The many faces of Terese Svoboda's writing include eleven books of poetry, fiction, translation, and over 100 short stories. Weapons Grade, published 2009, contains poems "as haunting as they are funny...," according to Publishers Weekly. She is also author of Cannibal, Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Tin God, and Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, which was selected as a Japan Times "Best of Asia 2008" book and winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Svoboda is also the recipient of the Bobst Prize, the Iowa Prize, and the O. Henry Award. She is teaching fiction this spring at Columbias School of the Arts.
Superstition Review: In an interview with The Writer's Center you said, “I find poems in the margins of novels, plots struggling to get out of poems.” What takes you from one to the other? How do you keep it all organized?
Terese Svoboda: I get an idea and sometimes it will burn right through one genre into another, a poem will keep talking to me and call out for fiction and vice versa. In answer to the second question: I lose things.
SR: Along with being a writer you have been a video producer, a writer of librettos, and a curator at MoMA. How do other art forms play into your writing? How do you find the time and opportunity to complete these other projects?
TS: I engage in other art forms when writing feels over. But doing other art forms-and genres-means it's harder to get recognition. I hadn't estimated how hard that would be until I realized that if I didn't do something about it, nobody would publish anything from me again. I also don't have a cell phone, I avoid Facebook, I read only magazines that come out monthly, and I seldom go out. I have to admit an addiction to email.
SR: Your work has appeared in The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. Could you discuss how such recognition has affected you as a writer, or, your career as a writer?
TS: My mother is annoyed with me.
SR: I loved your trailer for your most recent book of poems Weapons Grade. Could you discuss the production of that short? How was it conceived? How do you envision its role in the completion of the book?
TS: There's nothing like starting a video with a bang-and smoke is endlessly evocative.I made the video, with some technical assistance from my husband. I wanted to feature that ominous cover figure with my reading of one of the poems, hoping that it would intrigue even people who don't browse in the poetry section, or even bookstores.
SR: In Weapons Grade, I'm struck by your impulse to mix intimate family images with public, sometimes violent images “There are soldiers in mother's hair.” Will you discuss how those become mixed in your work? Where is the marriage between public and private?
TS: There is no line between public and private these days-we should get used to marriage! Since Vietnam, I have been very sensitive to the life of a citizen who pays for a war conducted in another country. Since writing Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, I have become sensitive to the terrible dilemma of the soldier, trained to kill-until he takes a plane home.
SR: In Trailer Girl, much of the meaning in the stories is conveyed through hinting. For example, the repetition of the word electricity hints at several concepts: shock treatments, excitement, danger. I'm interested to know how you manage such tight control over language, because the effect is that the reader feels empowered.
TS: What an interesting insight. My training as a poet leads me to try to extract as much meaning from words as possible, using syntax, repetition, alliteration, figurative language-whatever tricks I can steal from our most elaborate literary art form, poetry. Why should fiction be so impoverished? And yes-the reader should always be made to feel smart. After all, they're reading your book!
SR: You teach. A lot. Everywhere. Could you discuss the role teaching has had on your writing career? What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a Visiting Professor? How do you envision your life as a teacher in the future?
TS: I produced films for a long time because I didn't think I knew enough about writing to teach. Then grants for films dried up and my books began to come out and my viability as a teacher increased-at least out of town. I've never held a tenure-track job, mostly because my kids went to special schools in Manhattan and landing one in NYC is like landing on the moon. I am very lucky to be teaching this year at Columbia, my alma mater. Next year? I have no idea. I have time to write but envy those with pensions.
I am very lucky to be teaching at my alma mater, Columbia this term. Every year I apply for many positions but I have no idea if I'll ever work again. All my friends are retiring with big pension plans.
SR: You have two novels coming in 2010 and 2011: Pirate Talk or Mermalade, to be published by Dzanc Press, and Bohemian Girl, to be published by Bison Books. What can you tell us about these projects?
TS: They were fun to write! Pirate Talk or Mermalade was written without hope of publication—really the best frame of mind if you can stand it. It's narrated all in 18th century voices. No descriptions. I adore Daniel Defoe and I love the way he assumes you know so much about his world-and then you do. Anyway, two boys meet a mermaid and become pirates. Since Henry Hudson said “mermaids were as thick as shrimp in these waters,” I felt justified in having a “real” mermaid. The pirates end up in the Arctic. Martin Frobisher, the great explorer (and pirate) left a number of his crew in the Arctic. I did a lot of research for the book and even took a course on pirates at William and Mary while I was teaching there.
A great amount of research also went into Bohemian Girl, but I'm hoping you'll never notice. It's a story about a girl whose father loses her in a bet with an Indian who's building a mound. She's rescued by a Civil War balloonist, a deus ex machina that gave me great delight in its literalness.
SR: In an interview with Pank you said, “I gave up trying to get big presses and voila!” Will you elaborate? Would you share your opinions on publishing these days? What do you see happening with “big” presses as opposed to other presses?
TS: The revolution in print that's going on now with ebooks and downloads and Espresso machines, not to mention the energy and influence of the internet is dismantling the book industry. Last year I toured Kenya for the University of Iowa's International Writing Program and everywhere we went, Kenyans asked us for help with their publishing situation. We had to suggest that they find some way to leapfrog our mistakes, similar to the way they have adopted the cell phone without ever having LAN lines.
Honestly, I'd be happy to have a big press. Although you have to do your own publicity either way, a big press has its own cache. But a small press is very careful and happy to have you, and I appreciate that.
SR: What are you reading now? What role does reading play on your writing?
TS: Herta Muller, the Nobel winner. What an amazing style! All those simply wrought sentences adding up to such complexity. I also can't say enough about Marcy Dermansky's pitch perfect Bad Marie, which is coming out shortly, a story about a very bad babysitter. As the eldest of nine, I saw a lot of bad babysitters, girls my parents hired in sheer desperation. A new poet, Neil de la Flor, has just published Almost Dorothy that turns the page inside out in so many ways, sexual, syntactical, emotional. And of course the amazing Dawn Raffel's Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.
It's terrific to read something wonderful. It makes the rabbit run, and the work worthwhile. Cheers go up!