Books In Conversation
Diane Seuss with Tony Leuzzi
(Graywolf Press, 2021)
Once upon a time, William Carlos Williams’s claim that the sonnet is fascist seemed unimpeachable: the form’s numerous requirements and restrictions encouraged assumptions about perfection and rigor to the exclusion of themes or metrics deemed ill-suited to a rarefied tradition. Since Williams, however, a powerful counter-tradition of sonnet-making has laid the groundwork for American poets to explore the form through their own themes and idioms. Certainly, some of the best books of sonnets in recent years have embraced a radical openness as much to expose and deconstruct societal ethics as to redefine the technical and musical possibilities of the form. Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets is one such book.
In her own words, Seuss describes frank: sonnets as “a memoir in a string of sonnets,” an ambitious project that challenges notions of what an individual sonnet or sonnet sequence can contain. The 127 poems in frank cover a staggering range of experiences, including childhood poverty, the death of a parent, the struggle to find space and place in the sexist world of poetry, a close friend’s death of AIDS, two abortions, and a son’s addiction to heroin. As with any complex life, Seuss also carves space for the interior: philosophical speculation and meta-literary commentary appear alongside questions of art and posterity, as well as ruminations on popular culture and the nature of poetry.
By necessity, the vastness of the project “omits more than it includes,” but this doesn’t detract from the astonishing surfeit of material. So expansive is Seuss’s generosity that frank: sonnets proves difficult to summarize. There is a Sufi tale where an elephant standing in an unlit room is impossible to describe sufficiently from one touch. Similarly, the poems that comprise frank: sonnets cannot be sufficiently described through soundbite or summary. Full immersion is required. Eventually, through numerous encounters, the scale of the sequence begins to reveal itself.
In July 2021, I had the opportunity of talking to Diane Seuss about frank: sonnets. I consider myself lucky. Her responses were as direct and unsparing as her poems. Like a torch brought into the room with that elephant, they clarify the book’s dimensions and demonstrate the great humor, ache, and urgency with which Seuss regards the world.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Why is the collection called frank: sonnets? At various points in the poems, you allude to Frank O’Hara, though I’m assuming this is only one layer. frank might be a (de-capitalized) name but it can describe behavior, specifically one’s relationship to directness or honesty. The poems in frank are certainly that. What were some of your reasons for naming the book as you have?
Diane Seuss: frank was initially one of those placeholder titles—I’ll call the baby “frank” until I come up with its real name. From there it took on a life of its own. Everything you mentioned is true. Referencing Frank O’Hara came from the mystic void, or whatever it is that sends the dead into poems without your summoning them. The first poem in the collection is the first one I wrote for the book. It begins “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t / have the energy to get out of the car,” and that was concrete narrative. Then out of the blue, into my head came, “I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome / nose and penis and the New York School and Larry / Rivers.” That’s it. Frank flew in. What’s cool is that his brief appearance in what became the opening sonnet of a big memoir-ish collection of sonnets gave me a clue as to how to proceed. O’Hara was the king of the short (but not always) poem. What he called “I do this I do that” poems. The light touch that alludes to (but not always) a chasm of some sort. This provided me with some help in how I would approach voice and tone and language in the sonnets. Yes, I also liked the double entendre of frank-the-name with frank-as-in-frankness. Frankness as a value in poems. Frankness as an approach to storytelling. Frankness, especially, about my own foibles, my sins of omission and commission. Finally, Frank was the title of Amy Winehouse’s first album. She was alluding to the frankness of her lyrics and to Frank Sinatra, one of her muses, as she is one of mine. What I know of her life from her music and the documentary tells me it sent out a purple, curdled, beautiful perfume. Her struggles echo some of those that come up in frank: sonnets. Since the book came out I’ve noticed that some of its readers talk about it as a character separate from me—good ol’ Frank—and I quite like that.
Rail: Of course, “frank” is only one of two words in the collection’s title. Following the conspicuous colon is “sonnets.” Why did you choose the sonnet form to frame and develop the stories you tell throughout the book? In what ways did this particular container prove to be the most suitable way to proceed?
Seuss: That first poem, with the walk-on by Frank O’Hara, was born in my mind as I drove back up the coast from Cape Disappointment to Oysterville, Washington. What I found myself doing was narrating the what-just-happened to myself, the I-do-this-I-do-that. But the poem I heard in my head was scented with that purple Winehousean perfume. It considers a leap into the ocean from the lighthouse on the cliff at Cape Disappointment. It ends with a question: “how do I explain / this restless search for beauty or relief?” That was the question I carried with me when I stopped the car and walked into my little pad in Oysterville, where I was able to lay down the poem in lines. What surprised me was its brevity. With a little juggling around it came to 14 lines. It sounded like a sonnet in my head. It moved like a sonnet. I’d gone to Oysterville thinking about writing a memoir. What is a memoir? What is the nature of memory? How do I remember what I remember? I couldn’t hear my story in prose sentences. I didn’t experience my memories chronologically. Who does? Only a diary, and I am not a diarist. After noticing that the Frank poem could be sonnet-length, I also realized it had a sort of volta, when O’Hara appears, and a couplet, that “beauty or relief” ending. It didn’t contain the metrics of the traditional sonnet, nor the rhyme scheme, but it still might hold up as a kind of sonnet, in the spirit of Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets (1994), and Gerald Stern’s American Sonnets (2002), and Evie Shockley’s “son-nots” in the new black (2011), and Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), which actually came out as I was finalizing the writing of frank: sonnets. It occurred to me then that I could write a memoir in a string of sonnets. Each event, relationship, speech act, song that a particular sonnet might carry would hold the same amount of space—those reliable 14 lines—no matter the degree of gravity or levity. I found as the writing proceeded that the form could hold so much. Nearly everything. I could leap through time and space and enter an incident the size of the eye of a needle. Or hurricane. I could sustain dialogue. Write flash-memoir. Play with meter and rhyme, whether internal or a nice little rhyming couplet. All within the boundaries of those 14 lines. A life is a long and convoluted thing. (Mine is. And getting longer.) It also contains buckets of pain. I couldn’t have written my life without the sonnet. I could not have flown on that trapeze without the safety net of the form.
Rail: “I couldn’t have written my life without the sonnet.” What an admission! I agree that while the traditional metrics and rhyming patterns of a strict sonnet are not here, there is a sonnet-like movement in these poems, especially, as you note, the crucial volta that allows for surprising yet logical turns. It’s also interesting that you mention memoir twice, since both of my first two questions originally included that word, though I omitted it to avoid being too presumptuous. Now that you have acknowledged frank: sonnets is a “big memoir-ish collection of sonnets” I feel comfortable asking if, for you, this “memoir in a string of sonnets” classifies as a sequence—or if it is a collection of memories with occasional links. Do you consider your ordering of the poems an inevitable result of an extended story being told? Or might the sonnets have been arranged in alternative ways?
Seuss: Well, I’d say it’s closer to a sequence than not. I don’t see it as one big poem broken into 127 sonnet-shaped sections, but it does hold together, or can, as a single sweeping gesture. There is formal unity, obviously, but also unity in the overall intention of the collection—to tell a life, and on the meta-level, to consider what it means to tell a life, to consider the nature of memory and how memories are organically arranged and, well, why remember at all. I do see each sonnet as a discrete unit unto itself. I think they work together, but I don’t think they’re necessary to each other, and I didn’t write one with the previous or next one in mind. You may have noticed that I reference film in a few of the sonnets. Celluloid film. That seemed like an apt metaphor for the way the sonnets connect to each other. Each cell of film is of equal size, takes up the same amount of space. One cell might hold a straight pin. Another a bomb. The cells could be cut and spliced in a range of ways, but they ended up the way they ended up. I tried a variety of cuter arrangements, but what I kept coming back to was ordering the poems in the sequence of their making without sectioning. One fluid sweep. Within that sweep are 14 (or thereabouts) mini-sequences, poems I wrote during a particular time and space so they have an inherent chemical bond. Given all this, I don’t think frank: sonnets has a traditional narrative structure. As a chronological story of my life, it omits more than it includes. The book is a metaphor for my life—not my life.
Rail: I’m intrigued that you cited Amy Winehouse as a source of inspiration for these poems. As a songwriter, she has a distinctive style, and her lyrics are remarkable for their direct, unapologetic candor. But what also separates her from other countless singer/songwriters is the character and texture of her voice. I feel this way about the poems in frank: sonnets. While the themes and subjects you explore are intense in their own right, it’s your approach to those very concerns that makes frank: sonnets something special. Tone here is everything. Who is the voice that is speaking through these poems? How might you describe her attitude towards the material she explores? Are you and she one in the same, or do you see a certain separation?
Seuss: Winehouse is so much more than the sum of her parts, isn’t she? The tower of hair. The broad wings of eyeliner. The coldness beneath the boldness, the shyness beneath the highness. In a way, we’d seen it all before, but not in this particular combination. And keeping it all from flying apart is the voice, a serious voice that marries jazz ancestors to lyrics that are derived from the mean, vulnerable, rock-and-roll core of the earth. If anyone else inhabited those words and melodies, that beehive, without the essential Amy-ness, it would flop. Maybe that is more true of some singers than others, and of certain poets more than others. In his essay, “Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy: Image, Diction, and Rhetoric,” Tony Hoagland writes that diction “creates the opportunity for the personality of a speaker to figure large in a poem.” He defines diction as “not just auditory, as the word implies, but also that of the discriminating intellect, intent upon inflections of weight and implication.” The intellect, engaged in the inflections of choice-making, reveals the personality of the speaker. That all sounds rather cold, doesn’t it? And maybe there is a coldness in making poetry—a kind of rescuing coldness for some of us. We make choices in diction, syntax, image, and form, situating ourselves at a wobbly distance from the scene of the crime. And somehow those choices reveal us—some of us—in a very particular, human-seeming way. God, I sound like a robot, but I’m everything but a robot! In frank: sonnets it all adds up, I hope, to Diane—Di. Some semblance of Di. Maybe you feel me through the page, as you feel Keats in his last poem, “Late Fragment,” imploring you to give him your lifeblood: “So in my veins red life might stream again, / And thou be conscience-calm’d.” I love that through the centuries we can receive that Keatsian demand. The demand of a vampire-poet. Here I am. Not the whole narrative of me but the essence. The hand. The kiss.
Who is speaking frank, and is she one and the same with me? In writing the book I knew that it would be important to offer variety in a number of ways: variety of approaches to the form, variety in terms of levels of diction (wonky poems, lowdown poems), variety even in how I use punctuation. There is variety, as well, in terms of voice. Levels, like chakras, of ways the speaker/s think through their material, their closeness to or distance from the material, their approachability, their intimacy, their origin story, and their level of “innocence,” cynicism, or rage. There is a sequence that originates in the town I’m from, or a mythic version of that town, in which there is no “I” at all. The speaker is closer to what I would call a rural-We. There are poems told by a storyteller-I. Others that conform to what might be called a lyric-I. I don’t inhabit a child or adolescent voice, but I do, at times, take a child or adolescent perspective. There is a speaker that breaks through at the end who is a salacious truth-teller. My speakers aren’t raw, but cooked. On an unconscious level, I believe I use them strategically, with purpose, not spontaneity, though there is sometimes spontaneity involved in the shaping of a voice. I see poems as made things, as it seems Yeats did. In “Sailing to Byzantium” he writes, “gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.” He prefers the bird made of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” to real birds in real trees. The heart, he writes, is “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal,” the body. The body dies. Art lasts, at least until the pages are eaten by booklice. What I’m getting at, in reference to your question, is that the speakers in frank: sonnets emerge from aspects of my self but are made things that serve the purpose of the everlasting.
Rail: One of my favorite poems in the collection is the second, the one that begins: “The problem with sweetness is death. The problem / with everything is death. There really is no other problem.” Though entirely aligned with the sonnet tradition, the bluntness of the assertion animates what might have been a tired conceit. Even more surprising is the transactional violence of the final line, where the owner of the fudge shop slaps the speaker (you?) for quitting work there. In just 14 lines, the speaker travels vast distances through a chain of associations that pair pie and fudge with foundational math terms. In other words, the only thing more startling than the violence of the final image is the velocity with which you arrived there. Not all of your poems move this way, but a number of them do. Could you comment on these observations and help clarify your approach to movement and development in the sonnet form?
Seuss: Sometimes when I read these sonnets out loud, I feel like I’m astral projecting, flying through veils of time and space with exhilarating speed. Other poems are more inert in order to fulfill their own purposes. They dig in. I am sometimes amazed by how much ground can be covered in a mere 14 lines. It turns out 14 can be a pretty big number if I can be open to associative mind while letting the formal restraint keep me from flying off the rails. That is what primarily drives “The problem with sweetness is death.” As I re-read it here, it strikes me that it is also driven forward by a comic impulse. Where the first poem in the book, in which O’Hara makes an appearance, sets forth the book’s state of mind and that defining question about beauty or relief, this second poem establishes a speaker, a voice, an attitude, and a class. I was no good at factoring down, at fractions. Math teachers used conceptual pie as their example of fractions. “I wondered what kind of pie.” The speaker is hungry. Hungry for the real, not the conceptual. “And here / I am, broke, barely able to count to fourteen.” She/I is broke. She can barely count to 14, though here’s a book made of 14-line sonnets. She resists checkbooks. Ledgers. She’s never experienced balance. Death is the problem, she states in the poem’s beginning. It destroys sweetness. But after the volta, “Speaking of sweetness,” it’s sweetness itself that is problematic. It overcomes her. Makes her heave. If you’ve ever smelled a dead mouse in a wall, you know that death smells sickeningly sweet. She pairs sweetness, here, with horse shit. She discredits it, and fudge, and the fudge shop, and the island filled with fudge and horse shit. She quits. This quitting is a narrative truth—I did quit, quit it all, quit the job, quit math, quit the pursuit of balance, ferried away from horse shit island. Also, the quitting announces the quitting of the poem, the end of the sonnet itself. But not without the slap, the violence of the owner-class, yes, but also the slap of a couplet discharging its absurd power.
Rail: Earlier you said of the poems in frank: sonnets, “I do see each sonnet as a discrete unit unto itself. I think they work together, but I don’t think they’re necessary to each other, and I didn’t write one with the previous or next one in mind.” I see this demonstrated in the autonomous strength of each of the poems. However, I also see various sonnets calling to each other across the book. In the sonnet beginning “I suck so many cough drops that my pee is mentholated” you (or a metaphorical version of you) say “I was a quiet child / but I schemed behind the silence.” In a later poem, you claim “I guess the conditions of our lives were bad but I was at peace.” These admissions feel connected not only by their similar syntactic structure but by the ways in which they seem to suggest that managing external circumstances allows one to cultivate a rich inner life. This seems like an important theme throughout many of your sonnets. Would you concur? If so, do you think this might be a way for sensitive children to protect themselves?
Seuss: Yes, the sonnets are both discrete and indiscrete. They do call to each other across the expanse of the book, and there are surely through-lines, and an overarching world view. The child sustained herself, didn’t she? It was only later that she lost herself in various ways, which I guess is the point of adulthood, and then you try to regain an element of wholeness before you depart. (I can’t bear to say “die.” Not right now.) You are correct that the child, as presented in frank, has a rich interior. She’s also a bit of a rogue, in the picaresque sense. Probably more of a rogue than I was externally. The actual Di was very shy. She peed her pants in school. She didn’t know enough to protect herself from grief. When she/I was seven and said goodbye to my father for the last time, she/I felt it without self-protection. To stay open to feeling love, feeling it all the way, in the face of death, well, it is a terrible thing for the gods to ask of a child, but no one but a child can fully do it. I retained that openness past my father’s death, but by age 10 I decided, consciously, literally, that it wasn’t working. It made me cry at the picture window every time my mother left the house, which she had to do often. I didn’t want to leave her side, and that was unworkable. So, I decided I would not feel that. I would not break. I imagine all children experience that moment in one way or another. Maybe that’s when the deeply experienced details of the world turn into images and metaphors, when the world becomes theoretical. This cutting-off of vulnerability to loss affords the speaker/me a level of freedom that characterizes many of the poems in frank: sonnets. To be untethered is to take a Greyhound north across an icy bridge, to sleep in many places, to wake up on the railroad tracks, to live alone with abandon, as I do now, rather than being abandoned. Poetry itself is another increment away from raw experience. As open as it seems, and often is, its made-ness is a strategy of survival.
Rail: Several of the sonnets in one particular part of the sequence are about dreams. Are they an example of one of the book’s “mini-sequences … [that] have an inherent chemical bond”? While the poems in this subgrouping are richly metaphorical in and of themselves, they also feel as if they are coming out of an extended metaphor, because the self has been dreaming on a different level all along. For example, the poem you just mentioned that begins “Once, I took a Greyhound north” is more than a literal bus trip. It is a way for the young girl to love not merely “the lonely ones” who embark and disembark, but “loneliness itself.” In these poems, do you make a deliberate connection between one kind of dreaming (that which is given to us by way of our unconscious) with the other (which speaks to hopes and aspirations)?
Seuss: “The self has been dreaming on a different level all along.” Yes, how perfectly observed and expressed. The dream poem is the dream within the dream of the book of poems. All poems, in their way, are dreams, as you suggest. Dreams in which we might be, in a way, in the driver’s seat, versus the dreams that come to us at night, seemingly unbidden. (I dreamed last night I met Mick Jagger at a club and he was intimidated by me, rather than the other way around. Now I did not ask for that dream, but it came, and I woke up feeling fierce.) I thought that set of dreams in the book enacted its themes in a more archetypal way, maybe, than many of the other poems, but you’re right, most of the poems have the fluidity and permeability of an amoeba, or a dream. I have been thinking lately that Surrealism, the logic of dreams, may be the most apt response to tyranny, thus the rise of Surrealism between the World Wars. Surreality becomes a pushback on an unacceptable reality. Could Surrealism, the dream, be an alternative to hope? We may need it now. I know that I feel best these days when I read Lorca, both his poems and his essays/talks.
Now hopes and aspirations in frank, I’m not sure about. I like how you frame the speaker’s love for “loneliness itself” as aspirational. That’s a good goal, I think. Where I was raised, people weren’t expected to have hopes and dreams. Maybe it wasn’t just the place but the time. I guess America aspired to go to the moon, and certain Americans had the dream of the car, house, spouse, child, dad walks daughter down the aisle, that bit. I wrote poems but I didn’t aspire to be a professional poet. I acted but I didn’t hope for Hollywood. I really didn’t think of a future-me at all. Life would unwind. I would wander. Many of the people with whom I went to high school still live in that town. Relocating wasn’t seen as a step up, just a step away. When I went to college, I was really bowled over by the fact that education had a shape that directed students toward a career. Even though it was a liberal arts college, where supposedly one learns for the hell of it, many of my peers seemed to have ideas about where their educations would take them. I think it was when Reagan was elected, though, and Jane Fonda sold aerobics videos, that the culture went through one of its big shifts. In this case financial aspirations, materialism, and dreams of the perfect body became all the rage. I was noticing that half of social media now, and even news, is about so-and-so’s perfect abs. Can I tell you that I was not raised with an awareness of abs, nor hydration, nor carbs, (nor a checkbook, nor balance)? Maybe one of frank’s goals was to world-build a time before abs. But the dreams and aspirations of our speaker/s? Adventure without purpose. Beauty or relief. To be remembered.
Rail: In “Yes, I saw them all,” Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Basquiat, Warhol, Burroughs, and Kenneth Koch left the speaker “feeling invisible or fucked, fucked / sideways” as their “loathing of / women was indisputable, sometimes leaving genuine bruises…” I shouted “Yes!” when I read this section, as I saw in the speaker’s honesty and disgust a moment of empowerment and affirmation. However, at the turn you write: “finally I took a turn / and made myself atrocious … I did / not want to be acceptable, I wanted to be alarming”—and this really shook me. So much so I stopped reading and just sat before the poem for a long time afterward. Could you say a few words about this poem and what it means to you?
Seuss: Oh Tony, you’re taking me to some hard places. It’s like getting Rolfed.
The ’70s in NYC, in the literary world, were not great for women, especially for young nobodies like I was. This is not to diminish all the people for whom it was much worse than for a white girl from Michigan. I’m speaking here of my own experience. There were all the things you already know about, incidents of exploitation and violation, but more difficult to describe was the pervasive atmosphere, “and it all left me feeling invisible or fucked, fucked / sideways, fucked by a john who stiffs you on your fee / and doesn’t leave a tip, it wasn’t impressive, it wasn’t literary, / it wasn’t titillating, I hope you are not titillated by it.” It was an era of Great Men. The “best minds” of the generation were male. They made a few exceptions (Patti Smith) but whatever it was that granted a woman a golden ticket, I didn’t have it. Maybe it was having been raised in a matriarchal household from age seven, or maybe it was that I was lucky enough to have a mentor in college, before I got kicked out, who saw me and treated me with value, but part of me, sometimes buried but always awake, resisted. I didn’t beg to visit Burroughs’s bunker, though my boyfriend was part of the crew of Howard Brookner’s Burroughs documentary. I did watch a scene from Naked Lunch being filmed, starring Burroughs as the doctor and Jackie Curtis as the nurse. Jackie purred over my moth-eaten seal skin coat. Burroughs never acknowledged my presence. I just watched an interview with him in order to answer this question more fully and my eyes are teary with rage at listening to him selling heroin use on a Canadian talk show. “Incidentally, the damage to health from addiction is minimal.” He laughs when the interviewer says, “But it has done things to your soul.” My boyfriend, the filmmaker, received the first needle in his arm in Burroughs’s bunker. He told me it was from Burroughs’s hand. I’ll never know. It destroyed our relationship, of course, and I left New York with my life, my dad’s briefcase full of poems, and the clothes I could stick in a single suitcase. Kevin, the boyfriend, went inpatient, tried to get clean numerous times, and ultimately overdosed and died. “The damage to health from addiction is minimal.” It makes me want to shoot an apple off Burroughs’s head and aim badly.
The last few lines of the sonnet you mention don’t allow for that simpler victory of walking away from it all that I wish I could narrate or describe. The trip out was circuitous. Maybe I’m still finding my way out. “(F)inally I took a turn / and made myself atrocious, like drag queens and anorexics, I did / not want to be acceptable, I wanted to be alarming, hulk, colossus, / freak, maybe not a great life plan but a step in the right direction.” I’m not sure I could have told you then what I was resisting or rejecting. I didn’t know. I knew I couldn’t find the horizon line, and it bothered me. I knew my guts hurt at night, that I felt angry and afraid all of the time, that I didn’t know how to enact my value. Many of those tropes worked themselves out through the passion play of our love relationship—mine and Kevin’s, my boyfriend. He stole me blind. Many have stolen me blind. “Love the robber,” a therapist told me, and she was right. I learned to love the robbers for what their thievery asked of me, but it took years. Maybe that’s one reason Frank O’Hara is important to this book for me. He was one of them. Had he been alive when I was there, had I met him, I believe his eyes would have glazed over in disinterest as well. I love his poems and his resistance to the hetero-world, but he is a complicated figure for me. They all are. So how is making myself appalling, alarming, a freak, “a step in the right direction”? Maybe it was performance art, a resistance of beauty, of being the pretty girl in the corner. A way to inhabit, physically, what I felt inside. That I was Other. Monstrous in my Otherness. Maybe there was a kind of liberation in that. “Not a great life plan,” no, but a ticket out of Dicktown.
Rail: Drugs are a prominent theme in frank: sonnets. However, as with dreams, you engage it from several different angles. Could you discuss the ways in which drugs and drug use are foregrounded in the sequence?
Seuss: Yes, drugs, various kinds of addiction, including addiction to addicts, constitute a vein that runs through frank. There is my own drug use when I was young, as in “I want drugs again; whimsy. Frenzy, hilarity”; and a reference to meth in the rural Midwest in a poem that echoes Jesus’s harrowing of hell, with the lines, “he gathered up our kids the ones who squeezed their dirty feet into / ill-begotten shoes the brood of meth and Thunderbird whose amniotic / sacs were tinted blue”; drugs in New York when I lived there in the ’70s, “Parties among strangers, punks, leather caps and straps, pressing / Quaaludes between my lips. What was pressed in I swallowed”; references to my boyfriend in NYC who died of a heroin overdose; and then, the core, my son’s addiction. At the hub of the book, I take another approach to the subject entirely. There is a centerfold that contains a one-sentence sonnet whose lines are so wide they require double the space of the already-wide pages. That piece required a largesse that couldn’t be contained in any other way. It is “about,” if poems are “about,” mothering a person who is an addict, what it requires, what it shuts down: “my will by then was like a jackhammer or a God, or one of those queens who wears a dress made of stone, so don’t ask for my touch is what I’m saying, don’t ask me to now walk among the people.” I love that Graywolf Press and my editor, Jeff Shotts, were willing to accommodate the spaciousness the poem required. On the back of the centerfold is a piece my son wrote about being on disability, on being considered disabled. That initiates a shift into sonnets that I consider collaborative. They were lifted from conversations my son and I had. They represent our relationship, his situation in a more current incarnation. I didn’t want to just write about him but with him, and give his voice, his humor, and his survival space in the book. frank has room for collaboration, and is enriched by it. It includes lines from a dear friend’s poems, references to literature and film, poems that arose from a collaboration with composer Kurt Rohde, and importantly, my mother’s voice, in poems like the one that begins, “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without. To have, as my mother says, a wish in one hand / and shit in another.” I also see some of the poems as collaborations, in a sense, with the dead. I know I wouldn’t be alive without the dead, and I think Dylan got some help as well. The odds of him living were astronomical, but he’s still here.
Rail: You just mentioned spaciousness in reference to a particular poem. But there is an even greater sense of space between poems. Earlier you said of the sequence, “As a chronological story of my life, it omits more than it includes.” From a strictly formal standpoint, sonnet sequences tend to foreground what is omitted between the poems. However, in frank: sonnets, I get the sense that such omissions, whatever they may be, suit the needs of a speaker who says in one poem “I have wanted to dig up / the dead to see what’s left, would almost rather meet the shell than the soul.” And, in the poem that immediately follows it, “Who am I to judge the framing of a life?” A life can be framed in any number of ways. What is left of that life when it is gone is a shell. Maybe I’m imposing upon you too subjective a connection, but I do see here a valuation of the frame, the husk, what survives when everything else is stripped away. I’m wondering if you were to write another sonnet sequence that filled in some of those spaces whether or not those poems would share the same spaciousness. Perhaps it’s a useless question to ask, but if you wouldn’t mind indulging me …
Seuss: Well, maybe our neurosis is our aesthetic, you know? If I follow the thread to the first image, it is my father’s black casket. I was told it contained him, but I chose not to look at his body. When he knew he was going to die, he took a road trip from Michigan to California with his uncle, and when he returned he brought me a mystery. It was a perfectly round, brown-black, very heavy stone which he told me held a ball of sand inside. I’ve since learned these are concretions of iron oxide with a sandstone center, found in Utah and Arizona, and also on Mars. (It is now against the law to collect them). After he died, I desperately wanted to find a way to open the stone to find the sand, but no tool available to me could crack it. Now, where is it? I have no idea. I don’t know why he gave it to me, but it was a perfect and problematic gift. An uncrackable shell that held an unreachable mystery. His casket, the stone, and then the husks and shells I witnessed daily in the playland of the natural world—blown-out milkweed pods, tree locust shells, corn husks after the shucking, emptied-out snail shells—all colluded to make me a person obsessed with what is left behind. Poems are, in a sense, leavings as well. They are the artifact of an experience. One of my college professors told me I was in danger of becoming an artifact, responding I guess to my eyeliner, thrift store costumery, and bangles. Even in the centerfold sonnet in frank the speaker wears a stone dress, but “don’t ask me for my touch.” I guess if what you have is artifacts you find a way to love them and maybe even become them. And of course, the form of a poem is a husk, animated by the lyric.
The notion of a shadow-sequence that filled in all the untold parts of frank scares the shit out of me. To meet, in the poems, the animating spirit rather than the shell. What comes to mind is the last time I saw my dad. Back then, children were discouraged from participating in the process of dying, so I hadn’t seen him in quite a while. I was used to these periods when he was in the hospital or traveling to Mayo Clinic, hoping for some hope. (I think of this, from Raymond Carver’s journal: “When hope is gone, the ultimate sanity is to grasp at straws.”) My mom would sometimes take my sister and me to the hospital parking lot to wave at our dad, a shape in a window on the seventh floor. That last visit, though, was an actual visit. A hand on my back, my mom’s, I think, pressed me toward him. I don’t want to tell you what I saw or felt. I don’t think anyone would want to know. It was a beautiful display, and it was suffering, and sorrow. Pain in the throat trying to hold back the wail. It was really the heart of life, Tony, and then we left the room. I have written it, written around it, my whole life. So when you say “fill in the spaces,” that is what I see. That moment, and other moments of departure that are unspeakable. I get closest in the sequence about Mikel, my friend who died of AIDS in the ’80s. When I flew to San Francisco to see him for the last time, a trip I did everything in my power to escape, there was actually a doppelgänger moment to the one with my dad, in which Mikel was lying in his bed and he called me in to be with him. Everything I wish I’d done I did not do. Mikel even voiced it—maybe going through my death will help you heal, or some such outrage. He had become Jesus, fully sacrificial, pure love. I couldn’t feel it. I was wearing my stone dress. I guess my heart was a ball of sand covered in iron oxide. Or a sonnet.
Rail: Wow, I really feel you here. I lost my father to cancer when I was 10. He died slowly, painfully across eight months in our home. During that time, I watched a tall, vibrant, broad-shouldered man become a babbling ashen shell. Between my confusions, his humiliations, and watching the effect his dying had on loved ones—well, that shaped me forever. I write of him a lot. My mother once asked me, “Why don’t you ever write of me?” I don’t think I have the heart to admit that addressing the pain she suffered as a result of his death would leave me exposed and devastated. I have written around her suffering my entire life. When you say, “I don’t want to tell you what I saw or felt,” I understand you and am reminded of a line from Jane Hirshfield’s “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” that goes “There is more and more I tell no one.” Do you believe withholding some of one’s most intimate and visceral thoughts and memories can be a useful creative catalyst for a poet?
Seuss: I want to just sit here with the story of your family and the way you render it. Some things are best surrounded by silence. I sit here amazed that across time and space we find ourselves here. “There is more and more I tell no one.” Sometimes I feel the other, whoever it is, shouldn’t have to bear it. Maybe what is withheld lives, as you suggested earlier, in the space between poems. Poet John Rybicki talks about the silence that is restored at the end of the line. There is something precious about that silence. As you say, the energy of what is withheld may be the fuel for what is offered up. “I have written around her suffering my entire life.” Writing her by writing around her. Wouldn’t it be weird if silence got the last word?
Rail: Diane, you have been such a good sport during this conversation! You have allowed me to ask tough, sometimes rambling questions and have responded generously. So, I’m going to end our collaboration with what I hope provides a touch of light. Let’s say a young poet reaches out to you for advice about how to write a sonnet sequence. What might you say to her?
Seuss: It has been a significant conversation, Tony. I’m not just bullshitting. Here in so-called-post-COVID-land, it helps to be nudged by a brilliant critical mind. You woke this sister up.
Advice for the younger poet who wants to embark on a sonnet sequence. Okay:
I would suggest reading sonnets and studying the form a bit. I don’t mean every sonnet ever written, but enough to get a feeling for the tradition and its offshoots. Contemporary sonnets don’t follow all the stipulations of the traditional, but they aren’t simply 14-line poems. Work within the sonnet form—that is, don’t just write poems and then squish them into 14-lines. The form will impact the language and the music and the movement of thought. Detox as much as possible from the realm of contemporary influence. That is, learn from others but don’t submit to them. Look. See. Out there. Take in information directly from life rather than, always, the screen. Bring material to the sequence that is so big, inflammatory, ungainly, that you need compression to assist you. Remember your origins. Reach as far into the unspeakable as you can without breaking. Try writing in your head before you go to the page. Never know the poem’s destination before you start. Ideally, the couplet will surprise the hell out of you. Remember the volta. It will rescue the poem at just the right moment. When the poem is finished, crawl out of it and leave the husk behind. Remember that poems can be balled up and thrown in a drawer. Frank did it, and look how he turned out.