There are many ways to write a book of poetry. While some poets publish collections of recently written work, Cole Swensen does things a little differently. For each of her 14 books, she has chosen one subject — often historic and often involving other arts — and written poems on that theme, allowing her book to take a particular shape and answer a series of questions.
Swensen’s work is often based in research. Her process? “It’s really very simple. I read a lot, and that makes me want to write. And depending on the subject, there may be physical locations to visit or works in museums, galleries, or special collections,” she said.
Her work is frequently ekphrastic, which means she writes about works in another art form, most recently landscape paintings and garden map etchings. Specific subjects include 18th-century English landscape gardening, 17th-century Baroque gardens, and a 15th-century book of hours, Les Très riches heures du Duc de Berry. Swensen says she’s drawn to these themes because of their beauty and her interest in the transition from private to public spaces.
“I’m also particularly interested in the ‘Dream of Eden,’” she said. “It’s a very particular dream that has haunted mankind ... the idea of a paradisiacal space and where it exists in time. It’s almost always constituted in the past, and that notion is based in loss. There’s an unattainability that seems necessary to our notion of beauty. I find this a disturbingly distorted view, and I’m interested in unraveling it.”
Growing up near San Francisco, Swensen knew from age 11 that she wanted to be a poet. She received her B.A. and M.A. from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California–Santa Cruz. Swensen has published 14 collections of poetry in the United States, which have garnered awards such as the New American Writing Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and two Pushcart Prizes. Her 2004 collection, Goest, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Swensen was also the recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim fellowship.
Also in 2006, Swensen founded La Presse, which publishes contemporary French poetry and creative prose in English translation. She feels strongly committed to translating and has published 16 translated books by living French writers.
“I’m always talking with the people that I translate, and often those discussions start with the piece under our noses, but very quickly develop into larger discussions of poetics, aesthetics, and ethics. It’s one of the richest aspects of translating, I find, and it allows me to understand the piece I’m translating in a much larger and more complex sense,” Swensen said. “The idea of bringing work from other languages into English is very important for expanding the thinkable potentials of English.”
After 10 years on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Swensen is thrilled to be joining the community of fiction writers and poets at Brown as professor of literary arts. “C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, Thalia Field, John Cayley, Renee Gladman, and Keith Waldrop — these are some of my favorite poets in the country,” she said.
At Brown, Swensen will teach creative writing and literature seminars. She is most looking forward to working with students of Brown’s caliber and to collaborating with students and faculty in other departments. “I understand there is an interest in interdisciplinarity here, and that matters very much to me; any field can only truly thrive through cross-pollination.”
Swensen will begin teaching in January 2012.