A Poet’s Reckoning with What Poetry Can Do

The poet Diane Seuss and I began a recent conversation by talking about the burdens of companionship—or, at least, how those burdens are manifested through affection for a pet. Seuss lost her dog Bear during the pandemic. When we spoke, by phone, she was at home in Michigan preparing her new dog, Stella—whom she described as “cool, interesting, complicated”—for a trip to the vet, by calming her with treats and showering her with affection. Of Stella’s many anxieties and complications, Seuss said, “After Bear, I really wanted to get a dog that was, like, a support animal.” Then she sighed and laughed lightly. “I didn’t get that.”

Seuss, who turns sixty-eight this month, is a good poet with whom to settle into a conversation about comfort and endurance, about romance and love’s worth. The many accolades that have been attached to her work testify to her technical brilliance, her sharpness of language on a line-by-line level, how she can connect several ideas and images in a single stream. (In the poem “There is a force that breaks the body,” Seuss writes, “Joy / which is also a dish soap, but not the one / that rids / seabirds of oil from wrecked tankers, that’s / Dawn / which should change its name to Dusk.”) What has always drawn me to Seuss, though, is the crispness of her emotional acumen. She can be harsh—even, perhaps especially, to the speaker in her poems, but she isn’t unforgiving. She has excelled at finding a kind of dry humor that doesn’t diminish her weighty themes. She is a writer who seems unashamed to work through her thoughts as they come: thoughts about grief (Seuss lost her father when she was seven), about the limits of nostalgia and the value of the past and the romanticization of place. In the poem “Folk Song,” Seuss writes of “this town which inhabitants speak of with endearments / as if it were a child. As if it’s not like every other brat.”

Seuss was born in 1956 and raised in Niles, Michigan. Her people were “barbers and telephone-line operators,” she told me. “Real working class.” She studied art at Kalamazoo College and got a master’s in social work from Western Michigan University. She raised her only child, a son, as a single mother while doing and teaching social work, shaping poems in her head on the job. She started teaching poetry at Kalamazoo in 1988 but didn’t publish her first collection, “It Blows You Hollow,” until a decade later.

Seuss is currently having an overdue run as one of our most decorated contemporary poets. Her third collection, “Four Legged Girl,” from 2015, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her next book of poems, “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl,” was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Prize. A follow-up, “frank: sonnets,” was released in 2021 and won a Pulitzer.

Her most recent collection, “Modern Poetry,” takes its name from the first poetry book Seuss ever read. The collection—sometimes playfully, sometimes with earnest curiosity, sometimes dismissively—tries to answer the question of poetry’s utility, and does so by sweeping through multiple forms, summoning the dead (a dead parent but also dead poets). At times, it reads like the internal monologue of someone who is interested in what might save them but who seems to sneer at the answers before they even arrive. In “Allegory,” Seuss writes, “Isn’t it funny / to imagine hope, not much / more than a toddler, / wielding rage in its fist like a / cudgel?” Seuss is a matter-of-fact speaker, patient with the development of her words, often punctuating ideas or half-sentences with a slow and sweet laugh, a sense of humor she attributes to her Midwest upbringing. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

There are times in “Modern Poetry” when it read to me like you were trying to maybe write towards a complicated relationship with the form of poetry itself—an approach that sometimes feels like writing almost in opposition to what one learns about art-making.

During the pandemic, I got very, very alienated. And I was alone through the whole pandemic—except for my mom, who is now almost ninety-five, lives in Niles still, and I was pretty much the only person who could help her out.

That alienation, and then Bear died, led me to really asking the question, this thing, the one thing—poetry—that I’ve stayed with. I have failed at marriages and love and even friendships. And one thing that I have stayed absolutely true to, I began to question its efficacy, its capacity to mean in the midst of this crack. So when I finished “frank: sonnets” and had followed the sonnet form so loyally, I knew that I needed to turn a corner, as one must, into the next book or sequence or whatever. The thing that came to mind is to write in free verse for the most part, to write past the obvious ending in free verse into more discursive poems. And then to even allow for, though not all the poems in “Modern Poetry” do this, something like rhetoric or argumentation, which has never been a strong suit of mine. So I like walking into my weakness and seeing what happens there. And that led me to the primary question of the book, I think, which is “What has poetry been, and what can it still be for me, if anything? Does it have the capacity to keep me here on the planet?” It was that dire.

Is the purpose of chasing that question to find an answer to the question? Or is it perhaps to find a way to expand your approach to making the work? Or did you find both?

I did want an answer because I really did feel that I didn’t know how to move forward without something like an answer. But I think, more importantly, it was an aesthetic question, and it pressed me into a whole other kind of poem—poems that address not just poetry but myself. There are several poems you probably notice where I talk to myself. I call myself Diane.

I sort of split off from myself and address myself. So in confronting poetry I was confronting myself. Both of those moves required a different kind of poem than I had ever taken on before, and maybe a new kind of confidence. In tracing my educational path—spotty, at best—which I do in the book, I guess I was trying to work with myself to say, “Even a cobbled mind can address these big questions, and I need to address them.” And maybe getting the various awards for “frank” emboldened me in a way that I might not have been otherwise to move my authority into a new . . . I would never have used the word “authority” in relation to me in the past, but I felt that I had been conferred with a kind of authority that made asking the questions for myself a viable process, and that maybe there was some value for poetry, for my own poetry at least, in asking questions that really had me and poetry up against the wall. It seemed important.

I’m also interested in the aesthetics of quote-unquote everyday life, as expansive as that is, that show up in your body of work. In all of your books, there’s a kind of everydayness amidst some real complications or real vibrant moves elsewhere. I’m wondering if some of that is because of your early life as a working-class writer. I know that you were a therapist at a point, and you were teaching creative writing while being a therapist and raising a family and doing all of these things that I think people might suggest act against a writing life. But, as we know, so much of the writing happens in our heads, and so much of the writing I think can happen while we are tending to what some would consider mundane. Are you still someone who is processing a lot of writing as you are moving through what some would consider the quotidian movements of your life?

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