Quiet Reflections: David Swerdlow Talks Poetry

by Sarah Pringle

When a young writer, such as myself, is presented with the opportunity to interview a poet such as David Swerdlow, you say “Yes.” Swerdlow, the author of the poetry collections Bodies on Earthand Small Holes in the Universe, came to Old Dominion University this past fall for the 34th Annual Literary Festival, and I was very excited to have the opportunity to speak with him and discuss his thoughts on writing poetry. As a professor at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, Swerdlow spends much of his time with young writers and is aware of the struggles some face with writing in our world today.

When I asked Swerdlow why he writes, he replied, “It is the only way that I have to understand my life.” He said poetry speaks to him because “Poetry helps to explain things to you, or at least it embodies them for you, so that you can witness them again. When I write, I am witnessing my own life in action and trying to enact it on the page again, and to be myself again, one with myself each time I write.”

Swerdlow explained that he also came to poetry from “an absolute passion for words.” He believes that “poetry begins where a typical arrangement with language fails, that clichéd moment,” and instead of trying to find the words, “you try to have the words find you.” He believes that when writing poetry, “You’re inventing this language that begins where language fails; that’s why it’s difficult, and that’s why it’s enchanting; it’s not because it is difficult, it’s because it begins with difficulty. Often times we move through our lives as happy little ghosts, or unhappy little ghosts, and we write about it. We become both ourselves and witness to ourselves. When I write, I sink into myself, and sense and feel my life more deeply; I feel its truths and become a witness to it. You become both subject and object of what you experience.”

I asked Swerdlow about subject specifically, and his answer was refreshingly honest. “You sit down everyday and you’re not sure what’s going to come out. I look for moments where I feel a kind of complexity that is fertile.” He said his writing is “mostly meditation about the relationship between grief and beauty. Somehow there is a poignancy in loss or anticipated loss, that makes life and/or lives feel important.” He has written a number of lines in honor of a student of his who passed away. Swerdlow’s goal when writing is to “transform loss into something that is more palpable, but even something noble, so that we can go on with our existence.” By bringing a kind of beauty to the loss, it becomes something else. “Something I can contend with, something acceptable.”

Swerdlow’s more recent work centers around, in his words, “traditionally political and cultural issues as they relate to travel.” He wants to create “a witness’ dimension of depth” as opposed to “a tourist dimension of flatness.” This connects back to his need to be more than what Swerdlow considers a “bystander” in a situation. Swerdlow considers a witness a more active participant. Like in his previous work, he said he is still “always looking for a line or image or a bit of music that has complexity, that has layers of truthfulness.” He said poetry has to become “deeply personal from an angle that is not always expected. You’ve got to find your way of looking at it that is not through the camera so often looked through, but through your own lens.”

Swerdlow’s summary of his writing style can be seen as both comforting and slightly unnerving (depending on your personal feelings about your own writing). “Inspiration,” he said, “not plan.” For him it’s important to be open to the inspiration guiding your creativity. “Let [a poem] unfold; you don’t create it, it creates itself within you.” He also believes that a poet must “give attention in the most serious concentrated way,” and explained that “you have to attend to your subject matter, you have to listen to it inside of you.” For Swerdlow, the same is true of form. “I was previously writing in very unbalanced, or fragmented lines,” he said, because that’s where his life was taking him. Later, when writing the poems in Bodies on Earth, he said he began to write in a form that he felt helped him to deal with the subject matter in the book, and more specifically The Nest poems. “I found the form classically very productive,” he said. “It gave me the right balance to deal with that loss that is expressed in those poems.”

As far as writing habits are concerned, Swerdlow said he prefers to write early in the morning while his wife and children are asleep. “When you get into your day, everything is pretty much the here and the now, but poetry is not about merely the here and the now; it has to do with present moment, it’s got to keep its eye, and its ear, and its heart, and its organs, attentive to the more mythical moment. Poetry has to be at the intersection between the temporal and the eternal.” Those early mornings are a special time. “I sort of dwell in the half sleep of the eternal… [and] write at that moment in time, without intention, to write into being. Not being in time, but just being.”

Apparently, the fear that many of us have as beginning writers – that we are somehow not good enough – doesn’t go away with success. Swerdlow fears that he’ll be “uncovered” as an imposter. “That somehow what I have to say isn’t really important or worthwhile or true. I have a great fear that I will open my mouth and nothing will come out of any value, and that it’s done. Whatever opportunity I had to see something that resembles the truth will just vanish. The line between a great truth and a great folly is quite slim.” He confessed that sometimes he wonders if he should just keep quiet. Conversely, he worries, “Maybe you’re going to write something important, and it’s not going to get much attention.” But ultimately, his anxiety echoes that of many of us, “You won’t be able to write, that it will start to go away. I fear I will lose whatever confidence I have in making good poems.”

When he considers that possibility, it’s not just about losing a way of making a living. “When you feel like that, you feel like you’re never going to be alive again. When you’re in the midst of writing a poem that you love, it’s like being in the midst of being with someone you love. There is nothing that comes close to it. It’s intercourse. It’s that passionate, that charged, that full, and losing [the ability to write] would be a tremendous loss.”

I asked Swerdlow for some advice for young or new writers. “Listen to yourself and all of the voices,” he said. “Don’t try to sort them out but see how they interact with each other and honor them on the page.” He also advised writers to “look for awareness,” as well as “depth and complexity.” Be wise and confident, and “rather than trying to find what you have to write about, pay attention and the things you need to write about will become clear.” Swerdlow concluded by saying, “Don’t manufacture poems, create them, let them be created. You have to give yourself to the poem, don’t make the poem do what you want it to do. Let the poem have its life.”

David Swerdlow is aware of his craft and has a clear view of what he is striving for and hoping to achieve in his writing, as well as what he has already done. He has insightful views about method, and in this sense has a lot to share with young writers about process and how to achieve an optimal product. Swerdlow’s poems are very representative of his quiet thoughtful demeanor. Hopefully he will never see a day when he loses confidence in his work, and that the world will continue to enjoy his poetry, and the life they represent, for many years to come.

Click here to read “Our daughters” by David Swerdlow.


Sarah Pringle is a first year MFA student at Old Dominion University, and a volunteer for Barely South Review. Originally from Canada, she has been living in the USA for 12 years. As an undergraduate, Sarah was a runner-up for the ODU Poetry Prize. Sarah enjoys traveling internationally as much as possible, and is working on incorporating her travels into her writing. Sarah’s goal for 2012 is to begin seeking publication for more of her own poetry.