John Swain

(2011) This was one of my favorite interviews with one of my favorite people, poet John Swain. This is a repost from a year ago, before I met him in person, before I could really call him a friend, when all I really knew was the work. I loved his poems then, and love them even more now. -Elynn Alexander

LA: When did you first call yourself a poet, or describe yourself this way? How did it feel, using the term applied to what you do?

JS: The appellation, “Poet,” is to me an honorific, much in the same manner as a title or an esteemed degree, earned through, as you have said before, “the service of words.”   While for as long as I can remember I held an inward sense of myself as a poet or rather one who creates or transforms, I could not coronate myself like a tyrant.  The term only held legitimacy once it was bestowed by another in recognition of the quality of the work itself and not any mysterious quality in me as a person.  Therefore, I struggled toward the name “Poet” like a mask to inhabit.  The process is long and full of pain and loneliness and doubt and it still continues.  It is also the greatest joy, a dream I strive to live in and maintain and overcome so as to keep discovery anew.

LA: What would you say about how much of your identity it comprises? I know you as a poet, but there is much to know about John Swain, “creator.” What are your other interests, and what might you be interested in exploring in the future? What else are you anxious to try, if anything?

JS: My totality.  While I tend to compartmentalize my life and I believe each individual is necessarily comprised of several, even infinite, aspects, these are part of a unified mind-soul-and-body consciousness that flows in and through each other ultimately toward the expression of reinvention and fulfillment.  There are many varied points along the way to be investigated, broad as the scope of human experience.  Poetry cannot be conceptualized in the economics ofeveryday life or even in terms of the economics of the other arts, although poetry underlies and animates the fabric of everyday life.  To me, it is as essential as survival.  Poetry is neither hobby nor a part-time job.  Often without remuneration.  Often without laurel or any validation.  Love and devotion is all.

My interests basically consist of the dynamic between that which enables the writing of poems and then decompression from the tension writing causes.  Remote places are good for both. I am interested in learning and travel. Other people’s stories.  A couple drinks.  Friendship and the movement of birds.  Fishing with my dad. My mom and sister’s cooking.  Looseness.  Someday belonging somewhere.

Two recent interests I would like to explore are performance and flash fiction.  Whereas for most of my life I have shied from contact, performance now interests me for its communal aspect and for the transformation actual breath has on the work from the perspective of both reader and audience.  And simply, a chance to meet and interact with other writers.  I don’t know which terrifies me more, reading or fiction, but somehow that is an impulse that has been coincidentally  encouraged, so I might give a go at pratfall and catastrophe.  Poetry is essential in its aims whereas fiction luxuriates in the contours of the particular.  I love hearing and telling stories, so why not write a couple down?

I try to avoid anxiety, though it often specters in so many areas.  Outside of poems, I can’t think of anything I’d anxiously strive for.  I continually attempt to conform the chaos of thought and behavior to the true and warm direction of the heart. To be certain, there is so much I want to see and experience like a scuba dive or a snow leopard or better language skills.  So I will say that I anxiously try to remain open, anxiously try to combat stagnation.

LA: Readers of your work can see certain characteristic elements: Nature, of course. Turbulence. Water and cycling life. A romantic quality-glimpses of women who often appear in near periphery. Cloth, layered or shrouding. Certain things appear throughout, spanning different works. What can you say about some of the “motifs” and recurring elements? Are they deliberate, intentionally placed? What do they mean to you, from the poet’s point of view?

A very interesting and difficult question.  While my writing might be aspirational in content and intention, I would hesitate to ascribe any comprehensive symbolism to word or image.  In my mind, the word, rather than standing in place of object or concept, is literally the object or concept.  Viewing myself as a reader, I find this allows others greater entrance into the poem. I enjoy ideas and welcoming places where one can make the time spent their own rather than sit through someone’s lecture or vacation slideshow.  Somehow an image, whether serene or embattled, belies the circumstance and toil of its reception or creation.  Cloth is as basic as bread and informs the entirety of our endeavors and is human created, an object of beauty in its own right.  Cloth can obscure and form a boundary, that which is desired, body or idea, the sacred place, or it can also protect an intimacy, a value, or a privacy, from a destroying exposure, depending on the context.  When I write the word “water” I am referring to a stream I have touched if that is where the poem is or it could be the water from the showerhead.  It is actual water, not some ideal although the preoccupation of my poetry is uncovering the hidden dimensions water or anything possesses in its living.  Similarly, when I write the word “horse” I am referring to a particular horse not some capital “H” horse.  I believe there is teaching and beauty in its living, a glimpse perhaps of the One who created, an offering to us, a blessing, all living.  I refuse to believe in meaninglessness.  Perhaps meaning is not what one would prefer or expect or rationalize.  However, our sensitivity to pain and capacity for love provides sufficient notice that we are here, and for that we should be grateful and strive to improve our condition through individual work and understanding.

LA: You seem to be everywhere right now, which is wonderful but no doubt requires a lot of hard work. How do you keep the momentum, the energy, and do you worry about it? Do you face periods of dryness, or uncertainty about your interest or discipline?

JS: Yes, I worry.  I face periods of dryness and they scare me more than anything.  It is a challenge to accept the necessity of the fallow.  At some instinctual level, dryness is not a rest, it is a wasting.  There is a fear that the contact is lost and there will be no more poems or more immediately no more sharing and experience.  If it came down to an ultimate choice, I would rather lie down in a field than write about it.  Rimbaud was correct when he said “I is someone else,” but it is nevertheless undeniable that the poet lives in the poem.  If I am not writing, I feel I am not living.  The energy to continue writing is the excitement of sharing a discovery or mutual experience with a friend.  Writing is never separate from life, it is only unseen.  As far as the work being out there, I am only so thrilled to contribute in my tiny way to a larger energy of people struggling to express and create an alternative vision to counter so much of the darkening forces of our time.  I have received such gifts of awareness in immeasurable returns from the art and generosity and vitality of courageous people living today without sponsorship, only with idea and heart.  To me, that is real hope.

LA: Who do you admire? Poets, influences, artists, etc.?

JS: I admire people who find a way to experience their dreams.  Recently, I encountered the visionary art and writing of Walter Anderson, which startled me like a reminder with its pure intensity.  As far as contemporary voices, Stephanie Bryant Anderson and Sophia Argyris are both producing exceptional work with language that is poignant, haunting, and precise.  The photography of Lucien Clergue is a poetry of the physical image, which is disorienting in its tender and violent beauty.

LA: What’s next for you?

Hopefully, a trip somewhere fun.