The Colorado Poet, #24,Fall 2013
Inside this Issue:
Interview: Eleanor Swanson
(Conundrum Press, 2013)
Bob King: Glad to ask you some questions, Eleanor, about your recent book. The first section, Listening, Divining, deals a lot with children and adults in the same situation. At the very first, in “Limits of Imagination,” the poem has a child, a teacher’s comments on the child (who needs, she thinks, those limits), and the narrator as a visitor to the classroom. So it’s not just about the child, it’s about the other two principals as well. In “The Secrets of Children” the narrator focuses on what it was like to be a child with her mother in the hospital but this is set against what adults do as well.
This dual focus, or irony, is quite powerful. Do you have a special eye for such interactions? Where does that come from?
Eleanor Swanson: I strive to juxtapose things in my poems to create surprise, drama, and tension. So that might be my “special eye.” One of the early titles of the book was The Secrets of Children, andthe “dual focus” you mention I think comes from the fact that children keep secrets from adults, and adults, in turn, keep secrets from children. Having and keeping secrets can cause suffering, at worst, or—at best— lead to epiphanies. Or lead to discovering something about yourself that you didn’t know you knew.
I strive to juxtapose things in my poems to create surprise, drama, and tension.
BK: The second section, Stepping Into Night, focuses on women, ranging from a woman’s experience (driving with a husband), and her thoughts about other women (who journeyed on wagon trains), to a 3rd person observation (of a girl on a bus), or to a narrator who imagines putting on a ritual mask and becoming one of the classical gods or goddesses. This is tricky territory for me, but do you find a particular focus in women’s perspectives that seems fruitful for poetry? Or can both genders do that?
ES: I think both genders can focus on women in their poetry, but perhaps as a woman, I observe women more closely and more often than I do men. I believe that in the poems you mention, at least the first two, I was conscious of dramatizing a tension between men and women. “Stepping into Night” can be also a metaphor for acts of power. That happens in “Mask.” The woman who puts on the ritual mask becomes the goddesses. She names the goddesses to summon their power as well as to be in tune with the seasons and seasonal change.
BK: The third section, Everything Wants to Live, deals a lot with death in several different ways, and the fourth, A Posture of Supplication, seems to involve a number of ways to bring life to the mystery of death. In one poem, about murdered El Salvadoran women, the narrator asks the woman in one photograph to come into her dreams and “give something nourishing from death, / something for my life.” Did the various sections seem to fall into place for you or was it difficult to arrange? Perhaps this structure was always or often in your thought?
ES: Just as the collection’s title kept changing, until I could find the right title, the one that would open a door for the reader, I arranged and rearranged the poems many times to understand how and why they related to one another—what the thematic threads were.
Just as the collection’s title kept changing, until I could find…the one that would open a door for the reader, I arranged and rearranged the poems many times to understand how and why they related to one another—what the thematic threads were.
Once the poems were ordered in a way that I thought was compelling, I then came up with section titles. The irony of Everything Wants to Live, is that people, and other elements of the nonhuman landscape, such as the natural world, die or are not thriving, or are not quite living the lives they imagined for themselves. In “Transmutation,” however, the perspective on death is almost light-hearted. The dead and the living can both give gifts to the universe. Poems in A Posture of Supplication are about non-theistic spiritual experiences—sometimes occasioned by love and sometimes arising out of anger.
BK: Your rhythmic style seems to be a kind of loose and calm free verse, by which I mean the overall effect is harmonious but without a rigid pattern. You’re able to use short lines in several poems: “Her Piece of Another World” (“She had just finished swinging /and her swing was still / going back and forth” and “What the Light is Like,” and longer lines in several other poems. How do you determine whether a poem’s lines will be short or long?
ES: I’m sure as most poets writing primarily in free verse do, I’m constantly revising my line breaks, discovering, through that process, problems with diction, the need for more detail, and above all, the relationship between line and syntax. My poems with shorter lines tend to use more enjambment, and, conversely, my poems with longer lines have more end-stopped lines.
I’m constantly revising my line breaks, discovering, through that process, problems with diction, the need for more detail, and, above all, the relationship between line and syntax.
Only two poems in the collection are not written in free verse: “Everglades” (nonce villanelle) and “Miami Beach: Moonrise.” This poem isn't printed in the traditional sestina form but it is one. Why did you use, or what was gained by using, a traditional and rather complicated form in this particular case as you usually write in free verse?
The latter poem is a eulogy for my brother, a room in the house of memory that I often find myself stepping back into. I decided to write this poem in the sestina form because it is prescriptive and demanding. I selected the six repeated words as words important to me, and important to the two of us—what we meant to one another. I wanted the poem to have a certain gravitas.
BK: Some of your poems work entirely by images, it seems to me. “Sweet Summer Night” is an example which chronicles the narrator walking and what she sees—clouds, a man apparently homeless, philosophy books in a bin with four of their titles, insects, an Io moth, a lightly-lit grocery store, a child crying and being silenced. Another one is “Paradise,” structured in time with “noon,” “then night” and then “midnight” in the poem. Both of these, and some others, give the reader a collection of images which together convey the poem. Does that seem accurate? Do you find it a different kind of poem than some of the others that focus on one particular image or event?
Yes, both of these poems rely less on any type of narrative structure, and more on images or moments that aggregate. In “Sweet Summer Night,” the poem moves almost languidly into becoming more and more ironic. When we finally reach the grocery store and a child’s screams gather such force that his mother “covers his mouth with a thick palm,” any residual sweetness in the poem is dispersed. And, morning to midnight, “Paradise is where you go/to party and forget.” But that doesn’t happen in this slightly hallucinatory version of Paradise.
BK: What are you working on now that this book is out?
ES: I’m writing poems for a new collection entitled Non Finito. The poems are about many unfinished things, from paintings to sculptures, from elaborately conceived-of gardens to a simple desk and to many journeys without destinations. I’m also working on a short story that may turn into a novella. It’s tentatively called “Girlfriends,” and it will borrow from Heart of Darkness.