Interview with Wally Swist

Wally Swist Poet

Wally Swist is a poet and an author from Massachusetts, the USA. He has authored more than twenty books of poetry and his Haikus are very popular. You can read more about the poet on Featured Author

Alok Mishra: I would like to start this conversation with a very interesting point, Wally. You have written in the preface to your literary memoir that your ‘bookish’ life has come this far only in ‘reading and writing’ those. How has this journey been? How much satisfied you are with this ‘bookish’ life and how much struggle, you think, a modern reading and writing professional has to go through?

Wally Swist: My career has been unique.  Although books and reading were engendered in my life from my late teens onward, due to a dysfunctional family, I needed to strike out on my own, with no financial or moral support.  Once I landed a job in a superior bookstore in the Yale University community, I didn’t look back, meaning that I immersed myself in the arts and intellectual life of one of the best universities in the world.  Managing bookstores became my own way to steer through life.  Hosting author events and representing the best literature cross-genre became my true calling for some thirty years.  I always wrote and began to publish with some distinction.  However, it was the world of books—and of placing significant literary works directly into people’s hands—that I really distinguished myself.  So, it was, indeed, a struggle to manage two careers at once.  To love the art of the written word and to have the opportunity of working in those fields for all of one’s life is something I count myself quite fortunate to have done.  It has not been a perfect life, by any stretch, but it has been enriched by the voices of world literature.  I had always imported to students that to love poetry, or any form of writing or art, is what was most significant.  Writing and publishing were aspects of poetry on a personal level; however, not everyone could publish and win prizes, but they could find that they could love the mystical poetry of Mirabai or the lyrical masterpieces of the American Mid-western poet, Lorine Niedecker, who some consider to be the 20th-century Emily Dickinson.

Alok Mishra: The distinguished poet that you are, what does poetry mean to you? You see poetry as something which must be objective or an expression which must be charged with subjective views or an amalgam of both or something else? I would like your views reflected on it.

Wally Swist: You are kind to refer to me as a “distinguished” poet; however, for a poet to begin to think of themselves in such a way could possibly lead to not fulfilling such a lofty prophecy.  Poetry, as well as prose, for that matter, is an aesthetic verbal discipline that I can’t but help to practice.  Working in the fields of poetic image and line is quite ingrained in me.  Not working seems unhealthy to me.  Objectivity is essential.  My work in the haiku genre, for instance, is indicative of that.  At best, haiku are egoless poems that regard consciousness of the highest order.  However, they are also best written with integral humility of the natural world.  Subjectivity isn’t much help even in a subjective poem.  Objectivity is crucial in a confessional poem, for instance, which recounts personal trauma.  Subjectivity is a ruin for any piece of competent or accomplished writing.  Narcissism and solipsism are malcontents that breed illusion.

Alok Mishra: Talking about the technicality, Wally, do you think poetry is mostly a kind of monophonic dialogue which takes place between the poet and a shadow of the poet?

Wally Swist: It could be.  There are really no rules in the world of poetry, except expressing the largely inexpressible impeccably.  However, poets and their shadows are truly rather suspicious, unless there is interest in the ardour of illuminating those shadows, in a Jungian sense.  I much prefer Emily Dickinson’s poetic raison d’etre: “This is my letter to the world,/ That never wrote to me.”  For Dickinson poetry was, indeed, her “letter to the world.”  How courageous and brave an act that is.  It lends substantiality that literature is an heroic activity.  What transpires in a Dickinson, or a Whitman, or a Heaney, is hardly a shadow element.  Even if there may be poetic transubstantiation, as Marianne Moore wrote that poets “can present/ for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

Alok Mishra:   You come from the nation which has given poets like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Frost, Plath, Ginsberg and so on…  Where do you find yourself in the hierarchy, Wally? Also, among the great names, which are the poets which have their impressions upon you?

Wally Swist: You are a very kind man to even intimate that I might find myself in the peripheral company of my friend Walt Whitman and his litanies and catalogues of the spirit; or Poe, and his raven; or my mentor Robert Francis’ mentor Robert Frost and his sylvan rhymes, or Sylvia Plath, whose poem, “Tulips,” may be one of very best nature poems ever written, or Allen Ginsberg, whose poem, “Howl,” continues to reduce poetasters to tears.  However, how I can answer this question is by indicating that I, more than likely, follow in the footsteps of my old mentor Robert Francis, who lived much like Henry David Thoreau did for nearly half a century in a cottage in the woods in North Amherst, Massachusetts.  I don’t quite do that, but I live in small studio in an old farmhouse on the other side of town, in South Amherst.  Living in a farming area and observing nature, while trying to make a living as a bookseller, and now as a freelance writer and editor, has been my own version of living a Thoreauvian or Franciscan kind of life.  I have invited Humility to dine with me every night, and it has never refused any one of my invitations.

Alok Mishra: When we say British English Poetry, American English Poetry, Indian English Poetry, Australian English Poetry…. What is the exact connotation according to you? Do you find any substance for this classification or like Eliot once said ‘poetry is local’?

Wally Swist: Ted Hughes, whom I had the memorable occasion to meet, is an esteemed English poet.  However, his early poems were influenced by the animal poems written by Joseph Langland, who lived for many years near my old mentor Robert Francis in North Amherst.  Poetry, not unlike mythology, can be local or it can transcend the restrictions of place.  Poetry is grounded in place, whether the poet means to do so or not.  So, Eliot is correct.  Although when I read Thomas Hardy, I do know I am reading nature poems regarding the English countryside.  However, the sense of his describing grey weather is poignant to the degree that I am aware of the bleak cold affecting farmhands on a day in autumn during the potato harvest.  Poetry, for instance, can be very Indian, or very British, but, as essences go, poetry’s integral nature is resplendent and emblazons itself indiscriminately for everyone to see.

Alok Mishra: I want to know about the process which makes poetry happen for you. To you, is poetry a random incident, which, like Wordsworth, is a spontaneous process or it is something which you aim at and shape carefully?  In a broad perspective, do you think that poetry is a random art or it is a careful process of thoughts?

Wally Swist: I have heard of the eminent poet Richard Wilbur writing a poem and then taking leave of it, then upon returning to it sometime later composing the lines that would complete it.  Poetry is both spontaneity and craft.  What appals most people is that they believe that poetry is, indeed, random, a kind of subverted bohemian pastime.  At its best, it is not that at all.  I know poets, including myself, that have sweated over a single line.  Although I have also awoken with a poem that had written itself in a dream, and I have disciplined myself to the extent that I make my way over to my writing table and transliterate the luminous gift given to me, slowly, line by line, until I am done with a first draft.  I have also experienced what I call listening to guidance, and to be in such communication with my inner voice that it is as if an angelic presence moves my pen, or my cursor, or the keys on my laptop.  Poetry is both craft and random art.  How could it be otherwise?

Alok Mishra: What are your views on the role of poetry in the contemporary world? Do you see it like yesterday or find it changed?

Wally Swist: It was only last in the 1940s that books of poetry merited enough sales that they were included on The New York Times bestseller list.  Some books of poetry are worthy of such broad appeal.  The books of Billy Collins, for instance, whom I have great respect for and whom I know, has promoted poetry in quite proactive and positive ways.  However, as a rule, unfortunately, poetry does not sell.  At least in America, it is looked down upon as an effete art form, and one to not take too seriously.  However, many readers do manage to include some poetry on their booklists.  Mary Oliver is another poet in America who is widely read, and is deservedly paid attention to.  At present, though, the role of poetry is a diminutive one, except for those who write it and publish it themselves.  However, that may change, in time.

Alok Mishra: Shifting to prose, you have written adequately in both the genres – prose as well as poetry. How do you see both the genres? Two faces of the same coin or entirely two different coins?

Wally Swist: Poetry and prose are two different realms.  However, I was commissioned to write a new version of The Great Russian Nutcracker for Moscow Ballet, which I infused with poetic prose.  So, there can be similarities.  Also, I recently revised a handful of poems which were better served when recast in the form of prose poems.  What is significant is discernment between the two.  Poetry’s music, rhythm, and inherent imagistic characteristics differ from even the most ingeniously styled sentence.  However, the two can certainly be similar.  I primarily write poetry, but there is often a need to write prose.  Although I have also written prose and then I have crafted it into lines of a poem.  This often enough happens to me when I am writing a letter—or an email.  There is a minor abundance of my poems that are epistolary in nature.

Alok Mishra: Today, as we find every 3 out of ten writing poetry or prose, what’s your message to the newbies out there? What is the most important thing according to you to be a successful creative writer?

Wally Swist: Read.  Read the best literature you can get your hands on.  Be humble.  The German poet Rilke offered that we are always beginners.  You may eventually go on to write twenty books of poetry but after you finish each book a blank page awaits you.  Read what and whomever you love.  As the noted mythologist and expert on comparative religion, Joseph Campbell, imparted, read what sings to you.  Afterwards, write honestly, write as if your life depended on it, and then let it go, only to begin the whole rigor again the next day.  What a gift that can be.

Alok Mishra: Thanks for this wonderful conversation, Wally! I look forward to more interaction with you in the future. All the best for your upcoming works as well!

Wally Swist: Thank you, too, Alok.  This was a delight, an honour, and a pleasure.  Thank you for the opportunity.