If Frank O’Hara were a salt-of-the-earth, lightning-struck woman with a master’s in social work who’d grown up in the middle United States and wrote sonnets about childhood and addiction and friends dying of AIDS, she would likely compose lines like the ones that run through Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets. But “frank” also means candor, and her variation on O’Hara’s sound soon turns wholly her own, and you mostly forget that Frank is in the background. This is partly because Seuss’s surfaces are like pools of very clear deep water: you can see all the way to the bottom, to the sunken treasure and bones and the wild, rich life swimming and slithering all over the place. These surfaces are merely pretext for great depth. The shimmering and exhilarating and only-seeming sprezzatura become a way to see, in breathtaking detail and with a fierce and finally earnest emotional intensity, deep into the suffering of consciousness in a human body on earth. These poems are an intervention into, a modification of, and a freedom from Frank O’Hara. Seuss compares the New York School icon to an irritant, like sand in an oyster. So Seuss’s poems take the technology of his buoyant line and go with it in wildly new and fruitful directions. When we speak of tradition and the intervening work of an individual talent, this—what Diane Seuss has done—is precisely what we must mean.
The book, born during a month-long residency on the Washington coast near a place called Cape Disappointment, consists of 127 unnumbered and titleless fourteen-line poems. And like any sonnet sequence—Shakespeare’s 154 constitute the grandaddy of the form, and Ted Berrigan’s 88 and Katie Ford’s 39 are other modern touchstones, also work by Terrance Hayes, Gerald Stern, Wanda Coleman—can be read as individual poems or as one long, teeming metaphysical epic. This latter interpretation feels even more apt here because the poems are propelled forward by comma after comma—periods only at the ends—which give the poems a breathless and listy forward-loving pitch and tumble. The book moves in its jittery adrenaline-charged way from images of a rural—often down-at-heel—childhood to portraits of the poet’s widowed mother, to accounts of a family falling apart in the grips of drug abuse. There are portraits—some of which drift over several individual sonnets—of an ex, Kev, and a dear childhood friend (pictured on the cover) named Mikel who succumbs to AIDS and promises the poet she’ll never have the guts to listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue after he dies, which she then does, in sweet dialogue with his ghost, an act of defiance meant to let her love live in the music both of Mitchell and of the words that retell the story.
But so far as any book is about one thing—a ridiculous thought, really—this book seems to be about loneliness, and not just the loneliness that corrodes the soul but also the loneliness that the soul, or at least the voice of these poems, craves and loves and needs, gotten sometimes at great cost. In one poem I won’t likely forget, that voice—like a hushed urgent missive—recounts long ago taking a Greyhound “north across an icy bridge,” recalls the “fogged-over” windows and “all the human breathing, / lovers, masturbators, numb frostbit moon going black around the edges,” all the “boarded-up gas stations and stores, caution / light swinging, butchered deer hanging head-down from maple branches”—this is the far northern reaches of Michigan, some ten hours from Kalamazoo, out to where the poet’s mother had a little off-the-grid building, good for writing, say, a senior thesis in college or a series of poems—and, like Bishop’s famous account of a nighttime bus ride and its startling vagaries—the poet shows us “some hollow-eyed chump embarking / from or disembarking into godforsaken loneliness which”—she pauses the list of the seen and the smelled to give us the poem’s revelation, its book-defining insight—“godforsaken loneliness which I had come / to love, not the lonely ones but loneliness itself” (its steadiness, maybe, and what it forces us to see?)— before it brings the speaker to a stop “on Highway 2 outside Jack’s,” which is closed. Pre-dawn darkness. As he drops her off, the bus driver instructs the would-be writer in this remembered vision “to crawl into the belly of the bus to retrieve my bag,” to take what baggage is hers from the beast of transport, before she hikes alone through “hip-deep snow to the shack, no heat but wood, Faulkner and a feather bed.”
JESSE NATHAN: Part of what’s so thrilling about frank is the performance of spontaneity. I wonder whether you could talk about how that worked in these poems—or in your poetry generally. Did you revise these sonnets a lot, or did they often come out pretty close to what they look like in the finished book? I’m curious about what it is about spontaneity, or the semblance of it in poetry, that appeals to you.
DIANE SEUSS: Thank you for this, Jesse. I love the notion of performed spontaneity, in that it gets at the fact that what seems natural, or improvisational, is still a product of decision making, and still leads to a consciously made thing—a mechanical nightingale rather than the real bird that happens to fly in the window. It reminds me of what is called “natural makeup,” which is sort of a non sequitur, no? Maybe the most natural thing is when artifice announces itself. The first time I wore eyeliner, for a high school play, I extended the lines all the way to my temples. When I looked in the mirror, I recognized myself for what felt like the first time. After the play closed, I stayed true to the stage makeup, though these days I walk my dog with a naked face. Even the crows don’t recognize me.
I’d always composed poems with a high degree of spontaneity. As a teenager, I wrote directly on the typewriter in typing class. I knew nothing of line breaks, so the lines extended until I ran out of space on the right margin, and then I’d press return. It’s really no different now, except the computer is faster, and I have a bit more intuition about where to break the line. I picture the words streaming down my arms from my brain (or gut or heart) and out my hands onto the keyboard, a seamless spill, intentional in its spillage. Why that mode rather than a studied carefulness? Well, that is my nature. I come from a long line of women who found ways to be free within repressive or confined circumstances. I do revise, but it’s usually the case that I must revise within the kinetic aura of composition. I don’t move on from a poem until it’s right, and I only have access to what it takes to get it right during that particular window of opportunity. I’d say my revision process is compressed and intense. Whiskey in a thimble.
The collection that preceded frank: sonnets, called Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, was still spontaneous in the composition of individual poems, but all of the poems were guided by a persistent thesis, which in turn outgrew its skin, molted, and transmogrified. The composition of the book itself, the ordering of poems and the overarching structure, was extraordinarily stage-managed. Every move and every poem was designed as a step along a snaking path that led to the last line of the last poem: “I wanted / my mother, and this is why I left paradise.” (Even typing that line now makes me choke up a little.)
This most recent collection, frank: sonnets, took a near-opposite path, in that spontaneity was its source, its belief system, and its process, but that was as intentional as what I did in Peacocks. I was interested in writing a memoir, but I just couldn’t hear it in prose. Prose seemed too plodding, or embodied, or earth-bound, for the life I’ve lived. I wanted to enact that feeling of movement from moment to moment, moments of being as opposed to sustained chronologies. Remembering is an operation of the mind and the senses. The form, especially a traditional form like the sonnet, even if my practice of it is untraditional, has an inertness, a historicity, that needed to be aerated by something improvisational.
Solving the problem of how a collection of poems might sound, as I’m embarking on a new book, often happens for me on a road trip, alone, in an unaccustomed landscape. With frank, as documented in the collection’s first poem, it was a glorious residency in the Pacific Northwest, and a road trip to Cape Disappointment. I heard the voice of the book as I was driving back, having done nothing at Cape Disappointment but take a nap in the back seat of the rental car. It was after stopping to pee on the roadside that I heard the opening lines of what would become that first poem: “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t / have the energy to get out of the car. Rental. Blue Ford / Focus.” All of my books seem to have a muse who accompanies me as I go. In Four-Legged Girl it was Myrtle Corbin, born with four legs and displayed, at times, in circuses. In Peacocks it was the still-life painters with whom I’d fallen in love, as well as Amy Winehouse. In frank, it was Frank O’Hara, who appeared out of the blue in that first poem. “I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome / nose and penis and the New York School and Larry / Rivers.” If the opening poem is the legend of a book, as in the legend of a map, which tells you how to read it, then this opening poem delivered everything I needed—a lyric “I” located on the outskirts of literary acceptability, no penis, no New York, on a “restless search for beauty or relief.” Once I returned to my little cottage, I got the poem typed up on the computer, and saw that it easily broke into fourteen lines. It was just that quickly that I realized I could write a memoir in sonnets.
O’Hara’s appearance was the impetus for understanding that this book needed to move as life moves, as Frank’s poems often moved, nearly parallel to his gait and his kinetic charm as he walked down the city streets. For the most part, though there are exceptions, these poems couldn’t dilly-dally. I wanted them to move with the movement of the mind. I hoped this memoir would be as much about how one remembers, the mechanics of memory, as the memories themselves. Many of the poems echo the pinballing of thought as it bounces across a broad surface, as you suggest in your question. Other poems follow the deep dive of entering a specific memory with intense emotional focus. I figured that variation was important to the poems’ depths and textures, given that the sonnet form was consistent throughout, and potentially redundant, though my approach to the form shifted depending on the heat or coolness of the subject.
I just realized I sound as if I know what I’m doing. It can seem that way, as I’m looking back at a process that’s already past tense, but the fact is writing poems for me has always been about my ability to be open to serendipity and haunting. Sometimes I feel like I’m flying. Often, I feel like Hansel and Gretel hunting for a trail of bread crumbs that has already been eaten by nightingales. Now and then I’m lucky enough to be standing at a dark window, watching a thunderstorm, my hands pressed against the metal window frame, just when a bolt of lightning splits an oak tree outside the window, burns a short trail across the grass, and strikes me, knocking me on my ass and filling me with blue electricity. I was ten years old and I never recovered.