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‘All life is the domain of poetry’: A Conversation with Terese Svoboda

A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda is the author of 18 books. She has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry award for the short story, a Bobst prize for the novel, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. She is a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Yaddo, McDowell, and Bellagio residencies. Her opera WET premiered at L.A.’s Disney Hall in 2005.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new book, Great American Desert, considers questions of climate change, sustainability, and environmental ethics.  What is the connection between writing and activism for you?  What kinds of advocacy are possible within fiction that might not be, in say, poetry or nonfiction?

Terese Svoboda:  I’ll quote the subject of my biography Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. When asked what were the proper subjects for poetry, Ridge answered “All life is the domain of poetry; not only the ancient rituals of love and birth and death, but all vast happenings, from wars, strikes, the endless crucifixions of labor to the being of the smallest flower.” In other words, passion comes in many packages, not just Victoria Secret’s. Literature, our highest level of verbal expressiveness, should never be cordoned off from our true serious selves.

Fiction, however, is less intimidating than poetry for readers, being without ideogrammatic indentations and poetry’s code of confusing white space. The simplicity of writing margin-to-margin allows readers to ease into a world that can be argued with and imagined as theirs, the most cozy form of fan-fictionery, the first step in identifying with the writer and understanding a different world view. Poetry is limited by the size of the audience willing to entertain its rules.

Never, however, should fiction or poetry or nonfiction advocate or they become propaganda, a conversation that is not porous. Literature must present the truth, which is always open and complex. Maybe that’s its only rule.

Creative nonfiction upholds the tenets of fiction with regard to seeking emotional truth, but journalism, which is what I think you mean, presents the facts with a eye toward objectivity. Of course no writing is truly objective, just as no documentary “tells both sides of the story.” The point of view of the writer is the lens used to focus the facts for the reader, and every Heisenbergian shedding of light on the subject changes the subject. Since journalism’s information is not delivered in scenes that create the fictive dream, it lacks the powerful tool of reader identification, but sometimes the power of a good set of numbers is just as irrefutable. The wealthy one percent.

Everyone believes fiction and poetry, everyone questions journalism. Were you really there?

KMD:  You’ve had an accomplished career across literary genres, with poetry, biographies, and short story collections published by top notch presses.  How has writing prose — especially research-based prose — enriched your craft as a poet?

TS:  That’s like asking whether the rooster affects the donkey. Those who write computer manuals for a living can attest that they must blank out money-driven prose to write the honey-driven. Not that there’s any money in writing biography! Even though writing fact-based prose does not improve one’s poetry, research can uncover worlds previously unknown that wink to the poet as content. Okay, so I’ve also experimented with the deadness of the declarative sentence as poetry – because a poet has to poke at even the most unyielding material.

KMD:  What advice do you have for writers who are working in a particular genre, and are looking to make a switch from, say, poetry to fiction?  Or from nonfiction to fiction?  What obstacles – and rewards – should they anticipate?

TS:  You have to start over. I had to write at least a hundred unpublishable stories (I’ve been archiving, I counted) before I understood a whit of what makes a story work, and that sense of story is part of what makes creative nonfiction work as well. Of course being a poet I assumed I had to remake the form every time I put pen to paper, which did not help. Although I still believe in exploding genre as a result of a class with Gordon Lish, who very much wanted to jettison 19th century prose, now I have more of a sense of what boundaries to detonate.

Journalism or academic writing is more respectable than fiction or creative nonfiction. Sometimes it pays! I managed to get myself neck-deep in disrespect – one of my Vogue pieces is “Sex with Your Ex” – and I eventually found that writing articles took more time than they generated income. I am better at evoking emotional truth, not stating facts, especially since facts need to be delivered without frill, being dead weight the reader has to carry from one point to the next. But then I started to burn up with desire to understand the life of someone else and had to figure out what would make a reader want to carry all those facts. I used myself as a guide. If I wasn’t interested, neither was the reader.

The reward of tackling more than one genre is versatility. A writer should know how to craft a sonnet, a story, and a feature. But some people are more left-handed than right, and eventually find one genre more conducive. There’s no way to know this unless you try, and you’ll always fail at the beginning. I probably wouldn’t have been so determined to cheat on my true love, poetry, except that at the very beginning of my career, I lived a year in the Sudan that blew me apart. I published a very long poem about the experience but continued to be frustrated and confused about what I still had to express. It took fifteen years of all those bad short stories before I knew enough about how to stretch and contract the prose line to produce some semblance of a novel.

I’ve also made fifteen art videos – not the girly ones – as a result of thinking about the connection between word and image, the title of a show I curated for MoMA in the nineties. I like to experiment at the edge of what’s believable in narrative, and the power of the image split from dramatic intent was fascinating to explore.

KMD:  What nonliterary texts have been most formative for your craft as a fiction writer?  For your work in other genres?

TS:  Are Daniel Defoe’s The Plague Years and his “as told to” Robinson Crusoe nonliterary or proto-literary? He had a great impact on my fiction. Other influences: De Chirico’s Hebdomeros that is neither novel nor autobiography, Donna Harraway’s Primate Visions in how she weaves together race, anthropology, class and feminism, Mac Wellman’s brilliant opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a crazy adaptation of a short story by Ambrose Bierce that is meta-literary, Before Night Falls, the autobiography of the genius Cuban, Reinaldo Arenas. Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presences, a hybrid of movies, myth and stories walks all over genre to explain subconscious bias to me. In my video work, the film San Soleil by Chris Marker that makes metaphor out of the space between voiceover and image. The footage is “nonliterary,” that is, documentary, but the use he makes of it is pro-. For Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, it would be Christine Stansell’s American moderns: Bohemian New York and the creation of a new century. For Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, I argued with John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and the memoir Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska. So mostly texts that tease the literary or try to subvert it.

KMD:  You’ve also participated in many literary arts residencies, including MacDowell and Bellagio.  And it was a pleasure to overlap at Yaddo a couple of times.  What have artist communities – and the creative practitioners you’ve crossed paths with there — opened up within your artistic practice?

TS:  The less-alone factor. Everybody goes off into the void of the imagination to get his daily dopamine to justify his time in solitary, then gathers at the edge of the battlefield to compare headaches. Putting aside my envy of visual artists’ use of color, our processes are boringly similar, but the groaning is in chorus.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What can readers look forward to?

TS:  I’m hacking away at a novel about a multi-ethic harem in North Africa that meets a Chinese poet fleeing a reeducation camp working on an oil pipeline in Sudan. I also have God Gave Noah The Rainbow Sign, a poetry collection that is done to a turn.