Sunday, November 25, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Cole Swensen

Cole Swensen is a poet, translator, and publisher who divides her time between Iowa City, Washington D.C., and Paris. Her poetry often revolves around the visual arts and has been awarded the National Poetry Series, Sun & Moon’s New American Writing Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Book Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. She translates contemporary French poetry, prose, and art criticism and edits La Presse, a small press specializing in recent French poetry translated by American poets.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I’m not sure that it did really—one always thinks that it will, but I think it’s very rare that it actually does, except in the way that everything changes your life in one way or another; every detail determines the next. That said, it taught me something about revision; taught me what revision is about because the publication dragged out over two or three years, and I kept tweaking the manuscript the whole time, and by the time it finally came out, I was so happy that it hadn’t come out any earlier. I realized that what I had thought was a done manuscript was simply the solid rough draft, and that I had been working and polishing at the level of the poem or maybe the line, but that I needed to be polishing at the level of the word. And it alerted me to the fact that, in general, I tend to think that things are done before they are—I’m impatient; I push things. I still do, and I still often think things are done when they’re not, but that book happened to have been what made me aware of this tendency.

2 - How long have you lived in Iowa City, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I’ve been in Iowa City about five years, but, even though I love it, I actually spend very little time there. All my adult life, I’ve lived in more than one place—it always seemed like an accident of circumstance—I was going to school in one city and working in another, etc., but when I consider that that has been the case for the past 30 years, I have to concede that in some way it’s a choice I’ve made, and therefore, it must be something I like. I think I simply like the variety and thrive on the turbulence. In fact, throughout my life, it’s gotten worse. I currently divide my life among three places, and all fairly far apart—Iowa, where I work, Washington D.C., where my husband Anthony lives, and Paris, where I do most of my writing.

Geography doesn’t inform my work as much as landscape. I’ve written a lot of pieces that are, simply, landscapes, and I’m planning a project that will include a lot more. I’m very partial to landscape paintings, and am interested in the way that they create actual space—not the illusion of space, but the space itself, and I want to play with that in language.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I tend to work on a book from the very beginning. In the last few things I’ve written, the book is the basic unit, so while my books are composed of discrete poems, they are conceived as larger units.

Lately books have started for me through a nagging interest that I want to explore, and often that exploration amounts to lots of reading and light research, and often it has something to do with the visual arts—the visual arts linked with history. It’s a way, perhaps, of insisting upon poetry as language-as-art rather than language-as-information. I feel like I learned a lot the Language poets when I was in my early 20s, and particularly about the material potential of language on the one hand and the dangers (political and social) of the illusion of transparent and/or objective language on the other. That attention to surface has mixed in me with a love of the visual arts and has generated some of my works, though at times I regret poetry’s inability to achieve the same immediacy.

That regret is in part behind my interest in ekphrastic poetry, in reworking that genre so that it’s not so much a matter of standing across from a painting and attempting to replicate or translate its emotional impact, but of finding new ways to live with and in art, to make it increasingly present by having it infuse such a daily staple as language.

I often begin with a specific work of art and a related idea. My most recent book, The Glass Age, comes out of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of windows and their paradoxical opacity (he used such vivid, dense, opaque colors), mixed with the idea that our age, beginning with the technological and scientific revolutions of the 19th century, is an increasingly fragile one, from the psychological brittleness caused by the loss of God to our potential to literally destroy the world.
The book I’d written before that, The Book of a Hundred Hands, began with a drawing manual by that name, and tries to see how much of a sheer concept the hand can become. And the last manuscript I finished, Ours, which is coming out in 2008, began in the 17th century formal French gardens of André Le Nôtre and addresses the idea of public versus private property.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Part of it, in that they’re part of the conversation about poetics that I find absolutely vital. There’s something about the atmosphere of a reading and its immediate afterward that opens a space for people to talk about meaning and meaning-making that doesn’t often come up.
And on another score, I think readings are creative acts in themselves. Lorca’s well-known essay on duende, though he’s talking mostly about flamenco, is equally applicable to poetry readings. I’ve heard people be in the words in a way that’s beyond either the individual words or themselves—both fuse into a potential site for actual presence, and I think that’s what duende is, a kind of annihilating presence.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

My immediate answer is “no”—I have more concrete questions than theoretical ones, but then how do you make that distinction? My questions revolve around the social and personal impact and potential of aesthetics, whose import I think is greatly underrated. Aesthetics, among other things, orchestrates our sense of balance, leads us beyond the self and yet constantly brings us back to the importance of the superficial, the reality of the surface. I’ve been interested lately in the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, in the work of Semir Zeki and others who are exploring what goes on in the brain in response to different kinds of art. Their work is increasingly showing the importance of the arts in the development of the brain.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I find it extremely helpful, and I’ve been lucky to work with some great people, people who are willing to question relentlessly and intelligently. It requires so much work on their part; it’s really a creative act in its own right. I find that editors’ suggestions often lead me to examine my own motives and inclinations; they make me ask why I made the choices that I did, and the query often helps me arrive at more nuanced versions of lines. It’s almost always at the level of the line or of the phrase that I find myself changing things at editors’ suggestions—and at times, though small, the changes are crucial. I have loved working with Alice James for this reason—they’re really active with the editing, going over the work literally word by word. And sometimes I seek out editing—I asked Cal Bedient to go over a book, Goest, and he made countless suggestions and comments that made me relook at things; it improved the book immeasurably. Often an editor will point out places where I hadn’t realized I’d been slack, and when I go back to look hard at them, I’m able to take them much further. The questioning is often a catalyst; it gives me a new way back into my own work.

I encounter this question of editing a lot in translation, too. It’s hard to get anybody to tell you the truth—it takes a lot of their time to read that closely, and they have to risk being critical, and for this reason, I particularly love working with Rosmarie Waldrop—she leaps right in; she doesn’t let a single thing slip. I ask other people, too, to go over translations—it’s invaluable, and, of course, it’s also mortifying (how could I have made that error!!!), but then if I really minded mortification, I would have stopped translating long ago. Instead, I just feel secure; in particular, I feel that if something has passed Rosmarie’s eye, it’s ok.

And I’ve tried to use her model when I’m editing translations for the very small press I do that publishes contemporary experimental French poetry translated by English-language poets. I try to be that involved and spend that kind of time on each project.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Neither. But I love its ongoing nature, and because my books are increasingly based in research, I enjoy the way I enter a new world each time I begin one. And I always miss the world I’m leaving, and have at times stretched out projects longer than necessary because I wanted to continue doing the research, wallowing in the subject—I know that once I leave the book, I most likely won’t have the same kind of time to devote to the subject, so in that way, poetry becomes a way of carving out time to spend on other subjects, a way of guaranteeing a deeper reading of them.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I am eating one now.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Never paint a moving part.

That may or may not have metaphorical applications as well, but on the literal level, very good advice indeed.

My “runner-up” would be: Most decisions are not in themselves right or wrong; it’s what you do with them that makes the difference.

I find that helpful because otherwise I can agonize over decisions and end up doing nothing. Which is, of course, itself a decision, but it’s a reactive rather than an active one.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?

It’s very easy. I like being engaged in both at the same time. Translation is, for the most part, simply pleasure. At certain stages it has an automatic aspect that can seem a relief, a relaxation compared with writing poetry. There’s much less anxiety.

I also write a lot of prose in the sense of putting prose into my poetry—prose poetry, simply, but I’ve been playing with incorporating a critical voice. What interests me is trying to arrive at a critical analysis and tone while maintaining a sensual, sound-based writing. They’re often assumed to be contradictory, and often can be, but I also think that their intersection can create a stimulating tension.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I do have a writing routine. I write most of my raw material when I’m in France in the summers and December. I often go to the Luxembourg Gardens in the afternoons with a tiny portable computer about the size of a blackberry, and work there, take books along, read, etc. and then go to cafes and continue. I also write a lot late at night; I’ll revise the work I’ve done during the day at night. And all through the year, I tweak things and revise late at night, when all my other work is done.

And a typical day? Begins with coffee. And email. And if I’m not careful, it ends with email as well! I do think we’ve created an interesting monster with email—it’s fabulous! It lets you keep in touch, maintain conversations, get involved in readings, conferences, etc., etc., but on the other hand, almost everyone I know is drowning in it. It’s like having a pound of fudge for every meal. I can’t imagine what we’re all going to do, but I do think we’ll have to do something. The best thing might be to reorganize the calendar so that we have a couple of extra days a week just to catch up on email.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I’ve been playing with auto-translation because that gives me a completely different entrance into a piece. If something is stagnating, I’ll translate it into French, and because of the need to keep the sound qualities up front, I’ll have to choose new content, and choosing that new content opens up the poem; then I retranslate it back into English, and by then it’s all changed and is back in motion again. It may still go nowhere interesting, but at least it’s moving again. That process has also given me a chance to work on seriality; it’s something I’ve often envied the visual arts, the ability to work in serial. It’s almost impossible to do that in language, but by going in and out of different languages, it can be approximated.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

I feel like I’m going back to a more emotionally-based work, which I veered away from after a book titled Noon. My early work was very much based in the emotions, but I got to a point where I felt I was imposing them—my emotions, that is—on strangers. I’m going back toward emotion because I hope I’m working on a way to engage emotion that is not necessarily my own—emotion that is, in fact, not owned, but that is instead ambient. At the moment, I’m focusing particularly on grief because it seems that the United States for the past seven years has been in the business of manufacturing and exporting grief in the form of sheer torture and death. In short, because of us, there’s much more grief in the world. The U.S. is, of course, not the only source; there are many, but that doesn’t absolve us of the need to find ways to look it square in the face, and to apologize to and for it. And it’s not guilt I’m talking about here—we carry enough of that as well, but I’m talking about grief itself, a grief that rises in me to greet that that I inadvertently create.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I’m often influenced by visual art, as I’ve mentioned above. I write a lot in museums and in galleries, and even more with visual art in my mind. The world of visual art works as a launching pad, and I think that it can do this in part because it’s operating in a completely separate realm. Visual art extends through space whereas poetry extends through time, and I think that the one is always trying to overflow into the other. We have perhaps more ready examples of poetry attempting (and succeeding) to extend through space in the various attentions to the page since Mallarme’s Un Coup de dés, and on the visual end, the overflow into film and more recently video and even more recently the Web has allowed the visual arts a temporal dimension, but in neither case is the overflow sufficient to make a truly qualitative leap; there’s a further spatial extension, one that might amount to presence, that I’m always trying to achieve in my poetry.
And I’m also strongly influenced by history. History usually comes to me through books, but sometimes in other ways, such as sites, old buildings, photographs, walking the streets of cities, etc. All poetry comes out of, and into, information, but for me it’s specifically the information of history that I find motivating.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Oooo! Big question! And I think I’ll dodge it entirely except to say that the poets I’m currently reading are Keith Waldrop, Martin Corless-Smith, and Cal Bedient, and that my favorite detective novelists are Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes, Pamela Branch, and Nancy Spain.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Walk to Santiago de Compostela. From where will depend upon when I get around to doing it.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Museum curator. Art historian. Archeologist. Bookbinder.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t know. I have always wanted to write and never seriously thought about doing anything else as my principal thread through life.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Ooooo—another big, impossible question! Instead, “great books that leap to mind this particular time that I hear the phrase”: The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene; anything by Borges. I find it interesting that when someone says “great book” I immediately think fiction. Re non-fiction, some things that leap to mind are The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Weiner and The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common by Alphonso Lingis.

And I so rarely see films that I’m not worth asking, though Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc cannot be topped, and at the other end of the spectrum, I happened to see a Doris Day movie from the early 1950s several weeks ago; I can’t remember the title, but it had some of the best tap-dancing scenes ever. I’d never realized what a great dancer she was.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A series of poems on ghosts; it’s a book that’s involved with the issues of grief that I mentioned above. It’s called Gravesend, after the town in England that stands right at the spot where the Thames opens into the Channel. Because of its position, it was the town from which many ships set sail in the 17th through 19th centuries, often taking emigrants to Australia, South Africa, North or South America, etc., and most of them never went back to England, so it really was a matter of ending one life and beginning another. I’m fascinated by the liminal quality of this place and this idea; part of the book is directly involved with the town, but most of it is simply exploring the notion of ghosts, both as a literary construct and as lived experience. Parts of the book are based on brief interviews with people, both friends and strangers, because I wanted to have an interplay of voices, almost disembodied voices, in the book as well as sheer testimony; I wanted in part a record of how people today experience ghosts, if they do at all, and what they think of them.

And then, in a completely different corner of my life, I’m co-editing an anthology of contemporary poetry with David St. John titled American Hybrid. It’s coming out next year from Norton and presents 70 poets whose work is hybrid in the sense that it blends experimental and traditional elements. I’ve been intrigued over the past ten or fifteen years to see the breakdown of the “two camp” model that became crystallized at the moment of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and perpetrated through practice and criticism for the rest of the century. It had tremendous influence over the way poets wrote and even more over the ways in which they were read, yet, thanks to a number of pressures, above all, a particularly vibrant writing culture among young people, this binary has broken down into so many divergent styles and principles that the sense of opposition and thus competition has changed considerably—I’m not saying it isn’t there, but that it’s much more intricate, much more complex, and consequently, much richer. Our anthology looks particularly at the beginning of this breakdown, at the evolving work of poets such as Barbara Guest, Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright, and so many others whose work has continually resisted categorization.

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