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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
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?
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
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?
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?
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?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
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?
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.