Interview with Wally Swist
Wally Swist is a poet based in Massachusetts, USA. He is popular as a nature poet and writes prose as well. More can be known about this poet on the link below:
Alok Mishra: I am starting with your journey as a poet, Wally. How has this life as a poet been for you? Let me know from the beginning of this journey up to this day.
Wally Swist: It is my experience that becoming a writer is ongoing in relation to both continuing to learn one’s craft and in living one’s life as consciously as possible. Consciousness means being present in the moment, which as glorious as spiritual seekers may attest, also requires looking deeply into oneself and the world around you. Committing to an aesthetic life, a life of books and reading, a life of observing people and the landscape in which one lives, is all part of being and becoming a writer. The German poet, Rilke, intimated that we were always becoming, we always were nascent, and we were always evolving. Human souls enter into that journey. Writers, and especially poets, discover the music in the language that is native to everyone that accompanies the soul’s journey through our lives.
Alok Mishra: You have seen the world changing and you are one of those poets who must have seen poetry shifting from the pages to the screens. How has this transition been in the field of writing? Has this transition changed the reader reception only or the writing also?
Wally Swist: I have had the grace to experience my work published in letterpress books that have been handbound, in offset print journals, and electronically in digital media. There is nothing, in my estimation that can take the place of holding a printed book. Well-designed books are a significant part of the writer’s imagination—and an artist’s creation. However, working on a manuscript, revising what one has written, and submitting one’s work on a screen, through the use of digital means, is time-saving. Both physical books and online publications can exist felicitously together, while augmenting each other, if respectively and intelligently used.
Alok Mishra: Wally, you are widely popular as a nature poet among the readers. How do you see yourself? Adding a broader perspective to this question, how far do you see putting a poet in a particular section is justified?
Wally Swist: Over the last thirty years, most of my poems have originated in images from the natural world. There is a salient sense of divinity in images from nature. Often, I believe, we can experience the veil, fluttering, between our humanity and vibrancy of nature—the veil being divine itself. Merging with that continuity offers transcendence. That is where many of my poems originate and from which they emerge. With that said, in writing from that matrix of images from the natural world, I do address themes other than nature in my work, such as politics, love, memories from childhood. There is always some justification to pigeon-hole a writers’ work, especially since it may ostensibly resonate spiritually or in a secular manner. However, it is always significant to look toward what precipitates a specific poet’s work. If, as it is in my case, it is nature, then being described as a nature poet is only a beginning of how to begin to look at such a poet’s work. Also, it if is truly nature that is the touchstone, how then could poetry not be meaningful to a wide spectrum of readers, since we are all a part of that integral whole.
Alok Mishra: What is your purpose behind writing poetry? What do you think the purpose behind writing poetry should generally be? Also, do you think the general purpose behind writing poetry has been changing with the passage of time?
Wally Swist: My perennial philosophy regarding writing is that there is a reason for a poem, or any other literary work, to exist. A red fox crossing a snowy landscape can become an epiphanal moment. That epiphany can result in the music of the poem of that fox crossing a snowy landscape resonating in one’s mind. This then can become an entry into a mythological world. Mythology informs our biology and provides the pedagogy of our lives. The fox poem can also lead to a spiritual realm and one that does not exclude the secular one. With that said, writing can’t really be taught. There is a shamanistic quality about the writer, or poet. The writer, or poet, travels to places many other people don’t regularly visit—even if it is the same field in which a red fox can be seen by everyone. Writing programs, such as the MFA syndrome in America, produce a lot of arrogance and ego in many people who will leave those programs with degrees in hand. However, it doesn’t make those same people writers, or poets. There is a qualitative difference. We live in an informational age, which can be a blessing. However, as individuals in a global culture, we have forgotten the art of discernment. Writing programs, especially those in America, produce a lot of entitled graduates who assume they are writers and poets. Those same programs don’t produce a discernment of writing that exists for a reason and writing that is written only for the sake of writing—which can be a narcissistic and solipsistic process.
Alok Mishra: What are the core constituents of poetry in general? I have been reading poems written by you and could find that it usually returns to the fundamental questions – life, death, and time. This is the case, with most of the poets, generally. What are your views on this?
Wally Swist: Life, death, and time are aspects of the soul’s journey in each lifetime. They are not the end and be all of what constitutes any poetry. However, they are, indeed, three significant facets of travelling through our world and into the next.
Alok Mishra: Tell me about the poets you like reading the most. How far do you think that reading other poets inspire one’s writing?
Wally Swist: I have been an avid reader for nearly a half a century. I weaned myself early on in reading translations from the East: Tagore, Rumi, Basho, Li Po, Han-shan, and Laotze. The literature of the east sang to me deeply. The poetry of consciousness intrigued me, and it still does. The significance of language ascending the incense ladder into transcendence has never lost its appeal. Studying Eastern spiritual and literary classics has been a lifelong pleasure and delight. However, I also peruse European continental philosophy, the Gnostic Gospels, the history of alchemy, the literature regarding past lives, the lyrical poetry of Seamus Heaney, the odes of Pablo Neruda, the Andalusian songs of Federico Garcia Lorca, and the praises to nature in New England of the poetry of Robert Francis. Eventually, writers write in a voice they can call their own. However, writers also pay homage to those they have read and what work they have loved in forging their own particular poetic language.
Alok Mishra: What is the future of poetry? The way it’s settling academically and mostly in leisure of the readers, I fear it will remain largely for the purpose of entertainment only or only for those whose business are with words! How do you see it?
Wally Swist: The future of poetry is currently in the hands of academics. It has been my experience that when an academic poet learns that I am not an academic then that is reason enough to not only forego reading my work but to ignore me completely—at least in America and especially in some local MFA programs in which poetry politics is as venomous as politics generated in government. There are plenty of reasons why many people don’t read poetry. In my estimation, such nonsense as I just described pulls the genre down upon itself. Also, what is ostensible, I believe, is that words themselves are not respected by many people. So, why, then would many people put their faith in reading the words of a poem? We, largely, as a global society, have lost our sense of mythology. I don’t see poetry precipitating a return to a mythological sense of wonder of the world, of our planet, and ourselves. However, I do see how poetry could be a part of that resurgence of a new world order in which spirituality, and not religion, is placed on the same level as economics, and for there to be an evolution of culture—and discernment—so that psycho-spirituality may at a more mature juncture in humankind’s history be as important as the politics of nation states, with poetry, along with the other arts, such as music, dance, and cinema, providing the aesthetic underpinnings of culture itself.
Alok Mishra: Wally, do you think that we are in a pre-conditioned situation when we start reading poetry? I mean to say that we have to take John Milton as a great poet and Pope as a poet of secondary rank. And then, why not a single poet in the twentieth century and onwards could reach that height? What’s your take on this proposition?
Wally Swist: The great American poet Kenneth Rexroth speculated in a book of essays that there would be “neighbourhood” poets and wise men in what he foresaw as a possible ideal social structure. Of course, that would include wise women, too. American poetry does benefit from the long shadow that Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson cast from their 19th-century parapets. Also, as a working writer, it is always significant to know a little something about Milton and Pope regarding their contribution and importance to literature. However, that idea of Rexroth’s and of that of largely what might be also referred to as a regional poet is something to pay attention to. The 20th-century has its poetic giants: Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, as well as others, and we are blessed by that. However, we also have many poets who are integral to certain countries and then those that are elemental to regions within those countries. The voices, as individual as they might be, do make a kind of poetic chorus. With that kind of song resonating, the world, as a whole just might eventually be quite a different place—if only many more people both read and listen.
Alok Mishra: What according to your experience gives you more pleasure – reading or writing?
Both are pleasurable and a delight. Reading informs the mind and opens the heart. Writing emerges from the song that pervades the mind which originates in the soul that then opens the heart. So, both are all about opening the heart—to revel in the song of being alive and of living more in the realms of light than those of darkness.
Alok Mishra: You have authored so many books. Which two among them would you like to rate the best? And what are your upcoming works?
Wally Swist: Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2012 stands as being my finest collection thus far. It was selected be Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, from an open national competition. I worked tirelessly for seven years on the manuscript. Also, Invocation published by Lamar University Press in 2015 exhibits mature poetic development. However, with that said, I believe my two forthcoming books, The View of the River (Kelsay Books, 2017) and Candling the Eggs (Shanti Arts, LLC, 2017) are either equal to, or even surpass, the aesthetic accomplishment of any other books I have written and published before.
Alok Mishra: Thanks for your time and answers, Wally! I wish you best of luck for all your future projects and look forward to more exchanges with you.
Wally Swist: Thank you Alok! It has been a true delight and pleasure to speak with you in this interview format. Your questions have been quite insightful.