On Frank O’Hara and Marilyn Monroe: A Conversation between Diane Seuss and Heidi Seaborn

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection is frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press 2021). Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, (Graywolf Press 2018) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press 2015) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Seuss is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. She received the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021. She was raised by a single mother in rural Michigan, which she continues to call home.


Diane Seuss: I’m interested in what brought you into poetry. And when you started thinking of yourself as a person who writes poems.

Heidi Seaborn: I considered myself to be a poet when I was young, in high school. That was how I centered myself and I was very serious about it. I grew up in Seattle and had won some contest. It came with a scholarship to this summer program where I met a professor at the University of Washington who then invited me into his graduate seminar. So, I was 16, 17, in this graduate seminar with all these older MFA and PhD students.

DS: Hopefully they didn’t try to sleep with you.

HS: Well, I tried to sleep with one of them. And did. 

DS: Of course, you did.

HS: It was the seventies. Anyway, I assumed that I was going to carve out a life somehow as a poet. But when I went off to university, I didn’t find that same supportive environment. I was at Stanford in the period between Wallace Stegner and the Stegner Fellows. The poetry scene there was quiet and my advisor had zero desire in investing in me. Additionally, my parents made a commitment for us kids that they would pay for three years of college, but we were on our own for the fourth. When I ended up going to what was an expensive school, I suggested I pay for two years if they paid for two. So, I had to jam, skipping quarters, graduating early. Waitressing paid for nearly a year, oddly. I mean, you couldn’t do that now. That would be an amazing number of tips. I graduated needing to make money. All of which forced me to leave poetry and I really left it, DS. I had a box of poetry books that I took everywhere I moved, but I didn’t write, really, at all for forty years.

DS: What were you doing?

HS: I ended up going into communications and marketing and became successful doing that and my career took me all over the world. It was interesting, and I loved it. And along the way, I raised three children. So, it was a very busy life. I was very fortunate that way, but I drifted very far from poetry. And then I came back to it 40 years later through a seminar with Jane Wong at the Hugo House. Two hours later, I drove away and had to pull over to start writing. It was like it was all there and had been in hibernation for 40 years.

DS: It was waiting for you. That’s amazing.

HS: It was waiting. Well, you know how it is, how it’s just this thing. But for me, also, undisciplined; no craft knowledge or anything that I had carried forward over all those decades. So, I ended up going and getting my MFA at NYU in the low-res program. I just finished that up last summer. An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe was my thesis. But Di, you kept writing all the time, through everything, for fifty years.

DS: Yeah, but for most of it, I wasn’t thinking, “I’m a poet.” I wasn’t thinking of poetry as a career. For a good part of my working life, I was a social worker. When I was in New York, after a series of really crazy jobs, I was a secretary for the School of Social Work at NYU and that’s where I discovered, “Oh, there’s this thing called social work and maybe I could do it.” I was in a really difficult situation at that time with my boyfriend, who was an addict, and toward the end there was violence. When I left, I decided, “Oh I’ll be a social worker and help women who are in violent, addictive relationships,” as if I knew anything, really, about it beyond my own recent experience. But I did get my MSW degree and practiced in a community mental health center, in a domestic assault shelter, and in private practice. I worked primarily with women with so-called “eating disorders,” and with many clients with abuse histories. Then I started teaching, both social work and creative writing, as an adjunct. Eventually, I was a big part of building a creative writing program at a small college. Yet I was still getting paid as an adjunct. Finally, when my ex-husband left our family, I went to the powers that be and said, “I have to have a salary. I know it’s a weird concept, but if I’m going to be here, I must be paid well enough to survive and to keep my son alive. And if you can’t do that, then I must go back to my other career.” So, they managed to pay me. Through all of this, poetry was always with me. But it wasn’t a career path. It was a thing I did on the side. An affair of the heart.

HS: You had this whole other life, which as a reader, we get a semblance of in frank: sonnets. I loved in your Poets & Writers essay the description of you carrying your first manuscript everywhere in your father’s old briefcase. I carried my poetry books with me. And dusted them off occasionally. You carried a real manuscript with you and finally laid claim to it.

DS: I don’t know that I would have laid claim to it without Herb Scott, who was the head of New Issues Press, at that point a new press, here in Kalamazoo, coming to me and saying, “You want to give me a manuscript?” He made it happen. So that first book wasn’t really an act of agency on my part. Then, as soon as it came out, my ex-husband left and I was thrust into a situation of just trying to survive in every way; financially, emotionally, and parenting my son as best as I could. Ever since Dyl was young, the two of us have been in survival mode, working through, navigating our own relationship, contending with his addiction and my own challenges, and his concurrent health issues. So, I’ve never felt like, “I’m just a poet,” though after that first book, I discovered I could have ambition for my poems.

HS: Well, you aren’t ever just a poet, especially as a single mother. But I now answer the “What do you do” question with “I’m a poet.” Although it’s not what I do, it feels more like a claiming of what I am.

DS: How do you feel about, or relate to or interact with the poetry world as it is now? 

HS: I just read a new brief essay by Stephen Kessler in LA Review where he talks about poetry as a vocation vs. a profession, and how it’s changed. Having come at poetry in two clear phases of my life separated by decades, I see it as something that evolved from what seemed to me to be more art or a vocation to where it is now a profession. And one that doesn’t pay anything, which is ridiculous. Yet having had another professional life, I see poetry as art, but I approach my own writing as I did my previous career, with that same kind of discipline and structure as I have always brought to my work.

DS: I can see that in you and I value it. You know, it’s such a transformed landscape from when it was a handful of famous white men who didn’t have to sell and market themselves and brand themselves, and had wives to cut up the strawberries for the after-reading parties. Branding. It’s such a horrible word. I mean, you brand cows. I’m uncomfortable with self-branding. I don’t have tattoos either. But ‘what are you, what do you represent, what constituency do you speak for/on behalf of?’ are good questions, I suppose.

HS: Well, it’s a limiter, right? Having worked in branding for companies and products, a brand is meant to establish a unique place in the market. And if you do that as an artist, you’re restricting what you can do and how you’re seen.

DS: Here’s what DS Seuss is: She’s a rural doofus punk. But any minute now she could be something else. And I feel bad for younger writers having to think about that rather than just falling in love and doing recreational drugs like we did (I’ll speak for myself). They have to think about how to brand themselves. Or social media is so inescapable that those who grew up with it don’t even have to think about self-branding. They’re already branded. In terms of teaching and mentoring younger writers, I feel for them. There is so much noise, so much competition.  

HS: I totally agree and I do see that pressure on young writers. Having started when I’m already old, I feel a different pressure because there’s a hard timeline out there. 

DS: But so many women I know have their first book when they’re our age. I mean, I was 40, and I didn’t have my second book until I was 50. And then it was another five years before I had Four-Legged Girl. Maybe this is old school, but I think there is some worth in publishing when you really have something to say. And how do you have something to say? Well, you live a life. When I was 22, I wrote, but mostly reflections of certain kinds of emotional intensities, because that’s what I had. I hadn’t had time to really integrate those intensities or put them into a perspective that made a larger kind of sense, or connected outward, and who does? So that pressure to produce, to brand oneself, it has an impact on the landscape of poetry. 

HS: The themed or project poetry collection is popular. We both have brand new books that are project books. An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe is definitely a project as is frank: sonnets. What do you see as the value of writing within a project framework?

DS: For this book, the project was: a memoir in sonnets. I do well with a degree of definition like that, but again, if it’s habitual then you have to break the habit. I’m big on breaking whatever your habit is. I really don’t know what I’m doing now, and that is very uncomfortable. I’m returning to that innocent time without a thesis plotted out in front of me. How about you?

HS: I’m in the same place. Because during that two-year period of my MFA I wrote An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe and then I threw off a bunch of other poems that ended up turning into the Bite Marks chapbook, but that too is thematic—about aging. Having those two projects, those two streams that I was writing for a period felt good and I was highly productive. Now, I’m suddenly without a structure and it is very uncomfortable. I follow a thread for a bit, and I write on that. And then I follow another thread.

DS: You’re engaged in a normal process, I think. And somewhere along the line you’ll stumble on what connects the stuff. I think for a lot of us the project, the thesis, was a fill-in for formal restraint. “I’m doing this and not that.” What I’m doing now is to break out of formal restraint, to write long, and to see what happens if I re-encounter free verse without limitations. And it’s terrifying.

HS: So, what does that look like on the page? Does it look like prose, does it look like really long lines?

DS: It looks like five-page poems. Or poems of stanzas of 10 lines, 10-line stanzas. It just looks bigger. And so, I keep writing past my wish to compress. It’s bringing up different things. I’m still writing some short poems because they just end up that way. But I have one called “Little Epic” that is sort of about my hometown and a sex abuse scandal at a daycare center where some of my family members went through hell. It eternally stuck a knife in the town and split it in half, with those who believed the children on one side, and those who didn’t and don’t on the other. It’s very Trumpian in a lot of ways, in its divisiveness, even though it happened a long time ago. I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach that material without encroaching upon family members’ lives. The sex abuse follows the poisoning of the river, the destruction of native culture and land. All of it. And it ends up in this tragic devastation for children. It’s a “local” story but it serves as an allegory, maybe.

HS: I’ve also started writing these longish poems. Right now, none of them are working, but I pulled lines from broken poems and knitted them into essays and that was interesting and seemed to work, while others are more an essay lurking inside the form of a poem. I’m in a middle space right now that is curious and I’m also not certain what I’m doing. And I keep getting told: ‘That’s not a poem’ when I bring this work into one of my workshops.

DS: Maybe that’s what you’re doing: essays and poems are copulating madly, and they have these hybrid babies that are really cool. Look at Maggie Nelson’s work. And Anne Carson’s. And Claudia Rankine’s. And so many writers who are exploring formal fluidity. What is “that’s not a poem”?

HS: I love their work and I like to think we’ve already broken whatever rules exist confining and defining the poem. For me, it’s what lives on the page and then it’s what leaps off the page. But what lives on the page now can be your little epics. Or what I’m experimenting with. And then there is the prose poem which was once considered ‘not a poem.’

DS: I’m doing quite a few somewhat longer poems about reading, about certain books, or writers. I’ve been thinking a lot about the epic of a reading life. And my reading life is spotty. I don’t have an MFA, or a PhD. in literature, I read for my own uses. I have big learning gaps. If I need to know something, I figure it out. But there’s a lot of shit I don’t know, and then shit I do know that others might not know. 

HS: There’s so much I don’t know, having come into this so late in life, and…

DS: You’re so young though in that you’ve got another whole gig happening.

HS: Yeah, I think we’re both young in that we are experimenting, we’re testing ourselves, we’re learning, we know what we don’t know and …

DS: And we know what we do know. There’s stuff we know, for instance, from being parents. And even if it doesn’t come into the poems directly, it’s there. There’s stuff we know from being embodied… In bodies that looked female from the time we were born, to now. And there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know because we’re white. So, I’m comfortable not being heroic and not being smarter than the reader. Or better than the reader. I mean, your Marilyn book, it’s not poems about, “Here’s how to live, here’s how right I am, here’s how much integrity I have.” They’re… I mean, Marilyn, you can’t judge her that way. She got it wrong in so many ways and right in so many ways. I like books and poems that aren’t based on the premise of being right, of knowing and playing hero to your reader. You don’t do that in your book. You explore the nuance.

HS: I don’t think I’d be capable of doing that, honestly. It’s not where I come from in my writing, or as a person. I’m more interested in exploring where we’re most vulnerable, what we hide. In my writing, I dig into that vein, whether it’s Marilyn or me, or our vulnerability as a people. It’s the fissure in the rock where the flowers grow. 

DS: What about Marilyn corresponds to you? I don’t think we choose a persona without an intense correspondence.

HS: I approached writing in the persona of Marilyn as an intellectual exercise, not knowing much about her, but being interested in her longevity as a celebrity icon and our performance culture. But we had some obvious commonalities, such as multiple marriages. And what happened during her marriages was not dissimilar to what happened in mine. The things that broke and how they broke. I also completely connected with the career challenges Marilyn had working in a male-dominated world with, even decades later, what I experienced making my way up in the work world. We had very different childhoods. I was blessed with a wonderful childhood and with having children, while she was unable to have children and had a miserable childhood. But the through line in the collection is our mutual insomnia and dealing with the dislocation and addiction that comes out of trying to get a good night’s sleep. Which leads back to poetry as an exploration of vulnerability. While writing about Marilyn’s vulnerabilities, I discovered my own. I really did not understand that I’d become addicted to Ambien until I was writing about her addiction.

DS: That’s really incredible, HS. I think we’re drawn to people initially with an intellectual interest, but it turns out to be much deeper than that, which makes me trust serendipity more than my own mind. Who would have thought you would uncover that complex gem out of what started as an intellectual interest? So, what do you do now for sleep?

HS: I still take a little Ambien from time to time, but I’m very careful. I cut it up into little pieces, I have a very low dose and I don’t take it on consecutive nights. I’ve had insomnia all my life. I thought of it as a superpower for a long time but now know that it’s debilitating as you get older and continue to live with it. Writing about my insomnia for this poetry collection and in a series of essays has helped me see it, understand it, and begin to control it. How did you come to Frank O’Hara?

DS: Frank O’Hara was somewhat similar to your Marilyn. An ally who in some ways lines up and in certain ways is nettlesome. For me, Frank is both. In fact, I wrote a whole sequence of 10 poems that I ended up not putting in the book that are addressed to him. Some are angry at him. But my editor felt, and I agree, that they made the book too literal, that he should be more of a spirit that hovers, but faintly. For instance, O’Hara was from a rural place, but he hated it, and he found the city absolutely liberating to his expression of his sexual orientation, to his spirit. Whereas I went to New York from a rural place and had such mixed feelings. It wasn’t liberating for me. But a lot of that is gender. He got his compadres and a job in the Museum of Modern Art and was taken seriously even though he was sort of a card, in a lot of ways. And a young woman at the time I was there, I mean, to be taken seriously, it was the furthest thing from possible. He was working in an art museum, and I was typing. So, sexism comes up. And yet, there’s something I love about his improvisational poems and his embrace, in the 1950s, of his orientation, and giving it juice in the poems. And a lot of times his poems would end up balled up in a drawer somewhere. He wasn’t precious about it. The nettlesome part came into the book in terms of some of the poems, where I talk about male poets in the 70s and how they treated women. Marilyn is interesting in that same way. She’s a complex figure for a woman. I remember watching her movies when I was a kid and feeling really alienated. Wondering “What are you doing, why are you acting like that?” She could go out and be totally unrecognized. And then she would put on “the Marilyn,” and she’d be swarmed. And I could see, even as a kid, that glamor was an act, and it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to have to do that.

HS: I too felt ambiguous about Marilyn while writing this collection, especially as I had to go deep under her skin. But the closer I got to her, the more I understood her within the context of her circumstances and my skepticism turned to empathy. I also came to understand that she used her ‘Marilyn’ act to gain power. She knew that she could do certain things and that would give her power in her film contract negotiations.

DS: It was such a dubious kind of power. Because not every woman can wield that power. 

HS: That’s true. Like you, Gloria Steinem said she walked out of the theater at her first Marilyn film. But then she ends up in an acting class with her, and while observing her, her calculus of Marilyn changes. Steinem eventually ends up writing a whole book of essays on Marilyn that came out in the 1980s where she describes Marilyn as an early feminist. Part of my goal was to play against that stereotype even as Marilyn played into it. To create and break apart all those layers of characters—the character she played, the poet, the speaker, the Marilyn and Norma Jeane characters as I created them. Layers of women all in some stage of performance. We are all on a virtual stage these days, living in a performance culture.

DS: God, I’m so ambivalent about that performance. It connects back to our earlier subject about self-branding, doesn’t it? There’s the image of her and then there was the story of her, which is beneath the image, and which has a lot of wounding in it.

HS: Absolutely, I found writing in Marilyn’s voice revealed the wounded truth not just of Marilyn but more generally of women. So, I’m curious about the poems you didn’t end up using: the angry letters to Frank.

DS: Not all of them were, but a couple were angry. I was imagining him and his good friend, who I knew a bit, in the afterlife, laughing. That friend was a famous poet. I was hired by him to type up his manuscripts, which were just a mess, and in exchange I got to take his class at Columbia. In our first meeting to look at the manuscripts, he assaulted me. He was in his 50s, and I was 24 years old. Because of their deep connection, Frank became an imaginative foil or an antagonist in certain ways that still is present in some of the poems. For instance, “The famous poets came for us, they came on us.” There are figures we inhale and integrate, and the best ones are the ones that don’t integrate easily or fully. I was thinking, when you were talking about Marilyn, how Plath is another one of those figures. She seemed to be not the kind of woman you think would be your friend. And at the same time, wounded by the male-dominated system. She didn’t have feminism, she didn’t have other women, as far as I know, to really hold her up, or give her a theory for what happened to her in her life. She too is a complex figure.

HS: Or Anne Sexton.

DS: Yes. Anne was closer to Marilyn in a lot of ways.

HS: True. I recently wrote a brief essay about Sexton, Plath, and Monroe together in an imagined space. It’s surprising to read Anne Sexton’s letters that are so coy and playing to the establishment in contrast to her poetry. We were talking earlier about the art vs the business side of things, right? And in the case of both Plath and Sexton, when you read their letters, you see how they’re working the system. They’re working their relationships with publishers and editors and fellow poets. And then in their art they’re so raw and cutting. Amazing, to see that dichotomy between writing poetry and the business of poetry enacted by these two powerful poets. Not all that different from how Marilyn approached her work and getting work in the same era.

DS: Yes! We see Plath, especially in Ariel, uncovering that rage at patriarchy. In her marriage, she tried to be everything, the intellectual companion and traditional little wife and mother. Cooking for and typing for. She served her husband’s poetry while he served his poetry, and she did her poetry on the side. No wonder she was enraged when he dumped her. I remember first reading that book in college and my professor saying that a lot of people saw “Daddy” as being unfair to her father. Even I knew that it wasn’t about her father. It was about the fathers. In her clarifying rage, some readers were able to take a tremendous leap. So, I love her, and I learn from her. But I don’t think she would have liked me very much.

HS: Really, why?

DS: Because she was trained to see women as competition. Because I’m such a mess. She tried so hard to be perfect and coiffed. And I’m none of those things, I think she would have been like, “Yuck,” and I probably would have seen her as a control freak. But maybe after Ted dumped her, she would have knocked on my door at three in the morning and we could’ve taken it from there.

HS: Like me and Marilyn when she arrives in the middle of my night. I love the idea of channeling these spirits. And I think you do a lot of that in your work and in your thinking.

DS: Without needing to idealize. I find them more interesting in their strangeness and their complexity than in any kind of perfection. I don’t need role models. I have a mother.

HS: I think that idea of writing with a muse is about absorbing the complexity of their being. You’ve talked about Keats. And you’ve talked about John Donne. And Emily Dickinson.

DS: I think about Lucille Clifton too. She has a whole sequence of muse poems, about Kali, where she addresses the goddess, the goddess with teeth. And the goddess isn’t nice to her. The goddess insists, demands, points out, is ferocious. And I think of these people that we consider in our work, those with teeth might be the most interesting. Pointed teeth.

HS: I consider you someone who has informed my work. Yeah, you’ve got some bite, girl.

DS: As a child, I had no bite. None, none, none. I was a soft little creature who was just very sensitive, and very tender. And I had to learn teeth. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have lived. Maybe we all do. We all come here tender. Although, I’ve known some bitchy babies. What kind of child were you?

HS: I was good girl. I’m the oldest of four in a row and I was the obedient oldest daughter. Raised thankfully by loving parents.

DS: Are they still around? Are you close?

HS: My mother is and we’re very close. I’m going to have dinner with her tonight.

DS: I love that. My mom is going to be 93 in August. Her mind is like a steel trap. If I need a role model, then that’s where I turn because she is fierce, and she had to be. And she’s always been free, unimpeded, she has always found a way. She has stories about entrapment when she was a child, like having to sleep in the bed with her aunt during the depression. And she made a bed in the basement on sacks of sugar, so that she wouldn’t have to be trapped with that aunt. Or on her first day of school, she climbed out of the window and went home.

HS: It’s so funny because my mother did the same thing. She went to a new school and there was a fire drill and they had to go down the chute and she just hated it, so she just went down the chute and walked home and just never went back to that school.

DS: Isn’t that awesome? My mom was widowed when she was 32. No post-high school education. Her parents didn’t think girls needed that. So, she immediately went to college; instead of grieving, she went to college. And she got a degree in English and then became a teacher. Speaking of being older, her first teaching job came when she was 40. Everything she had done for work, waitressing, secretary-ing, she was shitty at because she was untamable. And here she was in a classroom. I really learned a lot from her and continue to.

HS: We both have our muses and then we have our role models who happen to be our mothers which is wonderful.

DS: And they’re muses and role models who serve different purposes. I like my muses to be troubling.

HS: And troubled.

DS: Troubled and troubling. I like writers who roil the waters rather than making me feel comfortable. 

HS: Well, that describes you. Your work is roiling waters. And serves as a guiding light for me in many ways.

DS: Thank you. I’m endlessly intrigued by your story, and your work. I mean what you did at this point in your life, your return to poetry with such veracity. It’s an amazing story. I love what you’re doing. It’s keeping you vital, it gives you a complexity and nuance that will serve you in everything you do now. I’m excited to see your essays, and these hybrid things you’re doing. 

HS: And I, your long poems, your little epics. As you once again surprise and challenge both yourself and readers. I can’t wait to see what’s next. This has been a wonderful conversation; we could go on and on. But we’ll save it for another day. 


Heidi Seaborn

Heidi Seaborn is the author of [PANK] Poetry Prize winner An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe (2021), the acclaimed Give a Girl Chaos (C&R Press, 2019) and the 2020 Comstock Review Chapbook Award-winning, Bite Marks. Recent poems and essays in American Poetry Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, The Cortland Review, The Financial Times, The Greensboro Review, The Hunger, Hobart, LitHub, The Offing, The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith, Tinderbox, Washington Post and elsewhere. She’s Executive Editor of The Adroit Journal and holds an MFA in Poetry from NYU.

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