INTERVIEW WITH TERESE SVOBODA
by Maurice Turcotte
Terese Svoboda has been educated world-wide, has taught world-wide, and has written world-wide. Her undergraduate degree is from the University of British Columbia and her MFA is from Columbia University. She currently teaches at the Center for Fiction in New York, but she has held teaching positions all over the US and has lectured as far away as Kenya and Russia. She held the McGee Professorship at Davidson College.
She writes poetry, plays, the novel, memoir, biography, short fiction, and libretti. She translates. She produces video. Her numerous awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, Best of Japan, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her poetry videos and documentaries have been shown at MOMA, the Berlin Videofest, Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty, and the Atlanta Film Festival (Director’s Choice).
On a PEN/Columbia Fellowship, she traveled to Sudan and translated the songs of the Nuer. Later she founded a scholarship program in Nebraska for Nuer high school students and also helped produce “The Quilted Conscience,” a PBS documentary on South Sudanese girls learning quilting from women in Nebraska.
About Terese, there is this from the Bloomsbury Review: “There are writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre… Terese Svoboda is one of those writers”.
Maurice: Hi, Terese. Tamra asked me to interview you about your life as a poet. First of all, do
you consider yourself primarily a poet?
Terese: Concern for language marks me as a poet in every genre.
MT: Yes, I think every poet shares those markings. At what point in your life, and how, did this concern for language make its presence felt?
TS: I loved physics but my papers were more rhapsodic than scientific.
MT: I wonder if the divergence between science and the arts is somewhat artificial, though, and perhaps a fairly recent distinction in human activity. Certainly for Da Vinci the creativity in painting came from the same place as the creativity in engineering. Is the a latent physicist hiding somewhere inside you?
TS: My son just graduated with a degree in physics. That's pretty latent.
MT: If you and I met at a party, would you introduce yourself as a poet?
TS: I'd prefer to tell you I was a writer. This will give me time to interest you in my whole practice, which very much includes poetry.
MT: In addition to poetry, you write fiction and criticism, do translations, and create
videos. When you first get the germ of an idea, does it come pre-set with its medium?
TS: Sometimes, but there is a lot of interplay: trying to make a short story into a novel that just keeps ending, writing poems toward the development of a script, wondering whether something deserves more words, stealing ideas from one genre to improve another. I've recently been very interested in the dramatic framing of talk in poems, how speech can be torqued and line breaks can convey both space on the page and in “reality.” I have a number of these poems in my forthcoming When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems.
MT: When will When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems be available? Who is the publisher?
TS: Anhinga Press promises to have it out sometime this year.
MT: I understand how narrative could migrate to poetry and take advantage of the opportunities there. For you, does this also occur in reverse? Do you intentionally give your fiction a poetic complexion?
TS: One word leads to another. Plot (which generally distinguishes fiction from poetry) arises out of the sounds and connotations of the words themselves, seldom from any extraneous conception of character. I don't think these sentences aren't poetic enough, I think they're not interesting enough. I don't write transparent fiction, the kind in which words are purely at the service of plot and character. Baudelaire: Always be a poet, even in prose.
MT: That is excellent advice from Baudelaire. I think the trendy phrase for this would be a “life hack”. Who are your other influences?
TS: Russell Edson, Donald Barthelme, wicked Gordon Lish, Derek Walcott, Adrienne Rich, Dawn Raffel, the commas keep coming.
MT: I'd like to ask you about your process. Do you have a "poetry mode", a "fiction mode",
a "video mode", etc? How does your process change with genre?
TS: It used to be that my husband could tell when I was writing fiction because my head was always in the fridge. I have survived that initiation. Now, when I'm involved in a long work, e.g. a novel, a video, or this biography I'm currently suffering through, poems and sometimes short stories erupt from me, out of frustration that I'm not attending to the vein of Now.
MT: “The Vein of Now”. I like that. Can you elaborate?
TS: What passes through my life moment-by-moment as inspiration: the old dog that can't wag, the light squared against the back wall, the importance of the raisin against the currant. Against the current.
MT: You mentioned your husband. Would you consider him a collaborator, a supporter, an amused spectator? How does he influence your work, if at all?
TS: He's good at getting bored.
MT: Do you have more than one project going in parallel?
TS: Always. Something is always failing.
MT: Are you saying that failure is a part of your process? What happens to the failures?
TS: If I'm failing in one genre, I turn to another. Then elves come and when I return to the project, their work makes it not seem like a total loss. Or it is a total loss but I'm beyond caring. A persistent failure is interesting, will make me return again and again. Sometimes I learn something from one genre that I can apply to a failure in another, sometimes just letting a project breathe resuscitates it.
MT: Recently, I read an article that questioned the efficacy of the poetry critique group. The main argument was that these groups tend to homogenize the poetics of the members, destroying creativity in the process. On the other hand, there are “schools” and “movements” of poets who have a shared aesthetic but who produce poetry that varies greatly in a number of ways. Do you have anyone who you share with, as part of your process?
TS: I submit a completed manuscript to various readers, among them Neil Shepherd, Stephanie Strickland, Mary Sherman Willis, Eleanor Wilner, and Maureen Seaton. Their poetries are wildly divergent but their view is remarkably the same: catholic. No schools there.
MT: Where do you write?
TS: Either at a desk in a shared space with my husband at the other end of the apartment, or at the Center for Fiction, in the blessed silence of a carrel.
MT: If I asked, would your husband say that you have a writing ritual?
TS: I asked. He's never noticed, beyond lunch. If I make lunch then it's not going so well.
MT: You’ve mentioned the refrigerator and lunch. I get the impression that food is part of the process. How does it impinge on your creativity?
TS: If I'm hungry, I can't work. I can worry about money by doing sums on the margins of a page, but my brain is very primitive when it comes to food. Starving poet means someone who's blocked.
MT: Other than feeding yourself, what do you do to become unblocked?
TS: I am never blocked. I am overrun with projects and when one of them proves obdurate, I turn to another with the comfort of knowing that I have something in the oven. “The Ants of God” just published on Paris Review Daily has been nagging me for the last ten years. I tried to write an essay for the Believer about Sudan and during the excruciatingly long edit process, Dave Eggers put forward What is the What and the Believer wasn't interested in me anymore. The piece twisted and turned (I could always go back to that I would tell myself, mostly as a threat). I finally put my dead fish at the feet of the PRO editor—and it was! I accidentally sent the wrong file. Oh, did I rend then. Fortunately he hadn't read it. I struggled mightily with the thing one more time and voila. (I'm a little off-subject here, but the answer is no. I feel as if I've just learned how to write and I hardly know anything about myself or the world and there's so little time.)
MT: In your website bio, there is a bit about new technology. What new technology are you
TS: I have recently been involved with designing an interactive augmented reality game using ghosts.
MT: Very interesting. What does a poet bring to an augmented reality game?
TS: Poets are so underused. Think of the street names that need a poet's input! New technology in particular suffers from a lack of poetry—despite Stephanie Strickland's best efforts, she who has labored in the field of poetry and technology for the last twenty years. In the case of the augmented reality game, I rewrote what the ghosts say and critiqued their exchanges for possible resonance. Whoo-ee.
MT: Poets naming streets? What a subversive idea! My favorite street name is Nitecap Lane, which I have every intention of using as a title when the poem arrives. If you could name / re-name a street, where would it be and what would you name it?
TS: Anything that's called Valleyview or Lakeview or Mountainview or Seaview without a view. That just seems like such a gyp.
MT: A final question – what words would you chisel into the stone arch above the entrance to a creative writing class?
TS: Carpe diem. Catch the fish while you can.
MT: Ah, excellent words from one who has been to the banks of the Nile. Thank-you so much, Terese, for your time and your insights.
Maurice Turcotte earned his undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Georgia State University and an MFA in Poetry from New England College. He curates the web site www.OpenAlphabet.com which hosts interviews with poets who have recently published their first full-length book. In his own writing, he is currently experimenting with recursive quintains. (Note that the Merriam-Webster’s first definition for quintain is an object to be tilted at, rather than a five line poem.) He and his patient wife divide their time between Atlanta and Lookout Mountain.