Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #3

Eleanor Swanson: Poetry as Obsession, Fiction as Place

Eleanor Swanson(Eleanor Swanson’s poetry books are A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium (NFSPS Press, 2003) which was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, and Trembling in the Bones (Ghost Road Press, 2006). Her first novel, Before the Reef, appeared in 2008. She teaches American literature and fiction and poetry workshops at Regis University.)

(1) I don’t think of myself as writing primarily in one genre. I’ve written both fiction and poetry for quite a long time, and although I don’t work on fiction and poetry manuscripts simultaneously, I am comfortable thinking of myself as equally a poet and fiction writer.

(2) Both of my two poetry collections were driven by obsession, I think. In each case I was dealing with historical figures and a historical moment. Since I was a child, I was intrigued with the Curie’s work, and then, of course, I was also moved by Marie Curie’s going it alone, after having counted on a lifetime of collaboration with Pierre (A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium). The story recounted in Trembling in the Bones was another story I felt had to be told, it was such a shameful chapter in American labor history. The men, women and children at the Ludlow camp spoke about twenty-four different languages and, for the most part, didn’t keep diaries or write letters, so I tried to recreate what they might have been thinking and feeling. I think short stories and novels “grow” a bit differently, and sometimes more slowly. I spent over ten years writing my recently released novel Before the Reef. My fiction tends to have more to do with place, with showing the relationship between character and physical or emotional landscape.

(3) I think there is a relationship between my prose and poetry. To a certain extent, at any rate. In my third (as yet unpublished) collection of poetry, The Secrets of Children, I’ve written quite a few poems about family (not necessarily my own), and I’ve described my recently released novel as literary mainstream but also a family saga that involves an unsolved murder. I have two short story manuscripts, Exiles and Expatriates and Fireflies, and in each of these collections are a number of stories that are about the ephemerality of experience, as well as experiences of exile, loss and redemption. In terms of point of view and perspective, in both poetry and prose I find it desirable to work with different perspectives and points of view. Generally not in the same piece, though. I admire Alice Munro for being able to shift point of view throughout a story, seamlessly. I’m not good enough to do that yet.

(4) I really don’t notice any differences in how I approach the different genres. I write terrible first drafts, whether poetry or prose, so I know ultimately to write a good poem or short story will develop or end, never in an early draft, at least.


I follow E. M. Forster’s advice on writing-as-discovery—“How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said?”

(5) Challenging or glorious? Ah, glorious. The moments of glory in the composition of poetry for me really have to do with imagery, momentum and sound. If I can get all three of these working in concert in a poem, that’s glorious. In fiction writing, at least in the short story, the quest for the glorious is analogous. I like to use the juggling metaphor. Most short stories have several related things going on in them at once, and the idea is to keep all of the “balls” in the air at the same time. It’s also glorious to figure out how to maintain a vibrant relationship between text and subtext as the piece moves toward its climax. A novel is a marathon. Finishing even a rough first draft is deeply satisfying.