I've been feeling bad for poets whose books were released during the Pandemic, poets whose book launches were cancelled or never scheduled, poets who haven't been able to do in-person readings. I asked myself, Aside from buying lots of books, what could I do, especially for my own Terrapin poets? So I devised an idea for an interview series. I invited all of my Terrapin poets to select one poet whose book had come out during the Pandemic. They were invited to choose a poet whose book they'd read or wanted to read and then to come up with five questions for that poet to respond to. The response was wonderful! Thirteen poets offered to do a Q&A. Some of these were poets with a Pandemic book themselves but some were poets without a Pandemic book. Lots of generosity among my poets! Yvonne Zipter was the first Terrapin poet to volunteer; she chose to interview Heather Swan about her Terrapin book A Kinship with Ash.
Yvonne was also the first poet to complete her interview. Here is that Q&A.
Yvonne: With both of your parents artists—your father a painter, your mother a potter—were there ways that being surrounded by art influenced your work as a writer, in particular your poetry?
Heather: Growing up in studios with people who turned ideas into images made of paint and clay certainly affected me. I understood metaphor and the importance of art so intrinsically, it never occurred to me that others did not understand the world in that way. My life was filled with art and music and stories. My mother's craft required so much (literal) centering and concentration as well as trust in the process, like writing poems does. Everyone around me made things in order to make sense of our world or to comment on it. I learned to make pottery and sculpt and paint, but I also wrote everything down. I recorded images and thoughts in journals as a child. My writing now is filled with visual imagery and, I hope, layers of meaning that one could discover in a painting.
Yvonne: Your love of nature is evident throughout A Kinship with Ash. Have you always loved nature? From where does this appreciation spring?
Heather: I feel like I have always been a part of the natural world. I spent so much of my time outside as a little girl. The studios where my mother and father worked were luckily near spaces I could explore with my dog. I moved from the prairies and woodlands of the Midwest to Colorado where I lived in the mountains. Later we moved again to a town on the east coast by the ocean. Because I moved so often, my human friendships didn't last long, but my dog was a constant companion with whom I explored these landscapes and this allowed a deep connection to the birds, the insects, and the land. All the beings we encountered in those spaces led interesting and important lives and spoke in languages I didn't understand, but recognized as valuable and mysterious.
Yvonne: A number of the poems in this collection grapple with the effects of pesticides and climate change. They are all both heartbreaking and beautiful. What does writing such poems afford you?
Heather: The experience of loving this beautiful, fragile, miraculous planet at this historical moment also means being in touch with enormous grief as so many species are going extinct, as forest after forest is being killed, as fish are struggling to survive in toxic waters, as frogs and insects are disappearing. When I write, it is part elegy, part plea. When I write, I want to remember that while so much is being lost there is also so much to be grateful for. I hope that my poems are an invitation to readers to pay attention to the outrageous beauty and vast number of different intelligences out there as well as to question our impact on the world.
Yvonne: Your sweet motherhood poems also showcase your love of nature. My sense is that this entwining is part of what fuels your anxiety about the state of our world. Can you elaborate on this?
Heather: Funny, this question made me tear up. Yes, of course. I am a parent and a teacher. My children have grown up on trails, in trees, in canoes spotting birds, insects, and frogs. A part of their community. They ache knowing so much of what they love is at risk. I invite my students to connect with each other and the planet, so they will be invested in the work of care. I think all the time about the next generations. Will polar bears still exist? Will the oldest trees survive? Will the coral reef thrive? I want so much to be a responsible ancestor, not just to my children, but to all humans and non-humans. I would like my work to offer an invitation to intimacy with the earth and also hope that we can change things for the better.
Yvonne: The cover of your book is beautiful and evocative, with various ways to interpret its relationship to the book. Can you discuss the genesis of this piece of art becoming your cover and how it illuminates the poems within?
Heather: Emily Arthur and I met when we served together on a panel on Earth Day that basically asked what art is saying about the planet right now. Emily's work immediately seized my attention. Her prints depict ghost landscapes, places of cultural and natural erasure, while also serving to honor and revive the missing stories of her Cherokee ancestors. For a variety of reasons, these images exploring loss and survival after great violence resonated with me, on both a personal and global level. When I completed my manuscript, I knew that I wanted to ask Emily if I could use her work on the cover. I am so honored she said yes. The colors of the print on the cover hint at heat and ash as birds migrate across the image with the help of the stars. But how has their home changed? Is there still a home? Emily Arthur's sense of home is complicated by the removal of her people and the species eradicated by this process. Her work, I think, holds both sorrow and strength. I hope my poems, too, can allow someone to feel the loss, but also to remember the beauty and the hope there still is for renewal and recovery.
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Sample poem from Heather's book:
After a long numbness, I wake
and suddenly am noticing everything,
all of it piercing me with its beautiful,
radical trust: the carpenter bee tonguing
the needle of echinacea believing
in their sweetness, the exuberance
of an orange daylily unfolding itself
at the edge of the street, and the way
the moss knows the stone, and the stone
accepts its trespass, and the way the dog
on his leash turns to see if I’m holding on,
certain I know where to go. And the way
the baby rabbit—whose trembling ears
are the most delicate cups—trusts me,
because I pried the same dog’s jaw
off his hips, and then allows me to feed him
clover when his back legs no longer work,
forcing me to think about forgiveness
and those I need to forgive, and to hope
I am forgiven, and that just maybe
I can forgive myself. This unstoppable,
excruciating tenderness everywhere inviting
us, always inviting. And then later, the firefly
illuminating the lantern of its body,
like us, each time we laugh.
Heather Swan is a poet, nonfiction writer, and teacher. Her chapbook The Edge of Damage won the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Award. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Poet Lore, Cold Mountain Review, Phoebe, The Raleigh Review, and Midwestern Gothic. Her nonfiction has appeared in Aeon, Belt Magazine, Catapult, Edge Effects, ISLE, and Minding Nature. Her book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field won the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. She has been the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Poetry Fellowship Award, the Martha Meier Renk Fellowship, and the August Derleth Award for Poetry. She teaches writing and environmental literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she is a beekeeper.
Yvonne Zipter is the author of the poetry collections
Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound (Terrapin Books, 2020), The
Patience of Metal (a Lambda Literary Award Finalist), and Like Some
Bookie God. Her poems have appeared in numerous periodicals, including Poetry, Southern Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Spoon River Poetry
Review. Her published poems are currently being sold individually in two
vending machines in Chicago to raise money for the nonprofit arts
organization Arts Alive Chicago. She is also the author of the Russian
historical novel, Infraction (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021) and the
nonfiction books Diamonds Are a Dyke’s Best Friend and Ransacking the
Closet. She is retired from the University of Chicago Press, where she
was a manuscript editor.
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