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Patty Seyburn: California Poets Part 2, Five Poems

Patty Seyburn

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Patty Seyburn

Five Poems

In My Alternate Reality My left meniscus shows no sign of weakness I act more than I feel and seal my words with deeds No one begins a claim with “as it were” though people use the subjunctive correctly and since cruelty must exist, it lives only in the tines of a fork kept under lock and key by a female panda No one argues with her Pleasure has a less pretentious name and the man playing Ol’ Man River on steel drum on the subway platform at 72 Street – I remember him, I get to tell him, I remember you.

In the Optative Mode you hope. That is the job. You may or may not believe all things tend toward ultimate good. Then, you would be an Agathist. I like that crowd. They are not too good-looking nor do they think all things for the best. In the optative mode, an orrery, which shows the relative positions of planets and moon, heliocentric, allows us to imagine ourselves in the sky with Deus Absconditus, who is slightly better company than Deus Otiosus. The first hidden to us (by intention); the other idle, tired, retired, willing to be supplanted. My money’s on the hidden, (though I do not like the impulse) because you can always choose to be found. The other has given up and I can’t work with a god who has surrendered her claim.

Gratitude I don’t have to pee and am not cold My kids both asleep in their firm beds My husband snores my earplugs sigh and You woke me up an hour early Modeh ani, Modeh ani My soul tired of wandering, time to come home Up with the bankers and brokers back east Up with coyotes from canyon adjacent Up with the troubled, the reveler, baker You woke me up very early indeed Have You something pressing that only me And my soul can accomplish before the day? I see that the shadows needed attention I see that the nursery rhymes needed rewriting The silences absences needed recording You thought that I needed an extra hour And You tired of hiding, I know You are hiding, You Do not have to pretend with me

Ghost Flower In search of an idyll a wander en route to Maidenhair Falls via Hellhole Canyon boulders and dry waterfalls. These are what they seem. You may also find Mohavea Confertiflora a ghost flower which looks just like Mentzelia Involucrate Sand Blazing Star: five bracts, five sepals, five cream yellow petals – paper with a burned edge – an invitation – and serrated leaves. The Mohavea mimics the Mentzelia, does not want to be the Mentzelia. The former enacts no exchange of goods and services, produces no nectar to attract unsuspecting bugs, who come to pollinate. The savvy imposter relies on its looks. Insects visit, fertilize and receive no reward. You could say the fake flora provides beauty – I do not think the tricked bugs traveling through Little Surprise Canyon care about that, their short lives a study in survival but without consciousness perhaps it’s not so bad.

Banana Asana Less comedic than the name, the position asks body to bow like the curved part of the weapon not the taut string asks body to bow more than the lightly curved rod with horsehair stretched asks body to bow like the arc of certain letters not bow as in bow down, not bow as in the front of a boat beginning an epic voyage not bow as a child tying her shoes with loops and a knot, the aglet’s stiff conviction holding her efforts in place And not bough as in the hazardous branch of the nursery rhyme, though perhaps some affinity with the golden bough in Turner’s painting, the sacred grove where one tree grew day and night and one might say, don’t they all? and studies say they do (circadian rhythms). This pose cannot be done asleep, you must be awake even as you think of the fruit you imitate, stimulating the body’s meridians, energy conduits ideally clear and open. Think half of a giant circle drawn around the earth, North to South Poles, contour like the obdurate willow. Think of the moon’s phases, the gentler side of a waning gibbous or waxing crescent bending to and into something even if you know not what.


February 3rd, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Patty Seyburn, Poet, Professor, Journalist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You’ve released five strong collections. Do you wait to publish a fair number of poems before you feel comfortable placing them together, or do you start with an idea and then choose poems that fit the idea, regardless of whether they’ve received the approval of magazines?

PS: I’m glad you think they are strong; I think they are distinct in their styles and concerns/obsessions, or as poets are fond of saying, “projects.” I don’t want to write two of the same books. I know my voice and personal/cultural history runs through them. I do send the poems out in small groups before they present themselves in a somewhat unified fashion, but I don’t have an established metric as to how many poems should be published before the manuscript coalesces. Off-hand, between one-third to one-half of the poems have usually been published; sometimes more. I try to not rush a book. I rarely write with an overall theme in mind, though leitmotifs that complement each other often emerge once there’s a body of work, 40 or 50 pages. I’m a former journalist; I’ve written a few poems “to spec,” meaning: if I need another poem about a rock, I’ll find a way to write a poem about a rock. That sounds unbecomingly inorganic. So be it. I’m from Detroit. My parents were Sid and Shirley Seyburn. The muse doesn’t stroke my hair.

DG: Strictly in terms of time, which book required the most and which the least? Has writing gotten easier with each subsequent collection—through sheer education and experience—or has it paradoxically become harder, simply because more and more has been written?

PS: The project of each book made distinct demands, in terms of time. My most recent book, Threshold Delivery, took me about 10 years to write, on and off. I was working on other collections at the time. Threshold spends most of its time talking about my mother, my relationship with death, and my knowledge of regret and some form of atonement or forgiveness. It’s my belief that one of the most meaningful things one can do is usher those we love at life’s end to whatever comes “next,” with some grace and dignity. That’s probably the essential threshold being discussed in that book, but not the only one. The poems contain a great deal of research into the Jewish midrashic tradition (midrash are interpretive texts) as well as folklore related to mortality. My rabbi gave me many books to read when I asked him, in a coded manner, how to grieve. He saw through my intellectual pretext; it was my way of dealing with a complicated loss and no shortage of guilt. Many of the poems in that collection are long and intense, so they did not come quickly.

There’s also a fair amount of humor, because my mother could be funny, and as an Uber driver in Utah recently said to me: “you’re pretty funny.” If he had just stopped at “pretty,” I would have been flattered, but not as flattered as being called “pretty funny.” I think there are some pretty funny moments in my poems, even in the big collection about death. What’s funny (sorry) about mortality poems is that every poet thinks they invented them. So many fine poets are rolling over in their graves as I wistfully, dolefully, claim my turf. In a way, however, it’s true: though we all mourn, we each do so in our own way.

I guess the answer to the question is: the books are coming no faster, but they do overlap, so it’s difficult to determine when the writing of one book stops and another starts. Though my wonderful job at Cal State Long Beach would like me to declare precisely what I will be working on one year from now in order to earn a little writing time while teaching, I will (tenured faculty speaking) admit that I have no idea what I’ll be writing a year from now. I’m not even sure what I’m writing, now. I am always on the lookout for a catalyst, a spark. Sometimes I’ll find an old book; I recently ran across the Jewish Traveler’s Guide first published in 1916, which advised Jews on where they were welcome and could go safely. Then I thought: and what are you going to do with that? The jury is out. Sometimes it takes years for them to return. They need lots of snacks.

Hilarity, my third book, probably took the least amount of time. I was teaching at California Institute of the Arts while I wrote it. The curriculum at CalArts is much more theoretically driven than I am, as a poet or scholar. When I applied for a Visiting Artist job there, circa fall 2000, I had to be able to talk theory. I’ll be honest (in print, yikes): I shoved the theory I liked (not much) back into my head. Barthes, Benjamin, Bachelard, Cisoux. I know, it seems like I got stuck early in the alphabet. Notice I stopped before the Ds for Derrida. I blathered on about them in a phone interview and was given an in-person interview. When I stepped into the main hall at CalArts, I gasped. There were nine different artistic things happening at once within 500 feet. I thought: please, God, let me get this job. A one-semester gig turned into three years, during which I taught poetry writing, read entirely outside my comfort zone, and wrote poems that I didn’t know how to write, which turned into my third book, Hilarity. So three years is the shortest. By the way, I don’t think this little story is an homage to theory, but the results of reading material that challenges you.

DG: Mourning and grief were strong themes in your first collection, Diasporadic. However, you’re just as comfortable with humor and your later work incorporates it consistently. Do you know beforehand the tone a poem will have or does the writing process itself have greater influence over this?

PS: If my tone could be summed up in a few phrases, it would probably be some combination of “Go figure,” “This, too, shall pass” and “Enough, already.” My lens on the world, which can be contingent on what is going on in the bigger world, and in my personal world, morphs between earnestness and wryness, an appreciation of effort that compels us to surpass expectations, the capacity for gratitude, and an unwillingness to tolerate unkindness. I need humor. I am capable of both enjoying and despising an utterly linear and sweet piece of art, be it literature, visual art, or music. I am equally obsessed with “Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl” by Looking Glass (go to Spotify), “Agua de Beber” by Antonio Carlos Jobim (go to Spotify) and the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein (Spotify). I am not a giant fan of abstraction in art but adore Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. I can watch “All About Eve” and “Antman” in the same afternoon. I’m willfully inconsistent, eager to be surprised (I just saw “Godzilla minus one” and enjoyed it), want to be challenged and don’t want to be annoyed.

I do not know what tone a poem will assume until I’m well into the writing process. As I child, I played classical piano for 10 years. I remember, early on, when my teacher, the venerable Sally Petrakovitz (she was from Austria and studied in the conservatory), was emphasizing the need for greater dynamics in my playing; she wanted me to observe expression marks. I wanted to ask her, “Can’t I just play regular?” but something stopped me. A small voice in my head said: that is an unforgivably stupid question, and so I refrained. Tone is like that for me. There is no “regular,” but for me, there is always strong tonality. I do not dictate what that will be. The poem always brings it, the way my mother always brought a carton of Neapolitan ice cream to a home we were visiting. Never come empty-handed!

DG: Teaching has been an important part of your writing. You take a more unique approach, encouraging students to develop their voice through the imitation of great voices, allowing tradition to become less of a burden—something to overcome—and more of a foundation upon which to build their own school. Can you talk in greater detail about how you approach the teaching of writing?

PS: Quite simply, I love my students. That’s the basis of my pedagogy. My own children used to tease me about how much I love my students. My students know I love them. They also know I will be honest with them. I am not modifying “honest” with a tedious adjective like “utterly” because to be honest is that simple and that dramatic. I am not afraid to tell them that a poem is not good. I am not afraid to say: I know what a good poem is. I do not need them to write the way I write. So my approach, as much as certain strategies I employ, is based in cherishing these young and older people who come to college and sign up for an undergraduate poetry class taught by some intense lady from Detroit who likes good shoes, swears quite a bit, is very prescriptive and says: do what I tell you and you’ll become a better poet. And they do. I don’t love arrogance but I’ll own mine, on this subject.

To be a little less combative, however, I do have some strategies that I think work well for me and the denizens of Cal State, Long Beach. I assign them to read several books throughout the course of the semester. I’m very picky about them. I want my reading list to reflect the diversity of the CSULB student body, and I always have, so that’s a top priority. I want some books that are new voices and some that are older voices and some books that are wooing and charming and some that are technically virtuosic. Ideally, there is overlap. I have taught books I don’t love because I thought they were important to the current conversation or contain strong writing but not in a way that touches me personally. If I assign a book, I am tacitly endorsing using that work as a model. Sometimes I will ask students to use something from that book as inspiration. It could be an individual line, a subject, a formal component. When they articulate concern about imitation, I tell them: don’t worry about sounding like someone else. You can’t get away from yourself.

I also give prompts for almost every poem. I tell my students: I will never abandon you to the blank page. My prompts are generative and distracting, designed to nudge my poets away from what they think they want to/have to say. Overall, I want to disabuse them of their anxiety about poetry. I don’t want writing to be torture. Of course, sometimes, it will be. I encourage them to take risks, to not write poems they already know how to write. With the more experienced writers, that’s more of an issue. I tell them: approval is overrated.

DG: The pandemic did different things to different writers—some began writing a lot more, some much less. What was the experience like for you personally and did your writing change in any drastic way?

PS: The pandemic did not significantly change my writing experience. My nuclear family was around more and everyone else, less. I am a combination of hermetic and social. I missed people but enjoyed my interiority. Rather than generating much new work, I worked hard on revision. I had two manuscripts on my desktop that made demands on my time, and my mind felt a little less cluttered, which helped me assess them more coolly and candidly. I read around moreas in, stumbled on new books and pursued some ideas down rabbit-holes. I also, for what it’s worth, hiked a lot and saw many actual rabbits on trails that were generally less crowded until people discovered the out-of-doors. I did so early in Covid. Though I’ve spent most of my life in cities, spending time in nature is good for my writing; the temperature (whatever it is) clears my head. I can’t tell you it was the most generative time, but I value revision, which is not an easy task or set of skills, so it was not wasted.

DG: How heavily do you revise? Do you tend to follow colleague’s suggestions to the same extent or less so when compared to your grad school days? And do you think this tendency should necessarily decrease the “better” poets get?

PS: My revision process is quixotic and unformulaic. I start by developing a thorough draft that involves some revision in the drafting process. I do not write one line, then the next, then go back, etc. That sounds wonderfully tedious to me. I’m sure it works. It’s not what I do. I hold my breath through the first draft and try to follow out every tangent that I can, trusting they will take me somewhere “I have never travelled,” etc. My training as a very young swimmer (I could hold my breath underwater for two lengths) has been helpful in this drafting process; I am only somewhat joking. After the initial exhale, I go back right away and start interrogating words and lines. I am mean: you don’t deserve to be there, I tell them; you’re nowhere near the music of the line before you. After I’ve got a solid first draft, I put the poem away. Already, I like it a little too much. I’m infatuated, but unlike in my “youth,” I know it’s transitory. I never show anyone a poem in that phase, though occasionally I’ll say something to a friend like, I’ve just written the best poem ever. Wisely, no one responds.

I put the poem away for a week, two, or ten, depending on what else is going on in my life. During the semester, it can be a longer time, because my students own me during those roughly 15 weeks. Sometimes, though, one off the poems will open its file on my desktop and demand some attention. I read it aloud. I look for some sort of organic clue as to line length or stanza length or try to determine whether there is a shapeliness to the poem (as my beloved teacher Richard Howard would say) or whether free verse has truly taken over the page. I examine the poem for verbs and diction. I look for sonic patterns or the lack thereof. I’m really editing like a technician, early on—Ben Shahn talks about this much more articulately in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he gave at Harvard, collected as The Shape of Content. Then I begin to say to the poem: what is going on with you? What are you “about”? Sometimes the poem shrugs and says, “dunno.” Sometimes it pipes up too smartly. Neither is satisfactory. Eventually, none of the lines bother me with their boredom—they each have some reason for living—and the poem begins in a way that makes me want to keep reading, and the poem ends in a way that makes me want to keep thinking, and I decide: you’re cooked. Go forth and prosper.

DG: If you had the chance to study under any writer, who would that person be, and why?

PS: To answer this question properly, I had to consider whether it included poets who never taught in the university system. Of those who did, I would have liked to study with Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet who died in 2000. The other person would have been Elizabeth Bishop, who clearly could write anything: inherited form, long lines, short lines. Her ability to trust hesitation and uncertainty is something I emulate. I know Philip Larkin was a lousy person, but if he could have taught me to write as comfortably in form as he could, I would have put up with a great deal. Louise Bogan could have schooled me in the tension between passion and restraint. As well, I would have happily scrubbed pots for Coleridge while he meandered the verdant hills and complained. To me, he still sounds so modern. I know we are all of our time, but every now and then, someone escapes and wanders the sensibility of another century.

DG: If you could swap one of your poems with any poem ever written, which would you choose and which would you give?

PS: I am a giant fan of Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” What would I give? I’ve given plenty. I knew Adam, worked with Adam, and like everyone who knew him, miss Adam. I think he would smile and shrug and say, “You can pay for the coffee.”

DG: You have degrees in both journalism and poetry. Is the connection between them tenuous (the former quite ephemeral, the latter inherently not) or is the bond relatively strong—poetry is essentially elevated journalism with line breaks?

PS: I took my first journalism class at Northwestern with a professor named Richard Hainey, an “OG” journalist (my students are laughing if they are reading this – every now and I then I used some slang in class and it’s the source of considerable amusement). More than anything, I tried to absorb his skepticism. By teaching us the basicsfind sources that disagree with the sources you already trusthe taught me how to look beneath the hood, so to speak. (You know I’m from Detroit, so car metaphors abound.) Poems should not be too sure of themselves. I suppose the attention to detail is also shared between these two different ways of using language. I recall the “ABCs” of journalism and try to employ them in poems: accuracy, brevity, clarity. (I imagine my old friends working at The Times and The Post are laughing at what I remember versus what they found important.) I like clarity but I also like a layered usage of language, which is not only unimportant in journalismit’s a problem for journalism. Journalism should not tell the truth “slant” as Miss Dickinson asserted. Both poetry and journalism need to reach out into the unknown, from the vantage point of the unknown.

DG: What are you reading and or working on these days?

PS: I am trying to figure out what kind of poems need writing, and to coax myself toward them. I know that sounds elliptical and enigmatic. I have a couple of ideas floating around. I’m thinking about Emile Zola’s “J’accuse,” which means reading about Dreyfus Affair and I really don’t know what I think I can add to that, but it’s intriguing to me. I’m also very slowly reading Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed because I am quite perplexed these days. I have a copy from graduate school with some underlined passages and want to figure out some way to bring them to light in 21st century poetry. We’ll see if I have the determination and creative juice to make that happen. I even bought a Guide to the Guide for the Perplexed, though it’s not really called that.

I’m actually trying to move away from writing a thematically oriented book. I remember when Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris came out. We all (I was in grad school at UC-Irvine then) essentially went insane. We packed into my car and went up to UCLA to hear her read the whole book, cover to cover. For me, that book put theme on the map. I adore it and teach it regularly. Now, I’m hoping the theme-trend fades or at least goes on hiatus. I read for a couple of poetry contests and will admit, it’s a little easier to assess the quality of the poems, and maybe the commitment of the poet, when books have a consistent subject or form. But I think it’s gone too far, and I won’t be looking for that anymore, and I won’t be promoting that as a strategy for my grad students. (They’re grown-ups and can disagree. Nothing will happen to them. I always say in my classes: do you know what happens in the world when you write a bad poem? Nothing. No butterfly flapping its wings will cause a monsoon in the Maldives.)

I am reading Patient Zero by poet Tomas Morin and The Rock that is not a Rabbit by poet Corey Marks and Rilke translations by Edward Snow and Another Beauty (essays) by Adam Zagajewski. I’ve started Tom Lake by Ann Patchett and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. My son gave me Crime and Punishment for Chanukah (he just read it) and my daughter wants me to join her in the world of Cormac McCarthywell, his books, not his world. That should take me well into 2024.

Author Bio:

Patty Seyburn has published five collections of poems: Threshold Delivery (Finishing Line Press, 2019); Perfecta (What Books Press, Glass Table Collective, 2014); Hilarity, (New Issues Press, 2009), Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998). She is a professor at California State University, Long Beach.


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