In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Diane Seuss discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A , hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with Diane Seuss, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, frank: sonnets, and Poem-a-Day’s Guest Editor for the month of March. Diane, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Diane Seuss: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.
Poets.org: Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for the month of March?
Seuss: My process, it started with real intention and then it kind of turned into confetti. That is, I knew that my primary value in the curation was diversity in all of its guises. And so I was interested, of course, in thinking about poems from different regions of the country, from different age groups. I think that was very important to me to include some older poets and then some really young emerging voices. Just a broad range of representation in the ways that we think of that, but also, maybe in some ways that we don’t tend to think of it. And so that was my primary value. And then, you know, just poems that I thought were intriguing and maybe break the mold in contemporary poetry, maybe approaching poetry in a different way than we’re kind of used to online, et cetera.
And then, finally, I was interested in finding poems that spoke to each other across the line and not... So, in other words, I wasn’t thinking of a frame or theme that would, you know, unite these poems, but I was interested in how they might talk to each other, especially in the order that I’ve put them in. I was interested in how one poem might follow another; in a way, thinking about like I would a literary magazine or a book. So how do we go from Danez Smith to Jane Huffman there at the end, and how do we move through poems about identity, orientation, childhood in ways that kind of spark each other? So that’s where I was.
Poets.org: It sounds like influence was of interest to you. Is that correct?
Seuss: You mean influence from poets that I’m not selecting, but how people have been influenced by others?
Seuss: Yes, I was. I was interested in influence, but also in particularity of voice. That is, sometimes I feel like contemporary American poetry is this sort of circular chain where we read somebody and then everybody hops on board. And I was looking for poems that didn’t do that. And sometimes we can be almost overburdened by this generalized kind of reading, rather than reading specifically to our needs as writers. And I like to see poets who were kind of on their own path and probably reading selectively for their own needs and feelings as writers.
So yeah. So influence, yes, but not necessarily influencing each other so much as... I guess two things that I really value are honesty, not kind of mugging for the camera, even though I do that sometimes, and clarity of voice, and then poets were who are willing to look inward and not kind of perform for an audience as their first go-to. And so in that sense, I guess in my selections, I was interested in interiority.
Poets.org: Very interesting, particularly that note about performance since so many poets are performers and many start their careers that way.
Seuss: Yes, and I love that. I love that, and I think, in my way, I do it, but I’m also interested in what’s happening. Maybe this niche of people growing a little tired, you know, and maybe it’s my own feelings about social media, but in writing for the reader, writing toward the reader first or the listener, rather than toward their own deepest need. And I think the last few years, both politically and in terms of our health and wellness, maybe have asked us to turn a corner in that regard. I myself have needed more than ever to look inward and try to understand what’s being asked of me right now.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Seuss: Oh. You know, I’ve thought about this. There’s so many. This Poem-a-Day and the curation done by you all has been so important to me for so many years. And for those of us who can’t afford to buy book after book after book, it becomes this incredible resource of... You know, the first time I ever read “Song,” the brilliant poem by [Brigit] Pegeen Kelly was on your website, and it changed my life. I can direct people. I help some young poets in this country and in other countries with kind of how to construct their reading, and how to access poetry for themselves, especially people in other countries who don’t have access to books and they can access your site. So for me, as a younger writer, and for so many people across the globe, it’s such a resource.
Okay, so to your question, the poem that probably had the biggest influence on me is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” and for a variety of reasons. I was a teacher for many years. I’ll be teaching again in the spring in a new place. I will teach this poem, always taught this poem. And when I would show students what the poem looked like on the page and then hear Brooks reading it, because that’s available on your site; it’s a new paradigm for how to use a line, how to use a line break, how to read a poem. I got to hear her three times in person in my life and meet her. And the way each word… She really taught me that each word in a poem has its own weight, its own energy, its own elemental fire. This poem is a great example of there’s just not one word too many.
And in teaching this poem, I’ve set it up two ways on the page so that Brooks’s poem, all the lines end or break on we until the last, right? So I set it up that way, and then I set it up traditionally so that we came at the beginning of the line and the line break was on the punctuation, on the period. And the students looked at it first and thought about it, and then we heard her. And of course, then they knew why she set it up the way she did, what that gave the music of the poem, and the fact that the rug is pulled out from under us in that last line and that “we,” which has followed us down the right margin through the whole poem, disappears. And that we, those pool players with the golden shovel, those young people, they’ve disappeared. They’re gone.
I love, too, Brooks’s use of persona in this poem and in others. I mean, this “we” is not her, particularly. This “we” is the collective “we” of those pool players. And her ability to take on personae that are challenging to her, sometimes, it’s almost unthinkable who she is willing to voice. I’m sure that the poet Ai received important influence from reading Brooks’s persona poems, in taking on a voice that is, in many ways, often reprehensible like Brooks’s poem, “Riot,” which is told from the point of view of a rich white man.
So “We Real Cool” is an example of a poem told in persona. Now, in this case, not reprehensible, but still, it’s a reach across a divide for the writer, and I learned so much from that. So that’s a lot, I know. Mostly, I want to gush about her brilliance and everything. You know, my own learning from her is the least of it. What she gave the world and her poems, and the courage of her poems just slays me every time, and I’m so glad I got to meet her.
Poets.org: I’m a little envious that you got to meet her.
Seuss: I know. This is one of the few things that comes with that I’m now old. I got to meet Etheridge Knight and Brooks and Sonia Sanchez, people that I think, at the time, I didn’t know how valuable those experiences were because I was young. With Brooks, I knew. I knew. I always think of at one of her readings and she was about to read… I think maybe it was “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee,” which is another one of my favorite poems on earth. And she said, “This poem has some naughty words in it, and if that offends your sensibilities, you’re welcome to leave right now. And then when you hear the applause, come back in and all will be well,” and I just loved it. I loved her authoritative approach to that.
And of course, nobody left. That wasn’t the point. Nobody would’ve had the guts to leave at that point, but she just had, in this little body, she had so much authority, so much power that, you know, that I could only wish for.
Poets.org: Your mentions of personae and the spareness of language in that form, as well as her attempt, as you see it, to reach across the divide reminds me a lot of the work that I think you were doing in Frank: Sonnets, particularly that reaching across the divide. And I think you prepare the reader for that in your dedication in that book, [in] which you mention both Candy Darling and Amy Winehouse.
So you revisit themes previously explored in other collections, particularly mortality. These poems are, in frank: sonnets, are spare, yet not brutal in my perception. Can you tell us a bit more about the development of frank: sonnets, and why you chose the sonnet, which is traditionally, you know, reserved for romance? Why the sonnet as your cohesive form for this collection?
Seuss: Yes. Well, in my previous collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, I invented a sonnet form that was no rhyme, fourteen lines, but every line was seventeen syllables like a haiku. And that came from [Allen] Ginsberg’s American Sentence, which was a seventeen-syllable line. And so I knew that that form gave me something. That compression gave me something, that I wasn’t done exploring. When I turned to Frank, in that first poem, which was the first poem I wrote for the collection, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I usually don’t. But I was driving back from this ridiculous road trip to Cape Disappointment on the West Coast. You know, you couldn’t make that up. I started writing lines and sort of narrating what just had happened, one beat away from the present tense. I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t have the energy to get out of the car, rental, Blue Ford Focus. I had to stop it.
So I started noticing there was excitement for me in that kind of narration. Then Frank O’Hara kind of stepped in. I’m like Frank O’Hara, which I’m not really at all. I trust my intuition enough to think, “Okay, what is it about O’Hara? Why is he stepping in now?” And what excited me there was his approach to poems is very live, very present. He called it his “I do this, I do that poems.” You know, I’m walking down the street right now. So instead of poems that curated the past as I’d done before, these poems, even if they were remembering, which most of the book does, it’s remembering in the present tense.
So I had in mind a memoir, and then the thought, when I got back to my little cottage and put that poem down in lines, “Oh! This memory could be a sonnet. This moment could be a sonnet.” It made sense to me that somehow this tension between the aliveness, the presentness of the voice and the approach to language, and then the compression of the form, could be an exciting thing. And it gave me… It was exactly the frame I needed to tell units of my life. I compared it, in the book, to cells of a film.
So these… Unit, unit, unit, all that hold the same space, fourteen lines, and it might be my father’s death or a dishwasher, and they all hold the same space. And this compressiveness, the form really provided a safety net for me to go into profound intensity in my own memories, especially around my son’s addiction, that I don’t think I could have approached without a formal frame, those arms to hold me, I guess, of the sonnet. So I’m very grateful to that form.
Poets.org: Who are you reading right now?
Seuss: Ooh. I read a lot, and I have two kinds of reading. One is… I write a lot of blurbs and I take that very seriously because I’ve had people write blurbs for me earlier in my career, which I could tell they’d barely read the book, if at all. And then I’ve had people write blurbs for me, like Terrance Hayes with frank. He wrote pages basically, you know, and really committed to the book. And so I know how that feels, and I want to give that back. So I read a lot of... Primarily, earlier, younger, emerging poets work that way.
Oh, there’s so many good ones. Courtney Faye Taylor has a great new book, Concentrate, which I recommend to everyone. It, too, contends… It deals with another person’s life, but in that life, are reflections of the speaker or the writer’s own experience as a person of color in America. And what she does with form and innovation of form is just incredible. So that’s a recent read and I keep returning to it.
I just read Aaron Smith’s forthcoming book, which is coming out this maybe this month. And that book, called Stop Lying, is really centered on the loss, the death of his mother. And like Smith’s earlier books, there’s just this incredible gift of blunt force, honesty that serves this subject, even though I know for him to write it was extraordinarily difficult. It’s just… Nowadays, I guess I really appreciate a voice that’s honest and real, and that book is and beautifully made.
Sometimes, I think books where speakers, writers, are writing clean lines and sentences are not seen as innovative, but I think there are many kinds of innovation. And what he’s doing, his degree of clarity, of feeling, is an innovation to me. Also, he’s from the South, a queer man from the South who contended with that, with really painful, violent homophobia both inside and outside of his family. So it’s a complex emotional situation, but he gives it to a spare [sic] and I really appreciate that. So there’s that.
Jane Huffman has a book coming out this year that is really not like anything else people have read, I think. Very formally wound tight. It’s a book of a formalist, a young formalist, wound very tightly. But a lot of times her forms, for instance, if she writes a sestina, it’s one that is caving in or falling apart. So it’s almost like surveying the ruins in an interesting way.
So I could go on and on. So those are the… That’s one kind of my reading. The other way that I read is for my own work, and I’m very selective about that. I’ve been reading a lot of [John] Keats. I’m reading Keats’s bio in different forms. I’m starting to read on the whole subject of burlesque, not just as the way we think of it in this country, but early burlesque as a literary form and as a form in classical music. And I’m thinking about that in letting that spin in terms of what I might do next.
Poets.org: Well, speaking of your work, what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Seuss: Yeah. So, my next book will be out in 2024. It’s called Modern Poetry, which is kind of a [sic] arch title, ostentatious, but not meant to be. I think people will see the parody in that title when they read the book. And I really had to take a turn from frank and going from form poems and shorter poems. So what do I do now? That leaving the sonnet behind was very painful. And so I decided I’m going to write in free verse primarily and longer poems, which was very threatening. I forgot how. There are ballads in the book, but some more ballady than others, some ballads in name only; but that’s a form that kind of coheres through throughout the book. And there’s something I’m calling fugues, which are little rhymey things.
So I took some ideas from classical music or from, you know, music itself, and I don’t know that much about music, so I had to do a lot of research into it. And the subject is, I would say, the thesis question. Can poetry continue to mean… What can poetry be now, up against the brink as we are politically and culturally? And especially, as, you know, millions of people have died for stupid reasons, because of the pandemic, not to mention war and other kinds of violence. I really began, in my sequestered life here during the pandemic, to ask the question, what can poetry be? And I hope the book answers that question.
So that’s my biggie. I’m waiting for edits from my editor, and I’ll fix some things, but I think it’s in pretty okay shape. And until I get the editing done, I probably won’t be charging into a next book. I need to sort of put those babies to sleep before I know. So right now, I’m reading and exploring and thinking through, and writing a few essays while I’m at it.
Poets.org: Well, I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.
Seuss: Thank you.
Poets.org: I think a lot of our listeners and readers will. Thank you so much, Diane, for taking this time with me.
Seuss: Yes, thank you. Thanks for having me again and for giving me this opportunity. It was really challenging and fun, so thank you.