Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
Cole Swensen, Poet, Translator, and Professor
DG: Let’s approach your work in the most sensible way—the process of translation. Borges’s idea of the translation becoming an original, or Ken Liu’s idea—very much connected to George Steiner—that all acts are miracles of translation both come to mind. You’ve done a great deal in bringing French writers into English. How has this informed your own creative vision?
CS: First, I’m struck by your thought that the most sensible way to enter a writer’s work is through the work that she does with others—Thank you! I like that very much—and in part because it begins us with the notion of fluidity—of one person’s work flowing into another’s, eroding the notion of writing as individual, and emphasizing that writing is always to some degree a communal project. Thinking more specifically, translating others’ poetry has given me access to forms and tones that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. It was through translating that I began to see, many years ago, the possibility of the book rather than the individual poem as the basic poetic unit. And I know that I’ve also picked up rhythms from French that are different from Egnlish rhythms; the French approach to the prose poem is a bit different as well, perhaps more matter-of-fact, and I think I’ve absorbed that as well.
DG: How do you choose what to translate? Do the writers’ personalities draw you to their words, or is it the unique way in which they use language?
CS: I’m drawn to translation as a conversation, a conversation around poetics. All the people I’ve translated were living at the time—and most still are—and in all cases, I’ve talked the translation over with them in detail, which always leads beyond the specific work to its larger contexts and to the principles of thought, creativity, imagination, etc. that direct the work. Those conversations are extremely rewarding, and they inform the way I read other works—in both English and French—as well. I think of translation as a form of reading, the most intense and engaged form possible. I almost always meet the work before the writer, and it’s when I find myself wanting to write the line I’m reading—it’s not a feeling of “Ah, I wish I’d written that!” but rather of “I would love to write that!” I think it’s not sufficiently emphasized that translation is not just decoding and recoding; it’s also, and above all, writing.
DG: How much liberty should a translator be allowed—in other words, if you see the opportunity to improve something, do you follow that path, or is it better to remain ever-faithful to the original?
CS: What constitutes an improvement is extremely subjective. What I might consider an improvement, the writer might consider ghastly. But beyond that, translation for me has nothing to do with judging the text, of thinking whether it’s “good” or whether it could be “better”; it’s about engaging with it, and the deepest engagement is not necessarily the one that sticks to it the most literally, but the one that most deeply grasps its specific terms and aims and recreates them as much as possible. I’m committed to presenting the work as the writer would have written it had he, she, or they been writing originally in English.
DG: You travel often to Europe. What would you say are the most notable differences between how poetry is appreciated and promoted in North America, compared to France, or Germany, for example?
CS: I can’t say for Germany—in fact, I can really only say for France—and it seems to me that it’s oddly similar. And I say oddly, because there are so many cultural differences between France and the US, but poetry is, in a sense, its own culture separate from the one it’s surrounded by (like all airports, taken together, form their own country). This is perhaps particularly true of France and the US because there has been such a long history of poetic friendship and exchange. There have been several books, a couple quite recently, that detail these exchanges. Especially during the 20th and 21st centuries, the two poetries have importantly informed each other. In the late 20th century, there was Emmanuel Hocquard’s important project “Bureau sur l’Atlantique,” which engaged with experimental poetics from the Objectivists through the Language Poets, paralleled by Juiliette Valery’s series of publications, Format Américain, and later, beginning in the 2000’s, a bi-national group, Double Change, has been fundamental in a series of readings, conferences, and publications that bring North American work to French attention. In the other direction, Rosmarie & Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press published many French poets over its 60 years, and other presses have also focused on contemporary French work.
But often influences are less obvious. A good example might be the important influence that France and French poetry had on Ashbery. If we then think, in turn, of how important Ashbery’s influence has been on American poetry from the late 20th century on—so many American poets who wouldn’t think of themselves as influenced by anything French have been through Ashbery—and through many others of his generation and those immediately following. And earlier, think how many of the modernists spent serious time in France and with French work. The same is true regarding the influence of some American writers on French poets—so there’s a lot of entwined shaping that many poets are not necessarily aware of. As for the contemporary moment, in both countries, poetry is equally marginalized and largely published by small presses devoted to the form for the love of it.
DG: Over the years, you’ve emphasized the importance walking has had on your creativity. In the philosophical tradition, Nietzsche was perhaps the most fervent adherent to physical movement, at least in relation to creativity: “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement—in which the muscles do not also revel.” And yet, the poet must eventually sit down to write. What were some particularly memorable walks for you, and did they lead to the best poems you wrote?
CS: That quotation, particularly the “in which the muscles do not also revel” is so key—that thinking and writing must also have a kinetic aspect. Though I don’t think it has to be as thorough as, say, walking. You cannot write without the hand’s being active—whether you’re writing by hand or on a keyboard—the hand or hands are dancing, and I’ve always been struck by how many writers enjoy not only letting their imaginations go, but also enjoy the physical act of writing. I began a fairly recent book, On Walking On, with the question of why, for as long as such things have been recorded, so many writers are also inveterate walkers, and it’s interesting to me that the ensuing book didn’t end up persuing the question; it instead wallowed in the experiences of such writers as presented through their writing. Clearly, so many writers have thrived on the complete fusion of the two activities—perhaps it’s because the mind works so differently when the body is active.
DG: European towns—for the most part—are built very differently from cities in the US. Even in big urban areas, everything seems to be in closer proximity, meant to be explored on foot, while North American metropoles are vast, spread out, and this especially in the West. Coming from California, having lived on the East Coast, and experienced Europe, do you feel that any given setting changes your writing, or do you find that the length of your sentences, for example, stays mostly constant?
CS: I like that idea! That a more extensive space might extend the line, but I don’t find that to be true. That said, I do think setting affects my work. Because of Covid, I spent most of 2020 and 2021 in California, just north of San Francisco. And whether there’s any connection or not, I don’t know, but my writing changed completely—much more subject based and based on immediate surroundings. I’m currently on a sabbatical in France, and that focus on the immediate has continued.
DG: In the introduction to your most recent book, Art in Time, you talk about the need to engage “the landscape genre in a fluid way,” in a way that “puts the landscape back into motion,” in order to find alternatives to some of the presumptions and practices of landscape art common to Euro-centric contexts.” Indeed, you’ve also said elsewhere that landscapes are never silent, though they often appear that way to us. What’s the best way to reorient the perception of our own surroundings? Can poetry help us do this, and, if so, what are some of your favorite poems in this respect?
CS: Yes I do think that poetry can reorient our perceptions and perspective, and often does so through the “startle.” Which is not an epiphany—that supposed sudden quasi-spiritual realization that is often closer to emotional manipulation—I’m thinking instead of those startling moments triggered by unusual uses of language; they’re often just about shifting perspective, suddenly de-habituating the scene. Shklovsky used the term “ostranenie”—defamiliarization, and though it’s a heavily-theorized term that been around for a long time, I think it’s a valuable concept and an even more valuable device that allows language to operate constructively on our modes of perception.
Regarding landscape, I’m interested in recognizing a continuity, an inclusivity, that involves everything in sight including the viewer because I think it changes structures of responsibility. Clearly, we as a species, need to take a dramatically different kind of responsibility, which I don’t think we can do as long as we see ourselves as separate from nature and perpetuate distinctions such observer/observed.
DG: With David St. John, you edited a fascinating anthology of poetry, American Hybrid, with the aim of closing the gap between traditional and experimental poetry. Thirteen years after its publication, do you feel that the margin has been closed, or has it perhaps widened unexpectedly?
CS: What interested me at that point, and still does, is a shift from a perception of American poetry as on a linear continuum from the traditional to the experimental—of course that linearity wasn’t “true,” but it was often talked of in that way. It seemed to me that from the 1990s on, there has been an profusion of different tendencies that increasingly cannot be mapped in relation to each other. It’s an exploded field, expanding outward in all directions, full of tendencies that resist comparison—and I think that that’s an extremely promising mode of development; may it continue.
DG: Would you say that those working in the “experimental” genre have perhaps—and in this case, rather unfairly—born a burden that isn’t necessarily only theirs to bear? In other words, many formalists and lyricists, for example, are also trying to do new things with language—tackling taboo subjects, for example, or pushing the boundaries of metaphor, all the while remaining dedicated to their artistic fields; these experiments, however, are sadly not considered “experiments,” but rather interpreted as the “creative impulse,” which, in my view, cheapens the effort of crossing new aesthetic frontiers. Can we really say, hence, there’s an actual difference between creative uses of language and linguistic experimentation?
CS: I’m going to start with the end of the question—yes, I think there is a difference, but I think that the differing cultural values assigned to various practices are inaccurate and unproductive. All language uses have their value—and that value is always determined by the reader/hearer; it’s not inherent in the language use itself. I happen to be very interested in unprecedented uses of language, in broken language and its relationship to the limits of the sayable, and, ultimately, I’m probably more interested in the unsayable than the sayable, and certainly in the volatile boundary between them because I think that’s where the potential for the “startle” mentioned above lies, where our capacity to use language to expand what we can think and feel is based. But many people would not agree and would, instead, find that same potential elsewhere—in tackling taboo subjects, for instance. And I don’t mean to dissolve into a mush of relativism, but to discourage an endless tendency that we all seem to have to judge—to assign definitive value—which is actually simply lazy; we do it just so that we can say “Good, that’s settled. I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Which is an error; we do have to keep on thinking about it, whatever it is; we can never allow anything to settle, or, rather, nothing ever does settle, and if we view it as such, we’re fooling ourselves. This is related to the view of landscape as always fluid that you mentioned above. That reality of the concrete world follows through to every aspect of living.
DG: You teach writing and literature at Brown’s reputable Literary Arts program. There have been rabbit-hole debates about the benefits of teaching writing. Without getting into that, what are things writing programs can do and what are their limitations? In addition, it would be interesting to hear how teaching informs your own creative process.
CS: Writing programs, above all, can give people two or three years to focus almost exclusively on writing and among a variety of resources—courses, libraries, other writers. MFAs allow them to completely immerse themselves in aesthetic questions and their relations to politics, culture, and society. And that, for most people, is a transformative process. No matter what they do afterward, they’ll do it with a different perspective. Regarding limitations—they are based on presumptions. If people think a writing program will, for instance, make them better writers, they’ll likely be disappointed, but if instead, they simply presume that it’s going to change them, and remain open about the directions such change might take, they’ll probably get more out of it. It’s hard for me to say how teaching informs my own writing practice as I have no basis for comparison—I’ve been teaching since I was 20 years old, so it’s inseparable from my writing.
About Cole Swensen
Cole Swensen is the author of 19 books of poetry, most recently Art in Time (Nightboat Books, 2021) and a book of faux-logical nano-essays, And And And (Free Poetry Press, 2022). A former Guggenheim Fellow, she has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, the National Poetry Series, and the PEN USA Award in Literary Translation and has been a finalist for the National Book Award. Co-editor of the Norton anthology American Hybrid and founding editor of La Presse, she also translates literature and art criticism from French. A native of the SF Bay Area, she divides her time between there, France, and Providence RI, where she teaches at Brown University.