Editor’s Note: We were so very disheartened to hear that Joan Swift passed away on March 13 at the age of 90. We offer our condolences to her family and her friends. This 2010 interview with Swift was conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz and posted at She Writes.com (which has since reorganized its site). You can read a selection of Joan Swift’s poems here on our Fertile Source site from Snow on a Crocus: Formalities of a Neonaticide (Swan Scythe Press, 2010, winner of the Walter Pavlich Memorial Award).–Tania Pryputniewicz
First off Joan, you are one of my heroes, for your poetry in The Dark Path of Our Names in which you grapple with the subject of rape. Here in Snow on a Crocus, Formalities of a Neonaticide, I am wondering once again how you arrive at the strength and vision to inhabit your subjects. Can you talk about the process of writing both volumes, and how they differed for you? About experiential bedrock vs. imagined landscapes?
The strength and vision you mention: I think if I possess those two attributes, it may be because I was abused as a very young child by my father and watched as he abused my mother. I obviously didn’t understand at such a young age what was happening and so must have repressed the anger, terror, and sorrow. I think I’ve been trying to get this straight in my head ever since, using what you call strength and vision derived from those early years in my life. Trying to understand this violence has had its impact on other poems I’ve written.
About the differences in writing the rape poems and the neonaticide poems, in the first few, Parts of Speech, which you may not be familiar with, I was very close to the subject then. The two poems from that group I consider “keepers” are both in form: one in The Dark Path of Our Names uses a court room locale where the testimony of each witness is a kind of scaffolding for their emotional revelations. Form is less prevalent here, except in my own testimony where I chose an almost journalistic style to keep the event at a distance.
But I found it absolutely indispensable in writing the poems in “Snow On a Crocus”. This is heavy material, a hard subject. I was neither the one who committed the crime, nor the victim. It was much more difficult to write these poems because I wasn’t there. Everything, even documented material, had to be imagined. Both groups of poems rely on description, but describing the emotions of someone other than myself was far more difficult than making a poem of my own feelings.
I don’t consider the poems in Snow On a Crocus to be in someone else’s voice or the taking on of a persona, but to be my imaginings. Only the confused unwed pregnant young woman, the baby’s father, the young woman’s mother, and then a dead newborn infant are actual fact. Other details, including those taken from newspaper articles or a comment by someone in the family, have had to be largely imagined. It was, in its strange way, easier to write those things that came from my own imagination in these new poems than in either one of my rape sequences.
Which poems in the collection came to you first? Can you talk about writing “The Start of the Story and Some of the End,” with its powerful closing imagery (last two stanzas): “The child will circle your days long after she’s gone / like a boat that swings on an anchor chain / and never heads out to sea / day after trembling day”?
The first poem I wrote in what was to become the neonaticide sequence was “Prisoner”. It was, in fact, the only poem I intended to write. But others kept creeping into my consciousness. I really can’t remember the order in which they were written. Probably the second poem to come to me is the one you mention, “The Start of the Story and Some of the End”. I had for some time this image in my head of Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side, where I’ve stood close to the water and watched it glide rapidly up to and over the edge. That image didn’t make it into that poem but ended up, strangely, in the last poem. Or at least the violence of the water. Well, there it is again, violence.
In “The Start of the Story…” I try to tell how the young woman got carried away with her first real love and what happened later because she wasn’t careful. I think I expected this poem to be just one more, but had to put a title on it later when I found myself wanting more answers to more questions and had to go on with poems that went into her fear and ambivalence.
I tried in the sequence to explore the number of reasons, most totally unconscious, a woman would commit such an act. There’s the genetic element of self-preservation. It’s innate in all of us. In the book there is a poem about that and a poem about the hormonal influence, how rapidly hormones change after giving birth, affecting a woman’s mood, her acts. And more than one poem about the ambivalence the couple together had about placing the infant for adoption or raising it together.
I think things would have turned out differently if the woman had sought help rather than trying to keep the pregnancy a secret, a subject addressed in the villanelle. But maybe hope and more confusion stood in the way. Here again, as I said earlier, form was a way of controlling the difficulty of the material. Yet, somewhere else I’ve also said that form frees the imagination. Using rhyme frees the imagination. So I think using form provided a double benefit.
That hopeful plea in the last Line from The Inmate Remembers, “I can mend the song. I’ll try,” is a beautiful example of the way your work celebrates the human spirit despite the calamities of circumstance. Can you talk about that theme in your poetry (any other specific poems you would point to)? Any stray hauntings remaining from having written this collection (unwritten poems or voices left over from this subject)?
“I’ll mend the song. I’ll try.” Well, I think this line I’ve put in the young woman’s mouth goes back again to my experiences in early childhood and is repeated, as you suggest, in many of my other poems, especially those addressed to or about my mother. “Letter from Hilo” from The Tiger Iris is one.
Do you have a sense of where you’ll turn next, in terms of your poetry?
I haven’t given my next direction any thought. I’m still recovering from the hard work of writing Snow On a Crocus.
Any desire to talk about your readers’ reactions over the years to The Dark Path of Our Names? Any early reader feedback on Snow on a Crocus?
I have no idea how readers are responding to this new chapbook. It’s much too early yet. It’s also a little scary. At least five readers have told me how impressed they are with the artistry and two others have emailed me not once but twice telling me how much they admire the work. So many readers, as you know, read a book and never say anything about it at all.
As a fellow writer, I’m curious to know how it was to navigate writing about an incident based on family matters (which can be such a delicate negotiation). Has there been a response from your family about the volume?
When I started in earnest writing about this material, I worried all the time what the family would think, and hoped they might gain a new perspective. I was, of course, apprehensive, and sent one relative close to the young woman two or three poems in advance of the book publication. She’s also the only family member I’ve sent the finished book to and while she admitted she didn’t understand some or many of the poems, she acknowledged their sensitivity. She also said the book was a good teaching tool but that she thought the young woman herself, the protagonist, probably wasn’t ready to read it. (She’s served her time in prison, has graduated from college, and is now employed.)
How was your writing, or relationship to writing, shaped by your experience as a student of Theodore Roethke?
Theodore Roethke very much influenced me to write in a formal manner. Many of my poems are not formal but even in those poems I feel a necessity to avoid the easy conversational style I see so often now which usually, I admit, show a strict attention to the sound of the language, something Roethke passionately stressed.
When did you first begin writing?
I guess you might say I wrote my first little poem at the age of five, using all the wrong fingers on all the keys of my great-aunt’s Royal typewriter.
Any words of advice for young female poets, starting out?
You have to adore language, listen to the way it sounds, respond to your surroundings carefully and accurately, be prepared to write and rewrite, get involved with other poets, be willing to accept criticism, don’t curl up in a ball when a rejection slip arrives in the mail, and be ready for lots of competition.
Joan Swift’s website: www.joanswift.com