SFSU Magazine Fall/Winter '04 Alumni and Friends: Poet Cole Swensen, Well Versed


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Alumni & Friends

A head shot of a smiling poet and SFSU alumna Cole SwensenWell Versed
An instructor at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop, Cole Swensen (B.A., '80; M.A., '83) says she knew she wanted to be a poet at age 12. Her mother, a painter, influenced her writing career. "There is something in the space of painting that is like the space of the page," Swensen says.

In October, Swensen's ninth book of poetry, "Goest" (Alice James Books, 2004), was named a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, one of five books nominated in the poetry category.

The poems in "Goest" (as in "Whither thou goest, I will go") deal with fleeting images, the color white, history, the "ghostly" quality of things impossible to grasp. They describe object and place, rather than tug at heart strings.

At SFSU, a class with former lecturer C.D. Wright taught Swensen much about concrete, free verse "without emotional manipulation." Other influential faculty included Nanos Valaoritis, who introduced her to a wide range of international writers. Swensen describes Frances Mayes as "one of the best teachers I have ever had."

After SFSU, Swensen taught English as a foreign language before earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature at U.C. Santa Cruz. She has found that the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" can be as compelling as any poetic discussion: "I think my most interesting teaching job has been basic grammar."

Swensen continues to be inspired by poets around the world. Her interest in French writers drew her to study the language at the Sorbonne and she enjoys translating contemporary French poetry, fiction and art critcism.

Swensen divides her time between Iowa, Washington, D.C., and Paris, where she spends her summers focused solely on her writing. If that sounds like heaven to other writers, Swensen confirms that it is.