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Alumna's poetry among best in the nation

November 15, 2004

Image of the front cover of Cole Swensen's National Book Award finalist volume of poetry "Goest"In October, alumna Cole Swensen's ninth book of poetry, "Goest" (Alice James Books, 2004), was named a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, one of five books nominated in the poetry category.

A member of the permanent faculty at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Swensen remembers being moved by poetry before she hit her teens. Her mother, a painter, influenced her writing career. "There is something in the space of painting that is like the space of the page," Swensen says, preferring the immediacy of poetry over prose.

The poems in "Goest" (as in "Whither thou goest, I will go") deal with fleeting images, the color white, transparency, history, the "ghostly" quality of things impossible to grasp.

At SFSU, a class with former lecturer C.D. Wright taught the poet much about concrete, free verse "without emotional manipulation." Other influential faculty included Nanos Valaoritis and Frances Mayes.

"[She] was such a marvelous model -- exacting, passionate, and compassionate. She's one of the best teachers I have ever had," Swensen says.

While pursuing her bachelor's degree, she worked with California Poets in the Schools, a project which began at the University 40 years ago and places poets in Bay Area classrooms.

After SFSU, Swensen enjoyed teaching English as a foreign language before she earned a doctorate in comparative literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. She says that the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" can be as compelling as any poetic discussion. "I think my most interesting teaching job has been basic grammar," she says.

Swensen has been inspired by poets around the world. Her interest in French writers drew her to study the language at the Sorbonne and she continues to enjoy translating contemporary French poetry, fiction and art criticism. "It's like a puzzle," she says, adding that the process is akin to "writing through someone else's mind."

Her poetry collection, "Try," won both the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award and the Iowa Poetry Prize. Other awards include the Pushcart Prize and the New American Writing Award from Sun & Moon Press.

Swensen divides her time between Iowa, Washington D.C., and Paris, where she spends her summers focused solely on her writing. If that last part sounds like heaven to other writers, Swensen confirms that it is.

The National Book Award winners will be announced Wednesday, Nov. 17.

-- Adrianne Bee

Related story: Forty years of California Poets in the Schools. SF State News, Oct. 20, 2004


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