Interview with Cole Swensen on Gravesend — March 15, 2013
Cole Swensen is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently Gravesend (UC Press). She is also coeditor of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry and teaches in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University.
Christopher Nelson: What surprised you the most from interviewing people about ghosts?
Cole Swensen: I think it was the high percentage of people who had had ghostly experiences of some sort—that something utterly unexplainable has occurred to so many people, and yet it’s rarely a topic of conversation and, in general, our society doesn’t take ghosts seriously. So they remain oddly secret, which means they become very personal, intimate.
Nelson: Did this exploration of ghosts affirm, challenge, complicate your notions of the before- and afterlife?
Swensen: Yes and no. My own interest in ghosts is based not on notions of an afterlife, but on an interest in the nature of time. It gave me the chance to consider simultaneity from the perspective of specifics and simply to spend time in the overwhelming sensation of time’s incomprehensibility. For some reason, that incomprehensibility gives me great hope, almost elation.
Nelson: An intriguing idea in these poems is that the perception of a ghost is subjective and reveals as much about the perceiver as the perceived. Is it ever anything other than mind that is haunted?
Swensen: That’s an excellent way to put it. It is the mind that is haunted, not the spirit—it’s our faculty of logic and comprehension alone that’s affected. And yes, how a ghost appears and what it’s presumed to mean is the creation of the percipient, I think. Though individuals share these experiences and so condition the assumptions and perceptions of their peers, so the qualities attributed to ghosts in different eras and regions tell us a lot about the abiding concerns of that society—abiding but often not overtly articulated, acknowledged, or even recognized.
Nelson: What about cultural ghosts—phenomena resulting from large-scale trauma and death (e.g., September 11th, the Civil War, Hiroshima)? Gravesend as a place—geographic and psychic—seems to function this way.
Swensen: Yes, exactly. This was, for me, the principle thrust of the book—not ghosts, per se, but the large-scale trauma the western world has inflicted and continues to inflict on the rest of the planet and the phenomena that it has created to try to deal with the resulting guilt, regret, and unease. The town of Gravesend makes a good focus because it’s a port from which thousands and thousands of people set out to wreak havoc on millions of others—not intentionally, perhaps, but quite certainly. And the irony of Pocahontas’ having died there—though genetic evidence indicates that native Americans had been brought back to Europe since the early Viking voyages, most whose cases are recorded were kidnapped and brought to Europe as slaves or, at best, curiosities. I couldn’t find anyone before Pocahontas who’d gone to Europe because she wanted to, gone with a sense of curiosity, even a degree of agency—and the place killed her. That’s oversimplifying, of course, but the story operates symbolically to suggest that Europeans were going to be “the death of them” no matter where—even those who, like Pocahontas, converted to Christianity, married a European, went back to “the old country,” “the old world”; in short, even those who capitulated as much and as cheerfully as possible, were going to die anyway— for and of their difference.
And of course, it continues—through the pollutants, arms, military actions, and other forms of violence that the western world exports. But I didn’t want to approach this directly, in part because many people have already done so to great effect, and in part because I wanted to see if poetic language could approach it obliquely and create a greater affective entrance to the theme, create a visceral gravity that would account for the actual effects of these actions in a different way. I’m not sure it was entirely successful, but it’s something I’m going to continue to work with.
Nelson: Obviously Gravesend is about ghosts, but it is also an examination of uncertainty—uncertainty about our mortal predicament, uncertainty about trusting our perceptions. Does this resonate with you?
Swensen: Yes, very much. As I’ve touched on above, uncertainty about our ethical relations to others; the ghost is, in one sense, an absolute other; an entity that is so completely othered that we can look at it in unabashed horror and terror. It offers a point of displacement for the terror that difference incites in us.
But you’re right, on a much more positive level, ghosts also ignite an uncertainty about our perceptions, with the overall suggestion that there may be more to the world than we can perceive—whether that involves beings, dimensions, energies, etc., it all represents possibility, and above all, the possibility of living on, of new and unimagined modes of living.
So ghosts are thoroughly overdetermined, charged with the most negative and the most positive of functions—and yet they are also free from examination. We cannot answer the questions they raise, so the case is never closed; it remains open, endlessly generative, endlessly potential.
Nelson: And in addition to ghosts, perception, and mortality, Gravesend is about syntax too. Your manipulations and disturbances of syntactic expectation—are these in response to the uncertainty of the subject?
Swensen: Yes, about its uncertainty and about its flickering quality. Ghosts are so often seen out of the corner of the eye, and I wanted a visual echo of that on the page; I tried to get language to flit across a stage, to slip in and out of perceptibility, to have a shimmering ephemerality that language, in fact, can’t have.
Nelson: The prose poem is a frequent form in your books, but your employment of it changes from book to book. Can you talk about this dynamic relationship?
Swensen: I don’t think of them as prose poems, particularly the ones in Gravesend, because the line breaks are all intentional—in fact, for many of them, I had to work quite a bit to get the line breaks to fall where I wanted them. But I like the idea of a poetic line that is justified at both ends; it seems to put as much pressure on the beginning as at the end, to be forcing the poem outward from the center, which seemed appropriate for this subject.
In other books, too, the blocks that look like prose blocks all have very intentional line breaks; at times I have to rewrite texts until I get the lines to break where I want them to, so if prose means that the text breaks wherever the given column width and typeface dictate, then none of it is prose.