The first time I’d ever heard of Diane Seuss was at a funeral. I sang in the choir at my high school, and the young man, who had died of cancer, had attended my high school before going on to Kalamazoo College. The service was hard on all of us. We were mourning our peer, but, at the same time, we were also mourning our youthful attachment to the notion that teenagers are eternal. Sitting in a spotlight, facing the pews, the grief was palpable. The events of the funeral were outlined on a paper program, which we were all fiddling with, nerves on edge. A poem he had written, somehow simultaneously sorrowful and uplifting, was printed on the back of the program. As I was reading it, the pastor announced that a professor of the deceased’s, from Kalamazoo College, would speak. A woman approached the altar, dressed in black, eyes lined with black, long hair dyed black.
I decided on Kalamazoo College over the University of Michigan at the last possible moment. There was something about such a small school that terrified me. Despite my doubts, my parents sent in the deposit, and there was no going back. Sheepishly, I sent a few poems to the college in the hopes that I might be able to get some sort of writing scholarship. Despite this, I didn’t see my poems as anything particularly special. I was going to go to college to become a lawyer, to make money so I could buy horses. Poetry was just something I loved, and I had somehow gotten the impression that actually pursuing a passion as a career was a decadence afforded to a lucky few. And I never planned on being lucky.
I signed up for Diane Seuss’ first year seminar in part because I loved poetry, and partially because I remembered her from the funeral. I had been a little high school student with something much bigger growling inside her when I’d first encountered Di, and, on a subconscious level, I think I wanted to find out what that thing was.
On the first day of orientation, Di was wearing hot pink and black zebra-striped leggings. “I wore my special pants for meeting your parents,” she joked. When we were going around the room introducing ourselves and saying where we were from, Di paused when she recognized the name of my rural hometown south of Kalamazoo. “You’re the poet?” She said. I didn’t even know how to answer—no one had ever called me a poet before. “You write like I did when I was your age.” I knew at once that there would be no hiding at Kalamazoo College. In fact, Di had glimpsed the inside of me like no other human being had before. I was thrilled by her compliment, but I was also terrified—I had the distinct feeling that Di was going to demand things from me in a way I had never experienced.
Three days into my journey at Kalamazoo College, I knew “lawyer” wasn’t it. Poetry was that big, growling thing that I’d had locked inside of me, and it didn’t take long for it to recognize that Kalamazoo College was its natural environment. I wanted to notice. I wanted to witness and I wanted to make. I asked Di if she thought I’d be making a mistake, becoming a writer. If she thought I was good enough. “Girl, you’re a poet” she said “but, if you want to do this, then you have to claim it.”
And claim it I did. Or, maybe it claimed me. During spring break of my freshman year, just before taking Intermediate Poetry, I experienced a traumatic mental breakdown as the result of a relationship that had come to an end. Intermediate gave me back my personhood. “Your most rewarding relationship will be with poetry,” Di said. “It will never leave you. And this is just the beginning.”
I set out to write this SIP as a combination of criticism based on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel alongside my own poems. I read and reread Ariel countless times over the summer, but my impulses told me that I needed to give myself time to breath as a poet, rather than a critic. I dropped the critical portion, despite feeling terrified that I was taking the easy way out.
I could not have been more wrong.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy my SIP. I would be lying if I said I’m overjoyed it’s over. But just because the work was the kind of work I wanted and needed to be doing does not mean it was easy. I could have sat at a desk and pounded out endless pages of criticism—an entire SIP’s worth—in a week, if I felt motivated. Poetry just does not work that way. These poems took their time to grow, to work on me as I worked on them. In the end, I couldn’t tell you if I made my SIP or my SIP made me.
I used Sylvia Plath as a touchstone. I began writing poems in her style, but the more the idea of “writing like Sylvia Plath” began to take hold of me, the more anxious and terrified I became. I was writing like Sylvia Plath, but I wasn’t writing like Kim Grabowski. Instead, I kept the elements of Plath’s work that I love (an attention to structure and sound, an obsession with the body), but, ultimately, I had to go my own way. Once I allowed myself to start listening to my instincts again, the poems finally began to take off.
Free from the strict frame I had originally proposed for my theme, I was able to explore the world in front of me. I spent hours poring over Rumi, and started trying my hand at broad statements and meaningful questions. Enamored with Nancy Eimers’ prose poems in Oz, I undertook a large series of associative prose poems—a “prose sonnet” (a form after Sherman Alexie that we studied when I took Introduction to Creative Writing at “K”). I made the all-important discovery that I almost unfailingly need to begin the writing process with wide lines, in order to allow my imagination a fuller range of detail. The work and development of a creative SIP is extremely relevant to students like myself, who plan to pursue writing on a life-long basis. I needed the experience of creating a manuscript, of seeing a project to its fruition. I finally began to learn how to go out into the world and find inspiration, not just sit around and wait for it to come to me.
One of the earlier poems I wrote was entitled “I have never seen city streets so green,” a narrative poem that dealt with a memory from my time in New York City as part of the Great Lakes College Association’s New York Arts Program. What were then the final lines of that poem, “someday something/ will pick you up with its hands/ beneath your arms and set you/ back into your body,” became a guiding theme for the rest of my SIP. The joys and fears of embodiment. Moments of extreme bodily awareness that border on a feeling of mind/body dualism. Navigating love as an embodied being.
That small poem became something akin to an epic poem, my own journey in New York City. I brought it to workshop thinking my peers would tell me to “hone.” They suggested the exact opposite. What began as one frenzied block of narrative grew into an eighteen-page-long poem in sections. This project-within-a-project was the greatest leap of faith I have ever taken. It takes a staggering amount of courage and a certain level of belief in one’s own work to sustain something so large. At first, I had doubts, afraid I would be spending huge amounts of time on a poem that could amount to nothing. But, with Di by my side, reminding me that she had faith, I kept going. It grew into my masterpiece, like a child I had been carrying inside of me for an entire quarter. I kept going. I kept going.
As a result of the process of that poem, its content, and the SIP as a whole, I am more resolutely and completely me than I have ever been in my life. “The Other” is a study in self-discovery through relationships. Others are a projection of self in the world with whom we, as constructed selves, are constantly in dialogue—we are always deciding what to be and what not to be.
Let poems be that for you. Let them teach you things about yourself you never knew before. Read them. Write them. Put them on like clothing. Some will make you feel like you are standing far, far outside of yourself, and some will terrify you, because they will know you better than you know yourself.
Diane Seuss puts it this way: “This is about poetry, yes. But it’s really about what saves your life.”
I have given my life to poetry, because I owe it no less. I can think of no better way to emerge from Kalamazoo College entirely transformed than with a senior thesis full of poems that will propel me into the future. Poems that have saved my life.