Poems and Peonies: an Interview with Chelsie Diane

It was roughly a year ago when I first came across the username @poemsandpeonies on Instagram. Like many others who have discovered Chelsie Diane’s portfolio, the first thing that caught my attention was the unique flower arrangements—the delicate blossoms that occupy either the corner or center of each 4×4 square. You can almost smell them. You can almost touch each stem. You can even attempt to understand how each flower might connect to the provided poem or caption.

—But even then, the entirety of Diane’s writing is best summarized with the words of T. S. Eliot, who once said: “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

In other words, it was really the rawness of Diane’s work that engaged me. There is happiness. There is sadness. There exist passionate notes of humor. There is grief, sometimes. Then there are occasions where this same grief or frustration reincarnates into new life, new beginnings, and new metaphors to walk along.

This same reason is why I hadn’t found it at all surprising that back when I had posted a poll, asking for readers to suggest an artist they would like to see featured in Virtuoso, someone would mention @poemsandpeonies, aka Chelsie Diane. Why I hadn’t thought about this interview before I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m glad it came to mind. Not because I didn’t think of it first, but because after reflecting on Diane’s work I found myself pondering over the same thing: behind such heartfelt writing is a heartfelt story.

The rest is as followed.

The Interview

Hughes: Tell us about yourself. Where are you based? What was your childhood like?

Diane: I grew up on a fundamentalist Christian farm with my mother and stepfather in NW Missouri. My father was a rocker, played electric guitar in a band. I lived a childhood of drastically contrasting lives. I woke up dark and early to take care of goats, chickens, cows, horses . . . I bottle fed calves, under the boot of a very religious militaristic and abusive stepfather. At my Dad’s house, we prayed to heavy metal, AC/DC, and Metallica.

I packed up my car and drove to the city, still in cap and gown, the day I graduated high school. I was accepted in accelerated medical school, and married a doctor at 20. I quit year four of medical school to study Brit Lit and Creative Writing. Last year, after a marriage separation, I moved myself and three young kids from Kansas City to Los Angeles.

God typing that even makes me sweaty. Hopefully my thirties are a bit calmer. Aw hell. You know what? Never mind. I wouldn’t trade where I’m at for anything. Bring it on.

Hughes: Describe your first memory of creating something that caught the attention of someone else. What was their reaction?

Diane: When I was little I started taking home boxes of old books from estate sales, convinced they were magic. Turns out they were, providing hope of new worlds and examples of strong characters that saved themselves. The bible was the only literature allowed in our home, but since old things in this culture are seen as holy (a longing to return to past is strong in this sector of evangelicalism—long skirts, eating from the land, wood stove, homeschooling, and etc.—little did my mother and stepfather know I was reading about defiant strength (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Les Miserables, Count of Monte Cristo).

I also loved Deborah in the Bible, the only female Judge of Israel. She took a tent stake and sunk it through a man’s temple when he tried to rape her. These stories gave me a new universe, new rules.  I would go to the bottom of our forty acres, sit by the creek, and just read and write and press wildflowers between the pages of these old books.

I have been doing flowers and poetry for as long as I can remember. One weekend home from medical school I remember my mother asking me ‘Where is the girl that pressed flowers and wrote poetry?’ I quit year four. I found her again.

Hughes: Describe your earliest connection to writing. For example, does writing (continue) to serve that same purpose for you?

Diane: It started at four years old inside a locked diary with a grey kitten that had a key I hid in the netting under my mattress. It was the one safe place on the planet for me to write my truth, my struggles of a strong spirit in a culture that wanted it broken, gentler, softer, quiet. I was born a storyteller. My soul stayed alive between diary pages. The same is happening today. This poetry account started as the one safe place on the planet for my truth. I guess the only difference now is I threw away the key.

Hughes: The following is a quote by American poet Wallace Stevens: ‘’They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, you do not play things as they are.’ The man replied, ‘Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.’’’ What is your interpretation of this quote? How might this apply to modern forms of poetry?

Diane: YES. My ”blue guitar” was painted by my perspective and experience and power. It will sound different than yours or hers or his, but it makes someone feel and that I think is what makes it poetry. Also my guitar has lead paint, and it’s not dry. I’m blue now.

Hughes: Define the poet’s role to society.

Diane: Make them feel.

Hughes: Define society’s role to the poet.

Diane: Make them feel.

Hughes: What initially caught my attention (and what still stands true today) about your writing is how raw it is. There is wit. There is heartbreak. There is self-reflection. There is frustration, sometimes. Then there are points when you reference 21stcentury occurrences in politics. Is this hard for you at all—to be honest? Also, does this change when you’re writing for an audience?

Diane: It’s so fucking hard to be honest. I woke up inside of a life I could not see myself inside. I’m not sure you would recognize the woman I was five years ago.  I even look differently. I was sleep walking through my life and not honest with myself—let alone the world.

I once heard, What do you not want to write about? Write about that. So that’s what I do and I think that’s when it resonates with other women. When I pull from that deep secret place and give it a voice. That’s when women can see their own truth plucked and in ink. This is how we heal, telling our truths.

Hughes: This past month has been a tangle of emotions for us here in the United States. Emerging abortion laws, the fight for human civil rights, and the fight against White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are just a few hot topics. With this in mind, what impact might a craft like poetry have on our interpretations of the current political atmosphere? How does this modern political conversations seem to impact poets?

Diane: I’m loving that inside this forum poetry is giving the powerless a voice, anonymously! I firmly believe that there is no one we couldn’t love if we were willing to listen their story. Women are telling their stories here! Women without a voice inside of their world are posting their truth anonymously here! God, it gives me chills just thinking about it. They are making people feel by sharing their stories, and in so, changing political climate.

Hughes: Does inspiration come to you or do you seek inspiration? If so, where do you think this stems from?

Diane: She comes to me. She is intolerable, really. Doesn’t give a shit. She demands the truth, the pain. All of it. Makes you live it again and again until you tell it true. I wrote a poem about her once. She’s mean, demanding. I am madly in love with her. I seek her relentlessly like a junkie looking for the next high. It’s not a healthy relationship. Though, inspiration to me is the closest definition to god that I will ever know. I worship her.

Hughes: Describe your work with three adjectives.

Diane: Raw. Relentless. Romantic. 

Hughes: One particular poem of yours has yet to leave my mind:

My grandmother watched tornados

Sitting on her front porch

It took me years but I’ve learned

You stop running from lightning

Once you realize you are the storm

I’ve been really curious to know about the inspiration behind this! Did your grandmother really watch tornados? Was there a real life event that the imagery centers around?

Diane: YES! My grandmother Clara had a tiny farmhouse in the country of Burlington Junction, Missouri. There was a cellar dug in the yard. Inside, pheasants and peacock hung by their feet from the ceiling while jars of canned corn, tomatoes, and sauces lined the shelved walls. It had a dirt floor and ceiling and walls and a heavy wooden door that locked from the inside. When the sky turned black, she sent my brother and I to the yard, closed it herself and watched the storm from the porch. Terrified, I would scream for her to join us. She’d say, ”If I knock let me in.” She never knocked. When a tornado goes overhead it sounds like a freight train. When it passed we had opened the door, and she would be swinging on her rusted metal porch swing.

She is one of the strongest women I know, fearless. I miss her everyday. I named my daughter Clara.

Hughes: What excites you when it comes to writing for an audience?

Diane: What excites me? A new level of my truth, unsheathed. There is no high like giving a voice to the voiceless, inside of me, outside of me. That’s my shit.

Hughes: What worries you when it comes to writing for an audience?

Diane: It used to be misinterpretation. Men think I hate men. This is a thing. This will always be a thing. This will not go away. I really don’t worry about it anymore. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not trying to make men believe I don’t hate them. I’m trying to give women a voice.

I’ll not spend my energy on lesser work.

Hughes: The following is a quote by American poet and short-story writer Elizabeth Bishop: ‘’All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper—just running down the edges of different countries and continents, looking for something.’’ What is your interpretation of this? Do you relate to the ‘’sandpiper’’ at all in terms of your craft? The imagery behind your poems?

Diane: Oh am I curious! I look at the ocean everyday and say My God what’s in there? Massive creatures. Creatures with eyes the size of soccer balls. Creatures in depths that we don’t even fucking know yet! But we still get in, don’t we? This is life for me, the diving in anyway of it all.

Hughes: Some writers say that it’s easy for them to get trapped in a negative headspace on social media. A few of these reasons stem from the concepts like engagement and comparison. Do you agree with this? If so, how can (any user) turn their experience into a more positive one?

Diane: About once a week, a poem goes terribly because of reception, the algorithm, or it was, indeed, pure shit. Whatever the reason, I feel a direct attack on my soul by the world and want to hide under a rock. I’m not exempt from this pressure. I try to remember why I started. I am getting quicker at remembering, and it wasn’t for anyone else but for me to write and heal.

There is still a rock, but I’m spending less and less time under it.

Hughes: In relation to the previous, what are two negatives and positives that you personally think are present in the online writing community?

Diane: Two negatives: ego and  money (automated comments, the algorithm, buying followers, and etc.) Two positives: a voice to the voiceless. A power to the powerless.

Hughes: About a month ago I came across a poem of yours that said the following:

 My entire life they’ve told me to be

Quieter, softer, sweet.

And I’ll never deny the world needs

Goddesses of peace

But it’s time you know there is a place for me

 Can you describe the story behind this piece? For example, what point in your life were you referencing? Do the effects of that event still linger today?

Diane: Growing up as a strong spirit and female within a fundamentalist Christian culture, I was constantly reminded God liked ‘His’ women quiet, submissive—their eyes at their feet. As scripture says, “A gentle and quiet spirit.” It took me years to see my strength as a strength! Not sin, not weakness. And one day I woke up and said your God can’t have my soul!

It took me years to look at my boldness and wildness as a woman and say this too has a worthy place on this planet. This, too, is holy.

Hughes: What is one important life lesson you would offer to your younger self, being the person you are now

Diane: As a child I was beat by my stepfather for my voice. I roared and roared and never stopped roaring. I think I was an old soul dropped into this life of fundamentalism. I didn’t buy a word of it. I knew I had one job: to stay fierce so that this man could not break me. He knew it too, and he made it his goal.

I would tell her she had to make fists to climb those walls and that’s OK. I would tell her to not feel the heavy shame for her voice. I remember begging God to not be defiant (strong) in a world where it was fiercely punished. I remember asking for forgiveness and prayer for my boldness as a woman. If I could, I would tell her, beautiful creature, you are surviving, you are angry. But you fucking should be. You are strong, and you were made to be. I would tell her there was a day coming that she would speak and be safe. That her truth would be loud and she would not be hit for it. In fact, she’d be surrounded by strong women saying “LOUDER!”

It’s everything she always longed for. My God she’d smile. 

Hughes: The following is a quote by chef, author, and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain: ‘’As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks, on your body or on your heart, are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” What is your interpretation of this quote? Can you connect this to your writing at all? The content?

Diane: God this question. THIS is even more poignant at this very moment in my life. I met a soulmate a few years ago while pitching a book in New York City. He is the one my poetry speaks of—the one that blazed through me like a raging fire. Over the course of our relationship my entire life went up in glorious flames that burnt like hell, leaving these painful beauty marks in which Bourdain speaks. I am not the same person today I was when I met him.

Since our breakup, I moved across the country to the place I’ve always dreamed and longed of living. I dove into a writing career I always dreamed of having. I became the woman I always dreamed of being. But I also lost so many that I loved to my truth. Freedom can be so fucking painful. I worshipped this man and was convinced if I was brave, and if I let life grow me, I could manifest him back to me. However, the healthier and richer my life became, the further he seemed to move from me. I recently was back in touch with him and found he too had a couple painful years and also made a million decisions in my absence. But as life cracked me wide open it only hardened his heart.

The man was almost unrecognizable in his pain. Life rains on us all, but not all of us choose to grow. This truth is maybe the hardest one for me to swallow. The storms get us all, but all of our marks look differently.

Hughes: What makes you happy?

Diane: This morning my daughter wrote me a letter. She said I was the “best ever living thing”. Though this is entirely not true, it is true for her. Those mini people are my entire world and they know it. And that makes me so so happy. Nothing is more healing than giving the freedom and love you didn’t receive. In return they let me live in their magical world. I will forever feel like I’m winning this deal.

Hughes: Where do you think your writing will take you next? For example, do you have plans on publishing a book? Or is poetry simply a hobby?

Diane: I would love to publish my poetry! What a dream. I’m finishing my novel right now. When I publish this, you will not see a happier me. It has been years in the making. Since I moved to LA I’ve been dabbling in screenwriting too. Loving it!

Hughes: Now for a fun one! Extraterrestrials have invaded Earth. The leader approaches and demands you to recommend the one person who can give them one reason to abort their mission of destroying mankind. Who would this individual be? Why?

Diane: I send Aunt Lisa. Growing in a world where my strong spirt as a woman was rendered as sinful, even evil, my Aunt Lisa would grab my face and say “You are not bad. You’re strong. There is a difference. You will see.”

All it takes is one person, one person to believe in you. If anyone can teach aliens about humanity, about love, it’s Aunt Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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