In Class With Professor Cole Swensen, Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Cole Swensen, Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University.
What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?
Formally, plain speaking and direct address of subject matter seem frequent—we seem to be in a moment when content, rather than form or sound, is foregrounded. The potential of poetry as a social force also seems to be being widely explored—and with some important results. That said, it’s such a difficult question because there is such a wide range of works being written today, and they vary so greatly from country to country, and what a healthy thing that is!
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
Falling into abstraction—I think of Pound: Go in fear of abstractions. And vagueness. Precision of language is such a beautiful thing, and language and writing are too often not taught in ways that underscore that value, so it can be easy for students to not recognize when, in fact, their writing is not conveying the precision of their thoughts or images.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Read. Reading widely—covering huge swatches of time and the entire planet—is the most helpful thing that a poet can do, I think. You see the amazing range of things that people have done, and are still doing, with words. Then try playing with forms and approaches beyond your own time and tradition—if you’re American, try imitating an ancient Indian work; if you’re Indian, trying working off of traditional Inuit poetry—vary your influences and keep adding to them. Always try to work beyond what you already know. And, re the above, try to avoid abstraction and vagueness … as cliché as it is, I find myself often repeating the adage “show, don’t tell”—it remains excellent advice. Cleave to the real world; its astonishing depth and beauty is inexhaustible. And never try for meaning—any meaning you can reach through trying is already old hat; on the other hand, very moving and resonant things can emerge from an appreciative engagement with the concrete world.
What poets are you teaching this semester?
I’m teaching a class in the history of the book, so I’m very excited to be using Amaranth Borsuk’s relatively new book published in the MIT Essential Knowledge series, titled simply The Book—I’ve been teaching this class from time to time for years, and this is exactly the book I’ve been hoping for—it’s a must-read for everyone who loves books. We’ll also be looking at her poetry and multi-media work—marvelous.
My other class is a graduate poetry workshop. I like to base such a class on critical reflections, so I’ll be using the essay collection Poetry and Cultural Studies, ed. Damon & Livingston, but I’ll also be bringing in poetry by a range of writers. I always mix works from all times and places; we’ll read (listed in alphabetical order) Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Izumi Shikibu. Among contemporary writers, we’ll read Caroline Bergvall, Biswamit Dwibedy, Aditi Machado, Fred Moton, Laura Mullen, and Arthur Sze.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
The students! Getting to talk with people in real depth about their work. Also, having a job that allows you to focus on something you really love—it’s basically simply continuing to study all your life, literally never leaving school.
Cole Swensen is the author of seventeen collections of poetry, most recently On Walking On (Nightboat, 2017), Gave (Omnidawn, 2017), and Landscapes on a Train (Nightboat 2015), and a volume of critical essays. Her poetic collections turn around specific research projects, including ones on public parks, visual art, illuminated manuscripts, and ghosts. Her work has won the National Poetry Series, the Iowa Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, and the PEN USA Award in Literary Translation. A former Guggenheim Fellow, she is the co-editor of the Norton anthology American Hybrid and the founding editor of La Presse Poetry (www.lapressepoetry.com). She teaches at Brown University.