June 22, 2022

Diane Seuss on Reading Philosophy, Art and Poetry

SEUSS: I have become a very selective reader. When I was a kid I read anything, but now I don’t read so much for fun except for the fun of getting what I need for my job. For that, I am currently obsessed with “Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and an Epitaph” by Lucasta Miller. It’s this cool mix of literary criticism and biography. Keats grappling with the death of his brother and his own impending death, and how that impacted his poetry is very important to me. It’s probably because of my father’s death when I was young, the friends I lost to AIDS, the pandemic, and now my own aging. Keats is an object lesson in how death can impact a poem and not make it scarier but braver.

BOOKS: Have these formative deaths in your life inspired other readings?

SEUSS: I read tons of contemporary poetry because it’s my job, but what nourishes me are books from the past. It’s probably because my father died when I was 7. My relationship with him was based on my imagination so my relationships with past writers are easy for me. I have a very strong relationship, for example, with Emily Dickinson. I read his poetry and all the biographical material I can. Richard B. Sewall’s “The Life of Emily Dickinson” is unrivaled in scope, if a bit dated. I love “Emily Dickinson” by Cynthia Griffin Wolff and “My Emily Dickinson” by Susan Howe.

BOOKS: Who are the other writers with whom you feel this connection?

SEUSS: I was really interested in Sylvia Plath when I was a young poet. Plath nurtured me because I understood her fierceness as well as her sense of abandonment, but she was a hard role model to follow because of the way things ended for her. Always reading his poems and his biographies have been important. The most recent, “Red Comet” by Heather Clark, is incredible.

BOOKS: Which contemporary poets have you read?

SEUSS: I just read “Concentrate” by Courtney Faye Taylor. It’s aesthetically edgy but it never leaves behind the lyrical voice of the speaker. “Almanac of Useless Talents” by Michael Chang is simply audacious. It cracked me up and made me think. Trevor Ketner’s “The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire” takes all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and revamps them into something contemporary.

BOOKS: What do you read for non-fiction?

SEUSS: I love reading art history, especially if it has a particular point of view, like “Looking at the Overlooked” by Norman Bryson. It was a still life book that shook my world. I love to read philosophy. Roland Barthes, love, love, love, especially his “Camera Lucida”. I also like to read Hélène Cixous. The philosophy of reading has the most impact on my writing.

BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a child?

SEUSS: I started reading when I was 3 years old. It was one of the few things I remember about my dad that he was really proud of. When my father died, my mother decided to go to university and major in English. She brought real books into the house, like “Mrs. Dalloway” and “Finnegans Wake”. I can still see the slices of all those books in my head.

BOOKS: What are you reading after Keats’ biography?

SEUSS: “On Weaving” by the artist Anni Albers, who was part of the Bauhaus. I find his essays on weaving almost allegorical. I have a poem in my next book that was inspired by reading the Roman poet Catullus. I would like to read Daisy Dunn’s biography on him. I also have Booker’s award-winning novel, “The Discomfort of Evening” by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. I started it, then I made it disappear. It would be more fun to read and I do not allow myself. I always feel like the clock is ticking, so I have to use my reading time wisely.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Saving Penny Jane” and can be reached at [email protected].