Missouri Review intern Anne Barngrover interviewed Diane Seuss through e-mail in October 2013.
BARNGROVER: Can you briefly describe your forthcoming collection, Four-Legged Girl? What about this book feels different to you than your previous two?
SEUSS: There is an evolution in content, which I’d say is less the camera panning horizontally than downward, into the root system of the metaphors and themes that I’ve carried since I was born. (I blame my mother, who drank coffee and smoked cigarettes as she drove the forty miles to the hospital, in labor, in dense fog.) Four-Legged Girl is specifically concerned with embodiment, beauty, loss, addiction and desire. Maybe it is post-body, post-beauty, post-grief, post-addiction, post-desire. I think so. I believe it is located more outside the boundary of community than my other books; its imagination is more iconoclastic, arriving at ferocity, femaleness, freakishness, and solitude—which to me is poetry. It Blows You Hollow is a book about finding God via blasphemy. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open is willing to be in the muck and grind of desire. It ended on a rather hopeful note. I’m trying to decide if there’s any hope in this new book. Well, if there is, it’s in the form of a bitch who used to be tender and now trusts only the imagination. Only the imagination.
BARNGROVER: I find your treatment of religion fascinating—it’s dark, mysterious, frightening, but also beautiful in a way. What purpose does religion serve—in its changing forms—for the speaker throughout your poetry?
SEUSS: Religion was my journey when I was a kid. My carnival. My puppet show. My parents weren’t church-goers, but the village in which I was raised was pretty infused with the spirit. The village was “safe” enough that I could wander from church to church, which I did from the time I was three years old. I believe I was saved seven times before I was five. I kept waiting for salvation to rearrange my insides, but I left each church the way I’d entered—the same old unbearable me. I tried to be Catholic about the same year as I got breast buds. By that time, my father was dead and my mother was in college trying to plow her way through Finnegan’s Wake. I spent the summer in catechism, but the brother called my mom and told her I was too young to make such a momentous decision. Spurned by God. Looking back, I realize I’d been looking for ecstasy all along. I didn’t receive that, didn’t receive paradise, didn’t get a new father, but I did get images. I still have the plastic crèche I earned for having memorized John 3:16 in the basement of the Church of God, which is now abandoned, and for sale. My speaker is obsessed with the interpenetration of the dirty and the clean, of sex and spirit. Her world is tactile and overwhelmingly penetrative, whether she’s encountering Jesus or a milkweed pod, a crèche or a crescendo.
BARNGROVER: Likewise, I am very interested in your take on female sexuality—the violence, loneliness, and brutality of becoming a woman. In your first book, the poem “Sour Cherries” absolutely blew me away with its line “You could tell from a girl’s walk if she’d been/broken.” How do your ideas about female sexuality manifest themselves in your work?
SEUSS: This lives at the core of the apple, as far as I’m concerned. At the end of that poem, crows pelt the Church of God—the very cement block church where I was saved—with sour cherries. I can’t help but believe those are my crows, my cherries. Brutality, loneliness, yes, but my girl has crows and cherries on her side. Crows, cherries, sin and the Word. The challenge to my girl is to remain open to the world, even after she’s blown hollow. I think I decided to locate a kind of power in hollowness, in having one’s innards blown out, or dress blown open. In the forthcoming collection, I describe the girl’s four legs in the title poem as “the deviant tentacles beneath the underskirt of a secret queen.” Not impediments, but deviance beneath the underskirt, which is no longer blown open, but “uncocooned.” The four-legged girl’s lonely freakishness is a signal of her monstrous royalty. She is not a simile—there is no one or nothing like her, and no one for her but her.
BARNGROVER: The name “Mary” reoccurs in your poems, and I can’t help but to connect that to the Marys in the New Testament: the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, specifically. Can you speak to this? What roles do these Marys play in your poems?
SEUSS: You’re right; the first book, especially, was full of Marys. I think I had one living on each shoulder in those days. I love the everydayness of the name. Mary. The Virgin Mary always seemed so sculptural, so locked in stone, that it felt like the poem’s duty was to allow her to be a body again. It’s like the quiet girl in school who you wanted to bring home to make fudge and smoke cigarettes. Of course the two Marys are married. It’s only the lunatics who’ve separated them. Mary is not so pervasive in the second book, but the first poem is called “Jesus wept and so did Rowena Lee,” a poem which sanctifies everyday women’s grief, and who grieves more than the Marys? In the new book, maybe the four-legged girl is named Mary. I think my notion of the goddess has gotten a lot racier. But in tandem with that raciness is an omnipresent grief—for my father, my son and all the holy ghosts.
BARNGROVER: What is your writing process like? Has it changed with each of your collections or throughout certain landmarks in your life?
SEUSS: I believe my process has remained virtually the same from the time I was a teenage writer, minus the substance abuse and the obsessive rocking. Maybe due to the nature of my life, which is the nature of anyone’s life who is not independently wealthy, I have never been someone who writes daily. I tend to write like-minded poems during intense spurts of activity. There is a window of opportunity in which I know all and see all from the poem’s point of view and language palette. That’s when I revise, with depth of focus and concentration of the gravedigger. It’s Star Trekian. Once the window closes, I’m lost. Out of that lostness, when it’s just me and the dog and the nameless stars, comes the next poem.
Diane Seuss’s third collection of poems, Four-Legged Girl, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015. Her second collection, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, received the Juniper Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. Her poems and essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Ecotone and Mid-American Review, among others. Diane received the Cultural Center of Cape Cod Poetry Prize in 2011 and the Summer Literary Seminars Poetry Prize. She received a Pushcart Prize in 2013. Diane was the MacLean Distinguished Visiting Writer at Colorado College in fall 2012. She is Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.