Doubleback Books Poetry Editor Danielle Hanson asked Terese Svoboda, author of Treason to participate in an interview about this poetry—sometimes funny, sometimes strange, always hard-hitting, they cover motherhood, the toll of the 2002 civil war in Sudan, the Rodney King protests in L.A., and much more. Svoboda’s poems shine a torch on injustice and betrayal inside our public and intimate institutions. Treason’s topics are unfortunately timeless, the poems themselves worthy of mythology.
Danielle Hanson: It’s been 18 years since Treason was published by Zoo Press. Why did you submit this book for republication?
Terese Svoboda: Few had read Treason as a result of Zoo Press’ collapse, making it a fourteen year wait between Mere Mortals‘ publication in 1995 and Weapons Grade in 2009, so I felt the conversation between myself and my readers had stopped. Now, not only is the subject matter current with Treason—or maybe bad politics never goes away – but also the strange direction I veered toward in the third section I’ve taken up again in Theatrix: Play Poems that Anhinga will publish this coming March. More play, with a poetics that tries to shrug off the voice-driven and tune up the poem as its own performance.
DH: How has the book, and your view of the book, evolved during a second publication?
TS: I am very grateful to editor Danielle Hanson for her insightful introduction. Having the chance to re-think those long ago poems was very generous, but for the most part, I ended up supporting the choices I’d made. We had very happy discussions over the cover and a new designer.
DH: I hear you used to work as a magicians assistant and a disk jockey? I’m a big fan of random experiences for writers. Is there any way these experiences informed your work over the years?
TS: Cannibal and A Drink Called Paradise, my first two novels, were a direct result of anthropological filmmaking in Sudan and the Cook Islands. “Sally Rides,” a story about being a disk jockey in Nebraska, appears in my latest book of prose, Great American Desert, and one about being the magician’s assistant in Boston, “The Ta-Da Girl,” was published in Brooklyn Rail. “Angel Face” (Brooklyn Rail 2010), ”Zip Drive” (Blackbird 2003), “The Movie Business” (Fourteen Hills 2009) and “Frangipani” (Guernica 2017) were stories from my years as a producer/writer. Oh, yes, and I published a story about working in a bank under an assumed name – “Royal Bank of Canada” (Witness 2011.) I tend to go deeper in poetry and seldom write directly about a job, but I do occasionally write about subjects I come across researching. Writing’s work too, right?
DH: What other odd experiences didn’t make your bio?
TS: I haven’t written about selling cigarettes from a hole-in-the-wall in Times Square, nor cleaning hotel rooms, nor being a legal secretary, but I have recently drafted a story about being a nineteen-year-old rare manuscript curator for McGill while selling roses at night in Old Montreal wearing a black cape.
DH: You’ve done work in opera and film-making too. I’d love to hear more about those projects, how they came about, and how you think they relate to your writing.
TS: Writing a libretto seems to me a natural adjunct to thinking about poetry in public. Having to key speech to song rhythms and the occasional rhyme helped me think about everyday speech performance. Having singers take on my actual words was very thrilling, even more than actors. After all, you’re always reading your work out loud, you’ve heard it, but never sung! I’ve now got a commission to write a libretto about Josephine Baker that I’m quite excited about. With regard to filmmaking, I learned the basics as an undergraduate, having earned a double major in studio art and creative writing. A career of sorts gradually evolved because I was good at grantwriting (now there’s a job that’s hard to make interesting in a short story!) mostly in anthropological filmmaking, and then, while producing the Voices & Visions PBS series, I discovered video art. I love having control of the whole production and have made fifteen shorts that have won awards. I am looking forward to making one for Treason.
DH: What does a life of quarantine on a houseboat look like? It seems so different from my inner-city lock-down life. I’m fascinated.
TS: When we first arrived in Canada, we were confined to the houseboat’s 600 square feet. We had no backyard where we could run in place, or city streets to prowl at night. Anyone caught out of quarantine here is liable for a $750,000 fine. Believe me, when you live on a wharf, everybody knows where you are. So there was a lot of pacing (10 paces one way, 10 back) inside for two solid weeks. Remind me not to be convicted of anything that could land me in solitary.
DH: What advice do you have for writers starting out their careers? What about those of us mid-career writers?
TS: Grace Paley gave me an important tip at the beginning of my career, when I was wearing a Snuggli stuffed with my firstborn: Low rent.
What is mid-career? My age was mid-career for Stanley Kunitz! Anyway, buck up. The process is what you get out of it. Those moments of a dopamine high when you are deeply engaged are the best.
DH: What is a favorite writing assignment for students?
TS: Ten minutes of free-writing. So simple, so effective. It’s like those worry dolls you are supposed to confess to, then put under your pillow to solve the problems you’ve told it. Just put your choice of obtuse character or fragment of stuck poem at the top of the page and free associate for the full ten minutes. Something good will arrive. Everything you will ever deeply know is already in your head.
DH: What poets would you recommend for us?
TS: Oy vey, as they say in my lower east side neighborhood. What a question. Okay, so Caroline Knox, Maureen Seaton, Stephanie Strickland are my three contemporary Musketeers, but I adore the work of Latasha Nevada Diggs and Rodrigo Toscano. John Beer and Virginia Konchan are also very interesting. I’ve just read Karla Kelsey’s wonderful book-about-to-come-out, Blood Feather. The New Zealander Tusiata Avia. I was just part of the terrific James River Writers Conference and Porsha Olayiwola was extraordinary.
The author of 19 books of poetry, fiction, memoir, biography, and translation, Terese Svoboda will publish her eighth book of poetry, Theatrix: Play Poems (Anhinga Press) in 2021. Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet appeared in paper in 2018, and Great American Desert, a book of stories, in 2019. A Guggenheim fellow, she has been awarded the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, and NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry Award for the short story, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. Her opera WET premiered at L.A.’s Disney Hall. “Terese Svoboda is one of those writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre.”—Bloomsbury Review.
Danielle Hanson is the author of Fraying Edge of Sky (Codhill Press Poetry Prize, 2018) and Ambushing Water (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in over 80 journals, won the Vi Gale Award from Hubbub, was Finalist for 2018 Georgia Author of the Year Award and was nominated for several Pushcarts and Best of the Nets. She is Poetry Editor for Doubleback Books, and is on the staff of the Atlanta Review. Her poetry has been the basis for visual art included in the exhibit EVERLASTING BLOOM at the Hambidge Center Art Gallery, and Haunting the Wrong House, a puppet show at the Center for Puppetry Arts. More about her at daniellejhanson.com.