Old Testament, wasn’t he? [Growls] Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Very
Emily Dickinson. Those paws in the forest, yeah.>>Diane Seuss: And
I’m both fascinated and repelled, you know? As one should be, I think, yeah.>>Ron Charles: I want you to
end by reading “Cross Back.”>>Diane Seuss: Oh my gosh.>>Ron Charles: A
relatively brief poem.>>Diane Seuss: I think, some of you remember the show,
“This is Your Life”? I feel like that’s
happening right now. [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: This
is not long, so you have to pay attention.>>Diane Seuss: And here’s
your kindergarten teacher! My kindergarten teacher stifled
me by– because I was singing, “Rock my soul in the bosom
of Abraham,” at the top of my lungs, and she clapped her
hand, and I felt it go “voomp”. And the song went
right down in my gut, and I think that’s
poetry, right? [Laughter] Crossing Back. The harbor is smooth as bone. The River Mary flows east,
pushing against the gray muscle of Huron towards the island. She’s always at cross
purposes with the grand design. Gulls jackknife into the water. Look at the buoy, inert
as a church spire. The ferry lowers the plank. A new ferry master,
much less skeletal than the old motions me aboard. Could it be that something
still waits for me, open-armed on that other shore?>>Ron Charles: Yes! Thank you so much!>>Diane Seuss: Oh my gosh! [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: Now all these
people want to talk to you and buy at least
one of your books in the room right
outside there, alright?>>Diane Seuss: I’ll sign it. I have lipstick. I’ll even kiss it! [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: Thank you
all so much for coming!

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