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INTERVIEW WITH ROBERTA SWANN

Roberta Swann

Interview by Gloria Mindock, Editor Červená Barva Press

When did you start writing poetry and fiction?

My first published writing was "The Model Life," a funny four page prose-poem about my experiences supporting myself as a fashion model. Too inexperienced to know better, I submitted it to six literary magazines and received five acceptances. Then I had to explain my way out, choosing the magazine that was the most forgiving. I was never part of a writers' community or MFA program. The only workshop I ever took was taught by Brian Swann at the 92nd. St. 'Y'. His tough approach appealed to me and made me aware I could write observantly about anything.

Who are some of your favorite writers? Why?

Favorite writers pop up everywhere. Some are my students. The first writing class I taught was at the Cooper Union. I called it "Voices of the Third Age," targeting people over fifty. It remains one of my favorite experiences. Class enthusiasm fueled my confidence. My methods were ordinary, taken straight from Kenneth Koch's book of surefire exercises like: "I never told anybody," or "I remember." Responses around the room were original and vivid. Without saying so, we taught each other the power of language. I still recall the hush that fell when Ernst said, "I remember Isabel." It was just three words, spoken last, after many other reminiscences, but everyone knew what there was about a woman named Isabel. So, I guess my favorite writers are those who leave an echo, like William Carlos Williams, Philip Roth, George Eliot, and Ernst.

Where did you go from there?

After teaching writing classes at Bennington College, The New School, Baruch College and for Poets and Writers, I became Program Director of the Great Hall at Cooper Union, which lasted fifteen years. One of the Great Hall's first speakers was Abraham Lincoln who made his famous "right makes might" speech there. I dropped Lincoln's name shamelessly. It worked like magic to draw hundreds of our best-known thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, even U.S. presidents. I also so-founded the American Jazz Orchestra at the Cooper Union with John Lewis and Gary Giddins. The AJO went on to make recordings featuring the music of Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford and Benny Carter's "Central City Sketches," which picked up a Grammy. That I never thought it strange to sit in my office shooting the breeze with Max Roach, Ron Carter, Mel Lewis, Bobby Short, Dizzy Gillespie and many others reflects how generous and genuine these men were.

Talk about your forthcoming book, Everything Happens Suddenly.

The title comes form a collaboration with Andy Warhol for Poetry on the Buses. The poems span fifteen years. The idea that everything happens suddenly no matter how long it takes still holds true for me. I like small surprises, accessible poems, quirky takes, humorous glances. I've never lost faith in coincidence and tend to be a magic thinker. My father died at the cruel age of thirty-eight when I was twelve. My mother, who didn't catch many breaks, raised two small girls alone. I turned to books for knowledge and satisfaction. I don't have a daily writing habit. I write only when fired up.

Where do you write?

Mostly in our country house in the western Catskills. It's taken me a long while to dig in. Nature, one of poetry's oldest quarries, did not come naturally to me. Knowing only New York City, rural settings made me nervous. Now , I'm on a first-name basis with the wildlife-at least with the chipmunks. I've discovered an affinity with insects, noticing how beautiful even a fly is up close. How beautiful? Log on to the Natural Resources Defense Council's:
http://www.oneearth.org/multimedia/podcast/city-girl-in-the-country-a-conversation-with-poet-roberta-swann .

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a book of personal essays, surprising myself because they are not about the glamorous stuff, but mostly about my mother's long decline.

Does working in fashion effect your writing?

Not much. A little. I've said, sometimes defensively, that fashion can be great fun, transformative and creative. But it can also be trivial. When the famously contemptuous editor of "Vogue" just remarked (on camera) that her style wasn't aimed at women from Minnesota shaped like little houses the press went wild. You can't make that stuff up. And Foot in mouth is not a good look.

Last comments?

It's gratifying to have an editor like you who solicits writers, rather than the other way round. I'm delighted to be among your authors.

 


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