instructor at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop, Cole
Swensen (B.A., '80; M.A., '83) says she knew she wanted
to be a poet at age 12. 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.
In October, 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.
The poems in "Goest" (as in "Whither thou goest, I will
go") deal with fleeting images, the color white, history, the "ghostly"
quality of things impossible to grasp. They describe object and place,
rather than tug at heart strings.
At SFSU, a class with former lecturer C.D. Wright taught Swensen much
about concrete, free verse "without emotional manipulation."
Other influential faculty included Nanos Valaoritis, who introduced
her to a wide range of international writers. Swensen describes Frances
Mayes as "one of the best teachers I have ever had."
After SFSU, Swensen taught English as a foreign language before earning
a Ph.D. in comparative literature at U.C. Santa Cruz. She has found
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."
Swensen continues to be inspired by poets around the world. Her interest
in French writers drew her to study the language at the Sorbonne and
she enjoys translating contemporary French poetry, fiction and art critcism.
Swensen divides her time between Iowa, Washington, D.C., and Paris,
where she spends her summers focused solely on her writing. If that
sounds like heaven to other writers, Swensen confirms that it is.