Poetry Prize Judge Cole Swensen in Conversation with Soham Patel

Cole Swensen, judge of our 2024 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, is the author of nineteen books of poetry, most recently And And And (Shearsman Books, 2023); a collection of hybrid ekphrastic essay-poems, Art in Time (Nightboat Books, 2021); and a volume of critical essays, Noise that Stays Noise (University of Michigan Press, 2011). She is a former Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the Iowa Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award, a National Poetry Series selection, and the PEN USA Award in Translation. She has been a finalist twice for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and once for the National Book Award, and was a permanent faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for ten years and in Brown University’s Department of Literary Arts for twelve years.

The Loraine Williams Poetry Prize is an award for a single poem, to be published in The Georgia Review. The winner will receive an honorarium of $1,500. We also publish three finalists, each of whom receives $200. Submissions for the Loraine Williams Poetry Prize will be accepted through May 15. Read full contest details.

Associate poetry editor and reviews editor Soham Patel recently spoke with Swensen to discuss translation, process, and style.

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Soham Patel (SP): Do the works you translate influence your own writing, and if so, what are some recent translations that are affecting you and how? 

Cole Swensen (CS): Yes, undoubtedly, though it’s not always traceable, but in translating, you so thoroughly internalize the text that it cannot not influence you. For me, it is at times a matter of a translation’s reverberating with an emergent or latent tendency of my own, giving that tendency a chance to leap out and become full blown. For instance, a book I translated in 2015, Hervé LeTellier’s Atlas Inutilis, echoed very strongly with a kind of short, clear, but twisted prose poetry that I’d done a few of in the preceding several years, but then, years later, in 2020, it suddenly became my principal form of the moment. I wasn’t consciously thinking of that work, but as I worked more and more in that form, I heard more and more echoes. And once, many years ago, I found myself writing in a new rhythm—I loved it—so nice to be doing something new, and I found the rhythm itself really engaging. After a couple of days, it suddenly struck me that it came from a failed translation that I’d done a few years earlier. So those are examples of occasions when I’ve consciously registered the influence, but I know that everything I translate influences me in some way, usually untraceable, but not the less formative for that.

SP: The notion that a poem endures is abstract, and although it can be difficult, as a teacher, you’ve had to describe how a poem endures, how a poem is “good:” what are some qualities or ideas that you might ascribe to great poetry? 

CS: Ah! Huge question! And impossible to answer, which is, in itself, liberating—because it’s impossible, we can just rattle on a bit and see what comes of it. I have a strong conviction that poetry’s role is to expand language. And there are so many ways that can be done—through innovative syntax, sound relationships that create new connections, images that do the same. Expanding language is so often a matter of creating new connections, which sometimes extend the network and at other times make existing linguistic networks more intricate. In other words, expanding language doesn’t only mean enabling it to cover new expressive territory, but also making existing expressive territory denser, quicker, more intense. Much great poetry seems to create an arc that spans from the concrete and graspable to the slipping-out-of-your-hands, and the leaps we make to catch that which is slipping land us in new regions, while allowing us to remain anchored in the “understandable.” I put “understandable” in scare-quotes because I’m not sure that poetry is ever about understanding—when we understand something, we’re necessarily standing outside of it, whereas poetry uses language in such a way that we don’t understand it, but experience it, participate in it.

SP: The pace of the syntax in your poetry is often recursively meditative. For example, in each book I see a deep attention to sequencing, a heady interiority informed by reading widely, and you walking the reader with you through landscapes that are at once both specific and illusory. Can you talk a little bit about this important mode across your body of work? 

CS: The way you’ve phrased the question suggests syntax as a kind of landscape in itself—a landscape of language—which I really like. Landscape is very important to me as subject matter, but it’s also important in terms of extensivity, the concept of an extension that leads one farther than the eye can see, metaphorically as well as literally, and as soon as one is beyond sight, the imagination takes over. The issue of page-space is always crucial, but there’s also a spatiality that is beyond the page, and I think you touch on it in your evocation of walking. Bringing reading into that physical realm seems very apt; reader and writer must match pace, and in a sense, the writer’s pace remains in suspension until the reader comes along and reactivates it.

 

Cole Swensen is the author of nineteen books of poetry, most recently And And And (Shearsman Books, 2023); a collection of hybrid ekphrastic essay-poems, Art in Time (Nightboat Books, 2021); and a volume of critical essays, Noise that Stays Noise (University of Michigan Press, 2011). She is a former Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the Iowa Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award, a National Poetry Series selection, and the PEN USA Award in Translation. She has been a finalist twice for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and once for the National Book Award, and was a permanent faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for ten years and in Brown University’s Department of Literary Arts for twelve years.

Soham Patel joined The Georgia Review in 2018 where she works as an assistant editor and manages the book review section. She is the author of four chapbooks of poetry including and nevermind the storm and New Weather Drafts (both from Portable Press @Yo-Yo Labs) and the full-length collections to afar from afar (Writ Large Press, 2018) and ever really hear it (Subito Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Subito Prize. Patel is a Kundiman fellow and a poetry editor at Fence. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in English from Western Washington University, and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee where she served for four years as a poetry editor at cream city review.