Book City: Hugo House’s Tree Swenson on how to read poetry

Credit: Photo: Brian Palmer

Tree Swenson is the executive director at Hugo House. Her background and love is poetry. Tree began her literary life by co-founding Copper Canyon Press, where she spent twenty years as director and publisher. She moved east to direct the Academy of American Poets in New York for a decade, before returning to Seattle to head up the non-profit writing center on Capitol Hill.

Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Tree Swenson: “Life After Life,” a new novel by Jill McCorkle set in a retirement center. She’s an extraordinary writer, very funny. Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2011, and “Baltics” is a charming book, a mix of his poetry and black-and-white photos that give a sense of where he lives in Sweden and the simplicity of his writing space.

Then there’s “Distant Star,” a short novel by the hot Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who is getting lots of attention lately. It’s a novel of intrigue, the plot revolves around writers and poets in Chile. It’s kind of hair-raising.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I have to echo the pronouncement in the title of a profile in the New York Times Magazine on January 3 of this year: “George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.” I’ve already re-read some of the stories in “Tenth of December” and I’m sure I’ll be revisiting them for years to come. The stories and essays in his book “The Braindead Megaphone” are also brilliant.

Do you mostly read fiction or non-fiction?

I probably read more poetry than anything else, though of course poetry can be written either as fiction or non-fiction, a fact that makes the genre far more interesting than simple winky-blinky earnestness.

An example of poetry as fiction, and poetry that strikes you as non-fiction?

Jane Kenyon wrote of her daily life; her work is clearly autobiographical. Then there are more fictional writers like Frank Bidart, who is a great poet for dramatic monologues. He wrote the very powerful poem “Herbert White” in the voice of a sexual pervert, it’s very disquieting.

From your perch as executive director, how would you characterize Seattle’s writing scene, and Hugo House’s place in that scene?

Hugo House is for writers, from their first words to their last. It’s a place to read words, hear words and make your own words better. We’re here for anyone who writes or wants to write. Seattle has a thriving literary scene, with many writers, some of the greatest independent bookstores in the country, a number of vibrant literary organizations and astonishing poetry presses.

Hugo House is distinguished by its focus on writers, whereas other literary groups are addressing readers, working in the schools, or doing outreach to people who aren’t innately bookish.

Do you write poems as well as read them?

I’m not a writer, unless you count memos and strategic plans. The world needs readers, and I’m wildly content in that role.

Can you name a childhood book that influenced you?

I credit Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” with teaching me to think.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

About a quarter of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” fits that description — not one of the four sections, but multiple passages from each. A somewhat condensed version of this 34-page poem served as the “vows” at my wedding to my late husband, Liam Rector (“O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark, /  The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant…”).

Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Liam, and I sat outside in Jane’s garden at Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire and each read from a different quartet. It would have been too long for a wedding if we’d had more than two other guests there.

Who are your favorite poets? Has your taste changed over the years?

I didn’t understand what people saw in Elizabeth Bishop and now I think she’s a genius, so yes, my tastes have changed. So many of the poets I re-read are historic, like Donald Hall. .

Do you get books from the library, do you read on the Kindle, download, read on an iPad?

Mostly I buy books — or try to catch up with the stacks of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. I like real books. I’ve studied and taught the history of printing. The book is a totemic object for me. As a former bookmaker myself, I like the smell of ink and glue, the texture of paper and the architecture of the codex. I like wandering through the space of books. Pages are places, as in, “that paragraph was about a quarter of the way through the book on the lower part of a verso page.”

Can you suggest how those new to poetry might best begin to read it?

Give yourself permission to like what you like and don’t necessarily try to understand what the poet means. Find an anthology; “The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry” is a good one, and there’s a new anthology from Portland’s Ooligan Press, “Alive at the Center: Contemporary Poems from the Pacific Northwest.” Read as if you’re listening to music … just go through until your ears perk up and then follow up on that poet.

What Val’s Reading This Week: “The Obituary Writer,” a novel by Ann Hood that moves back and forth between early 20th century San Francisco and 1960’s Virginia. I’m surprised at how the author can draw such effective and poignant parallels between women struggling with marriage, love and loss in such disparate times and places.

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