Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite writers to read the work of their favorite poets. This month, Anthony DiPietro joins us to discuss the work of Diane Seuss and line length in poetry, the intersection of play and rules, and insight regarding the perks of writing prompts. As always, we hope you enjoy reading as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read Diane Seuss’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?
Anthony DiPietro: Diane Seuss taught at The Frost Place in 2017 while I was assisting the director, and I had the chance to study in her class. Before we all arrived in New Hampshire, while she was reading my packet of work, I was reading her book Four Legged Girl. When she arrived, she walked up to me to check in, and the director introduced us. She told me she dug my poems, which really bowled me over, and all I could say was “I like yours too.” Later in the week, she gave a reading and afterwards signed my copy of her book with a kind note and a lipstick kiss on the title page. I went on to read just about everything she’s written.
When I was first discovering her poems, I was drawn to her play between titles and first lines as well as her often long lines that run together. There’s almost a tease sometimes that this poem will be one long sentence. What that’s really about is an exuberance of voice, a confidence. She jumps headlong into a poem, and you just have to go along for the ride. If you look at “Either everything is sexual,” sometimes she chooses to end the sentence with a period, and that stop has certainty–a certainty of tone if not of fact. Other times, she strings sentences together with commas, including the final question that ends the poem, as if the momentum of her poem-story won’t let her reach a full stop. Sometimes there are fragments parading as sentences, which would suggest an incomplete thought, but she has a way of eventually coming back to complete every thought later, which is super satisfying. I think I saw her playing on the page, and it reminded me that when we write, we can sometimes return to our kindergarten self: we know no rules when we’re first learning to write or draw or sing. Creativity is just for expression. I’m making it sound like she doesn’t care for rules, but she’s also said that she selects each word with the care of a jeweler–and that is immediately apparent in any Diane Seuss poem. She’s making choices everywhere. You see them and you feel them on a gut level. Ultimately, I feel a kinship to Diane Seuss because she’s doing what I imagine all great poets do, or maybe it’s just the clan of poets in what I consider my lineage, which is to turn the raw material of our life, our biography, into a mythology. To do that is to generate image systems we keep drawing from. And to sound slick doing it.
Anthony DiPietro reads “[I fell on an incline]” by Diane Seuss
RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?
AD: I chose poems that I felt had something in common with my own work. “I aborted two daughters,” reminds me of my poem “A few years ago, I got a ticket for being exposed” which starts with me naked on a beach where I shouldn’t have been naked. I wrote it after reading Dolly Lemke’s poem “I never went to that movie at 12:45” in Best American Poetry 2010, where her liner notes say, “I have pretty much laid out all my faults, mistakes, and negative attributes for everyone to read.” I took those instructions as a prompt to enter directly into the vein of confessional poetry. Alongside the bigger sins, Lemke and I both pepper our lists with mundane references–coffee, shopping, shoes, sugar. In Seuss’s first line, the poem appears to respond to that same impulse: I’m about to tell you the worst thing about me (or the worst thing I’ve ever done). But in fact the poem goes to completely unpredictable places.
The same could be said for the poem “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is.” I love a poem that sets itself up that way: such an absolute, black and white statement that it can only be a false hypothesis. The title reads as a demand for an argument, and the poem answers that demand. And more than an argument, it becomes a sort of manifesto–or am I just projecting here? Sex ranks first on my list of writerly obsessions, so it’s possible. And this argument or manifesto takes the form of this positively luscious, exuberant list of images. I love list poems; I think every poem I write is based around some form of list. Around the time I met this poem, I was beginning to think of my aesthetic as embracing the idea that more is more–which is supposed to be against the rules in poetry–but I believe that a queer or camp aesthetic is built on an over-the-top quality. I have tried to write as over-the-top as this poem goes, and I can’t get there. I’m beat.
The third poem, “I fell on an incline,” I chose because of the way the poem travels. With almost impossible compression, the poem literally criss-crosses the continent while also time traveling to memories from different decades. I’m often reaching for a similar effect in my poems. When it works, it feels like you’ve actually traveled all these places, like you’ve danced yourself dizzy. You’ve been dropped off somewhere disorienting, but it turns out to be nirvana. The self-address in her last three words of this poem are signature Diane Seuss, just fully and unmistakably her voice. I can’t quite put into words where that little gesture takes me, but I get there every time I read it.
Anthony DiPietro reads “[I aborted two daughters]”
RW: Seuss’s latest poetry collection is made up entirely of sonnets. What do you think the benefits of writing formal poetry can be? How does your own writing interact with different forms, musicality, meter, etc.?
AD: One poem in that book begins, “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without.” Which apart from being a brilliant line break seems to be a clue about one of the reasons she’s drawn to the form. I’m definitely aligned with Seuss in this–I like to make use of forms.
I believe that a good prompt brings together an expansive element to help you generate words and ideas, plus at least one constraining element, something that limits you. Without the limiting element, you might be making a grocery list rather than writing poetry. Writing in forms, or against a form, however you choose to think of it, is a constraining element. It becomes the box that you try to think outside of. When you start to write up against those limits, you suddenly find yourself saying what you didn’t expect to and wouldn’t have otherwise, which gives the poem a pulse of surprise or discovery.
That being said, as much as I’m a fan of forms, I don’t want something too strict, particularly a strict meter. I want my cadence to feel like mine. Musicality is not what I consider my strength or natural gift. Some poets have an ear for the music in the language, some write by ear and only later bring in sense–the logic, the drama, whatever meaning-making is happening in the poem. I’m quite the opposite. Sense comes first, and at some stage I revise to make sure its music works. Possibly, for this reason, I’m drawn to contemporary forms that invite you to test their limits and try to break them. For example, I find sestinas too dense, so I invented a form that borrows the sestina’s patterns but has 18 lines rather than 39.
RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?
AD: Most exciting is that my debut poetry collection, kiss & release, is under contract to be published in 2024. While I wait for that, I’m working on another poetry book. I’m playing with persona in a different way from my past work, which is great fun. And I’m planning to attend one or more writing residencies next year to get some more focused time with that manuscript. Something a little more unexpected is that I’m also working on my first screenplay, a gay romantic comedy. We were just talking about forms, and romantic comedies are another example. They’re totally formulaic but seem to be able to hold an infinite number of combinations of characters and circumstances that lead to different results–some are more funny, some are more romantic, sometimes one partner has to grow, sometimes both, etc. You have to understand the form deeply to be able to do something new within it. That’s why I’ve been writing this since I think 2019. Also it became a little harder to finish when, in life, I got to the ending of my own romantic comedy when I met my partner in 2020 and moved in together last year.
Diane Seuss is poet, teacher, and the author of five books of poetry, including frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press, 2021), winner of the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press, 2018), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry; Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Seuss lives in Michigan.
Purchase her collection, frank: sonnets, here.
Anthony DiPietro is a gay Rhode Island-born writer and arts administrator now living in Worcester, MA. He earned a creative writing MFA at Stony Brook University, where he also taught courses and planned and diversified arts programming. He now serves as deputy director of Rose Art Museum. His first chapbook, And Walk Through, a series of poems composed on a typewriter during the pandemic lockdowns, is now available, and his full-length poetry collection, kiss & release, will appear from Unsolicited Press in 2024. His website is www.AnthonyWriter.com
Ryleigh Wann earned her MFA from UNC Wilmington where she taught poetry and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in The McNeese Review, Longleaf Review, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. Ryleigh currently lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @wannderfullll or read her publications at ryleighwann.com