Cole Swensen


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Poet and translator Cole Swensen knows that her work can be challenging if one is seeking what she calls “transferable meaning.”

“The work is not very quote, unquote accessible…It’s not like language you encounter in a straight narrative situation,” Swensen says in this On the Fly interview recorded in late 2010. “And people often then think that they should figure it out…But the kind of work I do actually doesn’t work that way. It is meant just to simply be read as a visual aural experience. And in a certain sense it means nothing other than itself.”

At the time of this interview, Swensen had been teaching in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for eight years. In 2012, she left the University of Iowa to accept a faculty position in Brown University’s Literary Arts Program.

Swensen discusses her interest in research-based poetics, why she does most of her writing in France, how the visual arts help her recharge, her love of teaching, and the ways in which “the spiritual and its imperatives” might be central to writers.

Swensen’s work has been honored with the Iowa Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and a National Poetry Series selection. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award, and the PEN West Award in Poetry. In 2004, she won the PEN USA Award for Literary Translation for her translation of Jean Frémon’s Island of the Dead. In 2006, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.