Lyric Essentials: Julie Marie Wade Reads Two Poems by Maureen Seaton

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose and a longtime reader of Maureen Seaton. When we sat down to talk about Seaton’s work, Wade had deeply valuable insight which took us down roads from the epiphanous to the Blunderbuss. Wade looks deep into the heart of Seaton’s work and evidences the grace and good humor with which she connects. This interview is as much a tribute to Seaton by Wade as it is an instructional for anyone who hasn’t yet considered the importance of Seaton’s wide-ranging body of works. This interview made me wish I were one of Wade’s students.

Black: What made you choose the work of Maureen Seaton?

Wade: I think there are poets each of us have needed for many years before we find them, and when their poems appear before us at last, the experience is almost mystical—a feeling of having known someone before you knew them, of being deeply affirmed by the epiphany of their presence in the world. Maureen Seaton is just such a mystical, epiphanous, much-needed poet for me.

I went to high school and college in the 1990s, at a time when Maureen was coming out as queer and coming into her own as a poet who worked as diligently in form (sonnets, villanelles, et al.) as she did in the most envelope-pushing, experimental spaces. She was taking risks, in her life and in her art, that I didn’t yet realize a person, let alone a woman-person, could take.

Somehow I did not encounter Maureen’s writing until after I had already taken the greatest plunge of my own life, though—not going through with my marriage to a man at the end of my first year of graduate school and continuing my journey through life with my true love, a woman named Angie, to whom I am now happily married.

Not long after that plunge, in 2003 or 2004, I read a poem by Denise Duhamel called “When I Was a Lesbian,” which I found stunning and thrilling, a poem which opened doors for me to imagine my own life as formerly (for all intents and purposes) heterosexual. I took that poem as an invitation to begin exploring more consciously the first twenty-two years of my life “when I was straight.” But what I didn’t realize until I delved deeper into the collaborative poetry written by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton (Exquisite Politics indeed!) was that Denise’s poem was written as a response to Maureen’s own “When I Was Straight,” which belongs to an ever-growing series of other poems—“When I Was Avant-garde,” “When I Was a Jersey Girl,” “When I Was Bi(nary),” etc.—that opened onto the vast landscape of Maureen’s work in conditional, circumstantial, and subjunctive spaces.

Years later, I had the privilege of meeting and coming to know both of these poets, long-time friends and collaborators, in real life, and I was audacious enough to ask them to bless my own book-length project, a collection of poems called When I Was Straight. Not only did they bless it—they blurbed it, collaboratively!

 

Black: Why these particular poems of Seaton’s?

Wade: I have never read a Maureen Seaton poem where I didn’t have the sensation, at one point and usually at many points, of hearing a gong reverberate inside my head. When I read Maureen’s “When I Was Straight,” the gong struck loudest at this moment: “there is no lover like a panicked lover.” It was one of those moments—the best moments for readers of poetry, I think, or readers of any literature—where I sketched in my notebook, How did she know?!?! There was a cosmos in that line, one I recognized in my own life but had never even attempted to name, let alone in such a concise and elegant (and witty—I love the omnipresence of Maureen’s sense of humor across her canon) way.

So I knew I wanted to record this poem because it was the first, though by no means the last, of Maureen’s poems to seize me in that visceral and oracular kind of way. Then, I started looking at other aspects of the poem, particularly the diction and the juxtapositions. Who describes heteronormativity as “that Old Boyfriend Theory of Headache and Blunderbuss”? Who uses the word “blunderbuss”? I started noticing the little sparks coming off of pairings like “linearity and menthol” (an abstraction paired with a potent concrete), “pretense and fellatio” (there again), and chewy Anglo-Saxon words and phrases like “crowded with cleavage,” “fickle,” and “winged clavicle.” Which is to say I fell in love with this poem on all levels: conceptually, sonically, stylistically. It’s also meta, as the poem performs its own “trapeze art and graceful aerobics.” The poem is that art, those aerobics.

For the second poem, I ran into the challenging fact of the enormous range and depth of Maureen’s body of work to date. With so many gongs striking inside my head, so much marginalia scribbled on every page, I decided to choose a poem that moves in diametrically different ways than “When I Was Straight.” That poem is pulled taut like a tightrope in its shape on the page—all those lovely tercets upon which the speaker-as-tightrope-walker is performing her remarkable feats, turning somersaults and riding unicycles and juggling torches. I wanted to showcase something different. There were so many poems I considered— “What She Thought,” “Impatiences,” “The Nomenclature of Wind,” “He Crossed the Hallway with a Soul in His Hand,” and “Red” standout among them—but in the end I chose “The Realm of the Wide” as exemplar of Maureen’s wide-realm poetics. Instead of a tightrope, this poem is the circus tent, a canopy she opens over the whole world of her knowing and longing and wondering. If this poem were a horoscope, it would describe something essential about every Zodiac sign.

 

Black: “The Realm of the Wide” is particularly unique in its scope. This is a winding long-poem with a lot of great turns. What about it do you want to call particular attention to?

Wade: Through all my years as a student, there was an incongruity—really a snobbishness—that I never understood in the realm of literary theory. We learned there was a school of criticism called reader response, but then we learned, both explicitly and in a variety of subtle ways, that this school didn’t “count” as a real school. We could deconstruct and post-structuralize. We could go through mimetic doors and intertextual doors and feminist doors in our examination of texts, but we couldn’t go through that primary door of our own personal experience of intellectual-emotional-visceral engagement. As a teacher of creative writing, I know I don’t stand a chance of encouraging my students to “write as readers”—to cultivate an awareness of their audience—without acknowledging and anticipating a reader’s response to their work. And if we are writers, we were readers first and also readers in a state of essential perpetuity, let’s hope! So how can I ask my students not to cross the threshold of reader response, which I value not only as a doorway to meaningful analysis but also as a doorway to meaningful emulation?

Which is to say: “The Realm of the Wide” speaks to me directly as a poet with similar intellectual and emotional investments to Maureen Seaton. It also speaks to me as a poet who is always studying the possibilities of poetic form and the elasticity of poetry as a genre. It speaks to me as a teacher of poetry for similar reasons—the thrilling range of invitations and permissions the text offers to fellow and future writers. This poem further addresses me as a person with multi-genre and hybrid-text infatuations and commitments. I wonder whether poem is really only one name this text might answer to. Is it a micro-lyric-essay, too? A micro-lyric-segmented-braided essay? Some or all of the above?

This imperative alone: “Feel yourself mingle with the word you love beside you.” That’s what poets do, and lyric essayists, too. The words are alive. They can lose cells and run temperatures.

I’m also obsessed with finding new ways to talk about the moon, something that crystallized for me when I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s extraordinary memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. She invites readers to tell her something she hasn’t heard before about that much-romanticized heavenly body. Maureen does it here, seamlessly: “this moon has got me up the way someone comes in and drags you out of bed to play cards or eat mayonnaise on toast at 3 AM…” Yes! That way. That moon. Exactly.

There are bullet points in this poem, denoting the list from “baby pigs” to “a shaman in a wheelchair.” The blanks that follow the chorus of adjectives “Sorrowful,” “Joyful,” and “Glorious” are actual blanks, not the word “blank,” which changes the experience of reading the poem on the page versus listening to the poem read aloud. These visual poetics in Maureen’s work instantly transform the ranch house poem into a multi-floored mansion: rooms on top of rooms, a ceiling that is also a floor, etc.

And then the two quotes juxtaposed at the end, the high-art intellectual sound of Magritte’s statement about “symbolic meanings” and the profound yet directly accessible statement about vanilla attributed simply to “Nick,” the famous artist in conversation with the Everyman or Anyman. This is Maureen’s hierarchy-neutralizing power as a poet. She validates so many ways of knowing simultaneously. She rejects high horses. Her work is full of dark horses and wild horses. Her work epitomizes for me what Magritte means by “the inherent mystery” that many people sense in an image but are also frightened by because it can’t be easily named and thereby tamed. I find that inherent mystery everywhere in Maureen’s work, so I’m just holding up this poem as a representative example. When she says, “It mattered, but only slightly,” she is making a spectrum out of a taken-for-granted binary. If we are used to thinking of things mattering or things not mattering, as many of us are, then here come those surprising hoofbeats of “slight mattering,” the invitation to a thought experiment of mattering on a sliding scale.

Maureen’s is a luminous, curious, capacious, unrelenting mind. I would follow her anywhere because she has never used her intellect as a weapon or crafted her rigorous, expansive poems with only an elite readership in mind. On the contrary, I find Maureen Seaton to be one of Poetryland’s most generous guides. If she takes her readers into a swamp, she supplies the waders. She also grows and tends the orchids we are destined to find there.

Black: Does this work connect to your own in some way?

Wade: Perhaps more than any other poet, Maureen has taught me that you can write as and from all your varied versions of self, including the most seemingly contradictory. Many poets become known for writing a certain way, a certain kind of “signature style,” a recognizable shape to the content and/or appearance of their poems—but not Maureen. I think her poems are deeply fluid, within and across every book project and sometimes even within a single poem. These poems are queer in the truest and deepest sense of the word—spectral, rhizomatic, protean, “all-of-the-above” poems. And this fact alone has given me tremendous permissions in my own approach to writing. I’m not trying to make my work into something that stays put after it’s placed on the page. I want to make work that feels like a living organism, the way Maureen’s poems do. Instead of the poem (or lyric essay, or hybrid form) as art object, I want to learn how to make the most porous and anti-static kinds of creations. If the poem is likened to a painting on the wall—vivid and imagistic—let it also be a painting where the eyes move, where the frame slants, where it is never the same painting twice that the viewer looks upon.

I often talk to my students about entering their own writing “through the smallest door,” and sometimes the smallest door is a single word. I like to get as close as I can to individual words, and Maureen’s poems bless and press that enterprise further. One whole stanza from “The Realm of the Wide” consists of: “The word: Outlandish.” And what a word! I love the invitation to stare at the word, to see the “out” and the “land” and the “dish” in it just by lingering in that long pause. I’ve never asked Maureen if she is synesthetic, but her poems are, and as a synesthete who experiences the world of language in vivid colors, Maureen’s poetry amplifies my synesthetic experience of the world as well, adds another tier/floor/skylight. “You could jump the fire and ride to where the words are backdrafting,” she writes. How visceral and invigorating and absolutely true!

Finally, I think it’s Maureen’s own biomythography she’s drafting and revising and reimagining across these pages. (I hope Audre Lorde wouldn’t mind my invoking her term here, as I know Maureen and I both deeply admire and write as grateful readers of Lorde.) Maureen’s poems resist stasis because she has resisted stasis—staying put in any one role, category, or geographical location. Maureen is candid about falling into and out of love, marriage, divorce, sexual awakenings, motherhood, faith, doubt, and always, the complexities, dare I say “the inherent mysteries,” of gender, desire, and the body. There is much in her life’s reckoning and recurring themes that overlap with my own. In another salient capsule of experience that seems to denote the way she was raised, Maureen writes, “Everything/ should be Disney or saintly.” That was my first imperative, too. With every poem and hybrid form, Maureen is teaching me how to write my way beyond those initial strictures of conventional beauty, contrived happiness, and religious dogma.

Black: What are you working on now?

Wade: On the prose front, I’m writing essays for a collection called “The Regulars,” which is another slant on my own bildungsroman. At a certain point in time, I realized that I have stories I tell and stories I write, and it occurred to me that some of the stories I tell—which are often the most absurd glimpses of my childhood, darkly humorous but also intimidatingly sad—might have another kind of life on the page. The title is a reference, in the most literal sense, to being regular customers at the Old Spaghetti Factory every Sunday, my parents and I, but also to the relentless quest for normalcy—or at least to be perceived as normal and consequently likable, admirable, and good—that governed my upbringing. (“Everything/ should be Disney or saintly” indeed!) Angie, my spouse, suggested the title, which I love, and so I’ve been writing my way into some of my own personal oral tradition, the stories I have only shared with close friends who say, “Tell us about the time you had to …” or “What was it your parents did when …”

On the poetry front, I’m writing a lot of secular psalms for a sequence that I think will belong, eventually, to a collection called Quick Change Artist. That project might also subsume some or all of the poems from When I Was Straight, which illustrates the before-and-after experiences of someone, essentially the same someone, who was first perceived as heterosexual and trying very hard to tow many tacit heterosexual lines, and then who, in the second half of the project, reckons with all the new ways people respond to her as an out lesbian, a woman marked by sexual difference.

There’s also a hybrid-form memoir about food that I’ve been toying with for years called The Western Family. (I grew up on the West Coast, and the brand of most of the food products we ate in our home was “Western Family.” Food as source of pleasure, shame, ritual, family connectedness and family discord, and food as marker of a particular zeitgeist is something I intend to explore.) And eventually, I plan to write a collection of poems that mirrors the question-and-answer clues on Jeopardy!, the game show that seems to have played ceaselessly at the dinner table throughout my youth and is now playing throughout my adulthood, recording daily on our DVR, in fact!

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Maureen Seaton received her MFA at Vermont College and is the author of nine poetry collections and a memoir, Sex Talks to Girls among many other projects. Her work has notably appeared in Best Small Fictions and Best American Poetry among many other places. Seaton has received multiple awards and recognitions for her work. Among them, several Lambda awards, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection, Fisher was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Seaton is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Miami, Florida.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Catechism: A Love Story, SIX, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, and the forthcoming The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University in Miami.

Links to the good stuff:

Seaton at Black Lawrence Press

Seaton’s Newest Collection, Fisher

The Rumpus Interviews Maureen Seaton

Seaton at Lambda Literary

Julie Marie Wade’s Website

Julie Marie Wade at The Academy of American Poets

Julie Marie Wade at Tupelo Quarterly

Wade’s When I was Straight

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. She received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.