Scoundrel Time: “[I wish I still smoked so that I could sit outside in the dark]” feels candid and personal; it flows with the rhythm of private thought and then, at every turn, unsettling meditations sizzle just beneath the speaker’s cool, offhanded manner. I’m thinking about the speaker’s coolness—when juxtaposed with unsettling questions about the ties between cigarettes, class, money management and religion—and the extent to which the language here is full of charged ambivalence or measured distance (or perhaps both). Can you talk about what it feels like to write a poem like this, to develop or discover a tone? How do you work with or through memories that become tonal undercurrents?
Diane Seuss: Your observations are right on and really nuanced. Thank you. My process, especially with these unrhymed sonnets, is to begin with a moment of deep feeling and to follow it as closely as I can into the next line, and the line after that, and so on. The voice of the poem, or perhaps more accurately the personality of the speaker, is doing the following, and it moves through varying degrees of distance, yes, and of contemplation, of different textures of memory, of opinion, of innocence, of snark, allowing each moment to unwind the poem’s tone in the way that thoughts and feelings unwind inside our bodies through a tonal spectrum. The good news is that I only have fourteen lines to get that accomplished, so the experience is necessarily compressed. There is no space, usually, for transitions between memories, ideas, feelings, so what I’m left with are the shifts rather than the connective tissue. The poem you reference here begins with wishing I still smoked, moves to a close-up shot of my parents lighting their cigarettes, which takes up four lines. Then there is a quick shift to the present tense—“I’m about to be poor.” That delivers me to my mother, her poverty and generosity, and then “Shirl, who held so long to a penny that it turned green in her hand.” The final shift is double. First it sanctifies, then it dirties things up. I can’t leave a poem with too much sanctifying. Not anymore.
ST: Gender discrimination, violence, and art intermingle in “[Yes, I saw them all, saw them, met some, Richard Hell.]” Each line cuts deeper than the last; “feeling invisible” becomes “their loathing/of women,” which becomes “no eye contact,” which then turns to the “weaponizing the word beautiful.” Gender, art, and discrimination intermingle in unexpected ways here—did you begin writing the poem with the idea of treating these themes together or did they emerge from the writing, in a natural layering process where they also take on a life of their own?
DS: This one and a few others in the manuscript have been a long time coming. I’ve considered for years how I might write about what it was like for young women coming up in poetry in the 1970s (and 80s, and 90s, and…), how many were silenced for good, how many careers were waylaid. Another poem that appeared in Buzzfeed takes on the sexual exploitation of young women by older, famous male poets. This poem is centered on the other head of the monster—the invisibility, the crushing disdain, the loathing, the warping of what was called female beauty. Some of us walked into rivers with rocks in our pockets. Some turned on the gas. Some bought crotchless Victorian bloomers. Some of us became our own monsters. Again, what I knew walking into this poem was the first line. My arsenal was years of repressed feeling. The ending surprised me. It explained myself to myself.
ST: In the poem about Tony Hoagland, “[Tony said being an army brat meant he was from everywhere and therefore nowhere. I am from],” the intersection of memory, judgment, and mortality calls up what human beings leave behind after death—bones and, perhaps, legacies (sometimes in the form how others have remembered/judged them). The idea of passing judgment without “look[ing] people in the eye” is a striking one, when it comes to writing, legacy, and memory. Given the way the Internet and online social forums play a complex role in this, what are your feelings, as a poet, on the power of the written word and the responsibility that comes with this power?
DS: It’s difficult, still, to talk about Tony, who was such a provocateur, obviously, and could be so incredibly kind, and who was devoted to poetry, and who wrote his way—bravely—into his own death. Many are still grieving him, and I don’t want to trespass on that tender process. Let me say this: I have been disturbed by the way social media has afforded us with the chance to destroy a person via one-dimensionalizing them, en masse, Lord of the Flies-style. Holding people accountable for what they/we put out in the world is one thing. Flattening them, and doing so joyously, robs us of their gifts, and short-circuits the more crucial examination—self-examination. This poem is aware of the differences between Tony and me. He even called attention to them in an email he wrote to me after reading an interview of mine which he found interesting, on the level of psyche. “It also makes clear to me of course, what different poets we are,” he wrote. That stung a bit. He had the capacity to sting. I didn’t know if “different” meant that he found me lesser, or wrong, or strange. Probably, knowing him a bit better now, he meant what he said—we were and are different poets, and he felt the need to call that to my attention. Don’t ask me why. Finally, though, at the sonnet’s relative volta, I claim that I am “more like him than not, can you imagine?” In a sense, that line pushes back on the way his email comment distanced us. The poem directed me, unexpectedly, to the pile of bones we all come down to—him, and me, and those who loathed him, and those who loved him and love him still. The poem brings him home, to the place where I was raised, where we pray over all the bones, even the gravedigger’s.
ST: In your sequence about Frank O’Hara, the speaker addresses him directly and familiarly. “[Frank. Robes]” takes on art, intimacy, and accessibility—the sort that has become common in the age of the Internet/social media. Does this closeness assume a different meaning/feeling, given O’Hara’s timeframe? The distance preserved in “wonder[ing] did you hate yourself/and Alice/Neel’s portrait” allows the speaker to “wonder”, but not “know”—is this space or room to speculate necessary in the world of art?
DS: The Frank poems are connected to the earlier poem about art and gender, and even to the Tony poem. In this sequence, O’Hara becomes an archetype, a really slippery one—a brother, a friend, an animus, a silent partner, an adversary, a memory of loss, of lost love, and an early instance of a kind of male artist I envy, fear, have felt judged by, find mysterious, delight in, miss, and worry for. I am used to interacting with a masculine unknowable, as my father died very young, and therefore my relationship with him was a relationship with an absence, a person stranded in the deep past. O’Hara’s inertness is therefore familiar to me. I can talk to him, to his poem, walk around him like one circles a sculpture. Maybe distance is what I know of men. Maybe poems attempt to close the gap or open it wider. I’m not sure if the space to speculate is necessary in all art. In these poems, distance is the aesthetic, a distance, maybe, born of wounding.
ST: “[Frank: Here’s some deep gossip for you: Your good friend]” addresses sexual transgression in the face of memory—it becomes “just a red glitch in the far-right corner.” The poem begins playfully, but subverts this casual tone for a more sinister one as the word choice suggests (“grotesque,” “gunning,” “discriminate”). That the transgression becomes a mere “glitch,” seems to at once problematize the tendency to minimize sexual offences, but it also brings up the issue of legacy and the kinds of things that tend to be dismissed; how do wrongdoing and legacy reconcile here?
DS: I imagine it as a red glitch to ghost-Frank and ghost-Kenneth, but it was not a glitch to me. For a while, it was the whole document. This poem sticks a toe into something I’m just now realizing. I want to tattle to O’Hara. I want him to take my side. I want to complicate how he sees his friend. Maybe to tell him: “Get off of her, asshole.” I want to shift the alliance. And by that I mean, I want to shift Poetry’s alliance with this sort of damage. I want it to have been some other way. I want to have been seen as human. I want to have seen myself as human. As worthy of protection. Even in this poem I see Kenneth as nuanced: “Here is a photograph of him at your funeral. /Youngish dimensional capable of sadness.” I now know that violation is as damaging to the violator as to the violated. I wouldn’t mind sitting in a room with Kenneth, and Frank as the interlocutor, now that I’m full-grown, to talk it all out. One of the hardest things is to hold two opposing values in one’s mind and body at the same time—that someone can dehumanize and violate someone and still write humane poems, or open up poetry to kids in classrooms, as Kenneth did. I too have dehumanized. I too have had moments of humanity. The legacy, how any of us will be remembered—Kenneth, Frank, Tony, me (if at all)—well, let’s hope the memories are nuanced. Maybe that’s what poems are for.
ST: “[Frank I need]” begs the question—how do you identify with O’Hara, in terms of sensibility and style? What initially drew you to his work and became particularly influential? Also, in considering sensibility, can you comment on your poems’ relationship(s) to politics?
DS: Frank showed up in the first poem in this manuscript. “I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome /nose and penis and the New York School and Larry/Rivers.” So from the get-go, this likeness/unlikeness thing was a trope, this connection and disconnection. It is a way to demarcate a space for myself as I-am-like-Frank-except-for-all-the-ways-I-am-not. I love O’Hara’s seeming spontaneity, what he called his “I do this I do that” poems, that he was known to stuff his balled-up drafts in a drawer and forget about them. (I used to carry around my dad’s old briefcase with my typed poems stained with wine and nail polish, tampons, and a peanut butter sandwich for later). He wasn’t over-precious about poetry. I love that he loved literature, and music, and especially visual art, and was very opinionated about what was worthy and what was crap, though I am not nearly as opinionated. (Or am I?) He felt suffocated by the smallish Massachusetts town in which he was raised, and found the kinetic, artistic, pop cultural madness of New York a liberation, a place to be on the move, to have bunches of lusts and loves, to have/build a gay community in the 1950’s and 60’s, a rarified thing, and jazz, and abstract expressionism. I find his minimalism, his white space, his humor, his outness, heroic. The city was not nearly as liberating for me. I had a hard time writing, felt over-stimulated, suffocated by addictive love, unclear about how to be woman and artist. I missed the horizon line. Silence. My mother and sister. So much of my work has been built on the rural imagination: “milk/weed buck/shot menstrual/rag funeral/salad,” those things O’Hara may have dismissed. He may well have dismissed me. To claim, at the end of that little poem, “I/am/the you/of/now”—well, obviously I’m not the Frank O’Hara of now, nobody is (except poet Aaron Smith). Certainly not me. But it walked into the poem, a comic claim, a claim that would make Frank cringe. A claim of identification. Of connection. The male self, asserted. A push back, once again, to “what different poets we are.” In which I wedge myself (and my milkweed, and my funeral salad) into the circle.
My poems’ relationship to politics:
All poems are political, in what they choose to see and in their myopia, in what they blast and what they muffle. When I write of my body, it can be understood as a political act. When I write of my town, my class, my mother. When I write from addiction, from pain, of beauty and ugliness. Remembering itself has a political dimension. And love. I don’t set out to write a poem with politics at the forefront of my mind. I just can’t compose that way. I start with a feeling, and a phrase. With instinct, and mostly with language solving the puzzle of itself. When I walk down the street wearing this body, it is a political act. If I thought too hard about that with every step, I’d never leave the house. Carl Phillips, in his essay “A Politics of Mere Being,” writes, “I make sentences not to argue for outsiderness, but as the only space in which my outsiderness makes sense to me.” When I was a kid I had some plastic horse statues. I’d arrange them in a circle and imagine myself inside the circle. Maybe the poem is the circle. Words are the horses. Being inside them is where my outsiderness makes sense to me.
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