Interview by Ramsey Mathews
Patty Seyburn has published three books of poems: Hilarity (New Issues Press, 2009), Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998). Her fourth collection, Perfecta, was just released from What Books Press. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of POOL: A Journal of Poetry (www.poolpoetry.com). Seyburn grew up in Detroit. She earned a BS and an MS in Journalism from Northwestern University, an MFA in Poetry from University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Poetry and Literature from the University of Houston.
Ramsey Mathews: The cover art for Perfecta is lovely. Did you know the artist?
Patty Seyburn: The artist, Gronk – he’s a Chicano painter, printmaker and performance artist – designs all the covers for What Books Press in Los Angeles; he’s part of the collective that formed the press. I’ve been lucky with covers, and this one is no exception. I think it’s beautiful, too – the colors are remarkable, and the section of the painting we chose captures the social nature of the book, which is, in part, about learning from the people in your life, even those you may think don’t have something to teach you. Gronk let me look through a stack of paintings – kid, candy store – I’m in awe of visual artists – and since he had spent time with the book, had a good idea of what we were looking for. My cover is actually the corner of a large painting. His work tells giant stories; I just needed a small piece! I’m not in the mood for austerity in poetry. I love the exuberance.
You play with form. Several poems are right justified. “A Cry, the Catalyst” is divided into two columns side-by-side. “How to make the Familiar Strange” is split into two columns not side-by-side, and the right column is in italics. “Aubergine” zig zags in quatrains down five pages. How does your choice of form contribute to meaning?
I put off answering the questions about form until the end, because form remains such a mystery for me. You’d think, with a fair amount of formal mishegas (Yiddish for craziness) in this book, I would have figured it out. I was influenced by Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content – the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he gave at Harvard. But I am not a painter. (I thank Frank O’Hara once a week for something – for levity and gravity, for freedom.) I think that form and content, in a good mix, establish a productive tension. I am wildly opposed to imitative form and was schooled to be so, though I see so many poems that “mimic the movement of the mind” by sprawling and jumping across the page, I realize my biases are old-school. To find a form, however, that asks the content to stand up straighter, that bleeds the language of what is not necessary, that engages fragment, clause, sentence, stanza and white space in the enterprise of surprising me and the reader – that is an achievement, and it must be done for each poem. When I was a child, I played classical piano for 10 years: 7 to 17 years old. I had a wonderful teacher, an elderly Austrian woman, Mrs. Petrakovitz. About 500 lessons. I remember so little of what we said to one another, but I recall that she emphasized dynamics and tempo, like any good music teacher. One day, I wanted to ask her: why can’t I just play it regular? Something, fortunately, stopped me. Instinctively, I realized: that is the wrong question. I think of that in terms of poetry: you can never write a poem “regular.” There is always form, whether or not by intention. And if there’s not, you must help the language take its shape before it can address or receive the world.
At what point during your writing process do you make a choice about form?
Oy. More form. My formal choices often change with each significant draft. Rarely do I begin with an idea of stanza length, or a concept of how to use white space, or flush right versus left, or flush right and flush left, or alternative columns, though all of these occur in this collection. When I write in an inherited form such a sonnet, I may start out thinking: sonnet. This is my first collection of four that does not contain a sonnet. (I just looked through to make sure.) I am actually a little disappointed in that. In this book, I worked at diverse line-lengths, trying to understand the long, elegant line, and the short, fragmented line. I worked a great deal on pacing, on timing, on dictating how and when and for how long the reader should breathe. I am a control-freak poet; perhaps I should start a “school” of poets willing to self-identify that way. It’s unflattering, but I can accept it. Usually, a poem will not change its form radically in the final revision process, unless I am deeply unhappy with it, at which point, anything goes. Reverse it? Sure. Cut out every other line? Sure. If that happens, the poem changes so radically that it’s really beginning a new poem, and the text returns to a nascent, unformed state. “… the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep”. Yep, that’s it.
Do you mean for “A Cry, the Catalyst” to be read in several different ways?
I did not, but I am not opposed to it! How can I oppose any interpretation once the book leaves my hands? I have read down the columns, and there are some interesting juxtapositions, but on balance, the center does not sufficiently hold (obviously, I’m calling on the greats for support – one aspect I love of writing poetry: being on a continuum with those who came before, particularly the geniuses). I advocate more clarity than the columnar read provides, but if that gives a reader pleasure, so be it.
Each of the three sections of Perfecta begins with an excellent quote. Was this an afterthought or deviously planned?
I’m glad you think those quotes are excellent. Of course, devious planning occurred (intentionally using that Watergate passivity – “mistakes were made”). I know it’s something of a convention, these days, but more than anything, the quotes amuse me. I view the quotes as an answer to one of those cocktail party questions: if you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be? In this case, I guess it would be Diogenes, Berlioz and Cocteau. That would make a good party, wouldn’t it? There’s a dinner party in my poem “House Brand” that describes the gathering of people not alike one another. That’s most of my social life, by accident or intention. By the dinner party theory, I will be quoting Bella Abzug, Lenny Bernstein, Billy Wilder and Martin Buber in some future book. I don’t quote poets. I quote people who think like poets. I’m always on the cusp of quoting Einstein. And I love mathematicians.
In the title poem, there is talk of horse racing and gambling. What are the odds of picking a perfecta?
Extremely remote. I guess they really pay out. I suppose, in a field where there were clearly two superior horses, it would not seem impossible, but that does not allow for all the vagaries of chance, to which I am strongly attached. At high levels of any game, I think anything could happen. I don’t think much about the aspects of chance and luck in the poetry world – it’s a crapshoot, clearly, involving some talent, much work, some right place/right time, some strategy, and some random, who-the-hell-knows quality. The odds, however, of any poem really hitting its mark are more compelling to think about. I like those odds, which are quite bleak, with a big payout. Do I sound like I gamble? Probably not, because I don’t. But there is something about the horses. Do you still have Jai Alai in Florida? I remember that from being a kid.
The poem “Aubergine” mentions Plato’s “Theory of the Perfect Year.” Are you playing on the word perfecta?
Yes, definitely. I like experimenting with the many forms of a word, modern and ancient. I love that language evolves, even when it goes south. (I hate ‘70s psycho-babble; cannot find a way or reason to incorporate it into poems. I guess that’s one evolution I don’t enjoy.) The word “perfecta” gave way to “perfectibility,” and I like exploring what paths can help us become better people, though “perfection is so far away” – the last line of “A Year on Mars.” In “Cul-de-sac,” I cite Rousseau’s belief in man’s perfectibility – it gets dismissed pretty quickly, in a melee of other, more pressing concerns – raising a decent kid, fixing a sprinkler, dealing with our many flaws and those of the people we know/the people we love (not always the same). Plato cracks me up. The ideal cracks me up. Considering how little we understood the cosmos at his historical moment, I love the bravura of his calculations.
Is the “Perfection Letters” section based on your experiences both as an interviewer and an interviewee?
The section titled “Perfection Letters” uses one more form of the word perfect. This section, about interviewing for teaching jobs, is full of humor, irony, and snark. I never had an interview or a rejection letter as strange as those poems, but I wish I had. I probably wore catastrophic shoes, at some point. At times, in interviews, I have been impressed and entertained by the complicated nature of the questions asked, which generally seem more about the committee members impressing each other than a genuine inquiry into whether this candidate is right for the position. Of course, these are more social interactions, with power dynamics. I enjoyed the capacity of these poems’ structure to encompass so many of my small obsessions and peccadillos. I made up a Kantian theory. I mentioned garden gnomes, my nut allergy, crème brulee, hand models, ludovisc, pocketbooks, Maimonides and gouache. These poems accept anything. They also make fun, a little, of the academy, and of how we want so much more from people than we are often willing to give. They were pleasurable to write, so I immediately distrusted them, but they won me over.
Some writers, and editors, list words that they will never use. “Aubergine” contains the word soul. Did you literally and figuratively wrestle with the choice?
I am fond (understatement) of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel – it comes up twice in the first ten pages of this collection, at which point I give it a breather – so your verb makes me happy. I am sparing, hopefully judicious, in my use of certain abstractions – the ones that interest me. Many don’t. For many years I would not use certain words or images in poems that I felt were overused or used too capriciously. I feel that way about language, even in speech. When people say things like “I’m very spiritual,” I think, what exactly do you mean? It’s a commitment to nothing. The way I use terms that carry a heavy weight (ha) like “soul,” is to diffuse them with humor. In that poem I write about choosing a wine “more complex than a soul.” Usually, the soul would be metaphor’s tenor: “a soul is like…”. In this case, the soul is the vehicle, the secondary reference – a diminished thing (I love that Frost poem, “The Ovenbird.” I carry it around in my wallet. Not kidding). That whole poem speaks to an inversion of norms: a social evening that would seem light-hearted turns into a community-wide, sophisticated, philosophical and potentially pretentious discussion of time, in which the narrator realized she is intellectually outclassed, and that even with an abundance of knowledge at her disposal, time cannot be inhibited and blithely continues to pass. As Berlioz says in the beginning of the book – “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”
Many of the poems mention time. Was time the unifying theme that pulled this collection together for you?
Time and I have a rocky relationship. I am desperate for it, ache for it to pass, mourn its passing, yearn for more, ignore it, make it stretch farther than it can, insult it, cajole it, create it and vanish it, like a good magician misusing a verb. I suppose that time and chance are, together, the themes that unify this book. Both relate to the difficulty of being an individual, responsible to the self and to art, and to being part of a group – a family, a community. Time and chance play a role in the necessity of looking within and looking out. But I have been bargaining with God and the cosmos for more time and various rolls of the die since the end of my first book, so they must transcend or underpin my immediate, current concerns. My parents’ friend gave me a high school graduation present – a poetry collection by Yehudah Amichai called Time. I suppose one’s obsessions start early, and are guided. I’d like to think so.
Ramsey Mathews is the eternal student. Way back when he wanted to be an astronaut, he graduated with a BS in Industrial Management. Calculus and physics shut down the space exploration idea. Then he earned a BA in English Composition and Rhetoric. That’s when he started writing drama, prose, and poetry. After an MFA in Poetry, he is currently earning a PhD in Poetry at Florida State University, where he teaches Composition.